Continental Congress

views updated Jun 27 2018

Continental Congress

CONTINENTAL CONGRESS. One of the most serious weaknesses the colonists faced at the outset of their war with Britain was the lack of a central government. Individual colonies (soon to become states) were fortunate in having a long tradition of local government rooted in the supremacy of the locally elected legislature. Although there was no lack of savvy politicians, the relations among the thirteen colonies were marked by a long history of jealousy. One of the surprises of the Revolution was Americans' ability to unite politically. The Albany Congress of 1754 and the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 gave politically active colonists a foretaste of how to work together and of how to achieve the consensus that made "congressional" action possible.

Seats of the Continental Congress
1st Continental Congress
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania5 September 1774–26 October 1774
10 May 1775–12 December 1776
2nd Continental Congress
Baltimore, Maryland20 December 1776–4 March 1777
  End of New Jersey Campaign
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania5 March 1777–18 September 1777
Lancaster, Pennsylvania27 September 1777
  British occupy Philadelphia
York, Pennsylvania30 September 1777–27 June 1778
  British occupy Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania2 July 1778–21 June 1783

As protest mounted against the Intolerable Acts of 1774, the first of many calls for an intercolonial congress came from Providence (17 May), Philadelphia (21 May), and New York City (23 May). Radicals in Boston had asked the other colonies to join in an immediate nonimportation agreement, but when they saw this hope was not to be achieved they fell in with the movement for a meeting. The Boston leaders framed a Solemn League and Covenant, which was a form of nonimportation agreement, and twelve days later, on 17 June, the Massachusetts House of Representatives proposed that a congress be held in Philadelphia in September. By 25 August twelve colonies (all except Georgia) had named delegates.


Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies met for the first time at Carpenter's Hall, Philadelphia, on 5 September 1774. Peyton Randolph of Virginia was elected president and Charles Thomson of Pennsylvania, although not a delegate, was named secretary. (The congress was never really "continental," since the other British North American colonies—Canada, Nova Scotia, and the two Floridas—did not join the rebellion.)

According to the notes of James Duane of New York, "the first question debated was whether the Congress should vote by colonies and what weight each colony should have in the determination." Patrick Henry of Virginia, who said "he conceived himself not a Virginian but an American," thought that "one of the greatest mischiefs to society was an unequal representation," and advocated "such a system as would give each colony a just weight in our deliberations in proportion to its opulence and number of inhabitants, [and] its exports and imports." Because such a system would favor larger, more populous colonies, Samuel Ward of Rhode Island "insisted that every colony should have an equal vote" and argued "that we came if necessary to make a sacrifice of our all and that the weakest colony by such a sacrifice would suffer as much as the greatest." The matter was resolved in favor of giving each colony a single vote when it was realized that "the delegates from the several colonies were unprepared with materials to settle that equality"—that is, no one had an objective count of any colony's population or wealth (Smith, vol. 1, p. 31).

Word of the British seizure of colonial powder stored at Charlestown, Massachusetts (the Powder Alarm), arrived on 6 September. This news helped the radicals build a consensus in favor of resolute action that led Congress to endorse the Suffolk Resolves (17 September) and defeat Galloway's Plan of Union (28 September 1774). In a set of declarations, the First Congress subsequently denounced the Intolerable Acts, the Quebec Act, all of the revenue measures imposed since 1763, the extension of vice-admiralty courts in the colonies, the dissolution of colonial assemblies, and the peacetime stationing of regular soldiers in colonial towns. Thirteen parliamentary acts since 1763 were declared unconstitutional, and the delegates pledged to support economic sanctions until these acts were repealed. Ten resolutions set forth the rights of the colonists as they saw them. They signed the Continental Association (a complete suspension of trade) on 20 October, prepared addresses to the king and to the British and American people, and agreed to reconvene on 10 May 1775 if their grievances had not been redressed. They adjourned on 26 October.


On 10 May 1775 the delegates met at the State House (later Independence Hall) in Philadelphia and reelected the same president and secretary. On 24 May Randolph withdrew, and John Hancock was elected president of Congress. Still without an official representative from Georgia, the delegates took a score of actions that amounted to the de facto assumption of the rights and responsibilities of an independent state. They resolved that the colonies be put in a state of military readiness (15 May); adopted an address to the Canadians asking them to join the resistance (29 May); resolved to raise ten companies of riflemen in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to support the New England army besieging Boston; agreed to pay for the New England army (thus adopting it as a "continental army"); named a committee to draft rules for the administration of the army (all on 14 June); elected George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, as commander in chief of the Continental Army (15 June); elected four major generals (Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Philip Schuyler, and Israel Putnam); elected eight brigadier generals (Seth Pomeroy, William Heath, John Thomas, David Wooster, Joseph Spencer, John Sullivan, Richard Montgomery, and Nathanael Greene); elected Gates to be adjutant general and voted $2 million in bills of credit to finance the war (all on 22 June); and adopted articles of war on 30 June.

As events continued to cascade toward full-scale war (the New England army fought its only battle, at Bunker Hill on 17 June, not knowing it had become a "continental army" three days earlier), Congress assumed more powers that made it look like a government. The delegates made a last-ditch effort to patch up the quarrel by approving the Olive Branch Petition on 5 July, one of several important papers drafted by the conservative John Dickinson, and the next day promulgated a "Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms," the joint work of Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson, to explain to the people of Britain and America why armed resistance was now necessary. On 15 July they voted to waive those provisions of the Continental Association that might slow the importation of war supplies, and on 31 July they rejected Lord North's plan for reconciliation as too little, too late. They appointed commissioners to treat with the Indians (19 July) and established a postal department (26 July) with Benjamin Franklin as head. On 2 August 1775 the Second Congress adjourned.

The Second Continental Congress reconvened on 12 September 1775, this time with delegations from all thirteen colonies present. Learning on 9 November that George III had on 23 August proclaimed the colonies to be in revolt (thereby rejecting the Olive Branch Petition), on 6 December Congress replied with a statement of continued allegiance to the king but not to Parliament. A continental navy was authorized on 13 October, and on 14 December a Marine Committee to oversee it was appointed. On 29 November the delegates appointed the Committee of Secret Correspondence to conduct relations with foreign governments (a precursor of the modern State Department). The movement toward independence was spurred by Thomas Paine, who published his pamphlet Common Sense on 10 January 1776. Across the late winter and spring of 1776, leaders in the various colonies took actions that made them, in all but name, independent states. On 15 May 1776 the de facto Virginia state government authorized its delegate, Richard Henry Lee, to take the initiative in acknowledging what was already the reality on the ground in the states and in Congress. On 7 June Lee introduced the resolution that led to the Declaration of Independence. The delegates voted to declare independence on 2 July, and on 4 July promulgated their final bill of indictment against the imperial government and George III, in which they explained to the world why independence was their only possible course of action.


Managing all aspects of a war of unprecedented complexity always absorbed the bulk of the delegates' time and attention. Sometimes action was delayed or deferred by the need to build consensus. Particularly difficult issues might have to be addressed by the entire Congress, which resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole, but the delegates did a remarkable amount of business through an evolving sequence of committees and boards. Although the system was not particularly efficient, it was effective in keeping the war effort up and running. Many of the congressional initiatives were ambitious. In late March 1776 the delegates sent a special committee to Canada to explain the political purpose behind the invasion and to salvage support for a campaign that was rapidly failing. On 12 June they appointed a Committee to Prepare Treaties with European countries. On 17 September they adopted the report of this committee and on 23 December authorized its three commissioners (Silas Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and Arthur Lee) to borrow money for their operations.

Congress could do little to influence active military operations, and during 1776 it watched as its armies triumphed at Charleston and Boston, failed in Canada and at Long Island, saw New York City fall into British hands, received increasingly discouraging reports in connection with the New York campaign, fought the overtures resulting from the Peace Commission of the Howes, were cheered by the delay Benedict Arnold bought by his victory at Valcour Island, and on 12 December ran for the safety of Baltimore as the British success in the New Jersey campaign threatened Philadelphia. It granted Washington extraordinary authority ("dictatorial" powers) during this crisis; some joked nervously that 1777 promised to be the "Year of the Hangman." Robert Morris remained in Philadelphia, and on 21 December 1776 Congress formally appointed him, George Clymer, and George Walton as its "executive committee."

At Baltimore the three-story brick house of Henry Fite was the meeting place of the twenty to twenty-five members of Congress who showed up for business, fewer than half the number that had decided the great issues in 1775 and 1776. The members continued to plan for the future. They resolved on 30 December 1776 to send commissioners to Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Tuscany. (William Lee of Virginia was assigned the first two posts on 9 May; Franklin covered the Spanish post, in addition to France, from 1 January 1777 until Arthur Lee of Virginia was named to succeed him at Madrid on 1 May; Ralph Izard of South Carolina was assigned to Tuscany on 7 May.)

Back at Philadelphia on 4 March 1777, Congress reconstituted the Committee of Secret Correspondence as the Committee on Foreign Affairs (17 April 1777), passed the Flag Resolution creating the Stars and Stripes (14 June), and on 19 September fled the city again. Howe's threat to Philadelphia was more effective this time, and Congress was forced to flee, first to Lancaster and then to York, Pennsylvania (30 September). The so-called Conway Cabal that challenged Washington's leadership, the problems of Burgoyne's Convention Army, and Lafayette's abortive "irruption into Canada" were among the important military matters that occupied the talents of the delegates during the winter of Valley Forge. Congress also sent a committee to confer with Washington about reorganizing the army, an effort that complemented the efforts of Steuben to complete the transformation of the Continental Army into an effective, professional military force. Congress adopted, finally, the Articles of Confederation on 15 November 1777, and with the French alliance a reality on 8 January 1778, it ratified the implementing treaties on 4 May. With some hope on the horizon, Congress was better able to fend off the peace commission of the earl of Carlisle after June 1778.

During the last years of the war, Congress coped with a wide range of problems. Perhaps the most serious was the collapse of the economy, caused in part by trying to pay for a protracted war with too much continental currency and not enough taxing authority. The military situation continued to raise more immediate issues. British success in the south after May 1780 seemed to herald the reestablishment of royal government in the former southern colonies. The American effort slowly recovered over the summer of 1780, with Congressional approval of Washington's pick to command the theater (Nathanael Greene, on 14 October 1780) one of the milestones along the way. British raids in Virginia (most seriously after December 1780) were damaging, but marked the beginning of the end of Britain's strategy to recover the South. Washington, with the indispensable aid of French soldiers and sailors, managed to capture Britain's last field army at Yorktown in October 1781, but that crucial victory was not easily achieved. The American military effort had seemed to be crumbling from within following the revelation of Benedict Arnold's treason (25 September 1780) and the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line (early January 1781), but Washington's leadership helped to hold the army together.

Presidents of the Continental Congress
As noted in the article on the Continental Congress, the so-called Continental
Congress ceased to exist on 2 March 1781, at which time it became "The
United States in Congress Assembled."
Peyton Randolph of Virginia5 September 1774
Henry Middleton of South Carolina22 October 1774
Peyton Randolph of Virginia10 May 1775
John Hancock of Massachusetts24 May 1775
Henry Laurens of South Carolina1 November 1777
John Jay of New York10 December 1778
Samuel Huntington of Conneticutt28 September 1779
Thomas McKean of Delaware10 July 1781
John Hanson of Maryland5 November 1781
Elias Boudinot of New Jersey4 November 1782
Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania3 November 1783
Richard Henry Lee of Virginia30 November 1784
John Hancock of Massachusetts23 November 1785
(did not serve)
Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts6 June 1786
Arthur St. Clair of Pennsylvania2 February 1787
Cyrus Griffin of Virginia22 January 1788

The way Congress did business also matured and changed during these years, most notably in 1781. Under the crushing pressure of events, Congress authorized the creation of four executive departments, foreign affairs on 10 January and finance, war, and marine on 7 February. This essential step helped to streamline the daily working of government by lifting a great deal of the burden of clerical and routine duties from Congress as a whole. On 1 March 1781 Congress acknowledged that Maryland had ratified the Articles of Confederation, the last state to do so. Strictly speaking, the Second Continental Congress ceased to exist on that day; the delegates met the next day as "the United States in Congress Assembled." Congress also began the tortuous negotiations for a final peace settlement. It began by setting minimum conditions as early as February 1780, appointed peace commissioners in June 1781, and ratified the proposed text of the Treaty of Paris on 15 April 1783.

On 24 June 1783 Congress again demonstrated its strategic mobility by fleeing to Princeton when some three hundred Continental soldiers marched in to demand their rights. Remaining at Princeton until 3 November, it reconvened at Annapolis on 26 November under a plan calling for alternate sessions there and at Trenton. The day before, the British had evacuated New York City, thereby implementing some of the final provisions of the peace treaty. At the end of December the Continental Army ceased to exist, and Congress, and the nation, faced for the first time the challenges of the postwar era of reconstruction and recovery.

The first federal Congress met on 4 March 1789 in New York City and began regular sessions on 6 April. The new federal city of Washington, District of Columbia, became the seat of Congress when the second session of the sixth U.S. Congress met there on 17 November 1800.


Over the course of fifteen years (5 September 1774 to 3 March 1789), 435 delegates to Congress were elected by the states. Only 80 percent of those elected (342) actually served in Congress, some for only a few weeks or months. The number of delegates that served during the nine years of military mobilization and actual fighting (5 September 1774 to 31 December 1783) was smaller still: only 245 men, or 70 percent of the total of 342 who served. Turnover in membership was rapid and continuity in office (and thus the amount of experience members could accumulate in running the business of the new nation) was limited to a handful of delegates who were willing and able to make the personal and financial sacrifice needed to attend Congress on a regular basis. In Reluctant Rebels, the military historian Lynn Montross notes that, "before the war ended, more than half of the members were fated to have their property looted or destroyed. Others were to be imprisoned or driven into hiding by man hunts, and even their families would not escape persecution" (p. 131). The record of military service compiled by the members of Congress "has probably never been bettered by any other parliament of history. Of the 342 men elected during the fifteen years, 134 bore arms in either the militia or the Continental army. One was killed in action, twelve seriously wounded, and twenty-three taken prisoners in combat." Given that a majority of the delegates were in their forties or older, "the valor of Congress needs no apologies" (Reluctant Rebels, pp. 190-191).


Congress received some harsh criticisms from contemporaries, including from some of its own members, and subsequent historians have echoed this assessment. It certainly displayed inefficiency and dithered over decisions that might have been more palatable if made more quickly. It saw its share of badly run committees, ill-conceived experiments in organization and oversight, and poorly timed meddling in the responsibilities of its field commanders, most notably Washington himself. Petty political infighting and rivalries were all too common, based as much on personal dislikes as on principled differences about policy. Behavior that can only be called corrupt was also in evidence. In all of these things, the Continental Congress was similar to American legislative bodies before and since.

Against these criticisms, a slew of achievements can be entered on the positive side of the ledger. The mere fact that Congress existed and functioned at all was a significant milestone. All of the men who served in this new experiment in political organization had knowledge of or had served in the legislative assemblies of their individual colonies and states. Overcoming the provincialism and parochialism of those assemblies, legislative bodies that jealously guarded their prerogatives and power not only from the imperial government but also from each other, was no small achievement. Few men as yet agreed with Patrick Henry's assertion that they owed their primary allegiance to "America" (in Henry's case, too, rhetoric exceeded reality). In everything Congress did, consensus had to be built before unanimity could be achieved, and, without unanimity on all major issues, the British might readily break the rebellion into fragments. Because the nature of their resistance to imperial authority had schooled them to be extremely suspicious of power in all its forms, the delegates undertook management of continental affairs as a collective exercise, unwilling to concentrate power in the hands of one man or a few under all but the worst circumstances. Only in the blackest days of the war did the rump Congress give Washington, himself a member of the Virginia oligarchy and a former delegate to Congress, the authority to act without congressional approval of major decisions. When the crisis passed (due largely to Washington's leadership), Congress was a bit more solicitous of the realities of field command; but it never relinquished its desire to oversee the minutia of military organization, appointments, movements, and operations that would today be left in the hands of the military professionals. Washington continually chaffed at the conflicting tugs of congressional oversight, indecision, misunderstandings, and downright meddling. But because he was one of them he never disavowed the fundamental principle of civilian control of the military, vested in the hands of the delegates to Congress.

Gradually, the delegates' understanding of the nature of government began to evolve, as they realized, under the intense and unrelenting pressure of running a war far longer than anyone had anticipated, that, if declaring independence had been an act of unprecedented courage that required genius and faith, erecting a working government required the talent, integrity, and energy to slog through the unrelenting demands of daily business. The erection of four executive departments in early 1781 was an important milestone on the road to rebuilding the sort of faith in extralocal government that the imperial crisis had shattered.

Given the circumstances in which it was created, Congress, although inefficient, was also remarkably effective. As the historian John Richard Alden, in The American Revolution, observes:

The Congress declared the independence of the United States; appointed the commander in chief and higher officers of the Continental army; established the American navy and the marine corps; formed a diplomatic service; negotiated treaties with European nations and Indian tribes; organized a postal service; issued currency; and borrowed money. It even gave advice to the colony-states with respect to the making of their constitutions; and it drew up the Articles of Confederation…. It was created in emergency, endowed with uncertain authority, and plagued by rapid changes in personnel. Hence it exhibited obvious defects lacking or less conspicuous in long- and well-established legislatures…. [But Congress's] record, when the difficulties to be faced are taken into account, is splendid rather than dismal. (pp. 166-169)

SEE ALSO Admiralty Courts; Albany Convention and Plan; Articles of Confederation; Association; Boston Siege; Canada Invasion; Canada Invasion (Planned); Canada, Congressional Committee to; Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1776; Committee of Secret Correspondence; Continental Currency; Convention Army; Conway Cabal; Declaration of Independence; Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms; Dickinson, John; French Alliance; Galloway's Plan of Union; Hangman, Year of the; Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts; Long Island, New York, Battle of; New Jersey Campaign; New York Campaign; North's Plan for Reconciliation; Olive Branch Petition; Peace Commission of Carlisle; Peace Commission of the Howes; Peace Negotiations; Philadelphia Campaign; Powder Alarm; Quebec Act; Riflemen; Solemn League and Covenant; Stamp Act; Suffolk Resolves; Valcour Island; Valley Forge, Pennsylvania; Washington's "Dictatorial Powers."


Alden, John R. The American Revolution. New York: Harper, 1954.

Burnett, Edmund C. Letters of Members of the Continental Congress. 8 vols. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1921–1936.

――――――. The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan, 1941; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Henderson, H. James. Party Politics in the Continental Congress. New York: McGraw Hill, 1974; Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987.

Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774–1781. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1941.

――――――. The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781–1789. New York: Knopf, 1950.

――――――. English Historical Documents. Vol. 9: American Colonial Documents to 1776, general editor, David C. Douglas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.

Montross, Lynn. Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. New York: Harper, 1950; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970.

Nevins, Allan. The American States During and After the Revolution, 1775–1789. New York: Macmillan, 1924; New York: A.M. Kelley, 1969.

Onuf, Peter S. The Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775–1787. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Smith, Paul H., et al., eds. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976–2000.

U.S. Congress. Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774–1989. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.

U.S. Continental Congress. Journals of the Continental Congress. 34 vols. Edited by Worthington C. Ford et al. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1904–1937.

U.S. Continental Congress. Papers. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky

Continental Congress

views updated May 18 2018

Continental Congress


First Continental Congress. The Continental Congress became the government of the United States out of necessity, not design. The forty-five delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in September 1774 were not sure why they were there. Some members, such as Joseph Galloway, John Jay, and John Dickinson, thought their task was to propose common policies to pressure England to rescind its unreasonable policies. Their ultimate goal was to resolve the crisis and reconcile the colonies with England; they did not see the Congress as the beginning of a new, independent government. Some delegates, such as Patrick Henry and Samuel and John Adams, did. The reconcilers carried the day, and the first Congress rejected the idea of independence but called for a boycott of British goods to take effect in December 1774. The Congress also empowered local Committees of Safety to enforce this boycott and to set prices for goods in communities.

Choosing Delegates. Each colony had chosen its delegates to Congress in different ways. In four colonies, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, the assembly chose its delegates to Congress. The Massachusetts assembly made its choices behind locked doors; outside, Governor Gages secretary was proclaiming the legislature suspended. In Virginia, when the governor, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the assembly, it had reconvened in a nearby tavern to choose delegates; New York held a general election for delegates; and an open meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, chose that colonys delegation. In other colonies delegates were selected at provincial conventions that had not been called by the established authorities. This created a problem, made more acute by the colonistss grievances with England: the colonists were resisting what they regarded as unconstitutional British authority and objecting to British government policy that was contrary to their written charters. How, then, could the colonists have conventions or other meetings not authorized by charter or law to choose new governments or delegates to a Continental Congress? It was a difficult question, one the delegates did not have the leisure to consider though it restrained Congress from asserting more power.

Representation. Did the delegates represent the people of the colonies, or did they represent the colonies? Should the delegates vote according to their colonys relative population or according to its wealth? Or should each colony have one vote? As soon as Congress met, it had to grapple with these questions. At the Albany Conference each colony had one vote, and the roll was called from north to south, starting with New Hampshire. The Stamp Act Congress had followed this precedent. Congress continued the custom of voting geographically. But the problem of representation was less easy to solve. Virginia, the largest colony, believed it should have the most votes. Delegates from the smaller colonies believed each colony should have one vote. Samuel Chase of Maryland proposed a compromise: give each colony one vote except in cases involving money, then each would vote in proportion to its contributions to the cause. Ultimately the delegates agreed that each colony would have one vote. This was done both to appease the smaller colonies and because discovering a practical alternative was too difficult. Neither Virginia nor Massachusetts thought this solution either fair or reasonable.

Summer 1775. The Second Continental Congress met in May 1775. This time war had broken out in Massachusetts. British forces occupied Boston, and two governments attempted to govern the province. Moderates in Congress still resisted the ideas that the Congress was a government and that the colonies could become independent states. Congress voted to raise a Continental Army to defend the beleaguered citizens of Massachusetts and appointed George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, to be its commander. Congress also voted to print paper money to help pay for this army and to establish a post office and appoint commissioners to negotiate with Indians. John Dickinson drafted a conciliatory petition to the king, called the Olive Branch petition. The Congress considered the Prime Minister, Lord Norths, conciliatory proposal: Parliament would not tax the colonies, but the colonial assemblies would tax the colonists and forward the receipts to London. This proposal might have averted the crisis in 1765, but by 1775 the colonial mood had shifted. After Congress learned of the Battle of Bunker Hill, it rejected Norths proposal. At about the same time King George III rejected the Olive Branch petition and declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion. In the fall, when South Carolina and New Hampshire requested instruction from Congress on what government was legitimate, Congress told each to have full and free representation of the people, and that the Representatives if they think it necessary, establish such a form of Government, as in their judgment will best produce the happiness of the people.

Plans for Union. All delegates understood the importance of unity: in 1754, when the colonies were threatened by France, Benjamin Franklin proposed a plan of union that would have the colonies unite under a general council, with a governor appointed by the king. In 1774 Joseph Galloway proposed a similar plan of union, but by this time delegates from Massachusetts were not willing to support any concessions to British power. Galloways plan was struck from the record, and he would remain loyal to the king while his colleagues in Congress drifted toward independence. In the summer of 1775 Franklin proposed another plan of union, with Congress serving as a governing body for the colonies. Silas Deane of Connecticut proposed a similar plan, but Congress was consumed with other problems and did not seriously consider either. Farsighted delegates such as Franklin, Deane, and John Adams realized that unity was essential, but at the moment they were also trying to convince delegates that independence was achievable.

Independence. The convincing arguments were made by Thomas Paines Common Sense in January and by Washingtons forcing the British out of Boston in March. In May, Congress called on all the colonies to form new governments: this was not independence but was, as delegate James Duane said, a Machine for fabricating Independence. Five days later Virginias new provincial congress, which had replaced the old House of Burgesses as the government, called on Congress to declare that the American colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. This resolution, which Congress received on 7 June and approved on 2 July, changed the necessity for union. The Albany Plan, and all subsequent plans for union, envisioned the colonies cooperating for specific external objectives: either to protect the frontier or to make common cause against British attacks. With independence, though, the union would be a government. The problem in constructing a union would be to make a government that would govern but would not interfere with each states power to govern itself.

Dickinsons Plan. Congress appointed a committee of thirteen to draw up a plan of confederation. John Dickinson took the lead in drawing up the plan of union, which he presented to the Congress on 12 July. South Carolinas Edward Rutledge complained to John Jay that Dickinsons plan has the Vice of all his Productions...; I mean the vice of Refining too much. Dickinsons plan created a confederation of states but left ambiguous how much power the states would retain. Debate centered on three issues: the division of powers between the states and the confederation, representation of states in Congress and and contributions of states to the union, and control of the western lands claimed by several states. After Dickinson left Congress, the debate continued on

his plan, and on 20 August a committee presented to Congress a somewhat amended plan of union, which Congress debated over the next year. Ultimately Congress decided to continue allowing each state one vote, making it clear that Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence. Congress could not resolve the issue of land claims. On 15 November 1777 Congress approved the Articles of Confederation and submitted them to the states for approval.


Presidents, First Continental Congress:
Peyton Randolph, Virginia (elected 5 September 1774)

Henry Middleton, South Carolina (22 October 1774)
Presidents, Second Continental Congress:
Peyton Randolph, Virginia (10 May 1775)
John Hancock, Massachusetts (24 May 1775)
Henry Laurens, South Carolina (1 November 1777)
John Jay, New York (10 December 1778)
Samuel Huntington, Connecticut (28 September 1779)
Thomas McKean, Delaware (10 July 1781)

Congress under the Articles of Confederation:
John Hanson, Maryland (5 November 1781)
Elias Boudinot, New Jersey (4 November 1782)
Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania (3 November 1783)

Meeting Places of Congress:
5 September 1774, Philadelphia
10 May 1775, Philadelphia
20 December 1776, Baltimore
4 March 1777, Philadelphia
27 September 1777, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
30 September 1777, York, Pennsylvania
2 July 1778, Philadelphia
30 June 1783, Princeton, New Jersey
26 November 1783, Annapolis, Maryland

The Articles. The Articles of Confederation created a firm league of friendship.... For... common defence, the security of their liberties, and... mutual and general welfare while each state remained sovereign and independent. Under the articles, each state could send between two and seven delegates to Congress, but each state would only have one vote. The delegates would be paid by their respective states. Because the Congress was not elected directly by the people, it could not tax the people, nor could it draft people into military service. Instead Congress could determine how much each state should send to the common treasury and how many men each state should contribute to the Continental Army, and then Congress could request each state to honor its commitments. No state could engage in foreign affairs, or tax goods sent into or out of other states, nor could any states enter into treaties or agreements with one another. Congress would be given the power to decide issues between

states over land claims and other matters, as well as matters of foreign affairs and relations with Indians. Congress submitted the articles to the states for ratification, requesting that the states do so by 10 March 1778.

Awaiting Ratification. Only Virginia ratified by 10 March, but most of the states ratified by July 1778. New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland held out because the articles did not give the union control of the Western lands. New Jersey (20 November 1778) and Delaware (1 February 1779) would ratify, but Maryland held out until both New York and Virginia agreed to cede their land claims to the union in 1781. Until the articles took effect, Congress continued to act, coordinating the military and attempting to raise money to pay for the army. But inflation skyrocketed, and the currency issued in 1777 became virtually worthless. In April 1780 one Spanish dollar, the basic unit of value, was worth four hundred dollars in Continental currency.

Political Divisions. With no political parties, divisions occurred based on personality and regional differences, the most notable being an attempt by some members of Congress, after Horatio Gatess brilliant victory at Saratoga and George Washingtons failure to prevent the British from capturing Philadelphia, to replace Washington with Gates. The controversy over Silas Deane also bitterly divided the Congress in 17791780. The problems of war prevented further political divisions though within the states there were controversies over paper money and raising troops.

Executive Government. When the articles came into effect in the spring of 1781, Congress was empowered to create executive boards to better manage affairs. Robert Morris was appointed minister for finance, and he immediately undertook to make sense of the countrys debts and currency problems, which were immense. The country owed approximately $42 million, and the continental currency was virtually worthless. Morris proposed two solutions. First, he suggested creating a national bank. But since Congress did not have the power to charter a bank, Morris persuaded Pennsylvanias legislature to charter the Bank of North America. Second, to help Congress raise revenue, Morris and the reformers in Congress, led by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, proposed amending the Articles to allow Congress to levy a 5 percent tax on imports. To change the Articles required the unanimous consent of the states, and Rhode Islands refusal killed the plan. Morris tried to use his considerable political skill in reorganizing the finances, but failed, in part because the wars end in September 1781 removed from the minds of many the pressing necessity to take action.

Woes. Congresss lack of power became too apparent after the war. In 1783 Congress could not pay the soldiers who had helped to win independence. Pennsylvanias soldiers mutinied, marched on Philadelphia, and surrounded Congress. State authorities would not call the militia to disperse the soldiers, and Congress was forced to flee the city, taking refuge in Princeton, then deciding to build two permanent capitals, one on the Delaware River in New Jersey, the other near George-town, Maryland, on the Potomac. Americans made fun of the powerless, wandering Congress, not... stars of the first magnitude, but rather... inferior luminaries, or wandering comets, [who] again appear in their eccentric orb, assuming various directions and courses, sometimes regular and uniform, at other times, vain and retrograde. Another suggested putting Congress into a balloon, so the members could float along from one end of the continent to the other, ... and when occasion requires can suddenly pop down into any of the states they please. The Congress, called into existence to meet the crisis of British power, threatened to dissolve.


Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1940);

Andrew C. McLaughlin, A Constitutional History of the United States (New York: Appleton-Century, 1936);

Jack Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

Continental Congress

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CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, the central governing body of the American colonies prior to and during the American Revolution and also the first government of the United States until the establishment of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. The Continental Congress followed in the steps of earlier, brief colony-wide gatherings to discuss shared issues of importance, as the Albany Congress of 1754 and the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 had done. In Philadelphia, delegates from twelve colonies (Georgia did not participate) gathered from 5 September to 26 October 1774 to discuss possible responses to British actions that threatened their rights. In particular, they sought the repeal of Parliament's measures—commonly called the Coercive or Intolerable Acts—directed at Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

The First Continental Congress

At the 1774 gathering, later known as the First Continental Congress, colonial representatives considered the best means by which to gain redress of their grievances. They called for a boycott on the purchase or consumption of British goods (a strategy that had worked well in the 1760s during protests against the Stamp Act and the Townshend Duties) and a ban on the sale of colonial goods to England, which collectively became known as the Continental Association. Economic threats had been effective previously, and public sentiment strongly supported the Association at local levels. The delegates in Congress also prepared a petition to send to King George III of England, asking that the Coercive Acts be repealed, and arranged for a second congress to convene in May 1775 if Parliament did not withdraw the detested laws.

In October 1774 Congress also adopted a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" that outlined members' views on the correct constitutional relationship between mother country and colonies. In argument and style, the Declaration mimicked the greatest English charters of rights, Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689), claiming that settlers who originally emigrated from England "by no means forfeited, surrendered, or lost any of those rights" and that the "foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council"—a right colonists did not enjoy by direct representation in Parliament. The Declaration asserted the immemorial right of subjects to "assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition the King" and claimed that "keeping a Standing army in these colonies, in times of peace…is against the law." Every representative rejected Parliament's claims of absolute legislative supremacy over the colonies, but on other points delegates forged compromises. The suggestion from Virginia's Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee that the colonies raise a militia for home defense in case England decided to retaliate was dropped from the Declaration. The positions outlined in Congress's petition to King George and the Declaration of Rights assumed that Britain would take the first step toward compromise by withdrawing the offensive laws, and many representatives appeared convinced at this time that some sort of reconciliation remained possible with England.

The Second Continental Congress

Parliament did not remove the objectionable laws, and delegates from all thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia in May 1775 to consider their options. This gathering, known as the Second Continental Congress, faced greater difficulties, for reconciliation now seemed even more remote: armed conflict between British troops and American militiamen had occurred the preceding month at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Rebel troops now gathered outside of Boston, where the British army had retreated, and Congress moved to support the patriots, assumed authority over the provincial militiamen, and at the same time named George Washington commander in chief of continental military forces (15 June 1775). For the next six years Congress guided the course of the war, dispatched ambassadors to seek alliances and financial support, and functioned as the de facto national government. Just as the Committees of Correspondence and Safety or provincial assemblies had already done—assuming control of local and state government affairs with no charter or grant of authority at first, other than the people's tacit consent—Congress took over the day-to-day business of governing Americans on a national level, while representing American interests in international relations as well.

Governing was one thing; independence was another. Nearly a year passed after the events of Lexington and Concord and military conflict with Britain before Congress abandoned hope of reconciliation and moved toward independence. Congress's most well known actions occurred 2 July 1776, when Congress voted in favor of independence from Britain, and on 4 July 1776, when it formally adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.

Military men would have voted for independence much sooner than Congress did. The rapport between Congress and its Continental Army and officers was never strong, in part because Congress—weakly funded and heavily dependent on French foreign aid—could not provide the army with sufficient material goods or munitions to prosecute the war effort fully. Soldiers and commanders alike thought that it was Congress's intent to "starve the army at pleasure" through denying it much needed supplies. The army's inability to stop the British from advancing forced Congress to relocate repeatedly, from Philadelphia (1775–1776) to Baltimore (1776–1777), then back to Philadelphia, Lancaster, and York Pennsylvania (all in 1777), and finally back to Philadelphia (1778–1781) before the war's end. Congress's peripatetic movement, combined with its repeated turnover in personnel, meant that its actions often seemed slow or ill-informed to outsiders. The prestige of Congress was never very high, and many politicians appointed to Congress stayed only briefly before returning to their home states and local political affairs.

The Articles of Confederation

After declaring independence, Congress next moved to create a permanent government structure that could coordinate the new states' national activities. Using a plan drafted by Congress member John Dickinson and his committee of thirteen, Congress adopted confederation as its preferred style of government. Given that state governments already existed and had local support, it is doubtful Congress could have successfully recommended the creation of a strong national government with sweeping powers. Yet even a weak confederated government was not welcomed wholeheartedly. Congress delayed and bickered over the plan from 1776 to 1777, attempting to reconcile competing views from large and small states on methods of representation, overlapping western land claims to undeveloped territory, and the means by which the new government would be funded. Ultimately, the Articles of Confederation resolved many of these issues by relying on past practices—as the Continental Congress had permitted each state a single vote, so too the new Articles Congress would allocate each state one vote. Indeed, the very structure of the Articles government drew its inspiration from the Continental Congress, having only a unicameral legislature and no executive or judiciary to conduct business, and continuing to depend on states to fund Congress through requisition requests, rather than direct taxation. It took nearly four years, from November 1777 to March 1781, for all thirteen states to ratify the proposed Articles of Confederation. Once ratified, Congress became the country's legitimate government until it was replaced by the U.S. Constitution.

Foreign Relations and Peacemaking

Shortly after war with Britain broke out, Congress dispatched diplomats to seek foreign aid. Although Russia, Spain, and the Netherlands offered no assistance, England's traditional enemy France gave help to the new nation. At first covertly, then openly after America's victory at the Battle of Saratoga, France extended the Continental Congress military support, a sweeping alliance, and the first recognition of America's independence by another nation. Congress sent its most experienced diplomat, Benjamin Franklin, to strengthen relations with France during this critical period. After the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781, Congress instructed Franklin and the rest of its peacemaking delegation (including John Jay and John Adams) to coordinate all their efforts with the French when arranging peace with Britain. Franklin determined that it would be best to ignore Congress's directions, and secretly negotiated a preliminary peace with Britain that served America's interests first, gaining the new country large western land concessions from England. Like all governments in the eighteenth century, Congress often had to rely on the initiative of its soldiers and diplomats in the field—the slow movement of information in this age limited the direct authority that a government could wield over its agents.

Peace brought an end to Congress's wartime problems, but created others. Discord between the sovereign states and the inherent weakness of the Articles structure now revealed Congress's difficult position in the confederacy. Without a direct source of revenues, it could not readily repay the nation's foreign debt, and without a permanent militia it could not protect itself from domestic disturbances when men like Daniel Shays launched armed protests. All major decisions, according to the Articles, required unanimity among the thirteen states, slowing any progress the new government might make. Finally, in 1787, another group of politicians met in Philadelphia to consider how to revise the Articles of Confederation. Their proposed plan framed a stronger national government, in which Congress would be only one of three branches. Once ratified in 1789, the Constitution replaced the old Continental Congress with a bicameral legislature of nearly the same name.


Continental Congress. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774– 1789. Edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford et al. 34 vols. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1968.

Continental Congress. Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774– 1789. 204 microform reels. Washington: National Archives and Records Service, 1959–.

Henderson, H. James. Party Politics in the Continental Congress. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Rakove, Jack. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Sally E.Hadden

See alsoAssemblies, Colonial ; Coercive Acts ; Committees of Safety ; Confederation ; Intolerable Acts ; Provincial Congresses ; andvol. 9:Address of the Continental Congress to Inhabitants of Canada ; Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress ; Declaration of Independence .

Continental Congress

views updated May 23 2018


The first national legislative assembly in the United States, existing from 1774 to 1789.

During its fifteen-year existence, the Continental Congress served as the chief legislative and executive body of the federal government. Although hobbled by provisions such as an inability to raise funds directly through taxation, it nevertheless created a viable, if sometimes ineffective, national union during the earliest years of the United States. The Continental Congress passed the declaration of independence and other lasting measures, and it set important precedents for the government instituted under the Constitution in 1789. Some of the most important figures of early American history were members of the Continental Congress, including john adams, Samuel Adams, samuel chase, benjamin franklin, alexander hamilton, patrick henry, john jay, thomas jefferson, james madison, and george washington.

The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia between September 5 and October 26, 1774. Although it was officially called simply the Congress, contemporaries referred to it as the Continental Congress in order to distinguish it from the various state congresses. Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies (Georgia did not participate) assembled in an attempt to unite the colonies and restore rights and liberties that had been curtailed by Great Britain. The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Rights, agreements regarding common policies toward Britain, and a resolution that it would meet again the following year if its grievances were not settled.

When Britain rebuffed their demands, the colonists assembled the Second Continental Congress in May of 1775, again in Philadelphia. Fighting between Britain and Massachusetts at the Battles of Lexington and Concord had already occurred, and the Continental Congress voted to back Massachusetts. It appointed George Washington as commander in chief of colonial armed forces. With this decision, Congress undertook a vital role directing the Revolutionary War.

As the war continued, colonial opinion began to move toward permanent separation from Great Britain. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which announced the formation of the United States of America as a new nation. In succeeding months, the Congress drafted the articles of confederation, the new country's first constitution. The Congress approved the Articles on November 15, 1777, but the states did not ratify them until 1781.

The Articles contained provisions for a national legislature designated simply Congress. Although some historians have called this subsequent body the Congress of the Confederation, most group it with its predecessor and call it the Continental Congress. In this Congress, each state had from two to seven delegates but only one vote. Delegates were to serve no more than "three years in any term of six years" (art. V).

During the struggle to approve and then ratify the Articles, the advocates of states' rights greatly weakened its provisions for a strong federal, or national, government. As a result, the Articles did not allow the federal government to raise its own funds directly through taxation. Instead, the central government could only requisition money from the states. The Articles also required a unanimous vote of Congress to approve any amendments, a feature that made it difficult to adapt their provisions to the changing needs of the nation. In addition, Congress as it was constituted under the Articles proved ill suited to tasks that the Constitution later assigned to the executive branch, including the conduct of diplomatic, military, and commercial affairs. For example, Congress fared poorly in negotiating with Britain and France, in paying war debts, and in putting down armed revolts such as shays's rebellion.

The problems of the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation led to plans for a new federal constitution. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, leading members of the Continental Congress joined with other politicians and lawmakers to create a framework for a new national government, including a new Congress. Following ratification of the Constitution by the states in 1789, the Continental Congress handed over its legislative powers to the Congress that continues in form to the present day.

Although the Continental Congress had weaknesses, it nevertheless passed crucial legislation and set vital precedents for the framing of the Constitution. Its legislative legacy includes the establishment of the Northwest Territory, provisions for the sale and oversight of western land, and many other laws adopted by the later Congress. According to Edmund C. Burnett, a leading historian on the subject, the

Continental Congress … developed and formulated many of those fundamental principles

of government that have become our national heritage. Indeed it is not too much to say that [a] great part of the materials built into the structure of the Constitution itself were wrought in the forge of the Continental Congress.

further readings

Burnett, Edmund C. 1941. The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan.

Davis, Derek H. 2000. Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent. New York: Oxford Univ. Press

McCormick, Richard P. 1997. "Ambiguous Authority: The Ordinances of the Confederation Congress, 1781-1789." American Journal of Legal History 41 (October): 411–39.


Congress of the United States; Constitution of the United States; "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms" (Appendix, Primary Document); Northwest Ordinance.

Continental Congress

views updated May 23 2018


On September 5, 1774, delegates from the colonies convened in Philadelphia in a "Continental" Congress, so called to differentiate it from local or provincial congresses. The first continental congress adopted a Declaration and Resolves to protest British measures and promote American rights; it also adopted the association. The Congress dissolved on October 24, 1774, having decided that the colonies should meet again if necessary on May 10, 1775. By that time, the colonies and Great Britain were at war. The Second Continental Congress adopted a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms on July 6, 1775, and the declaration of independence a year later. The Congress appointed george washington as commander-in-chief of its armies, directed the war, managed foreign affairs, and adopted a plan of union designated as the articles of confederation. After the thirteenth state ratified the Articles in 1781, the official governing body of the United States became known as "the Congress of the Confederation," but it was a continuation of the Continental Congress and was not reconstituted until 1789, when a Congress elected under the Constitution of the United States took office.

Leonard W. Levy


Bernett, Edmund C. 1941 The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan.

Continental Congress

views updated May 17 2018

Continental Congress (1774–89) Federal legislature of the American colonies during the American Revolution and the period of Confederation. Its first meeting (Philadelphia, September 1774) resulted in unified opposition to British rule and agreed on a boycott of trade with Britain. The Congress reconvened in May 1775, and appointed George Washington commander of the army. In July 1776, the Second Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence and drafted the Articles of Confederation. Adoption of the US Constitution (1787) made the Congress redundant, although it met until 1789.

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