The Second Continental Congress, 1775-1781
Copyright © 2012, Henry J. Sage


The Second Continental Congress, which convened on May 10, 1775, was a continuation of the First Continental Congress, as many of the same delegates were present. The president at the outset was again Peyton Randolph of Virginia, later replaced by John Hancock of Massachusetts, open of the new delegates. Additional new members included Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who replaced Randolph when he was called back to Virginia. The new gathering was a more radical and more distinguished group their predecessors, although their opinions and instructions from their home colonies varied considerably. This Congress would become the first de facto government of the United States once independence was declared and would remain so until the Articles of Confederation were adopted in 1781.

Its first major act as they debated the proper course in response to the latest acts of Great Britain was to appoint George Washington is appointed Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, fighting having broken out at Lexington and Concord in April. They thus faced the daunting task of dealing with a war that had started before they even convened. Washington had been nominated by John Adams, a sign of the sense of unity that was developing as the colonists realized that the challenge before them was formidable. Indeed, it was yet not certain that the actual fighting would continue—perhaps a peaceful resolution of differences might still be achieved. Toward that end the Congress sent an “Olive Branch Petition,” composed by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, to King George III on July 5, 1775.

Awaiting a response from His Majesty, the Congress, aware that fighting would likely continue, created a Navy and Marine Corps and dispatched diplomats to various presumable friendly nations such as France, Spain and the Netherlands negotiate treaties. They also issued a formal invitation to Canadians to join their rebellion as “fellow sufferers,” but their offer was rejected and Canada eventually became refuge for Loyalists, many of whom fled northward during and after the War.

On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress performed its most significant act—it declared independence from Great Britain. (The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4.)

The Congress. The Second Continental Congress was one of the most important bodies in American history, a gathering which does not always receive the attention it deserves. It was the de facto government of the United States until 1781. Since the second Continental Congress was an ad-hoc gathering created to respond to the actions of King George and Parliament, it had no legal basis for existence other than the time honored right of people to assemble to protest what they perceive as oppression. The organization of the Congress was a quasi-Democratic arrangement, as delegates were more or less legitimate representatives of the colonies which they represented, and as such this Congress was essentially republican in its nature. As we know, however, the attitudes of the colonists were more or less evenly divided among those who supported the Revolution, those who opposed Revolution, and a middle group that remained undecided, at least until the issue was joined. Thus we cannot say with any certainty that the members of the second Continental Congress actually reflected the feelings of the people whom they represented.

All the same, it was clear that the majority of Americans were united in their protest against the actions of the King, especially the Coercive or “Intolerable” Acts imposed following the Boston tea party. The first Continental Congress had attempted to reconcile differences by issuing resolutions of protest. But the resolutions of the first Congress were ignored, as was the “Olive Branch Petition” which proposed a peaceful resolution of problems between the Crown and the colonies. When fighting broke out in Boston in April 1775, the Second Continental Congress realized that the crisis had passed beyond the realm of negotiation. Although the question of independence had not yet arisen openly, it was clear that the colonists had painful decisions to make. By raising their sword against the king, the colonists were on treasonous ground; yet they were clearly not prepared to lay down their arms and submit to what they saw as further tyranny. And thus they began the process of organizing the colonies for war: they appointed George Washington commander-in-chief; they authorized the creation of a Navy and Marine Corps; and they began the painful process of organizing the United Colonies to carry out war against the most powerful nation in the world.

Early in 1776 as it became apparent that even if the colonists were able to defeat British arms, their problems would still the unresolved in that they would still legally be subjects of the Crown. Thus the arrival of Thomas Paine and the writing of his famous Common Sense led the congressional leaders to the conclusion that the only rational course for them was independence. They adopted the fateful resolution on July 2, 1776, and now the second Continental Congress was the only official government of the newly proclaimed United States.

Although the Articles of Confederation, which created the first formal government of the United States, was written in 1777, it was not adopted until 1781. Thus the second Continental Congress continued to govern until that time. Given that the Congress had started as an ad-hoc body, that the colonists had no history of working together toward a common goal, it was clumsy and inefficient. It had no authority to draw on resources from the individual colonies, now states, except by request, and its deliberations were driven by partisanship and faction. John Adams for one found the process extremely tedious; he himself served on over 90 different committees during the course of the war until he was finally relieved of his burden by being sent overseas as a negotiator.

For better or worse the Congress managed the affairs of the new nation barely adequately. With assistance from the French, and under the superb leadership of Washington, who held the fractious Continental Army together for seven long years, independence was finally won and the new government under the Articles of Confederation assumed control.

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