The Continental Congresses: The Colonies Unite in a Common Cause
Copyright © 2012-2020, Henry J. Sage

A Growing Sense of Unity: “We must all hand together!”

Rather than being led from the top, this phase of the American Revolution began among the people. They expressed their displeasure with the Crown government by refusing to cooper-ate with officials who were beholden to British authority. Local committees and cities towns and villages throughout the colonies adopted policies and support of persons who resisted British authorities and criticizing those who did not. Men or women openly opposed to re-si stance against the British were called before committees and asked to recant any public statements they had made in support of British policy. Those who refused were ostracized; if merchants, there goods were boycotted, and they became social pariahs. Although no violence was threatened in most cases against the recalcitrance, the social pressures were sufficient to bring many to publicly renounce their former statements & confessions of their erroneous behavior.

If the British thought that their course of action would isolate the rebellious colony of Massachusetts and temper feelings elsewhere, they were sadly mistaken. Throughout the colonies the feeling was widespread that whatever the British did in Boston could be done any-where. The Virginia House of Burgesses suggested a meeting of colonial representatives that finally took place in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, “to consult upon the present unhappy state of the Colonies.” Every colony except Georgia was represented among the fifty-five men present, who conducted lengthy debates. Realizing that the rebellion had now reached a critical point, if not a point of no return, the delegates understood that unity would be necessary for the colonists to resist British actions. Representatives included Samuel and John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and George Washington and Patrick Henry of Virginia.

Feeling pressure from local groups formed to protest the Boston Port Act, Congress resolved that the colonies were not obliged to obey Parliament's Coercive Acts Congress. They adopted a set of resolutions and created a “Continental Association” that extended legitimacy to the extralegal, quasi-governmental local committees, in effect authorizing them to govern their local communities rather than obeying British rule. The Association would also organize anti-British trade policies across all the colonies.

The creation of the Association by Congress underscores a point recently made by T.H. Breen in his book American Insurgents American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. Breen notes John Adams's claim that the patriots loyalists and neutral people were divided into roughly equal parts—one third each of the population. Breen challenges that claim by Adams. He notes that the Association directed local commit-tees to test the loyalty to the American cause of citizens in their communities. The committees challenge citizens who don't with officials or merchants known to be loyal to the British Parliament. They question the accused, called witnesses and harassed those opposed to the patriot cause into recanting their anti-American views. Those who refused were ostracized or even driven out of the communities.

Historians have traditionally focused their attention on leaders of the revolutionary era whom we know as the founding fathers: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, George Washington and others. That attention, while merited, has left the impression that the American Revolution was somehow led from the top. As Breen and other historians have pointed out, however, it is clear that the American Revolution began among the ordinary people.

Congress's resolutions asserted that the colonists were “entitled to life, liberty and property” and would never give up anything without their own consent. They claimed their rights as British citizens, arguing that neither they nor their ancestors had forfeited any of those rights by being removed to the colonies. They asserted their right to participate in the legislative process and argued that for practical reasons, their participation in the British Parliament was not possible. They rejected the right of any form of taxation on colonial subjects without their own consent. They also declared that keeping standing armies in the colonies in time of peace was against the law.

Whether or not John Adams was correct in his numbers, colonists were divided among those prepared to fight for their rights; those who favored negotiation and compromise and were essentially loyal to the Crown; and the ever-present middle group who would wait to see how things progressed. If King George and the leaders of Parliament had been more circumspect, they might in fact have appealed to more moderate factions by attempting to lower the temperature and set things right. But King George rejected a petition sent by Philadelphia Quakers and wrote, "The die is now cast, the Colonies must either submit or triumph," thus dealing a blow to those of a loyalist or even moderate disposition.

The local action by committees that proliferated throughout the colonies under the aegis of the Continental Association demonstrates that the revolution was indeed not driven solely by the leaders we associate with the patriot cause: members of the Continental Congress, senior military officers, or other well-known patriots. The common people of America participated willingly and vigorously in the patriot cause, and in so doing demonstrated that ordinary people could effectively exercise political power with wisdom and a sense of purpose. Breen underscores the significance of that issue: The story of the insurgent committees raises an even more significant point. These bodies played a central role in the development of a Republican form of government in the United States. Theorists have long debated how such a polity might actually work. Drawing upon abstract models and ancient histories, many concluded that a republic based on the will of the people was inherently unstable. In the American context, however, the theorists need not have worried.

It should be noted that in 1774 few Americans had the idea of independence in mind. In fact George Washington wrote to a friend in that year that independence was the last thing any thinking man in North America could wish for. But the colonists were determined to assert their rights, and the citizens around Boston began organizing militia groups known as "Min-ut em en" and assembling weapons and munitions in the event of possible action of a military nature. The pot was simmering and ready to boil.

The First Continental Congress
Convened in Philadelphia, September 5, 1774

Following the Boston massacre,  tension between the American colonists and the British authorities was tempered for a time as the blood shed before Boston’s Customs House had a sobering effect on both sides.  The Boston tea party, however, triggered another round of events that had far more serious consequences. In response to the destruction of the East India Company tea, Parliament issued the Coercive Acts, known as the Intolerable Acts in the colonies. In response to what was seen as extremely heavy-handed treatment by the British, the colonies called for a Congress in Philadelphia to address the necessary steps to be taken.  This First Continental Congress began the process of unifying the colonists in their resistance to what they now saw as British oppression.  As Benjamin Franklin said some time later, “We must all hang together, or certainly we shall all hang separately.”  Although the convening of the Congress was not to be considered treasonous, the 55 delegates knew they were on tender ground, and a split soon arose between those who sought reconciliation with Great Britain and those who favored some sort of separation.  It was too early for any but the most radical patriots to think of independence, but it was clear that the colonists wanted major change in their relationship with the mother country.

Among the notable delegates were John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, John Jay of New York, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Edmund Pendleton, Peyton Randolph, and George Washington of Virginia.

Joseph Galloway's Plan of Union

One of the first proposals was made by Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania. Galloway was in favor of reconciliation with Great Britain, although he, like the other conservatives, recognized that the relationship between Great Britain and the colonies needed to be changed. Galloway recognized that the colonies, “from their local circumstances, cannot be represented in the Parliament of Great Britain.” Thus he propsoed a plan of union, similar to Benjamin Franklin's 1754 idea. His plan, though not adopted, called for “a British and American legislature, for regulating the administration of the general affairs of America,” to be established in America. Galloway called for a president and grand council which would “exercise all the legislative rights, powers, and authorities, necessary for regulating and administering all the general police and affairs of the colonies.”

The Articles of Association: October 20, 1774

We, his majesty's most loyal subjects, the delegates of the several colonies ... avowing our allegiance to his majesty, our affection and regard for our fellow-subjects in Great-Britain and elsewhere, affected with the deepest anxiety, and most alarming apprehensions, at those grievances and distresses, with which his Majesty's American subjects are oppressed; and having taken under our most serious deliberation, the state of the whole continent, find, that the present unhappy situation of our affairs is occasioned by a ruinous system of colony administration, adopted by the British ministry about the year 1763, evidently calculated for enslaving these colonies, and, with them, the British Empire. In prosecution of which system, various acts of parliament have been passed, for raising a revenue in America, for depriving the American subjects, in many instances, of the constitutional trial by jury, exposing their lives to danger, by directing a new and illegal trial beyond the seas, for crimes alleged to have been committed in America: And in prosecution of the same system, several late, cruel, and oppressive acts have been passed, respecting the town of Boston and the Massachusetts-Bay, and also an act for extending the province of Quebec, so as to border on the western frontiers of these colonies, establishing an arbitrary government therein, and discouraging the settlement of British subjects in that wide extended country; thus, by the influence of civil principles and ancient prejudices, to dispose the inhabitants to act with hostility against the free Protestant colonies, whenever a wicked ministry shall chuse so to direct them.

To obtain redress of these grievances, which threaten destruction to the lives liberty, and property of his majesty's subjects, in North-America, we are of opinion, that a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement, faithfully adhered to, will prove the most speedy, effectual, and peaceable measure: And, therefore, we do, for ourselves, and the inhabitants of the several colonies, whom we represent, firmly agree and associate, under the sacred ties of virtue, honour and love of our country, as follows:

1. That from and after the first day of December next, we will not import, into British America, from Great-Britain or Ireland, any goods, wares, or merchandise whatsoever, or from any other place, any such goods, wares, or merchandise, as shall have been exported from Great-Britain or Ireland; nor will we, after that day, import any East-India tea from any part of the world; nor any molasses, syrups, paneles, coffee, or pimento, from the British plantations or from Dominica; nor wines from Madeira, or the Western Islands; nor foreign indigo.

2. We will neither import nor purchase, any slave imported after the first day of December next; after which time, we will wholly discontinue the slave trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it.

3. As a non-consumption agreement, strictly adhered to, will be an effectual security for the observation of the non-importation, we, as above, solemnly agree and associate, that from this day, we will not purchase or use any tea, imported on account of the East-India company, or any on which a duty bath been or shall be paid; and from and after the first day of March next, we will not purchase or use any East-India tea whatever; nor will we, nor shall any person for or under us, purchase or use any of those goods, wares, or merchandise, we have agreed not to import, which we shall know, or have cause to suspect, were imported after the first day of December, except such as come under the rules and directions of the tenth article hereafter mentioned.

4. The earnest desire we have not to injure our fellow-subjects in Great-Britain, Ireland, or the West-Indies, induces us to suspend a non-exportation, until the tenth day of September, 1775; at which time, if the said acts and parts of acts of the British parliament herein after mentioned, ate not repealed, we will not directly or indirectly, export any merchandise or commodity whatsoever to Great-Britain, Ireland, or the West-Indies, except rice to Europe.

5. Such as are merchants, and use the British and Irish trade, will give orders, as soon as possible, to their factors, agents and correspondents, in Great-Britain and Ireland, not to ship any goods to them, on any pretence whatsoever, as they cannot be received in America; and if any merchant, residing in Great-Britain or Ireland, shall directly or indirectly ship any goods, wares or merchandize, for America, in order to break the said non-importation agreement, or in any manner contravene the same, on such unworthy conduct being well attested, it ought to be made public; and, on the same being so done, we will not, from thenceforth, have any commercial connexion with such merchant.

6. That such as are owners of vessels will give positive orders to their captains, or masters, not to receive on board their vessels any goods prohibited by the said non-importation agreement, on pain of immediate dismission from their service.

7. We will use our utmost endeavours to improve the breed of sheep, and increase their number to the greatest extent; and to that end, we will kill them as seldom as may be, especially those of the most profitable kind; nor will we export any to the West-Indies or elsewhere; and those of us, who are or may become overstocked with, or can conveniently spare any sheep, will dispose of them to our neighbours, especially to the poorer sort, on moderate terms.

8. We will, in our several stations, encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of games, cock fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments; and on the death of any relation or friend, none of us, or any of our families will go into any further mourning-dress, than a black crepe or ribbon on the arm or hat, for gentlemen, and a black ribbon and necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals.

9. Such as are venders of goods or merchandize will not take advantage of the scarcity of goods, that may be occasioned by this association, but will sell the same at the rates we have been respectively accustomed to do, for twelve months last past. -And if any vender of goods or merchandise shall sell such goods on higher terms, or shall, in any manner, or by any device whatsoever, violate or depart from this agreement, no person ought, nor will any of us deal with any such person, or his or her factor or agent, at any time thereafter, for any commodity whatever.

10. In case any merchant, trader, or other person, shall import any goods or merchandize, after the first day of December, and before the first day of February next, the same ought forthwith, at the election of the owner, to be either re-shipped or delivered up to the committee of the country or town, wherein they shall be imported, to be stored at the risque of the importer, until the non-importation agreement shall cease, or be sold under the direction of the committee aforesaid; and in the last-mentioned case, the owner or owners of such goods shall be reimbursed out of the sales, the first cost and charges, the profit, if any, to be applied towards relieving and employing such poor inhabitants of the town of Boston, as are immediate sufferers by the Boston port-bill; and a particular account of all goods so returned, stored, or sold, to be inserted in the public papers; and if any goods or merchandizes shall be imported after the said first day of February, the same ought forthwith to be sent back again, without breaking any of the packages thereof.

11. That a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association; and when it shall be made to appear, to the satisfaction of a majority of any such committee, that any person within the limits of their appointment has violated this association, that such majority do forthwith cause the truth of the case to be published in the gazette; to the end, that all such foes to the rights of British-America may be publicly known, and universally contemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thenceforth we respectively will break off all dealings with him or her.

12. That the committee of correspondence, in the respective colonies, do frequently inspect the entries of their customhouses, and inform each other, from time to time, of the true state thereof, and of every other material circumstance that may occur relative to this association.

13. That all manufactures of this country be sold at reasonable prices, so- that no undue advantage be taken of a future scarcity of goods.

14. And we do further agree and resolve that we will have no trade, commerce, dealings or intercourse whatsoever, with any colony or province, in North-America, which shall not accede to, or which shall hereafter violate this association, but will hold them as unworthy of the rights of freemen, and as inimical to the liberties of their country.

And we do solemnly bind ourselves and our constituents, under the ties aforesaid, to adhere to this association, until such parts of the several acts of parliament passed since the close of the last war, as impose or continue duties on tea, wine, molasses, syrups paneles, coffee, sugar, pimento, indigo, foreign paper, glass, and painters' colours, imported into America, and extend the powers of the admiralty courts beyond their ancient limits, deprive the American subject of trial by jury, authorize the judge's certificate to indemnify the prosecutor from damages, that he might otherwise be liable to from a trial by his peers, require oppressive security from a claimant of ships or goods seized, before he shall be allowed to defend his property, are repealed.-And until that part of the act of the 12 G. 3. ch. 24, entitled "An act for the better securing his majesty's dock-yards magazines, ships, ammunition, and stores," by which any persons charged with committing any of the offenses therein described, in America, may be tried in any shire or county within the realm, is repealed-and until the four acts, passed the last session of parliament, viz. that for stopping the port and blocking up the harbour of Boston-that for altering the charter and government of the Massachusetts-Bay-and that which is entitled "An act for the better administration of justice, &c."-and that "for extending the limits of Quebec, &c." are repealed. And we recommend it to the provincial conventions, and to the committees in the respective colonies, to establish such farther regulations as they may think proper, for carrying into execution this association.

The foregoing association being determined upon by the Congress, was ordered to be subscribed by the several members thereof; and thereupon, we have hereunto set our respective names accordingly.

IN CONGRESS, PHILADELPHIA, October 20, 1774.

Signed, PEYTON RANDOLPH, President.

The second accomplishment of the Congress was to provide for a Second Continental Congress to meet on 10 May 1775. In addition to the colonies which had sent delegates to the First Continental Congress, letters of invitation were sent to Quebec, Saint John's Island, Nova Scotia, Georgia, East Florida, and West Florida.

The Second Continental Congress
Convened in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, 1775

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.

The Nature of the American Revolution

Many theories about revolution have been put forth, but they do not always explain what happened in America.  For example, it is assumed that a necessary ingredient of revolution is widespread discontent, yet the average American was in general as well off as anyone in the world at that time. It may also be argued that the American colonists were behaving like spoiled children, unable to grasp their responsibilities as citizens of a supposedly benevolent empire. To be sure, many colonists felt that they were being treated badly by their home government, but it is not always clear to what extent wrongs are real or perceived.  In the end, it probably does not matter; the Americans had come to see the British as oppressors ready to suppress their rights and plunder their pocketbooks. Once that feeling was extant, it would have taken considerable generosity of spirit by Crown and Parliament to reverse course. Crown and Parliament were in no mood for that, despite warnings by men such as Edmund Burke who were sympathetic to the American cause.

It is interesting to note that four major revolutions (the English, American, French, and Russian) all began with government trying to get more money out of the people.

Viewing all revolutionary leaders as “wild-eyed radicals” is a cliché.  Many American leaders were almost boring in their lack of revolutionary passion.  Washington was a very non-revolutionary figure, one of the least radical Americans, yet he was technically guilty of treason.  The rank-and-file soldiers who fought with Washington generally came from the working classes. The most passionate patriots, men such as Patrick Henry of Virginia, used rhetoric to advance the revolutionary cause, generally with significant success.  (See Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech.)

The real causes of the American Revolution involved a number of attitudes.  The colonists had developed a sense of national identity; their isolation from the mother country during most of the colonial period developed a spirit of common interest, though it had been slow in developing.  Once the Revolution began, however, Benjamin Franklin expressed their situation as follows: “We had best hang together, or we shall surely hang separately.”  An additional factor was that for the discontent that did exist, there was no easy avenue for redress of grievances.

In many ways the British had no one to blame but themselves; their governance of the colonies was an unending stream of insensitivity and inflexibility:  One real cause of the war was “imperial mismanagement”—they failed to consult the colonists on almost all major policy issues, feeling that what was good for the Empire was good for all its parts, all the while treating the colonies as “dependent children.”  Connected to this failure was the British idea of “virtual representation,” which the colonists rejected.

One question has always intrigued historians: whether the American Revolution was a real revolution or a conservative reaction to changing circumstances.  It has been noted that the Revolution did not change the essential social, economic, or power structure of the colonies.  In contrast to the notion of a conservative revolution, however, historian Gordon Wood, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a relatively recent book (and a Pulitzer Prize winner), makes a number of interesting points.  Noting that the American Revolution was long considered “conservative,” he argues that when viewed in terms of social change, the American revolution was “as radical as any in history.”  The American Revolution forever redefined the relationship between a government and its people.

The real key to the idea of revolution (in the opinion of this writer) is that prior to the American Revolution, the responsibility for honest, virtuous, or just plain good government  resided in the hands of the power structure—the Crown and the aristocracy.  From 1776 onward, that responsibility lay in the hands of the American people.  Thomas Paine made that point most eloquently in Common Sense.

From Armed Resistance to Independence

Just as many Americans remained loyal to the Crown throughout the Revolution, many in England tried to see things from the commonest perspective.  But along with a certain degree of sympathy there was significant resentment, for the standard of living of Americans was not at all bad.  There was little great wealth in America but less poverty than elsewhere.  One member of Parliament, Edmund Burke, argued to his colleagues, “Your scheme will yield nothing but discontent, disorder, and disobedience.”

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