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For over a year, the Continental Congress supervised a war against a country to which it proclaimed its loyalty. In fact, both the Congress and the people it represented were divided on the question of independence even after a year of open warfare against Great Britain. Early in 1776, a number of factors began to strengthen the call for separation. In his stirring pamphlet "Common Sense," published in January of that year, the British immigrant Thomas Paine (1737-1809) laid out a convincing argument in favor of independence. At the same time, many Americans came to realize that their military might not be capable of defeating the British Empire on its own. Independence would allow it to form alliances with Britain's powerful rivals--France was at the forefront of everyone's mind. Meanwhile, the war itself evoked hostility toward Britain among the citizenry, paving the way for independence.
In the spring of 1776, the provisional colonial governments began to send new instructions to their congressional delegates, obliquely or directly allowing them to vote for independence. The provisional government of Virginia went further: It instructed its delegation to submit a proposal for independence before Congress. On June 7, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee (1732-94) complied with his instructions. Congress postponed a final vote on the proposal until July 1, but appointed a committee to draft a provisional declaration of independence for use should the proposal pass.
The committee consisted of five men, including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) of Pennsylvania. But the declaration was primarily the work of one man, Thomas Jefferson, who penned an eloquent defense of the natural rights of all people, of which, he charged, Parliament and the king had tried to deprive the American nation. The Continental Congress made several revisions to Jefferson's draft, removing, among other things, an attack on the institution of slavery; but on July 4, 1776, Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence.
Waging the War
The Declaration of Independence allowed Congress to seek alliances with foreign countries, and the fledgling U.S. formed its most important alliance early in 1778 with France, without the support of which America might well have lost the Revolutionary War. If the Franco-American alliance was one of Congress's greatest successes, funding and supplying the war were among its worst failures. Lacking a pre-existing infrastructure, Congress struggled throughout the war to provide the Continental Army with adequate supplies and provisions. Exacerbating the problem, Congress had no mechanism to collect taxes to pay for the war; instead, it relied on contributions from the states, which generally directed whatever revenue they raised toward their own needs. As a result, the paper money issued by Congress quickly came to be regarded as worthless.
The Articles of Confederation
Congress's inability to raise revenue would bedevil it for its entire existence, even after it created a constitution--the Articles of Confederation--to define its powers. Drafted and adopted by the Congress in 1777 but not ratified until 1781, it effectively established the U.S. as a collection of 13 sovereign states, each of which had an equal voice in Congress (which became officially known as the Congress of the Confederation) regardless of population. Under the Articles, congressional decisions were made based on a state-by-state vote, and the Congress had little ability to enforce its decisions. The Articles of Confederation would prove incapable of governing the new nation in a time of peace, but they did not seriously undermine the war effort, both because the war was effectively winding down before the Articles took effect, and because Congress ceded many executive war powers to General Washington.
Congress's final triumph came in 1783 when it negotiated the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War. The Congressional delegates Franklin, Jay and Adams secured a favorable peace for the U.S. that included not only the recognition of independence but also claim to almost all of the territory south of Canada and east of the Mississippi River. On November 25, 1783, the last British troops evacuated New York City. The Revolutionary War was over and Congress had helped to see the country through.
However, the Articles of Confederation proved an imperfect instrument for a nation at peace with the world. The years immediately following the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 presented the young American nation with a series of difficulties that Congress could not adequately remedy: dire financial straits, interstate rivalries and domestic insurrection. A movement developed for constitutional reform, culminating in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The delegates at the convention decided to scrap the Articles of Confederation completely and create a new system of government. In 1789, the new U.S. Constitution went into effect and the Continental Congress adjourned forever and was replaced by the U.S. Congress. Although the Continental Congress did not function well in a time of peace, it had helped steer the nation through one of its worst crises, declared its independence and helped to win a war to secure that independence.
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Jefferson is an insightful 2-hour presentation on HISTORY which examines his many identities and asks viewers to answer for themselves: who was the real Thomas Jefferson, and what is his most lasting legacy in our world today?