From 1774 to 1789, the Continental Congress served as the government of the 13 American colonies and later the United States. The First Continental Congress, which was comprised of delegates from the colonies, met in 1774 in reaction to the Coercive Acts, a series of measures imposed by the British government on the colonies in response to their resistance to new taxes. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened after the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) had already begun. In 1776, it took the momentous step of declaring America’s independence from Britain. Five years later, the Congress ratified the first national constitution, the Articles of Confederation, under which the country would be governed until 1789, when it was replaced by the current U.S. Constitution.
The Imperial Crisis
Throughout most of colonial history, the British Crown was the only political institution that united the American colonies. The Imperial Crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, however, drove the colonies toward increasingly greater unity. Americans throughout the 13 colonies united in opposition to the new system of imperial taxation initiated by the British government in 1765. The Stamp Act of that year–the first direct, internal tax imposed on the colonists by the British Parliament–inspired concerted resistance within the colonies. Nine colonial assemblies sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress, an extralegal convention that met to coordinate the colonies’ response to the new tax. Although the Stamp Act Congress was short-lived, it hinted at the enhanced unity among the colonies that would soon follow.
Colonial opposition made a dead letter of the Stamp Act and brought about its repeal in 1766. The British government did not abandon its claim to the authority to pass laws for the colonies, however, and would make repeated attempts to exert its power over the colonies in the years to follow. Colonists continued to coordinate their resistance to new imperial measures, but, from 1766 until 1774, did so primarily through committees of correspondence, which exchanged ideas and information, rather than through a united political body.
The First Continental Congress
On September 5, 1774, delegates from each of the 13 colonies except for Georgia (which was fighting a Native-American uprising and was dependent on the British for military supplies) met in Philadelphia as the First Continental Congress to organize colonial resistance to Parliament’s Coercive Acts. The delegates included a number of future luminaries, such as future presidents John Adams (1735-1826) of Massachusetts and George Washington (1732-99) of Virginia, and future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice and diplomat John Jay (1745-1829) of New York. The Congress was structured with emphasis on the equality of participants, and to promote free debate. After much discussion, the Congress issued a Declaration of Rights, affirming its loyalty to the British Crown but disputing the British Parliament’s right to tax it. The Congress also passed the Articles of Association, which called on the colonies to stop importing goods from the British Isles beginning on December 1, 1774, if the Coercive Acts were not repealed. Should Britain fail to redress the colonists’ grievances in a timely manner, the Congress declared, then it would reconvene on May 10, 1775, and the colonies would cease to export goods to Britain on September 10, 1775. After proclaiming these measures, the First Continental Congress disbanded on October 26, 1774.
The Revolutionary War
As promised, Congress reconvened in Philadelphia as the Second Continental Congress on May 10, 1775–and by then the American Revolution had already begun. The British army in Boston had met with armed resistance on the morning of April 19, 1775, when it marched out to the towns of Lexington and Concord to seize a cache of weapons held by colonial Patriots who had ceased to recognize the authority of the royal government of Massachusetts. The Patriots drove the British expedition back to Boston and laid siege to the town. The Revolutionary War had begun.
Fighting for Reconciliation
Although the Congress professed its abiding loyalty to the British Crown, it also took steps to preserve its rights by dint of arms. On June 14, 1775, a month after it reconvened, it created a united colonial fighting force, the Continental Army. The next day, it named George Washington as the new army’s commander in chief. The following month, it issued its Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, penned by John Dickinson (1732-1808) of Pennsylvania, a veteran of the First Congress whose “Letters from a Farmer of Pennsylvania” (1767) had helped arouse opposition to earlier imperial measures, and by a newcomer from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). In an effort to avoid a full-scale war, Congress coupled this declaration with the Olive Branch Petition, a personal appeal to Britain’s King George III (1738-1820) asking him to help the colonists resolve their differences with Britain. The king dismissed the petition out of hand.
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.