Continental Congress: History, Significance, and Purpose

Philadelphia's State House, later named Independence Hall, where representatives of the Second Continental Congress met in defiance of British law and decided how to react to the recent skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. MPI/Getty Images
Philadelphia's State House, later named Independence Hall, where representatives of the Second Continental Congress met in defiance of British law and decided how to react to the recent skirmishes at Lexington and Concord. MPI/Getty Images. MPI/Getty Images

The Continental Congress served as the governing body of the 13 American colonies and later the United States of America during the American Revolution. The First Continental Congress in 1774 coordinated the patriot colonists’ resistance to increasingly harsh and restrictive British rule. Meeting from 1775 to 1781, the Second Continental Congress took the momentous step of declaring America’s independence from Britain in 1776, and in 1781, oversaw the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, under which the nation would be governed until the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1779.

Fast Facts: Continental Congress

  • Short Description: From 1774 to 1788, governed the 13 British American colonies during the American Revolution. Along with issuing the Declaration of Independence, adopted the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor of the U.S. Constitution.
  • Key Players/Participants: America’s Founding Fathers, including George Washington, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Samuel Adams.
  • Event Start Date: September 5, 1774
  • Event End Date: June 21, 1788
  • Other Significant Dates: May 10, 1775—American Revolution begins; July 4, 1776—Declaration of Independence issued; March 1, 1781—Articles of Confederation adopted; September 3, 1783—Treaty of Paris ends American Revolution; June 21, 1788—U.S. Constitution takes effect.

Background

On July 10, 1754, representatives from seven of the thirteen British American Colonies adopted the Albany Plan of Union. Formulated by Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, the Albany Plan became the first official proposal that the colonies form an independent governing confederation.

In March 1765, the British Parliament enacted the Stamp Act requiring that almost all documents produced in the colonies be printed only on paper made in London and carrying an embossed British revenue stamp. Seeing this as a direct tax imposed on them by the British government without their approval, the American colonists objected to the Stamp Act as unfair taxation without representation. Angered by the tax, colonial merchants imposed a strict trade embargo on all British imports to remain in effect until Britain repealed the Stamp Act. In October 1765, delegates from nine colonies, assembled as the Stamp Act Congress, sent a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to Parliament. As requested by British companies hurt by the colonial embargo, King George III ordered the Stamp Act repealed in March 1766.

Barely a year later, in 1767, Parliament enacted the Townshend Acts imposing more taxes on the American colonies to help Britain pay its massive debt from its Seven Years War with France. Colonial resentment over these taxes triggered the Boston Massacre of 1770. In December 1773, the Tea Act, granting the British-owned East India Company the exclusive right to ship tea to North America led to the Boston Tea Party. In 1774, the British Parliament punished the colonists by enacting the Intolerable Acts, a series of laws that left Boston Harbor cut off from outside trade by a British naval blockade. In response, the colonial resistance group the Sons of Liberty called for another boycott of British goods unless the Intolerable Acts were repealed. Pressured by merchants who feared another boycott, the colonial legislatures called for a Continental Congress to work out the terms of the boycott and further deal with America’s rapidly deteriorating relations with Britain.

First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress was held from September 5 to October 26, 1774, at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In this brief meeting, delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies tried to resolve their differences with Britain over the Intolerable Acts through diplomacy rather than warfare. Only Georgia, which still needed British military protection from Indian raids, failed to attend. A total of 56 delegates participated in the meeting, including eventual Founding Fathers George Washington, John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams.

The first Continental Congress is held in Carpenter's Hall, Philadelphia to define American rights and organize a plan of resistance to the Coercive Acts imposed by the British Parliament as punishment for the Boston Tea Party.
The first Continental Congress is held in Carpenter's Hall, Philadelphia to define American rights and organize a plan of resistance to the Coercive Acts imposed by the British Parliament as punishment for the Boston Tea Party. MPI/Getty Image

While all of the colonies agreed on the need to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the Intolerable Acts and other cases of taxation without representation, there was less agreement on how to best accomplish this. While most delegates favored remaining loyal to Great Britain, they also agreed that the colonies should be treated more fairly by King George and Parliament. Some delegates refused to consider taking any action beyond seeking a legislative resolution. Others favored pursuing total independence from Great Britain.

After extensive debate, delegates voted to issue a Declaration of Rights, which expressed the colonies’ continued loyalty to the British Crown while also demanding voting representation in Parliament.

In London, King George III opened Parliament on November 30, 1774, by delivering a scathing speech denouncing the colonies for failing to respect the rule of the Crown. Parliament, already considering the colonies to be in a state of rebellion, refused to take any action on their Declaration of Rights. It was now clear that the Continental Congress needed to meet again.

Second Continental Congress

On May 10, 1775, less than a month after the Battles of Lexington and Concord marked the start of the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress convened at Pennsylvania’s State House. Though still professing its loyalty to the British Crown, it created the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, with George Washington as its first commander. In July, it issued a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, written by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, whose 1767 “Letters from a Farmer of Pennsylvania” had helped sway Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson to favor independence. “If the Parliament may lawfully deprive New York of any of her rights,” Dickinson wrote of Parliament’s dissolution of New York’s legislature, “it may deprive any or all the other colonies of their rights…”

In its final effort to avoid further warfare, Congress sent King George III the Olive Branch Petition seeking his assistance in resolving the colonies’ differences over abusive taxation with Parliament. As he had done in 1774, King George refused to consider the colonists’ appeal. America’s break from British rule had become inevitable.

Congress Declares Independence

Even after nearly a year of warfare with Britain, both the Continental Congress and the colonists it represented remained split on the question of independence. In January 1776, British immigrant Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” a historic pamphlet presenting a persuasive argument for independence. “There is something absurd,” wrote Paine, “in supposing a Continent to be perpetually governed by an island...” At the same time, the war itself was convincing more colonists to favor independence. By the spring of 1776, the colonial governments began giving their delegates in Congress permission to vote for independence. On June 7, the Virginia delegation submitted a formal proposal for independence. Congress voted to appoint a committee of five delegates, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, to draft a provisional declaration of independence.

Illustration of four of the United States Founding Fathers, from left, John Adams, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, 1774.
Illustration of four of the United States Founding Fathers, from left, John Adams, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson, 1774. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Written mostly by Thomas Jefferson, the draft declaration eloquently charged Britain’s King George and Parliament of conspiring to deprive the American colonists of the natural rights of all people, such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” After making several revisions, including the removal of Jefferson’s condemnation of African slavement, the Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Managing the Revolution

Officially declaring independence allowed Congress to forge a military alliance with Britain’s oldest and most powerful enemy, France. Proving essential to winning the Revolution, securing the help of France represented a key success of the Continental Congress.

However, Congress continued to struggle with adequately supplying the Continental Army. With no power to collect taxes to pay for the war, Congress relied on contributions from the colonies, which tended to spend their revenues on their own needs. As the war debt grew, the paper currency issued by Congress soon became worthless.

The Articles of Confederation

Hoping to establish the powers needed to effectively wage the war—mainly the power to levy taxes—Congress adopted the constitution-like Articles of Confederation in 1777. Ratified and taking effect on March 1, 1781, the Articles of Confederation restructured the former colonies as 13 sovereign states, each having equal representation in Congress regardless of their population.

The Articles bestowed great power on the states. All acts of the Congress had to be approved by a vote held in each state, and Congress was given little power to enforce the laws it passed. Though Congress elected John Hanson of Maryland as the first “President of the United States in Congress Assembled,” it ceded most executive powers, including control of the U.S. military, to General George Washington.

The Continental Congress achieved its greatest success on September 3, 1783, when delegates Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and John Adams negotiated the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War. Along with independence from Britain, the Treaty gave the United States the ownership and control of the territory east of the Mississippi River and south of Canada. On November 25, 1783, Congress oversaw the departure of the last British troops from the United States.

Legacy: The US Constitution

The first years of peace following the Revolutionary War exposed the inherent weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Lacking overarching governmental powers, the Continental Congress was unable to adequately deal with a growing series of economic crises, interstate disputes, and domestic insurrections such as Shays’ Rebellion of 1786.

The Constitution
The Constitution of The United States Of America Dated September 17, 1787. Fotosearch / Getty Images

As the now independent and expanding nation’s problems mounted, so did the peoples’ demand for constitutional reform. Their demand was addressed on May 14, 1787, when the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While the Convention’s original goal had been simply to revise the Articles of Confederation, the delegates soon realized that the Articles should be abandoned and replaced by a new system of government based on the power-sharing concept of federalism. On May 30, the delegates approved a resolution declaring in part, “...that a national government ought to be established consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary.” With that, work began on a new constitution. On September 17, 1787, delegates approved a final draft of the Constitution of the United States to be sent to the states for ratification. After the new Constitution took effect on June 21, 1788, the Continental Congress was adjourned forever and replaced by the U.S. Congress, much as it exists today.

While it had proven ineffective during peace, the Continental Congress had succeeded in steering the United State through the Revolutionary War to win its greatest and most precious possession—independence.

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Continental Congress, 1774–1781.” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1776-1783/continental-congress.
  • Jillson, Calvin; Wilson, Rick. “Congressional dynamics: structure, coordination, and choice in the first American Congress, 1774–1789.” Stanford University Press, 1994, ISBN-10: 0804722935.
  • “U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875.” Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=lldg&fileName=001/lldg001.db&recNum=18.
  • “Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention.” U.S. National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/360.html.
  • Jensen, Merrill. “The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774–1781.” University of Wisconsin Press, 1959, ISBN 978-0-299-00204-6.
  • Wiencek, Henry. “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2012, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-dark-side-of-thomas-jefferson-35976004/.