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United States Continental Congress

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United States Continental Congress

The Continental Congress was a convention of delegates called together from the Thirteen Colonies that became the governing body of the United States during the American Revolution.

The Congress met from 1774 to 1789 in three incarnations. The first call for a convention was made over issues of the Intolerable Acts penalizing Massachusetts. Though at first divided on independence and a break from Crown rule, the new Congress in July 1776 gave a unanimous vote for independence, issued the Declaration of Independence as a new nation, the United States of America. It established a Continental Army, giving command to one of its members George Washington of Virginia. It waged war with Britain, made a military treaty with France, and funded the war effort with loans and paper money.

First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress met briefly in Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from September 5 to October 26, 1774. It consisted of fifty-six delegates from twelve of the Thirteen Colonies that would become the United States of America. The delegates, who included George Washington (then a colonel of the Virginia volunteers), Patrick Henry, and John Adams, were elected by their respective colonial assemblies. Other notable delegates included Samuel Adams from Massachusetts Bay, and Joseph Galloway and John Dickinson from Pennsylvania.[1] Peyton Randolph of Virginia was its president.

Benjamin Franklin had put forth the idea of such a meeting the year before but was unable to convince the colonies of its necessity until the British placed a blockade at the Port of Boston in response to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. All of the colonies sent their delegates except Georgia, which had its own troubles and needed the protection of British soldiers. Most of the delegates were not yet ready to break away from Great Britain, but they wanted the British King and Parliament to act in what they considered a more fair manner. Convened in response to the Intolerable Acts passed by the British Parliament in 1774, the delegates organized an economic boycott of Great Britain in protest and petitioned the King for a redress of grievances. The colonies were united in their effort to demonstrate their authority to Great Britain by virtue of their common causes and through their unity, but their ultimate objectives were not consistent. Pennsylvania and New York had sent delegates with firm instructions to pursue a resolution with Great Britain. While the other colonies all held the idea of colonial rights as paramount, they were split between those who sought legislative equality with Britain and those who instead favored independence and a break from the Crown and its excesses. On October 26, 1774 the First Continental Congress adjourned but agreed to reconvene in May 1775 if Parliament still did not address their grievances.

In London, Parliament debated the merits of meeting the demands made by the colonies; however, it took no official notice of Congress's petitions and addresses. On November 30, 1774, King George III opened Parliament with a speech condemning Massachusetts and the Suffolk Resolves. At that point it became clear that the Continental Congress would have to convene once again.[2]

Second Continental Congress

The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775 at Philadelphia’s State House, unanimously passing the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia drafted the declaration and John Adams was a leader in the debates in favor of its adoption. John Hancock of Massachusetts was the president during those debate. To govern during the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress continued, meeting at various locations, until it became Congress of the Confederation when the Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1, 1781.

Confederation Congress

The newly founded country of the United States next had to create a new government to replace the British Parliament that it was in rebellion against. After much debate, the Americans adopted the Articles of Confederation, a declaration that established a national government which was made up of a one-house legislature known as the Congress of the Confederation. It met from 1781 to 1789.[3] The Confederation Congress helped guide the United States through the final stages of the Revolutionary War, but during peacetime, the Continental Congress steeply declined in importance.

During peacetime, there were two important, long-lasting acts of the Confederation Congress:[4]

  1. The passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. This ordinance accepted the abolishment of all claims to the land west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River by the states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and the ordinance established Federal control over all of this land in the Northwest Territory—with the goal that several new states should be created there. In the course of time, this land was divided among Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota.
  2. After years of frustration, an agreement was reached in 1787 to organize a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia with the mission of writing and proposing a number of amendments to the Articles of Confederation in order to improve the form of government. In reality, the delegates to this Constitutional Convention soon decided that they needed to start over with a blank slate to write a new Constitution of the United States to completely replace the Articles of Confederation. Furthermore, the delegates agreed that the new Federal Government would come into effect upon the ratification of just nine of the States, rather than requiring unanimous consent as the Articles of Confederation did. Hence, the Confederation Congress peacefully planted the seeds of its own demise and replacement.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the Confederation Congress had little power to compel the individual states to comply with any of its decisions. More and more prospective delegates elected to the Confederation Congress declined to serve in it. The leading men in each State preferred to serve in the state governments, and thus the Continental Congress had frequent difficulties in establishing a quorum. When the Articles of Confederation were superseded by the Constitution of the United States, the Confederation Congress was superseded by the United States Congress.

The Confederation Congress finally set up a suitable administrative structure for the Federal government. It put into operation a departmental system, with ministers of finance, of war, and of foreign affairs. Robert Morris was selected as the new Superintendent of Finance, and then Morris used some ingenuity and initiative—along with a loan from the French Government—to deal with his empty treasury and also runaway inflation, for a number of years, in the supply of paper money.

As the ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin not only secured the "bridge loan" for the national budget, but also he persuaded France to send an army of about 6,000 soldiers across the Atlantic Ocean to America—and also the dispatch of a large squadron of French warships under Comte de Grasse to the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina. These French warships proved to be decisive at the Battle of Yorktown along the coast of Virginia by preventing Lord Cornwallis's British troops from receiving supplies, reinforcements, or evacuation via the James River and Hampton Roads, Virginia.[5]

Robert Morris, the Minister of Finance, persuaded Congress set up the Bank of North America, in 1782. This bank was privately chartered, but it was funded in part by the loan from France. The Bank of North America played a major role in financing the war against the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

The combined armies of George Washington and Nathanael Greene, with the help of the French Army and Navy, defeated the British in the Battle of Yorktown during October 1781. Lord Cornwallis was forced to sue for peace and to surrender his entire army to General Washington. During 1783, the Americans secured the official recognition of the independence of the United States from the United Kingdom via negotiations with British diplomats in Paris, France. These negotiations culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, and this treaty was soon ratified by the British Parliament.[3]


  • January 10: Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense
  • June 7: Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presents a three-part resolution to Congress, calling on Congress to declare independence, form foreign alliances, and prepare a plan of colonial confederation
  • June 10: Congress votes on June 10 to postpone further discussion of Lee's resolution for three weeks to allow time for the delegates to confer with their state assemblies
  • June 11: Congress appoints a "Committee of Five", Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert R. Livingston of New York, to draft a declaration justifying independence.
  • June 12: Congress appoints a committee of 13 to draft of a constitution for a union or "confederation" of the states
  • July 2: Lee's Resolution, or the Resolution of independence is adopted, asserting the independence of the colonies from Britain
  • July 4: Final text of the United States Declaration of Independence is approved and sent to printer
  • July 12: John Dickinson presents the Articles of Confederation to Congress
  • August 2: Declaration of Independence is signed
  • February 27: Congress adjourns to return to Philadelphia
  • March 4: Congress reconvenes at Philadelphia’s State House
  • September 18: Congress adjourns in order to move to Lancaster, Pennsylvania
  • September 27: Congress convenes for one day in Lancaster, at the Court House
  • September 30: Congress reconvenes at York, Pennsylvania at the Court House
  • November 15: Congress issues the Articles of Confederation to the states for approval
  • June 27: Congress adjourns to return to Philadelphia
  • July 2: Congress reconvenes in Philadelphia, first at College Hall, then at the State House
  • March 1: Articles of Confederation goes into effect, Congress becomes the Congress of the Confederation
  • June 21: Congress adjourns to move to Princeton, New Jersey
  • June 30: Congress reconvenes in Princeton, New Jersey, first at a house named “Prospect,” then Nassau Hall
  • November 4: Congress adjourns to move to Annapolis, Maryland
  • November 26: Congress reconvenes at Annapolis, in the State House
  • January 11: Congress reconvenes in New York City, first at City Hall, then at Fraunces Tavern
  • July 2: New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the US Constitution, thereby allowing for the creation of the new government
  • July 8: Continental Congress puts the new Constitution into effect by announcing the dates for the elections and the assembly of the new Congress
  • October 10: The last session during which the Continental Congress succeeded in achieving a quorum. The Continental Congress passes its last act on this date[6]

See also


Further reading

  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory, and Richard A. Ryerson, eds. The Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War: A Political, Social, and Military History (5 vol. 2006) 1000 entries by 150 experts, covering all topics
  • Horgan, Lucille E. Forged in War: The Continental Congress and the Origin of Military Supply and Acquisition Policy (2002)
  • Irvin, Benjamin H. Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (Oxford University Press; 2011) 378 pages; analyzes the ritual and material culture used by the Continental Congress to assert its legitimacy and rally a wary public.
  • Jensen, Merrill. The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781 (1959) excerpt and text search
  • Resch, John P., ed. Americans at War: Society, Culture and the Homefront vol 1 (2005), articles by scholars

Primary sources

  • Smith, Paul H., ed. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789. 26 volumes. Washington: Library of Congress, 1976–1998.

External links

  • Journals of the Continental Congress: September 5, 1774 to March 2, 1789. (1904-1936)
Volumes: 33
  • Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention From the Collections at the Library of Congress
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