Continental Congress

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The Continental Congress was an assembly of representatives of the 13 colonies participating in the American Revolution. It met during the first two years of the revolution and is famous for publishing the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which was ratified by all the colonies on July 4, 1776.


The idea of a central government for the 13 main British colonies in America dates to the Albany Congress of 1754. Led by Benjamin Franklin, there were discussions about unity for more effective defense against the French and Indians. The Albany Congress drafted a plan that proposed a central government with the power to raise troops and levy taxes for colonial defense, to dispose of western lands and create new colonies, and to regulate Indian affairs. Colonial legislatures rejected the plan and Great Britain ignored it.

After the expulsion of France from North America in 1763, there was no longer an external danger to the colonies. They did not need British military or naval protection. The British, however, insisted on imposing a series of taxes, partly to raise revenue and partly to demonstrate the superiority of Parliament. The Americans insisted that they possessed the traditional rights of Englishmen and only their elected officials had the power to raise taxes; they were not represented in Parliament, which therefore could not levy taxes. The dispute was unbridgeable, especially as Americans started adopting republican political ideas that warned the aristocratic British system was corrupt and dangerous. Popular leaders in the colonies, such as Samuel Adams in Massachusetts and Patrick Henry in Virginia tried to achieve united opposition to British policies. The colonies, without British permission, formed the first Continental Congress in 1774 in response to the British clampdown on Boston. Leaders such as Adams argued that there must be a central government to regulate trade, to prevent civil war among the colonies, and to suppress internal dissension. Nothing was done.

Second Continental Congress

The Second Continental Congress, called by the First Continental Congress, convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, adopting the name the "United Colonies." Trouble brewed in Boston where the British army, opposed by colonial Minute Men, had marched on Lexington and Concord. An outpouring of militia trapped the British in Boston, and Congress took control of the militia, appointing one of their members, Colonel George Washington of Virginia, as commander in chief "of all the continental forces, raised, or to be raised, for the defence of American liberty." For the next six years, Congress became the national government by consensus of the states.

When the Second Continental Congress began, it was supposed it would furnish immediately needed counsel to the colonies and then adjourn, deputizing a committee to continue in session. With war underway, urgent problems of organization, procedure, and policy prevented adjournment. Battles at Crown Point, Ticonderoga, and Bunker Hill put the war machine in motion. Congress tried for the restoration of union and harmony with Britain. There was much difference of opinion concerning colonial independence and union, but, as the character and extent of military and political commitments changed, it became evident that the formation of some sort of political union was necessary. The members of the Congress, while reluctant to take the revolutionary step to independence, were yet unwilling to return to the old status of colonial subservience. The failure of the "Olive Branch Petition" of conciliation with Britain convinced the members of Congress that the colonies had gone too far to turn back. Washington's success in forcing the British evacuation of Boston on March 17, 1776, tended to give force and direction to this sentiment and to make it doubly apparent that only by arms could the prized liberties be preserved.

The colonies had now expelled all the British authorities and become states. As Thomas Paine explained in Common Sense, there was no reason to return to the unsatisfactory royal system. Congress unanimously approved the U.S. Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, resolving "that these United Colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent States." One of the first acts was "to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers." This "Plan" served as the model for a critical treaty with France negotiated by Benjamin Franklin in 1777-78 after the capture of a British army at Saratoga. France not only provided money and munition, but it also declared war on Britain and turned the American Revolution into a world war.

Congress authorized the "Continental Army" giving it a force directly under its control; Washington gave it a national vision and a national mission, overcoming localism and regional demands. Lacking the power to tax, Congress undertook to finance the war by its own letters of credit, but when these bills began to depreciate, and Congress called on the states for aid, there was grumbling and discord.