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Summary Article: Continental Congress from The Columbia Encyclopedia

1774–89, federal legislature of the Thirteen Colonies and later of the United States in the American Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation (see Confederation, Articles of).

First Continental Congress

Indignation against England's colonial policy reached fever pitch in the colonies after the passage (1774) of the Intolerable Acts, and the Sons of Liberty and the committees of correspondence promoted the idea of an intercolonial assembly similar to the one held (1765) at the time of the Stamp Act.

The First Continental Congress (Sept. 5–Oct. 26, 1774) was made up of delegates from all the colonies except Georgia. It met in Carpenter's Hall, Philadelphia, and Peyton Randolph was chosen to preside. The meeting's general purpose was to express colonial grievances against British policy, and only a few radical members considered the possibility of breaking with England. The plan of Joseph Galloway for reconciling Great Britain and the colonies under a new imperial scheme was introduced but rejected.

The session's most important act was the creation of the Continental Association, which forbade importation and use of British goods and proposed prohibition of colonial exports. Several petitions of grievances, written principally by John Dickinson, were sent to the king, and the meeting was adjourned until May 10, 1775.

The Second Continental Congress

Smoke from the battles of Lexington and Concord (Apr. 19, 1775) had scarcely cleared when the Second Continental Congress met on the appointed day in Philadelphia. Armed conflict strengthened the radical element, but only gradually did the delegates swing toward independence. A Continental army was created to oppose the British and, through the agency of John Adams, George Washington was appointed (June 15, 1775) commander in chief. The reconciliation plan offered (1775) by Lord North's government was tabled. A diplomatic representative, Silas Deane, was sent (Mar., 1776) to France. American ports were opened in defiance of the Navigation Acts. Finally, the momentous step was taken: Congress on July 2, 1776, voted to declare independence, and on July 4th adopted the Declaration of Independence.

The Congress, a young and unsteady organization, had little money and limited means for obtaining more. Nevertheless, it struggled to press the conduct of the war while moving, under force of military circumstances, from place to place; it met at Philadelphia (1775–76), Baltimore (1776–77), Philadelphia again (1777), Lancaster, Pa. (1777), York, Pa. (1777–78), and Philadelphia once more (after 1778). There was friction between Congress and the military leaders, and the soldiers, contemptuous (sometimes justly) of the politicians, constantly agitated for their pay and their rights. The Congress, jealous of its powers, frequently hindered Washington in his strategy.

The Postwar Continental Congress

After the war ended and the Articles of Confederation took force, the quality of Congressional membership declined, since state offices were more desirable; and the Congress itself eventually dissolved. The Congress of the postwar period has, however, been underrated by many. Though shackled by the weaknesses of the federal structure, which sharply curtailed its power and particularly its ability to raise funds, the Congress can be credited with some accomplishments—notably the Ordinance of 1787, which set up the Northwest Territory; resolution of the Wyoming Valley territorial dispute; and adoption of the decimal system of currency.

Bibliography
  • See Journals of the Continental Congress (34 vol., 1904–37).
  • Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (ed. by E. C. Burnett, 6 vol., 1921–33; repr. 1963).
  • E. C. Burnett, The Continental Congress (1941, repr. 1964).
  • L. Montross, The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (1950, repr. 1970).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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