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The Second Continental Congress and Thomas Paine's Common Sense

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  • 0:10 The Road to Revolution
  • 1:35 Give Me Liberty or…
  • 2:54 The Second Continental…
  • 5:22 Common Sense
  • 6:00 Lesson Review
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

1763 marked the beginning of the long road to revolution for the American colonies. By 1775, military actions had finally erupted. How were the colonists and their leaders going to respond?

The Road to Revolution

By the summer of 1775, a loosely organized coalition of local militias had gone head to head with the most powerful imperial army in the world, and it looked like they were winning. How had protests over taxation taken things to this point?

Trouble between the colonies and Great Britain had been brewing for more than a decade, since the end of the French and Indian War. After prohibiting settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains, Parliament raised taxes on the colonies to pay off the war debt. Colonists balked at the Stamp Act as an example of taxation without representation. The Townshend duties were right on its heels, and the colonists responded with a boycott and harassment of customs officials.

When soldiers fired into an aggressive mob in the Boston Massacre, both sides backed off for a few years, but then came the Tea Act and the Boston Tea Party. Britain punished Massachusetts with the Coercive Acts, and threatened other colonies with similar actions if they followed Boston's example. This led the other colonies to carefully consider their own response. But then, in an unrelated action, Parliament passed the Quebec Act, allowing Canadians to settle in the land west of the Proclamation Line.

It was too much. Americans united in calling the British laws the 'Intolerable Acts' and called the First Continental Congress to discuss the problems. Individual colonies organized secret governments and began arming their militias.

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!

Patrick Henry speaking to the Virginia assembly
Patrick Henry Speaking

When Virginia's assembly met to discuss the issue, many representatives were hesitant. The colony was already under scrutiny and royal control. That's when Patrick Henry, famously, intervened:

'Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace - but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!'

His speech was a success, and Virginia's militia began preparing for battle, along with the other colonies.

Finally, war broke out at Lexington and Concord. The Patriots routed the British and commenced a siege of the army's headquarters in Boston. Despite a victory in the Battle of Bunker Hill, the British could not break out and were forced to evacuate the city after George Washington brought in heavy cannons seized in a raid on Ft. Ticonderoga.

The Second Continental Congress

The delegates at the First Continental Congress had agreed to reconvene if the situation had not improved. The battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill proved that things were only getting worse. So, in May of 1775, they assembled in Pennsylvania for the Second Continental Congress. But this time, they weren't just complaining about a king who trampled their rights; they were looking down the guns of the world's best-trained military force. The delegates agreed to unite the colonial militias into the Continental Army and unanimously selected George Washington to command it. He was the perfect choice. Not only was Washington an experienced officer trained by the British army during the French and Indian War, but as a wealthy plantation owner and member of the Virginia legislature, he had the social stature to be an effective leader.

A sample of continental currency
Continental Currency

Though Washington volunteered to lead the Continental Army without pay, the army would still need to be supplied with food and ammunition. So, Congress agreed to print Continental Currency - a violation of the 1774 Currency Act - and borrowed money from wealthy colonists and foreign banks. They authorized the Committee of Secret Correspondence to initiate diplomatic relations with foreign governments, like France (who aided the rebels secretly for a while), and to conduct covert intelligence operations in the colonies and abroad. The most famous spy in this grandfather of the CIA may be Nathan Hale, whose legendary last words were: 'I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.' Hale was hung by the British in 1776.

Despite these obvious war preparations, the Second Continental Congress went to great lengths to pledge their loyalty to Great Britain as long as they were granted full rights. They sent the Olive Branch Petition on July 8, 1775. This letter insisted that the colonies wanted to negotiate trade and tax regulations with Great Britain, not gain independence.

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