Colonial Governments During the Revolutionary War

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  • 00:00 American Independence
  • 1:00 First Continental Congress
  • 2:00 Second Continental Congress
  • 4:10 Congress of the Confederation
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore not one, not two, but three different attempts at colonial government by Americans during the Revolutionary War. Discover their impacts and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

American Independence

You may or may not be aware of this, but in America, we generally don't consider ourselves 'British'. Nope, we call ourselves 'Americans.' Know why that is?

While we were part of the British Empire for quite some time, in 1776, the 13 colonies joined together and declared independence. I'm guessing you've heard this story. What came next was the Revolutionary War, the American fight for independence from Britain that lasted until 1783. When it was all said and done, the 13 colonies were now states, united under one national government.

But how did that happen? How'd we get from 13 separate colonies to 13 united colonies? Well, as the colonies prepared for independence, they realized that they had something very important to do first. They needed to form a government, and the governments they created throughout the Revolutionary War defined the new nation that emerged.

First Continental Congress

The first real attempt by the American colonists to create their own government was the First Continental Congress, a convention of delegates from the colonies that met in 1774. There were 56 delegates who showed up at the Congress' headquarters in Philadelphia, and this was a pretty unique event. Up until this point, the 13 colonies really were 13 different colonies, so this was the first time that they really came together as one unit. Georgia was the only colony that did not participate, mostly because it needed British troops to help it fight Native-American insurgencies in the south.

The point of the First Continental Congress was to organize a trade boycott against Britain in protest of new taxes. They thought this protest would be stronger if they worked together. It was at this first convention that the first real debates about independence emerged, although the delegates were pretty split on the idea. After a little more than a month, the First Continental Congress adjourned, agreeing to meet up again if the Crown didn't address their concerns, and the precedent of colonial government was set.

Second Continental Congress

So, as you can probably guess, King George III didn't take the demands of the colonists very seriously. Actually, he got pretty mad at them. So in 1775, the delegates came back together in Philadelphia and formed the Second Continental Congress.

However, this convention had very different goals. By this point, shots had already been fired between British troops and local militia, so the Revolutionary War was getting underway. But, somebody needed to organize troops and resources. After all, local militia weren't going to defeat the British Empire unless they were organized. What they needed was a government.

From 1775 to 1781, the Second Continental Congress served as the government of the rebelling colonies. One of its first actions in 1775 was to formally organize all of these militias into a single Continental Army. It appointed Virginian Congressman George Washington as the commanding general. Then, in 1776, the Congress unanimously passed the Declaration of Independence, formally severing the colonies from the British Empire.

Throughout the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress acted as the government of the former colonies, now states, even though it didn't actually have any legal authority. It did things like create ambassadors to deal with foreign nations, made treaties and borrowed loans from friendlier powers like France, printed money, and controlled the army. But like I said, it didn't really have any official authority, so it couldn't force the states to pay taxes. It couldn't actually force the states to do anything, so the amount of resources that each state voluntarily sent the Congress was inconsistent at best. But, it worked well enough that the Continental Army was able to push through the war.

Congress of the Confederation

The limited power of the Second Continental Congress made it obvious that if the former colonies were going to become a new nation, they needed a more official government. So, the delegates drafted a legal document to formally create a nation and a government (in essence, a constitution) called the Articles of Confederation.

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