The Continental Congress: Definition & Purpose

Instructor: David Lobb
The First Continental Congress met in 1775 to advocate for colonial grievances against the crown. Within a year it would find itself declaring independence and running a war against the most powerful nation on Earth at the time. Develop an understanding of the Continental Congress and the progression from protest to revolution. Test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Formation of a Congress

By September 1774, many leaders in the American colonies still hoped for a resolution to colonial grievances, which would avoid out right war with England. That same month and year, the First Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia. There were fifty-five members, elected by provincial congresses or extra-legal conventions and representing twelve colonies, all but Georgia, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and the Floridas. Peyton Randolph of Virginia was elected president.

First Continental Congress
First Congress

The Congress agreed to vote by colonies, although Patrick Henry urged members to vote as individuals on the grounds that they were not Virginians or New Yorkers, but Americans. In effect, the delegates functioned as a congress of ambassadors and gathered to join forces on common policies, not to govern or rebel, but to adopt and issue a series of resolutions and protests against the crown.

Portrait of Patrick Henry
P. Henry

The Congress gave serious consideration to a plan of union put forth by Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania. His proposal followed closely the plan of the Albany Congress, some twenty years before: to set up a central administration of a governor-general appointed by the crown and a Grand Council chosen by the colonial assemblies in order to deal with general colonial matters. All measures dealing with America would require approval of both this body and Parliament in England. The plan was defeated narrowly in a vote of six to five.

The Congress in Support of Rebellion?

In contrast, a silversmith from Boston named Paul Revere had come riding in from Massachusetts with the radical Suffolk Resolves, which the Congress proceeded to endorse. Drawn up by Joseph Warren, the resolutions declared the Intolerable Acts (tax acts put upon the American Colonies by Great Britain) as null and void, urged Massachusetts to arm for defense, and called for economic sanctions against British goods.

In place of Galloway's plan, the Congress adopted a Declaration of American Rights, which conceded only Parliament's right to regulate commerce and those matters that were strictly imperial affairs. It also proclaimed the right of each colonial assembly to determine the need for British troops within its own province. In addition, Congress sent the king a petition for relief and asked for support from the people of Great Britain and throughout the colonies.

Finally, the Continental Congress adopted a recommendation brought up the year before, which recommended that every county, town, and city form committees to enforce a boycott on all British goods. These committees would become the organizational and communications network for the Revolutionary movement, connecting every locality to the leadership.

In taking this bold stand, the Congress had adopted what later would be called the dominion theory of the British Empire, a theory advocated by many of the founding fathers, specifically Thomas Jefferson. In his Summary View of the Rights of British America, he argued that the colonies were not subject to Parliament but merely the crown; each colony, like England itself, was a separate realm.

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Storm Clouds of Rebellion

In London, the king fumed at such ideas. As early as November 1774, he told the Prime Minister that he considered the New England colonies to be in a state of rebellion. British critics of the American actions reminded the colonists that Parliament had absolute sovereignty. Power could not be shared. Parliament could not abandon its claim to authority in part without giving it all up. Only a few members of Parliament were ready to comprehend, much less accept, the view of the colonists.

Parliament rejected any notion of compromise brought forth by the Continental Congress. Instead, it declared Massachusetts in rebellion, forbade the New England colonies to trade with any nation outside the empire, and excluded New Englanders from the North Atlantic fisheries. Lord North's Conciliatory Resolution, adopted in February of 1775, was as far as the British would go. Under its terms, Parliament would refrain from any measures but taxes to regulate trade and would grant to each colony the duties collected within its boundaries, provided the colonies would contribute voluntarily to a quota for defense of the empire.

Events were already moving beyond conciliation. All through late 1774 and early 1775, the patriot defenders of American rights were taking the initiative to advance their cause. The uncertain and unorganized Loyalists, if they did not submit to non-importation agreements, found themselves confronted by persuasive members of the local community, with tar and feathers at the ready.

The Continental Congress urged each colony to mobilize its militia units. The militia, as much a social as a military organization, now took serious drills in formations, tactics, and marksmanship. They also organized special units of Minute Men ready for quick mobilization. Everywhere royal and proprietary officials were losing control as provincial congresses assumed authority and colonial militias organized, raided military stores, and gathered arms and gunpowder. In just a short time, the reconciliation and compromise hoped for by the Continental Congress had faded from reality.

A Shot Heard Around the World

By April 1775, tensions in the colonies reached a boiling point and spilled over when British troops faced off with Minute Men and militia at Lexington and Concord. The war had begun, and by the time the Second Continental Congress met in May, the British-held Boston was under siege by the Massachusetts state militia. The Continental Congress had no legal authority and no resources, but had little choice but to assume the role of de-facto government. The Congress accepted a proposal that it 'adopt' the motley army gathered around Boston. On June 15th, it named George Washington commander-in-chief of a Continental army. He accepted on the condition he receive no pay.

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