The Second Continental Congress: Definition, Facts & Outcome

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  • 0:04 Congress in American History
  • 0:48 Background
  • 1:55 The Second Continental…
  • 3:36 Fighting the Revolutionary War
  • 4:56 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.

American independence left the colonists with many questions about representative government. Those questions were addressed by the Second Continental Congress. In this lesson, we'll explore the history and impact of this important political body.

The Congress in American History

What is the most important government office in American history? Many people would say the president, but that's not necessarily true. Not only does Congress make the actual laws of the nation, but this was the sort of institution the founding figures of the nation pictured when they thought of a representative government.

Congress, as we know it today, is actually the fourth iteration of such a body in American history, with the first three being very different but very important in America's colonial era. In particular, the Second Continental Congress would represent America's first real attempt at representative self-governance, with it being the governing body of the American colonies from 1775-1781. This was at a time when such an idea was radical enough to spark revolutions.

Background

The Second Continental Congress was the representative government that brought the American colonies together as they prepared for their revolution. But, before we can talk about this, we need some background. For years, tensions between the colonists and England had grown over the fact that American colonists had no representation in Parliament. Boston was the epicenter of this unrest, and in 1774 the British passed a series of laws to punish the colony for dumping a boatload of tea into the harbor. The colonists called these the Intolerable Acts because they essentially placed Massachusetts under martial law and voided many of their rights.

In response to the Intolerable Acts, the colonies agree to form a delegation of representatives from each colony, called the First Continental Congress. The purpose was to collectively write a list of grievances to the English government, showing the unified strength of the colonies. Their grievances were ignored, and in fact, England only increased its pressure on the colonies, leading in 1775 to the exchange of gunfire between English troops and colonial militia in Lexington and Concord. The colonists knew it was time to reconvene another delegation.

The Second Continental Congress

In 1775, all thirteen colonies elected delegates to represent them at the Second Continental Congress. This body had a very different purpose from the first. Rather than just trying to demonstrate unity, this Congress was actually designed as a form of government to organize and direct the colonies. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, it was pretty much evident that the colonists could expect an all-out war with England. This colonial government was meant to bring them together to fight. So, one of the first actions of the Second Continental Congress was to authorize the creation of a Continental Army. They filled it with soldiers from each colony and placed it under the leadership of General George Washington.

While the direct goal of the Second Continental Congress was to prepare for war, the delegates weren't actually talking about independence just yet (aside from a few radical voices). For the most part, they were still fighting for their rights as English citizens, and so, in July of 1775, they drafted a direct letter to King George III called the Olive Branch Petition. In the appeal, the delegates declared their loyalty to England and asked for a peaceful solution to this conflict. This was a big deal, as it effectively demonstrated that this Congress considered itself to be a functioning government body representing the colonies. King George III responded by declaring the colonies to be in rebellion and mobilizing troops to invade.

The Second Continental Congress as the American Government

With more English troops arriving continuously in the colonies, and with the English government refusing to acknowledge the voice of the colonists through the Second Continental Congress, the delegates quickly realized that either they would have to declare independence and fight or be executed for treason. On July 4 of 1776, the Second Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, severing the colonies from England.

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