Continental Congress

Continental Congress

From 1774 to 1789, the Continental Congress served as the government of the 13 American colonies and later the United States. The First Continental Congress, which was comprised of delegates from the colonies, met in 1774 in reaction to the Coercive Acts, a series of measures imposed by the British government on the colonies in response to their resistance to new taxes. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened after the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) had already begun. In 1776, it took the momentous step of declaring America’s independence from Britain. Five years later, the Congress ratified the first national constitution, the Articles of Confederation, under which the country would be governed until 1789, when it was replaced by the current U.S. Constitution.

Taxation Without Representation

Throughout most of colonial history, the British Crown was the only political institution that united the American colonies. The Imperial Crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, however, drove the colonies toward increasingly greater unity. Americans throughout the 13 colonies united in opposition to the new system of imperial taxation initiated by the British government in 1765. The Stamp Act of that year–the first direct, internal tax imposed on the colonists by the British Parliament–inspired concerted resistance within the colonies. Nine colonial assemblies sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress, an extralegal convention that met to coordinate the colonies’ response to the new tax. Although the Stamp Act Congress was short-lived, it hinted at the enhanced unity among the colonies that would soon follow.

Colonial opposition made a dead letter of the Stamp Act and brought about its repeal in 1766. The British government did not abandon its claim to the authority to pass laws for the colonies, however, and would make repeated attempts to exert its power over the colonies in the years to follow. In response to the violence of the Boston Massacre of 1770 and new taxes like the Tea Act of 1773, a group of frustrated colonists protested taxation without representation by dumping 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773 – an event known to history as Boston Tea Party.

Colonists continued to coordinate their resistance to new imperial measures, but between 1766 until 1774, they did so primarily through committees of correspondence, which exchanged ideas and information, rather than through a united political body

The First Continental Congress

On September 5, 1774, delegates from each of the 13 colonies except for Georgia (which was fighting a Native American uprising and was dependent on the British for military supplies) met in Philadelphia as the First Continental Congress to organize colonial resistance to Parliament’s Coercive Acts. The delegates included a number of future luminaries, such as future presidents John Adams (1735-1826) of Massachusetts and George Washington (1732-99) of Virginia, and future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice and diplomat John Jay (1745-1829) of New York. The Congress was structured with emphasis on the equality of participants, and to promote free debate. After much discussion, the Congress issued a Declaration of Rights, affirming its loyalty to the British Crown but disputing the British Parliament’s right to tax it. The Congress also passed the Articles of Association, which called on the colonies to stop importing goods from the British Isles beginning on December 1, 1774, if the Coercive Acts were not repealed. Should Britain fail to redress the colonists’ grievances in a timely manner, the Congress declared, then it would reconvene on May 10, 1775, and the colonies would cease to export goods to Britain on September 10, 1775. After proclaiming these measures, the First Continental Congress disbanded on October 26, 1774.

The Revolutionary War

As promised, Congress reconvened in Philadelphia as the Second Continental Congress on May 10, 1775–and by then the American Revolution had already begun. The British army in Boston had met with armed resistance on the morning of April 19, 1775, when it marched out to the towns of Lexington and Concord to seize a cache of weapons held by colonial Patriots who had ceased to recognize the authority of the royal government of Massachusetts. The Patriots drove the British expedition back to Boston and laid siege to the town. The Revolutionary War had begun.

Fighting for Reconciliation

Although the Congress professed its abiding loyalty to the British Crown, it also took steps to preserve its rights by dint of arms. On June 14, 1775, a month after it reconvened, it created a united colonial fighting force, the Continental Army. The next day, it named George Washington as the new army’s commander in chief. The following month, it issued its Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, penned by John Dickinson (1732-1808) of Pennsylvania, a veteran of the First Congress whose “Letters from a Farmer of Pennsylvania” (1767) had helped arouse opposition to earlier imperial measures, and by a newcomer from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). In an effort to avoid a full-scale war, Congress coupled this declaration with the Olive Branch Petition, a personal appeal to Britain’s King George III (1738-1820) asking him to help the colonists resolve their differences with Britain. The king dismissed the petition out of hand.

Declaring Independence

For over a year, the Continental Congress supervised a war against a country to which it proclaimed its loyalty. In fact, both the Congress and the people it represented were divided on the question of independence even after a year of open warfare against Great Britain. Early in 1776, a number of factors began to strengthen the call for separation. In his stirring pamphlet “Common Sense,” published in January of that year, the British immigrant Thomas Paine (1737-1809) laid out a convincing argument in favor of independence. At the same time, many Americans came to realize that their military might not be capable of defeating the British Empire on its own. Independence would allow it to form alliances with Britain’s powerful rivals–France was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Meanwhile, the war itself evoked hostility toward Britain among the citizenry, paving the way for independence.

In the spring of 1776, the provisional colonial governments began to send new instructions to their congressional delegates, obliquely or directly allowing them to vote for independence. The provisional government of Virginia went further: It instructed its delegation to submit a proposal for independence before Congress. On June 7, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee (1732-94) complied with his instructions. Congress postponed a final vote on the proposal until July 1, but appointed a committee to draft a provisional declaration of independence for use should the proposal pass.

The committee consisted of five men, including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) of Pennsylvania. But the declaration was primarily the work of one man, Thomas Jefferson, who penned an eloquent defense of the natural rights of all people, of which, he charged, Parliament and the king had tried to deprive the American nation. The Continental Congress made several revisions to Jefferson’s draft, removing, among other things, an attack on the institution of slavery; but on July 4, 1776, Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence.

Waging the War

The Declaration of Independence allowed Congress to seek alliances with foreign countries, and the fledgling U.S. formed its most important alliance early in 1778 with France, without the support of which America might well have lost the Revolutionary War. If the Franco-American alliance was one of Congress’s greatest successes, funding and supplying the war were among its worst failures. Lacking a pre-existing infrastructure, Congress struggled throughout the war to provide the Continental Army with adequate supplies and provisions. Exacerbating the problem, Congress had no mechanism to collect taxes to pay for the war; instead, it relied on contributions from the states, which generally directed whatever revenue they raised toward their own needs. As a result, the paper money issued by Congress quickly came to be regarded as worthless.

The Articles of Confederation

Congress’s inability to raise revenue would bedevil it for its entire existence, even after it created a constitution–the Articles of Confederation–to define its powers. Drafted and adopted by the Congress in 1777 but not ratified until 1781, it effectively established the U.S. as a collection of 13 sovereign states, each of which had an equal voice in Congress (which became officially known as the Congress of the Confederation) regardless of population. Under the Articles, congressional decisions were made based on a state-by-state vote, and the Congress had little ability to enforce its decisions. The Articles of Confederation would prove incapable of governing the new nation in a time of peace, but they did not seriously undermine the war effort, both because the war was effectively winding down before the Articles took effect, and because Congress ceded many executive war powers to General Washington.

Congress’s final triumph came in 1783 when it negotiated the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War. The Congressional delegates Franklin, Jay and Adams secured a favorable peace for the U.S. that included not only the recognition of independence but also claim to almost all of the territory south of Canada and east of the Mississippi River. On November 25, 1783, the last British troops evacuated New York City. The Revolutionary War was over and Congress had helped to see the country through.

However, the Articles of Confederation proved an imperfect instrument for a nation at peace with the world. The years immediately following the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 presented the young American nation with a series of difficulties that Congress could not adequately remedy: dire financial straits, interstate rivalries and domestic insurrection. A movement developed for constitutional reform, culminating in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. The delegates at the convention decided to scrap the Articles of Confederation completely and create a new system of government. In 1789, the new U.S. Constitution went into effect and the Continental Congress adjourned forever and was replaced by the U.S. Congress. Although the Continental Congress did not function well in a time of peace, it had helped steer the nation through one of its worst crises, declared its independence and helped to win a war to secure that independence.

The Declaration of Independence

The first Continental Congress met in Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia, from September 5, to October 26, 1774. Carpenter's Hall was also the seat of the Pennsylvania Congress. All of the colonies except Georgia sent delegates. These were elected by the people, by the colonial legislatures, or by the committees of correspondence of the respective colonies. The colonies presented there were united in a determination to show a combined authority to Great Britain, but their aims were not uniform at all. Pennsylvania and New York sent delegates with firm instructions to seek a resolution with England. The other colonies voices were defensive of colonial rights, but pretty evenly divided between those who sought legislative parity, and the more radical members who were prepared for separation. Virginia's delegation was made up of a most even mix of these and not incidentally, presented the most eminent group of men in America. Colo. George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, Edmund Pendleton, Colo. Benjamin Harrison, Richard Bland, and at the head of them Peyton Randolph &mdash who would immediately be elected president of the convention.

The objectives of the body were not entirely clear but, with such leadership as was found there, a core set of tasks was carried out. It was agreeable to all that the King and Parliament must be made to understand the grievances of the colonies and that the body must do everything possible to communicate the same to the population of America, and to the rest of the world.

The first few weeks were consumed in discussion and debate. The colonies had always, up to this time, acted as independent entities. There was much distrust to overcome. The first matter to be considered by all was A Plan of Union of Great Britain and the Colonies, offered by Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania. The plan was considered very attractive to most of the members, as it proposed a popularly elected Grand Council which would represent the interests of the colonies as a whole, and would be a continental equivalent to the English Parliament. Poised against this would be a President General, appointed by the crown, to represent the authority of the king in America. Conflict in Boston overcame the effort at conciliation. The arrival of the Suffolk County (Boston) resolves just prior to the vote on the Plan of Union, caused it to be discarded by a narrow margin.

On October 14, the Declaration and Resolves established the course of the congress, as a statement of principles common to all of the colonies. Congress voted to meet again the following year if these grievances were not attended to by England.

Several days later, on the 20th, came The Association, which was patterned after the Virginia Association and others that followed. This was a pact for nonimportation of English goods, to establish mechanisms throughout the colonies to enforce and regulate the resistance to Great Britain, and to keep the channels of communication open. It was to become effective on December 1, 1774 unless parliament should rescind the Intolerable Acts.

The Period of the Continental Congress

The Department of State came into existence through a process of gradual evolution which began in 1774 . Initially, the Continental Congress exercised control over American foreign relations. Under its auspices committees of Congress managed foreign affairs from November 1775 to October 1781.

The first such committee was the Committee of Secret Correspondence, 1 which was appointed pursuant to a resolution of Congress of November 29, 1775, "for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world." In the beginning, the Committee consisted of John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, John Jay, and Thomas Johnson. 2 However, there were frequent changes in the membership. On many occasions Congress in the Committee of the Whole acted on foreign affairs matters thereby limiting the power of the Committee of Secret Correspondence and its successor, the Committee for Foreign Affairs. For instance, the Congress "prepared in the minutest detail the instructions to Franklin when he was elected commissioner on September 27, 1777, to negotiate a treaty with France." 3 James Lovell, a member of the Committee for Foreign Affairs, wrote on August 6, 1779, that "there is really no Such Thing as a Comtee of foreign affairs existing, no Secretary or Clerk, further than I persevere to be one and the other. The Books and Papers of that extinguished Body lay yet on the Table of Congress or rather are locked up in the Secretary's private Box." 4

Thus, from 1774 to 1781, the buildings in which foreign relations were managed were the buildings occupied by the Continental Congress. 5 Congress met in Carpenters' Hall, Philadelphia, for its first session, commencing on September 5, 1774. The subsequent sessions in Philadelphia were held in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as "Independence Hall," except for a short time in 1778, when it met in "College Hall." During the Revolutionary War, the advance of British troops forced Congress to leave Philadelphia on two occasions. From December 20, 1776, to February 27, 1777, Congress met in Baltimore in a house owned by Henry Fite. On September 27, 1777, it met at the Court House at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and on September 30 moved to the York Court House, where it remained until June 27, 1778. It was not until 1781, when the Department of Foreign Affairs was established by the Continental Congress, that a building separate from those occupied by the Congress was used for foreign affairs.

First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress convened in Carpenters&rsquo Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, between September 5 and October 26, 1774. Delegates from twelve of Britain&rsquos thirteen American colonies met to discuss America&rsquos future under growing British aggression. The list of delegates included many prominent colonial leaders, such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, and two future presidents of the United States, George Washington and John Adams. Delegates discussed boycotting British goods to establish the rights of Americans and planned for a Second Continental Congress.

The First Continental Congress was prompted by the Coercive Acts, known in America as the Intolerable Acts, which Parliament passed in early 1774 to reassert its dominance over the American colonies following the Boston Tea Party. The Intolerable Acts, among other changes, closed off the Boston Port and rescinded the Massachusetts Charter, bringing the colony under more direct British control.

Across North America, colonists rose in solidarity with the people of Massachusetts. Goods arrived in Massachusetts from as far south as Georgia, and by late spring 1774, nine of the colonies called for a continental congress. Virginia&rsquos Committee of Correspondence is largely credited with originating the invitation.

The colonies elected delegates to the First Continental Congress in various ways. Some delegates were elected through their respective colonial legislatures or committees of correspondence. As for Washington, he was elected with the other Virginia delegates at the First Virginia Convention, which was called in support of Massachusetts following the passage of the Intolerable Acts. Georgia was the only colony that did not send any delegates to the First Continental Congress. Facing a war with neighboring Native American tribes, the colony did not want to jeopardize British assistance.

When Congress convened on September 5, 1774, Peyton Randolph of Virginia was named President of the First Continental Congress. One of the Congress&rsquos first decisions was to endorse the Suffolk Resolves passed in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. The Suffolk Resolves ordered citizens to not obey the Intolerable Acts, to refuse imported British goods, and to raise a militia. Congress&rsquos early endorsement of the Suffolk Resolves was a clear indication of the mood and spirit in Carpenters&rsquo Hall.

Furthermore, the delegates promptly began drafting and discussing the Continental Association. This would become their most important policy outcome. The Association called for an end to British imports starting in December 1774 and an end to exporting goods to Britain in September 1775. This policy would be enforced by local and colony-wide committees of inspection. These committees would check ships that arrived in ports, force colonists to sign documents pledging loyalty to the Continental Association, and suppress mob violence. The committees of inspection even enforced frugality, going so far as to end lavish funeral services and parties. Many colonial leaders hoped these efforts would bond the colonies together economically.

Virginia secured the Continental Association&rsquos delay in ending exports to Britain. Before the Continental Congress, Virginia had passed its own association that delayed ending exports to avoid hurting farmers with a sudden change in policy. The delegates from Virginia showed up to the Continental Congress united, and refused to waiver on the issue of delaying the ban on exports to Britain.

The idea of using non-importation as leverage was neither new nor unexpected. Prior to the Continental Congress, eight colonies had already endorsed the measure and merchants had been warned against placing any orders with Britain, as a ban on importation was likely to pass. Some colonies had already created their own associations to ban importation and, in some cases, exportation. The Virginia Association had passed at the Virginia Convention with George Washington in attendance.

Washington&rsquos support of using non-importation as leverage against the British can be traced back as far as 1769 in letters between him and George Mason. When the colonies first started publicly supporting non-importation, Bryan Fairfax, a longtime friend of Washington&rsquos, wrote to him urging him to not support the Continental Association and to instead petition Parliament. Washington dismissed this suggestion, writing &ldquowe have already Petitiond his Majesty in as humble, & dutiful a manner as Subjects could do.&rdquo 1 Washington, like many delegates at the First Continental Congress, no longer saw petitioning as a useful tool in changing Parliament&rsquos ways.

Many delegates felt that using the Continental Association as leverage would be impractical without explicit demands and a plan of redress. However, Congress struggled to come up with a list of rights, grievances, and demands. Furthermore, to only repeal laws that were unfavorable to the delegates without a list of rights would be a temporary fix to the larger issue of continued British abuse. To address these issues, Congress formed a Grand Committee.

All debate was stalled for weeks while a statement of American rights was debated at length. Producing this statement required answering constitutional questions that had been asked for over a century. The hardest constitutional question surrounded Britain&rsquos right to regulate trade. Joseph Galloway, a conservative delegate from Pennsylvania, insisted on releasing a statement clarifying Britain&rsquos right to regulate trade in the American colonies. However, other delegates were opposed to giving Britain explicit rights to colonial trade.

During this debate, Galloway introduced A Plan of Union between the American Colonies and Britain. The Plan of Union called for the creation of a Colonial Parliament that would work hand-in-hand with the British Parliament. The British monarch would appoint a President General and the colonial assemblies would appoint delegates for a three-year term. Galloway&rsquos plan was defeated in a 6-5 vote. Congress put aside the debate over Britain&rsquos right to regulate trade and focused on the Continental Association.

Congress later returned to the discussion of Congress&rsquos right to regulate trade and settled on the original suggested text by the Grand Committee and included it as Section 4 in the body&rsquos Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Section four states the &ldquothe foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council.&rdquo 2 This allowed for Congress to move forward in their discussion and assert their right to participation in their government, but did not explicitly place limits on Parliament&rsquos regulation of colonial trade.

The First Continental Congress&rsquos most fateful decision was to call for a Second Continental Congress to meet the following spring. Congress intended to give Britain time to respond to the Continental Association and discuss any developments at the Second Continental Congress. Washington went shopping for muskets and military apparel before leaving Philadelphia for Mount Vernon. Furthermore, he placed an order for a book on military discipline. Though war had not been declared and many delegates were still hoping for redress, there was no doubt that the American colonies and Britain were on the brink of conflict. Many delegates learned of the Battles of Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775), in route to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress.

Katherine Horan
George Washington University

1. &ldquoFrom George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 20 July 1774,&rdquo Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 10, 21 March 1774?&ndash?15 June 1775, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 128&ndash131.]


Ammerman, David. In the Common Cause American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. New York: Norton, 1975.

Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: First Vintage Books, 2004.

Irwin, Benjamin. Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors. New York: Oxford, 2011.

Middlekauff, Robert. Washington&rsquos Revolution: The Making of America&rsquos First Leader. New York: Random House, 2015.

Continental Congress

The Daughters of the American Revolution Continental Congress is a time-honored tradition that has been held in Washington, D.C. as the annual national meeting of the DAR membership since the organization’s founding in 1890. Not to be confused with the United States “Congress,” the DAR national meeting is named after the original Continental Congress which governed the American Colonies during the Revolutionary War.

National, State and Chapter DAR leaders as well as other members from across the world meet at the DAR National Headquarters for a week during the summer to report on the year’s work, honor outstanding award recipients, plan future initiatives and reconnect with friends. Those in attendance include over 3,000 delegates representing the membership of 190,000 Daughters from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and many international chapters. Since its founding, the DAR has promoted historic preservation, education and patriotism and those objectives are reflected in all of the events of DAR Continental Congress.

The week-long convention consists of business sessions, committee meetings, social functions, and is topped off with formal evening ceremonies: Opening Night, Education Awards Night and National Defense Night. These evening ceremonies, held in the historic DAR Constitution Hall, mix pomp and circumstance with touching award presentations and musical entertainment.

In addition to member awards and student essay and scholarship awards, the DAR presents its top national awards at the convention including:

  • DAR Medal of Honor
  • Founders Medals for Patriotism, Education, Heroism, and Youth
  • Americanism Award
  • DAR Media Award
  • Outstanding Veteran-Patient of the Year
  • Outstanding Youth Volunteer of the Year
  • Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee Award for the Army Nurse of the Year
  • Margaret Cochran Corbin Award for distinguished women in military service
  • Outstanding Teacher of American History
  • American History Scholarship Winner
  • DAR Good Citizen of the Year
  • Outstanding Community Service Award
  • DAR Conservation Award

DAR Members can visit the Members’ only section of the website to learn more detailed information and make arrangements to attend the most anticipated DAR event of the year, DAR Continental Congress.


Congress received some harsh criticisms from contemporaries, including from some of its own members, and subsequent historians have echoed this assessment. It certainly displayed inefficiency and dithered over decisions that might have been more palatable if made more quickly. It saw its share of badly run committees, ill-conceived experiments in organization and oversight, and poorly timed meddling in the responsibilities of its field commanders, most notably Washington himself. Petty political infighting and rivalries were all too common, based as much on personal dislikes as on principled differences about policy. Behavior that can only be called corrupt was also in evidence. In all of these things, the Continental Congress was similar to American legislative bodies before and since.

Against these criticisms, a slew of achievements can be entered on the positive side of the ledger. The mere fact that Congress existed and functioned at all was a significant milestone. All of the men who served in this new experiment in political organization had knowledge of or had served in the legislative assemblies of their individual colonies and states. Overcoming the provincialism and parochialism of those assemblies, legislative bodies that jealously guarded their prerogatives and power not only from the imperial government but also from each other, was no small achievement. Few men as yet agreed with Patrick Henry's assertion that they owed their primary allegiance to "America" (in Henry's case, too, rhetoric exceeded reality). In everything Congress did, consensus had to be built before unanimity could be achieved, and, without unanimity on all major issues, the British might readily break the rebellion into fragments. Because the nature of their resistance to imperial authority had schooled them to be extremely suspicious of power in all its forms, the delegates undertook management of continental affairs as a collective exercise, unwilling to concentrate power in the hands of one man or a few under all but the worst circumstances. Only in the blackest days of the war did the rump Congress give Washington, himself a member of the Virginia oligarchy and a former delegate to Congress, the authority to act without congressional approval of major decisions. When the crisis passed (due largely to Washington's leadership), Congress was a bit more solicitous of the realities of field command but it never relinquished its desire to oversee the minutia of military organization, appointments, movements, and operations that would today be left in the hands of the military professionals. Washington continually chaffed at the conflicting tugs of congressional oversight, indecision, misunderstandings, and downright meddling. But because he was one of them he never disavowed the fundamental principle of civilian control of the military, vested in the hands of the delegates to Congress.

Gradually, the delegates' understanding of the nature of government began to evolve, as they realized, under the intense and unrelenting pressure of running a war far longer than anyone had anticipated, that, if declaring independence had been an act of unprecedented courage that required genius and faith, erecting a working government required the talent, integrity, and energy to slog through the unrelenting demands of daily business. The erection of four executive departments in early 1781 was an important milestone on the road to rebuilding the sort of faith in extralocal government that the imperial crisis had shattered.

Given the circumstances in which it was created, Congress, although inefficient, was also remarkably effective. As the historian John Richard Alden, in The American Revolution, observes:

The Congress declared the independence of the United States appointed the commander in chief and higher officers of the Continental army established the American navy and the marine corps formed a diplomatic service negotiated treaties with European nations and Indian tribes organized a postal service issued currency and borrowed money. It even gave advice to the colony-states with respect to the making of their constitutions and it drew up the Articles of Confederation…. It was created in emergency, endowed with uncertain authority, and plagued by rapid changes in personnel. Hence it exhibited obvious defects lacking or less conspicuous in long- and well-established legislatures…. [But Congress's] record, when the difficulties to be faced are taken into account, is splendid rather than dismal. (pp. 166-169)

The First Continental Congress

What do you do if you fail as a storekeeper and farmer? Become a lawyer! That's what Patrick Henry did. By the time he became a member of the First Continental Congress, Henry was known as a great orator.

After Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts, the patriot cause got much stronger. The belief that the colonies should be independent was becoming very popular. The Committees of Correspondence were publishing volumes of material in support of American independence.

Since support for independence was growing, colonial leaders agreed that they should have another intercolonial meeting. It had been almost ten years since the Stamp Act Congress. In September of 1774, the First Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia.

This time, participation was better. Georgia was the only colony that did not send a delegate. The delegates who were there had been selected, not elected. The election of such representatives was illegal. Fortunately, those who attended seemed like natural leaders. They included: Sam and John Adams from Massachusetts, John Dickinson from Pennsylvania, and Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, and Patrick Henry from Virginia. It took seven weeks for the group to agree on a course of action.

The first action they decided on was nonimportation. Colonies would make every effort not to purchase goods from the British. To make sure of this, the Congress set up an organization called the Association to police trade activity.

A declaration of colonial rights was also drafted and sent to London. This took a while. Most of the debate during this meeting revolved around defining the colonies' relationship with mother England. Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania proposed an imperial union with Britain. Under this program, all acts of Parliament would have to be approved by an American assembly to take effect. If they had tried it, this type of change might have delayed the Revolution. But, the delegations voted against it &mdash by one vote.

Suppose you were a delegate at the convention, come up with two questions you might ask Joseph Galloway about his proposal to help you decide which way you want to vote.

The Congress also agreed to meet again in May 1775 if their issues were not resolved. This was a major step in creating a decision-making group to regularly represent the colonies. It was the first time this happened in colonial history.

When Parliament chose to ignore the written statement from the Congress, they still met that next May. But by this time things had gotten much worse. The Second Continental Congress was faced with dire choices. It was too late to avoid a war. Just the previous month, the first blood of the Revolution was spilled at the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Carpenters' Hall &mdash the meeting place of the First Continental Congress

At these two meetings, at Carpenter Hall in Philadelphia, America came together politically for the first time on a national level and the first seeds of democracy were sown.

When Princeton Was the Nation’s Capital

(From the Oct. 5, 1983, issue of PAW the story also appears in The Best of PAW: 100 Years the Princeton Alumni Weekly.)

On June 30, 1783, the secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, wrote to his wife, “With respect to situation, convenience & pleasure I do not know a more agreeable spot in America.” He was describing the village of Princeton, New Jersey, which had just become the seat of government of the fledgling United States.

Thomson was much less impressed by Princeton’s suitability as a national capital after seeing Nassau Hall, however. His first visit to the building where Congress would meet for the next four months “had the effect of raising my mortification & disgust at the situation of Congress to the highest degree. For as I was led along the entry I passed by the chambers of the students from whence in the sultry heat of the day issued warm steams from the beds, foul linen & dirty lodgings of the boys. I found the members [of Congress] extremely out of humour and dissatisfied with their situation.”

During the few months that Congress met in Princeton, some critical problems of the new nation were solved. The American Revolution formally ended with the arrival from Paris of the final peace treaty with Great Britain (until then, British troops still occupied New York City). Congress decided the course of settlement across the Appalachians, signed its first treaty with a neutral foreign country, and officially thanked George Washington for his services as commander-in-chief. Thomas Paine, John Paul Jones, Baron von Steuben, Nathaniel Greene, and Thomas Jefferson visited town, as did throngs of others ranging from local farmers to foreign dignitaries. The events were as exciting as the setting was unlikely.

The Congress came to Princeton from Philadelphia, where it had been headquartered throughout the Revolution except during those periods when the British occupied the city. Philadelphia was then the country’s largest, most cosmopolitan center. Princeton was a war-ravaged village of only 50 to 60 houses and not more than 300 people. The move in 1783 from Philadelphia’s urbanity to Princeton’s rusticity was a dramatic one—prompted by a dramatic event.

Congress made the decision to leave Philadelphia on the evening of Saturday, June 21, 1783. Earlier that day, as its members departed from a special session at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall), they had run a gauntlet of jeers and insults from a small group of mutinous Continental soldiers who were demanding their long-overdue back pay from the state government. Congress had then been further insulted by the refusal of Pennsylvania authorities to turn out their own local militia to disperse the Continentals and put down the mutiny. Mortified, the delegates forgot their habitual factionalism and voted unanimously to adjourn across the Delaware to New Jersey.

According to Kenneth R. Bowling, associate editor of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University, there were deeper currents beneath the vote than were first evident. He notes that Congress was then divided into decentralists favoring strong state governments and centralists favoring a stronger federal government.

The decentralists, viewing Philadelphia as a stronghold of centralist sentiment, had wanted to relocate the seat of government all along. The centralists had had no such intention, until the soldiers’ demonstration on June 21. Yet the protesting troops had expected to find Congress’s chamber in Independence Hall empty, as was normal on a weekend. Only because certain centralists, including Alexander Hamilton, had called an unusual Saturday meeting did Congressmen and soldiers come face to face, with the consequent ruffling of Congressional dignity. Bowling suggests the centralists may have called the session in the hope that a confrontation would occur that might stimulate badly needed public support for Congress.

To whatever extent the event was staged and whatever it may have done to point up Congress’s weakness under the Articles of Confederation, it did serve to propel Congress to Princeton within the week. The delegates had actually voted to adjourn to either Trenton or Princeton, leaving the final choice to the president of the Congress, Elias Boudinot. A trustee of the College of New Jersey and a former resident of the town whose sister still lived there, he quickly chose Princeton. It was a natural choice in light not only of Boudinot’s personal preferences but also of more fundamental considerations, such as the prestige among republicans of John Witherspoon and his “colledge.”

The College of New Jersey at Princeton had come to the forefront of the Revolutionary cause soon after Witherspoon assumed its presidency in 1768. On the night of his arrival from Scotland, Nassau Hall was prophetically “illuminated by a tallow dip in every window.” A new era of college life was beginning.

It was an era marked first by dedicated teaching. The fiery if paunchy Witherspoon, who spoke with a singular Scottish accent, was loved by his pupils. He taught upperclassmen divinity, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy—which, under him, was a course in political theory—imbuing them with some of the more advanced ideas of l8th-century rationalism, as interpreted by a Scottish “common sense” philosopher. Witherspoon was, quite simply, a giant of the American Enlightenment, whether measured by his own accomplishments or those of the students he taught.

An idea of the quality and nature of Witherspoon’s mind can be derived from a look at his personal library. Browsing through some of the 300 volumes he brought to Princeton and others he later acquired, we would find not only the ancients (in their original tongues, of course), but Erasmus, Calvin, Descartes, Hume, Voltaire, Burke, and Locke.

There was nothing unusual in the fact that Witherspoon admired Locke’s writings and advanced his ideas in college lectures: Locke’s notion of a chosen contract, under the laws of nature and nature’s god, was in the tradition of English legal and political studies. The college president and his students, though, were to carry the words into action on a scale that gives special significance to another title tucked into Witherspoon’s collection—Great Britain’s Collection of the Several Statutes … now in force relating to high treason, printed in Edinburgh in 1746.

For its day, Witherspoon’s library was very complete in examination of contemporary political questions. His pamphlet collection, typically presenting all sides of current issues, included many items sent to him by alumni, friends, benefactors—anyone, we may suspect, whom Witherspoon could cajole into a small printed donation. Thus, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense stood alongside its Loyalist rebuttal, Plain Truth.

Witherspoon’s lectures, based in part on his extensive reading and his own commentaries, were augmented by debates and orations in college and in the newly formed student clubs, the American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society. These “colleges within colleges,” as one historian has termed them, conducted their own lectures and debates and collected libraries that rivaled or outstripped the college’s own. Membership meant a real chance to practice the 18th-century tools of the educated man: refinement of the written and spoken word.

From the early 1770s on, moreover, these tools were increasingly turned to political ends as president and students alike caught “Revolutionary Fever.” Newspapers throughout the colonies took note when the senior class patriotically wore “American cloth” on Commencement Day in 1770, and when the students conducted their own tea party in 1774, burning Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts in effigy, tolling the bell, and making many spirited resolves.

Commencement Day became a time to air the college’s Whiggish politics. Gone was a scholar’s oration of 1761 entitled “The Military Glory of Great Britain.” It was replaced by “The Rising Glory of America,” delivered in 1771 by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a member of Whig.

Soon students were marching off to war, many before graduation. Witherspoon himself took leave in the spring of 1776 to serve in the First Continental Congress, where he signed the Declaration of Independence, the only clergyman to do so. He was to serve for six years, visiting Princeton sporadically to oversee the college’s affairs, which largely devolved to his son-in-law Samuel Stanhope Smith 1769.

During the war, however, Nassau Hall paid dearly for its politics, probably suffering more damage in the Revolution than any other college. The scientific apparatus, the college library, and the architectural fabric of the building itself were all vandalized. On January 3, 1777, in the course of the Battle of Princeton, Nassau Hall changed hands three times. Library books were torn up and used to start fires, and college chairs and tables were burned as firewood.

One commentator writing to Thomas Jefferson about how passive the New Jerseyans seemed in the face of British atrocities exempted Witherspoon alone from his criticism:

Old Weatherspoon [sic] has not escaped their fury. They have burnt his Library. It grieves him much that he has lost his controversial tracts. He would lay aside the cloth to take revenge of them. I believe he would send them to the Devil, if he could. I am sure I would.

The pamphlets had not been burned, but Nassau Hall was a battered shell. Another contemporary account describes Princeton as a ghost town, where many houses, shops, and taverns suffered damage.

The college petitioned Congress for relief monies to mend Nassau Hall. By 1779 it had received almost $20,000, although in depreciating paper currency. And repairs were almost pointless while American troops continued to occupy the structure, at various times, as a barracks, a hospital, and a military prison, treating it no more kindly than the British. As late as 1781 the college was reminding Congress that the quartering of troops was its responsibility, for some soldiers were still in Nassau Hall.

Witherspoon knew that to rebuild the college he needed the attention and support of Congress and private individuals. The “flight” from Philadelphia to Princeton, then, was a happy circumstance for the college, offering the hope of focusing Congressional attention on the sorry fortunes of Nassau Hall. While the decision to move caught Witherspoon by surprise (he was visiting with Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, and rushed back home), his son-in-law and deputy, Samuel Stanhope Smith, wasted no time in drafting a note of welcome to Congress on June 25 “from the inhabitants of Princeton and its Vicinity,” who pledged to provide “Comfortable Accommodation.”

This last pledge, unfortunately, was wishful thinking at its worst. Princeton was too small and too rural to fulfill Congress’s needs, let alone suit its tastes. The situation became clearly less tolerable as more and more delegates drifted into town in late June and early July. The few good houses could by no means accommodate all the delegates. James Madison 1771, as a latecomer to the session, ended up sharing a room which he described to Thomas Jefferson as being so small that he was “obliged to write in a position that scarcely admits the use of any of my limbs.” Not only were Princeton’s accommodations small, they were also widely dispersed. New York’s Hamilton was quartered at Thomas Lawrence’s house, now “The Barracks” on Edgehill Street. Pennsylvania delegate Thomas FitzSimons was put up more than a mile to the south of town, while the Maryland delegates stayed, as Thomson reported, “about a mile distant on the road to Brunswick. The rest are scattered up and down the village.”

As early as June 30, in fact, Thomson found that Boudinot himself was regretting his choice: “He said freely that this place would not do. The people had exerted themselves & put themselves to inconveniences to accommodate the members but it was a burden which they could not bear long.” Boudinot initially entertained and presumably lived at Morven, the home of his sister Annis, widow of Richard Stockton 1748, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

A further problem was the inability of most Princeton residents to supply meals, even where they could provide small rooms. This proved a continual stumbling block to the progress of official business. The Congressmen were used to Philadelphia’s fine taverns, which were unofficial offices and centers of commerce and news, where government business could be informally discussed over dinners on a regular basis. Delegates found Princeton’s two or three taverns small and cramped. As Thomson related to his wife in a letter dated July 3, “I have the honor of breakfasting at my lodging, of eating stinking fish & heavy half baked bread & drinking if I please abominable wine at a dirty tavern. On Monday indeed I got some pretty good porter, but on Tuesday the stock was exhausted, and yesterday I had the honor of drinking water to wash down some ill cooked victuals.”

As the heat and humidity of a Princeton summer descended on the village, complaints were heard everywhere. On July 25 Thomson wrote, “many of the members are heartily tired of the place and wish earnestly to remove. Yesterday they complained bitterly of being almost stewed and suffocated the night before in their small rooms.”

Stagecoach service, an important link with the outside world for both passengers and mail, was equally affected by the heat—some horses “dropped down & died & the rest came in [to Princeton] excessively jaded. It was the same with the stages from Elizabeth town, which were obliged to leave the passengers on the road, some of whom walked into this town through the broiling sun… .”

As tempers rose with the heat, factionalism reared its ugly head. The Colonial idea of “Join or Die,” symbolized by a snake in 13 sections, was forgotten. Again and again, Thomson, the only person to serve continuously in Congress from 1774 to 1789, sensed a growing likelihood that the young Confederation would break up: “And I confess I have my fear, that the prediction of our enemies will be found here, that on the removal of common danger our Confederacy and Union will be a rope of sand.” Thomson gave his educated guess as to the future: New England would be joined by New York as one state New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland would form another Virginia would “set up for itself,” possibly with a royal governor and South Carolina would join a southern confederacy of states.

Even at the best of times, Congress was factionalized, but part of the reason for this session’s bad tempers lay in the fact that it was so sparsely attended. Ultimately 12 states—all except Georgia—sent representatives, but during the first several months especially, Congress had trouble mustering the quorum of nine states needed to transact any important business. Moreover, some of the most able members such as Jefferson and Hamilton attended only briefly or not at all. As a result, delegates gathered day after day in Nassau Hall’s second-floor library or in Colonel George Morgan’s farmhouse at Prospect, only to adjourn.

Despite the problems of scarce accommodations, bad food, and infrequent quora, Congress did manage to plow through some business. After weeks of waiting, news arrived in July of the Treaty of Paris, signed on terms highly favorable to the United States. Later that month, moreover, Congress was able to open diplomatic relations with Sweden, the first neutral European country willing to recognize the United States. The necessary votes were produced, according to Thomson, when “Mr. Hamilton called on his way home so that for about one hour 9 states were represented in Congress. The short interval was imposed to ratify the treaty with Sweden. As soon as this was done, he left Congress and proceeded to his state so that we have now only 8 states in town.”

In July Congress also asked General Washington to come to Princeton to receive its thanks for his services during the war. Unspoken behind its request lay Congress’s desire for the prestige of his presence during a troubled time and its need for his advice on the peacetime military establishment. Washington arrived the following month and made his own headquarters at Rockingham, a rented house located about five miles north of Princeton in the even smaller village of Rocky Hill. On August 26, escorted by a small troop of cavalry, the tall and stately general rode up Nassau Street to the cheers of the citizens. He was given an audience with Congress, the details of which had been decided in advance to ensure that the civil authority of Congress was seen to take precedence over Washington’s military authority.

According to plan, the General stood and bowed to his audience, which “returned the bow, seated. As president of the Congress, Boudinot had “heightened his seat [with] a large folio to give him an elevation above the rest,” and he kept his tricorn hat on. Washington then stood again while Boudinot read the speech of welcome and gratitude. The formalities over, everyone adjourned for a festive reception.

Social life in Princeton, in fact, took a decided turn for the better over the next few months as hostesses vied for the attention of Washington, who remained nearby to meet with Congressional committees, although real work on a peacetime army was shelved for other issues. In October, Congress would simply decide to disband all the furloughed soldiers, leaving a few men at West Point and a few at Philadelphia to constitute the nation’s peacetime defense.

On September 15, Congress settled an item of business that was to have far-reaching effects. It accepted Virginia’s cession of her western claims and decided that these lands beyond the mountains would in time be divided into “distinct and separate states” and be members of the “Federal Union,” enjoying all its benefits. This set the precedent that future states would be admitted to the Union on an equal footing with the original 13.

Even though Thomson often noted fretfully, “Another day spent in ill humor and fruitless debates,” the fall saw the enactment of several other significant resolutions. One topic of in-tense debate was the location of a permanent capital for Congress itself. The Middle Atlantic states each entreated Congress to settle within their borders and opposed plans of every other state to accomplish the same goal. Because of the new commerce, construction, and culture which it was felt must accompany a “capitol seat,” the residency question was one of the most acrimonious—and longest—discussions Congressional delegates entertained.

Sites on the Hudson, the Potomac, and the Delaware rivers were heatedly considered again and again. Germantown, Pennsylvania, made an especially attractive offer. Then a site on the Delaware was chosen—to be called “Statesburg,” said Thomson. This would have placed the capital near the center of population as it then existed, but north of the United States’ geographical center.

The Southerners protested, lobbied, and eventually won the concession that two permanent seats would be designated. In addition to the “federal town” to be built “near the falls of the river Delaware,” a second city would be established “at the lower falls of the Potomac.” It was not a practical compromise—but it did open the wedge for what would become Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, ignoring the petitions of Princeton citizens that it remain for the winter, Congress decided to rotate its seat temporarily between Annapolis and Trenton. Philadelphia still had not been forgiven, but everyone had had his fill of Princeton.

As the time for departure from Princeton approached, the delegates still had numerous issues to face, such as the treatment of Indian lands. In mid-October Congress settled this by exerting its authority and issuing an ordinance forbidding any citizen from privately purchasing lands from Indians without first receiving approval from the federal government. In some respects more difficult to resolve was the question of how to welcome the Dutch Ambassador with a proper degree of pomp and dignity. For weeks before his actual arrival, various members of Congress wrung their hands over the official reception for this ally. Even alumnus Madison had commented sarcastically on the “charming situation”—a rural village—in which Congress awaited his arrival.

The minister, Pieter Johan Van Berckel, was to land in Philadelphia—where Congress was to have secured for him a large house in a fashionable section of town—and then proceed to Princeton. These plans fell through because of the awkwardness of long-distance negotiations, with the result that Van Berckel found no residence awaiting him but was forced to stay at City Tavern (Second Street near Walnut). Although it was clean and served excellent food, City Tavern hardly afforded the space and privacy the Minister Plenipotentiary expected.

While Congress debated whether the present body or the soon-to-be-elected delegation should officially receive Berckel, Witherspoon seized the opportunity to greet the minister from William of Nassau’s own country:

The trustees of the college of New Jersey beg leave to congratulate your excellency on your arrival in this country. The name by which the building is distinguished in which our instruction is conducted, will sufficiently inform your Excellency of the attachment we have ever had to the States of the United Netherlands. [We wish you] all happiness, comfort, & success in your present important mission.

Congress granted Van Berckel an audience and a reception, but he spent the preceding night as John Witherspoon’s guest.

At a dinner party in late October, the representatives joked about the qualities needed to be a member of Congress. Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts put forth his notion that a man had “to be a salamander or leave Congress.” Thomson recounted, “I told him, if Gentlemen continued in the disposition that they had lately discovered it would be proper to learn the use of the sword and come armed to Debate.”

But even under the adverse circumstances of their stay at Princeton, and during an awkward pause between war and for-mal peace, these homesick men carried on in common service to their country. Working within the framework of a new kind of government, the weak contract of states established by the Articles of Confederation, they struggled to forge a stronger form of republicanism.

Some of Witherspoon’s young men had gone to their deaths in the Revolution, but many more lived and served the new nation. In his Commencement address in September 1783, Ashbel Green spoke before Congress and General Washington of the moral education he had received at Princeton:

The youthful mind is taught to look into its capacity, its qualities and its powers, and to reason from them to the being and attributes of their Creator, and thence to deduce the nature and sanction of the moral law. Hence the rights of men are derived, either as individuals or as societies. We view mankind as the subjects of one great lawgiver, as the children of one common father, and we acquire the principles of universal justice and benevolence.

Green was congratulated on this speech by none other than Washington, in a chance meeting in the corridors of Nassau Hall.

In November 1783, the Congress left for Annapolis. Years later, remembering the battered state of Nassau Hall, some delegates would send the college gifts of money and books.

Continental Congress

The Continental Congress provided leadership during the American Revolution and drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.

Social Studies, Civics, U.S. History

Continental Congress Washington

In the 1770s, the Continental Congress, composed of many of the United States' eventual founders, met to respond to a series of laws passed by the British Parliament that were unpopular with many of the colonists.

Photograph by Universal History Archive

The Continental Congress was a group of delegates who worked together to act on behalf of the North American colonies in the 1770s. Beginning with the Sugar Act in 1764, the British Parliament passed a series of laws that were unpopular with many colonists in the North American colonies. The colonists came together in what came to be known as the Committees of Correspondence to discuss their rights and how to respond to the acts that they believed trampled on those rights. These committees began to work together to forge a cooperative, united approach.

In 1774, matters came to a head after Britain passed the Coercive Acts, a series of acts that the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. These acts, which included the closing of the port of Boston and establishing British military rule in Massachusetts, were intended to punish the colony of Massachusetts for the infamous Boston Tea Party and to force that colony to pay for the lost tea. Britain also hoped to isolate the rebels in Massachusetts and dissuade other colonies from similar acts of defiance. In response, the Committees of Congress called for a meeting of delegates. On September 5, 1774, 56 delegates met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This First Continental Congress represented all the 13 colonies, except Georgia. It included some of the finest leaders in the land, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Jay. The group elected Peyton Randolph of Virginia as its president.

The group met in secret to discuss how the colonies should respond to what they perceived to be an imposition of their rights. At this meeting, the Congress adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. They declared that their rights as Englishmen included life, liberty, property, and trial by jury. The declaration denounced taxation without representation. The Congress called for a boycott of British goods and petitioned King George III for a remedy for their grievances. Before departing, the Congress agreed to meet again on May 10, 1775.

By the time this Second Continental Congress convened, hostilities had already broken out between British troops and its American colonists at Lexington, Massachusetts, and Concord, Massachusetts. The Congress agreed to a coordinated military response and appointed George Washington as commander of the American militia. On July 4, 1776, the delegates cut all remaining ties with England by unanimously approving the Declaration of Independence.

For the duration of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress served as a provisional, or temporary, government of the American colonies. The Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, which went into effect in 1781. Under this government, the Continental Congress gave way to the Confederation Congress, which included many of the same delegates. This group continued to provide leadership to the new country until a new Congress, elected under the new Constitution passed in 1789, went into effect.

In the 1770s, the Continental Congress, composed of many of the United States' eventual founders, met to respond to a series of laws passed by the British Parliament that were unpopular with many of the colonists.

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