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What is the Continental Congress?

By Britt Archer
Updated May 17, 2024
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In September 1774, 56 men gathered in historic Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia to discuss the fate of their nation. This gathering was the First Continental Congress, and it ushered in a new age of democracy in a nation that had not yet fully formed. These men were delegates from 12 of the 13 American colonies, and they converged to discuss what options they had in boycotting the British Empire, which had just passed a law known as the Coercive Acts. This law meant that the American colonies would be taxed an "intolerable" amount, earning the law a second name, the Intolerable Acts. This congress was the first of two.

While the First Continental Congress was a short gathering, resulting in a warning sent to King George III, the Second Continental Congress was a longer ordeal. It had been agreed upon by those delegates who had attended the first congress that a second would be held in the event that the Intolerable Acts were not revoked. By the time the second congress convened in 1775, the American Revolution had already started. The Second Continental Congress was charged with spearheading the war effort.

One of the Congress's first acts, in June 1775, was to create the Continental Army, a militia group commanded by representative George Washington from the colony of Virginia. The Olive Branch petition was the second act of the Continental Congress, offering Britain one last chance to live at peace with the colonies. King George rejected the petition, and the second congress began to rule as a governing body over the colonies. This was seen as a problem by some delegates in the Congress, who believed the colonies had no official claim to rule the land they occupied.

Funding was scarce because the newly formed governing body had no way or right to levy taxes. They issued a form of paper money and certificates for future goods and services. Both of these forms of financing failed, and the Continental Congress sought help for its war efforts elsewhere, mainly from France.

On 10 May 1776, the members of the congress issued a declaration that they would begin to form a proper government. This was followed by a resolution of independence on 2 July 1776. Richard Henry Lee, a statesman from Virginia, wrote the original resolution. Congress debated for two days before turning its attention to the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, another politician from Virginia. On 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted a final, revised version of Thomas Jefferson's declaration, which was not signed by all of the delegates until the beginning of August of that year.

The members continued their work in a number of venues, having been forced from Philadelphia by the onslaught of British soldiers. The Congress met in Baltimore from late 1776 until 1777, when it relocated to Philadelphia once more before moving again to several other cities within the Pennsylvania territory. In November 1777, the Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, the precursor to the American Constitution. These articles established a "firm league of friendship" between the United States of America, allowing each state to govern itself in almost every aspect that was not specifically federally regulated.

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Discussion Comments

By rskidmor — On Jul 05, 2010

anon93492, I will agree with your contention on paragraphs one and two. However, if this is an elementary school introduction to our history, both the professions of education and our text books need to be disciplined and then expelled (and I am writing as a professional educator) for such appalling and incorrect narrative.

Do you know the source of this information? It is not cited nor referenced, even though there are hyperlinks.

These signors to the Declaration were not wild radicals, but rather conservative. They did not prefer separation, but rather to be acknowledged as Englishmen and legitimate members of a great Empire. Yet, they were treated as second class citizens, without right of representation and subject to every abuse they abhorred. Her resources squandered, industry discouraged and the tax referred to in the article was only a small percentage, and still that was onerous.

Even with an elementary lesson on our nation's history, it needs to be accurate. The colonials were self-sufficient, self-reliant and unlike today did not look to government to supply their needs or succor.

Too often drivel is passed off as factual which leads the uninitiated and ignorant astray. The end results in chains and tyranny.

By anon93492 — On Jul 04, 2010

rskidmore, you seem to have missed completely the point of this entry. If someone is, by virtue of this wiseGEEK entry, receiving a first exposure to American history, then this is a pretty good one, matching what is taught in most American elementary schools.

The picayune details you've quibbled over don't actually change the spirit of the piece. As one progresses in the study of early American history, the details are fleshed out, and the details you bring up fall into place. From my perspective (and while my knowledge of American history may not equal yours, my knowledge of English spelling and grammar certainly do), your comments sound like corrections, while they are actually simply clarifications. wiseGEEK articles aren't usually festooned with footnotes and references. They aren't meant to be all-inclusive scholarly treatises; they are meant to be introductions to so subjects with which the readers may be unfamiliar. The author of the piece isn't isn't submitting an application for scholastic credit, but simply exposing the uninitiated to the subject. -pdlister

By anon93483 — On Jul 04, 2010

rskidmor: Bravo. To all else: Remember and question not only what you read, but who writes it and where it is written.

By rskidmor — On Mar 06, 2010

I have been directed to your Web posting at here at wisegeek and find several egregious errors in your content and statements.

First, you fail to site your references for your statements and conclusion arguments regarding the Declaration of Independence and the Continental Congress.

I am certain that there is a gross disregard for the content of our Declaration of Independence and it is evident there has been no reading or critical thinking on its content.

You state “…and the Second Continental Congress began to rule as a governing body over the colonies. This was seen as a problem by many delegates in the Congress because the colonies had no official claim to rule the land they occupied.”

The statement that “the Second Continental Congress began to rule as a governing body” is a false statement. Each delegate to the Continental Congress was sent as a representative of their colony appointed by that colonies legislative body with specific instructions as to what they could and could not do, refer to the several state constitutions and charters in place in 1775.

With regard to ruling, self rule, etcetera, you should read and comprehend paragraphs 3 through 8 of the Declaration and also include paragraph 23 as these are a part of the grievances that the colonies had with the King.

Regarding “…the colonies had no official claim to rule the land they occupied…” refer to paragraph 7 and 8 of the declaration, to wit: ¶ 7 “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.” If the colonies did not possess self rule they would not have ‘Representative Houses’ which had been repeatedly closed because they opposed the King’s ‘invasions on the rights of the people.’

¶ 8 “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; …” Elections occur because of self rule and the right to rule the land.

The right to rule was granted in the Colonial Charter as they were established. In ¶ 5 do note “…unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature” which representation was guaranteed in their charter.

Note that in ¶ 23 the grievance “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally, the Forms of our Governments.” The King had attempting to confiscate Charters (this is a physical removal, not just an abolishment act) and the colonists hid their charters (the physical document) from those whom the king had sent. Why hide the document? So that they continued to hold physical proof of their rights of ownership and self governance.

The right of self rule was one of the reasons the Declaration was adopted.

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