American Revolution Patriots > Continental Congress
CONGRESS, Continental. The first recognition of a solidarity of interests among the English colonies in America, and attempts at joint action against a common foe, were made in 1690, by Jacob Leisier, revolutionary dictator of New York; and his efforts were stimulated by the fact that New York bore the first brunt of Canadian invasion, and needed help. He invited the other colonies to send delegates to New York and contribute men and money for a counter-invasion; but none farther south than Maryland responded. A much more comprehensive plan was devised by Franklin in 1754 (see Albany Congress), but fell through. In 1765, on occasion of the Stamp Act (q.v.), a colonial congress from all the North except New Hampshire, and only South Carolina of the South below Maryland, met at New York 7-25 October, but took no action except to petition Parliament. In 1773, when the Revolution was impending, Franklin renewed his former suegestion in a letter to the assembly of Massachusetts, whose agent in London he was, but still nothing was done.
The next year, however, on receiving news of the Boston Port Bill, Virginia proposed to the other colonies a Continental Congress in the fullest sense; that is, including Canada, for it was not doubted that this recently subjugated province would gladly join in a revolt against its conqueror. Massachusetts responded 7 June, others followed, and the first real American Congress met in Philadelphia, 5 Sept. 1774, sitting till 26 October. Canada, however, was not represented; nor was Georgia, though it shared in all succeeding Congresses. The instructions to the delegates did not contemplate separation or forcible resistance, but only the proposal of measures to “restore harmony” with Great Britain; and the Congress merely drafted addresses to the king and the people of that country, to the Canadians, and to their own constituents, and recommended non-importation and non-exportation agreements, and the forcible resistance to any forcible attempt to carry out the Parliament's taxation measures. It also advised the immediate election of delegates to a fresh Congress in Philadelphia 10 May 1775; which was carried out by various bodies — legislative assemblies in some cases, popular conventions or committees of safety (q.v.) in others. None of these had any legal power to act for this purpose, and the title of all alike was the will of the force majeure of the people; for the loyalist section had equal right to oppose the elections, and it was tacit acceptance of superior fighting force that gave the title. The fact that this Congress was considered necessary at all, and was to have power to organize combined resistance to Great Britain, would be conclusive evidence that the leaders of public opinion had determined on independence unless highly improbable concessions were made, were it not for the extreme reluctance the Congress displayed in declaring it, only doing so under irresistible urgency from public opinion. A parallel case is the memory of the hopes of accommodation and conciliation by Union leaders not only in 1860-61, but all through the Civil War. The frequent charge of hypocrisy against the Revolutionary leaders involves one against all the patriotic statesmen of the decade before 1860.
As soon as war was actually proclaimed by Great Britain the second Congress assumed the fullest powers of sovereignty; much greater than those of the British Parliament, for it combined the powers of that body with those of the king, being itself both executive and legislative head of the nation. It raised military and naval forces and directed belligerent operations with them, authorized privateering, contracted treaty alliances, issued national currency, etc., in both capacities. This was by no usurped power, but by the urgency of the people who were far more anxious to have it take the powers than it was to exercise them. The provincial congresses appealed to it for authorization, and the people urged it to more energetic action. Its crowning act was the Declaration of Independence; its business from 12 July to 20 August the debating of the scheme of government it had drafted (see United States — Articles of Confederation), but which was not put in force for five years, and for which it was perhaps slight misfortune to have waited. It sat till 12 Dec. 1776.
The session of 20 Dec. 1776 has been hesitantly called the third Continental Congress; for the delegates were selected entirely by the State legislatures, and the body as a whole had a title more definite and regular, though not in reality more legal. But in fact, the second Congress, from the opening on 10 May 1775, was a continuing body in perpetual session; with no definite term of sitting or terms of membership; the State legislatures which had selected members did not specifically send new ones for the new session, but each chose them for such terms as it pleased — Congress exercising no right of control in this matter — and recalled them at will. Each State had but one vote, all being thus equal, as in the Senate, where each has two; but in the Senate the members have individual votes. This provision in the Continental Congress was avowedly made only because a census could not then be taken to ascertain the relative populations. As under the Confederation, the Congress dealt with States, not individuals; and much of the impotence with which it is reproached in the Revolution was involved in this, though not all of its follies are thus excusable. Some of its worst performances, however — as the misdealing with the officers which drove some of them from the service permanently and others temporarily, and deeply injured the cause — were directly due to the tenacious individuality of the States, which claimed their share of the military patronage then as they do of the civil patronage now.
A history of the Congress is a history of the country during its lifetime; but some of its migrations are significant of military reverses and recoveries. From 20 Dec 1776 to 4 March 1777 it sat at Baltimore; 4 March to 18 Sept. 1777, at Philadelphia; 27 Sept. 1777, at Lancaster, Pa.; 30 Sept 1777 to 27 June 1778, at York, Pa.; 2 July 1778 to 21 June 1783, at Philadelphia. But before this it had ceased to be the Continental Congress, and had become the Congress of the Confederation, on 2 March 1781, after the ratification of the Articles by Maryland. Consult Histories of the United States by Bancroft, Hildreth, Schouler, Von Holst, etc.; Fiske, ‘Critical Period of American History’ (1888).
The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)