First Continental Congress Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A meeting of fifty-six delegates from the American colonies marked the beginning of an independent American government, paving the way for separation from Great Britain.

Summary of Event

On September 5, 1774, representatives from all the American colonies, except far-off and thinly settled Georgia, assembled at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia to begin the business of the First Continental Congress. The significance that Americans attached to the meeting is revealed in the quality of the men chosen to attend: Randolph, Peyton Peyton Randolph, Washington, George [p]Washington, George;Continental Congress George Washington, Henry, Patrick Patrick Henry, and Lee, Richard Henry Richard Henry Lee of Virginia; John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts; Rutledge, John John and Rutledge, Edward Edward Rutledge of South Carolina; Sherman, Roger Roger Sherman of Connecticut; and Dickinson, John John Dickinson and Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania. “There are in the congress,” noted John Adams in his diary, “a collection of the greatest men upon this Continent in point of abilities, virtues, and fortune.” The greatest potential, as Adams recognized, belonged not to the old and well-tried politicians but to younger men. The future lay with colonial leaders such as John Adams, George Washington, and Jay, John John Jay, many of whom first became acquainted with one another during the September and October deliberations in Philadelphia. [kw]First Continental Congress (Sept. 5-Oct. 26, 1774) [kw]Congress, First Continental (Sept. 5-Oct. 26, 1774) [kw]Continental Congress, First (Sept. 5-Oct. 26, 1774) Continental Congress, First (1774) Nationalism;United States [g]American colonies;Aug. 1, 1774: Priestley Discovers Oxygen[2100] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 5-Oct. 26, 1774: First Continental Congress[2110] [c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 5-Oct. 26, 1774: First Continental Congress[2110] Adams, John (1735-1826) Adams, Samuel Galloway, Joseph Washington, George

After Parliament Parliament;British imposed the Coercive Acts (1774) Coercive Acts upon Massachusetts Bay Colony Massachusetts, the cause of that colony became the cause of all American colonies. If Parliament were permitted to chastise one colony legislatively, it might choose to punish other colonies at any time. The only recourse many colonial leaders saw was united resistance. South Carolina, among the last to hear of Massachusetts’ fate, was the first outside New England to send direct aid, dispatching a shipment of rice for the beleaguered Bostonians. Other colonies soon followed South Carolina’s lead. Suspicion of Parliament’s motives increased after the early summer of 1774, when, with remarkably poor timing, that body passed the Quebec Act (1774) Quebec Act. That act gave the province of Quebec a civil government without a representative assembly. It also allowed Quebec’s Catholic majority special privileges relative to their religious practices. The Quebec Act provided further evidence to colonists that a conspiracy against their rights was growing in Parliament. Thoughtful Americans concerned about the prospects of potentially violent local protest recognized the need to coordinate and control efforts to redress grievances against Parliament. With the idea of an intercolonial congress steadily gaining support, Massachusetts, in June, issued a call for a convention of deputies from each colony to be held in Philadelphia. Other colonies soon followed Massachusetts’ lead, and, in September, the first congress of continental representatives became a reality.

Half the fifty-six delegates who assembled in Philadelphia were lawyers, eleven were merchants, and the rest were farmers. None of the delegates officially represented this assembly. Instead, although acknowledged leaders within their colonies, the delegates were in Philadelphia by their own choice. While the British threat to American commerce was among the delegates’ chief concerns, more important was the perceived threat to individual American rights and the British constitution. Constitution, British A majority of the delegates, who would be labeled radicals, embraced an aggressive stance toward recent British actions. Others, identified as “reconciliators” or “conservatives,” hoped to pursue a far less confrontational approach.

The intent of the Congress to stand resolutely for American rights became obvious early in the proceedings, as the delegates overwhelmingly endorsed the Suffolk Resolves. Suffolk Resolves Adopted by Massachusetts’ Suffolk County, these resolutions denounced the Coercive Acts as unconstitutional, urged the people to prepare militarily, and called for an immediate end to trade with the British Empire. In Philadelphia, there was informal talk about setting up a Continental army if the crisis deepened, and Lee, Charles Charles Lee, a former British officer from Virginia, showed some of his fellow delegates a plan he had drafted for organizing colonial regiments. The Congress’s adamant position on the Suffolk Resolves alarmed many of the conservative delegates. In response, Joseph Galloway proposed a far more conciliatory approach to the problems with Parliament. He called for the adoption of a Plan of Union (1754) Plan of Union, like the one proposed in 1754 by the Albany Congress, Albany Congress (1754) which would establish an American grand council. Grand council Although “an inferior and distinct branch of Parliament,” the grand council would create a separate American government within the structure of the British Empire by providing colonial representation in all matters involving the American relationship with Great Britain. In a close vote, the Continental Congress rejected the idea and, in so doing, pushed the colonies toward independence from England.

Delegates to the First Continental Congress, which marked the first independent American government and the path toward American independence.

(Library of Congress)

The subject of commercial retaliation, which had been important in bringing about the Congress, took most of the delegates’ time. On September 27, the Congress adopted a resolution banning importation from Great Britain after December 1, 1774. Three days later, the delegates voted to stop exportation to the various parts of the empire, beginning September 10, 1775, if America’s grievances were not redressed by that date. The Congress’s program of economic coercion, known as the Continental Association Continental Association, bound each colony to participate in the boycott and created enforcement procedures.

In addition to the formal protest of the Coercive Acts, the Continental Congress pursued a review of colonial America’s relationship with Great Britain. Because Parliament had refused to recognize repeated attempts to distinguish between taxation legislation and legislation that regulated trade within the empire but did not generate revenue, many Americans concluded that Parliament had no constitutional justification to maintain authority over the colonies. Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;colonial politics Thomas Jefferson, in his pamphlet Summary View, expressed the thinking of many of his countryfolk. He referred to the king as the “chief magistrate” of the empire and denied the authority of Parliament to legislate for the colonies in any case. However, Jefferson went too far for some congressmen. Reluctant to repudiate Parliament completely, conservatives were able to secure approval of a compromise resolution, which stated that by consent, not by right, Parliament could regulate colonial American commerce in the interest of the empire as a whole.

Significance

Before adjourning on October 26, the Congress scheduled another intercolonial meeting for the following spring and dispatched a series of appeals to the king, to the people of Great Britain, and to the citizens of America. The delegates called for a return to the relationship they had enjoyed with England in the years prior to 1763 and asked for a repeal or withdrawal of policies and laws, beginning with the decision to keep British regulars in colonial America and concluding with the Coercive Acts. In Great Britain, the appeals of the Congress went unheeded. As early as November 18, 1774, King George III informed his prime minister, Lord North, the earl of Guilford, that “the New England governments are in a state of rebellion [and] blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.”

With their work completed and preparations made for a second meeting of the Continental Congress, the delegates returned home. Although most recognized that they had taken important actions in addressing the British threat to American rights, few realized that they had made a significant step toward independence from England and the establishment of an autonomous American government.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ammerman, David. In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974. Asserts that the First Continental Congress was the product of popular opposition to British legislation against the colonies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Richard D. Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772-1774. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970. Examines the role that local protest organizations played immediately preceding the First Continental Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Wallace. The King’s Friends: The Composition and Motives of the American Loyalist Claimants. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1965. Examines the Loyalists, who, between 1777 and 1790, placed claims with the British government for losses suffered in America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burnett, Edmund C. The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan, 1941. The first three chapters of this massive, detailed book are particularly relevant to the events of 1774.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ferling, John. A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A scholarly but accessible survey of the politics and politicians of the American Revolution and the early republic. Includes information on the First Continental Congress.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jensen, Merrill. The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763-1776. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. In this fine narrative, the importance of the First Continental Congress is well described.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jillson, Calvin, and Rick Wilson. Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774-1789. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994. A political analysis of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, describing how and why the delegates cast their votes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meigs, Cornelia L. The Violent Men: A Study of Human Relations in the First American Congress. New York: Macmillan, 1949. A fast-paced narrative of the years 1774 to 1776.

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Second Continental Congress

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