Second Continental Congress

The second congress of colonial delegates, now a revolutionary body, formed an army, managed the Revolutionary War, began the process of issuing paper money, and took the first steps toward creating a federal government that would bind the individual colony-states in common cause.

Summary of Event

The Second Continental Congress began its deliberations at the state house in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. It was, like the First Continental Congress, an extralegal body, until the ratification of the Articles of Confederation (1781) Articles of Confederation in 1781. However, it continued to meet throughout the Revolutionary War, exercising whatever authority the colony-states permitted. Although it was weak in terms of legal jurisdiction and state pressures, and it lacked material resources for waging war, the Second Continental Congress accomplished much. Out of a bond forged by a common threat from Great Britain, a bond often frustrated by local politicians more interested in state sovereignty than in wartime efficiency, there emerged a cluster of American political leaders, nationalists who echoed the plea of New York’s Jay, John John Jay that the “Union depends much upon breaking down provincial Conventions.” [kw]Second Continental Congress (May 10-Aug. 2, 1775)
[kw]Congress, Second Continental (May 10-Aug. 2, 1775)
[kw]Continental Congress, Second (May 10-Aug. 2, 1775)
Nationalism;United States
Continental Congress, Second (1775)
[g]American colonies;May 10-Aug. 2, 1775: Second Continental Congress[2190]
[g]United States;May 10-Aug. 2, 1775: Second Continental Congress[2190]
[c]Government and politics;May 10-Aug. 2, 1775: Second Continental Congress[2190]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 10-Aug. 2, 1775: Second Continental Congress[2190]
Adams, John (1735-1826)
Franklin, Benjamin
[p]Franklin, Benjamin;Continental Congress
Hancock, John
Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;Continental Congress
Washington, George
[p]Washington, George;Continental Congress

Forging a national identity was a delicate task that was much discussed among the delegates. Wary of a strong national government that had plagued the colonies, pushing them into war with the mother country, the delegates recognized that a united effort would be the only solution to the problems with Great Britain. The delegates to the congress knew also that a central government would be necessary long after the current feud and revolution ended, and that actions taken at the congress would dictate whether a central government could be formed and survive. Through the judicious coordination of individual events and the selection of military commanders from one section of the colonies to lead in other sections, the delegates at the Second Continental Congress were able to form a central government that bound the individual states in common cause and made the idea of a federal government acceptable to independent-minded Americans.

Delegates came to Philadelphia from all the colonies except Georgia;Second Continental Congress Georgia, which was not represented until the second session of the Congress, held that fall. An extraordinary task faced the delegates: The First Continental Congress had hammered out agreements on constitutional principles, but the Second Continental Congress had to unite for military action. Fortunately, the new congress contained men of distinction, such as John Hancock, who became its president. There were familiar faces from the preceding year, including the Adams cousins of Massachusetts, George Washington and Lee, Richard Henry Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, Rutledge, Edward Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, John Jay of New York, and Dickinson, John John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. They were joined by talented newcomers, such as the youthful Thomas Jefferson, the venerable Benjamin Franklin, and the scholarly Wilson, James James Wilson of Pennsylvania.

Although realizing that the chances of securing an amicable reconciliation might suffer if the delegates involved themselves in the confrontation between New England and British General Gage, Thomas Thomas Gage’s redcoats, this congress was in no mood to turn the other cheek. In their Declaration of Causes of Taking up Arms (colonial America) Declaration of Causes of Taking up Arms, the legislators solemnly announced that the American people had two choices: submission to tyranny or resistance by force. They preferred the latter. The colonies, moreover, looked to the Continental Congress for advice and direction. Connecticut asked what should be done with munitions captured at Ticonderoga and Crown Point. New York inquired whether it should resist a landing by British troops. Massachusetts sought approval for establishing a civil government and urged the congress to assume responsibility for the New England forces besieging Boston. “Such vast Multitude of Objects, civil, political, commercial and military, press and crowd upon us so fast, that we know not what to do first,” exclaimed John Adams.

The congress nevertheless moved resolutely to put America in a state of defense, Army, U.S.[Army, US] calling upon the colonies to prepare themselves and voting to take charge of the New England troops outside Boston. In selecting a commanding general, the congress rejected Massachusetts’ ranking officer, General Ward, Artemas Artemas Ward, as well as John Hancock, both of whom desired the post. It was “absolutely Necessary in point of prudence,” wrote Dyer, Eliphalet Eliphalet Dyer of Connecticut, “to pick a non-New Englander to head the Continental army; it removes all jealousies [and] more firmly Cements the southern to the Northern” colonies. One important reason for the subsequent appointment of George Washington as commander in chief was to demonstrate to Americans everywhere that the war transcended the interests of a particular section, a step that would arouse support for the military effort in the middle and southern parts of America. Washington, bearing the proper regional credentials, also hailed from the “right” colony, prosperous and populous Virginia Virginia. Equally or more important, Washington possessed certain qualities as a man, a patriot, and a soldier requisite for the high office bestowed upon him. The congress, in picking a ranking general, had taken an accurate measure of its man. Aware of the congress’s limitations and cognizant of state jealousies, he remained unflinchingly deferential to the civil authority.

Washington was a rare combination of soldier and statesman who understood, however maddening it might be at times, that the revaluation was a peculiar kind of coalition war. It is doubtful whether his accomplishments could have been equaled by any other general officer appointed at the time—men such as Major Generals Artemas Ward, Lee, Charles Charles Lee, Schuyler, Philip Philip Schuyler, and Putnam, Israel Israel Putnam, or Brigadier Generals Pomeroy, Seth Seth Pomeroy, Heath, William William Heath, Thomas, John John Thomas, Wooster, David David Wooster, Spencer, Joseph Joseph Spencer, Sullivan, John John Sullivan, Greene, Nathanael Nathanael Greene, and Montgomery, Richard Richard Montgomery.

Along with problems of state, the conduct of war, and the development of philosophies for a new kind of nation, the delegates to the congress dealt with the problems of personalities and special interests. Strong personalities such as John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Thomas Jefferson often conflicted with more tempered personalities such as Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, and John Hancock. Only because of their strong sense of duty and their belief in the future of a new nation could such men as Jefferson withstand the constant haggling over committee reports that had been laboriously written or the parliamentary tactics that were used to give one group an advantage in the various debates. Regional squabbles, especially over the issues of trade and slavery, were obstacles to the formation of a central government that would be capable of leading yet flexible enough to accommodate turning over many powers and privileges to individual states.


The first session of the Second Continental Congress came to an end on August 2, with the legislators agreeing to reconvene six weeks later. The delegates had accomplished much in less than three months. Besides calling the colonies to defensive preparations, adopting an army, providing for its regulation, and appointing its general offices, they had taken steps to issue paper money, encourage limited foreign trade, and bolster the militias. The congress was no longer a temporary council of American dignitaries sitting to articulate constitutional doctrines and draft remonstrances; it was the central government of a people at war, a revolutionary body in the fullest sense.

Further Reading

  • Burnett, Edmund C. The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan, 1941. A chronological look at the day-to-day events of the Continental Congress. Strongly supports the theory that the congress was the federal governing body of the colony-states.
  • 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 second congress.
  • French, Allen. The First Year of the American Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934. Looks beyond the congressional sessions and demonstrates the effectiveness of the actions in Philadelphia.
  • 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.
  • Levin, Phyllis Lee. Abigail Adams. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. Uses Adams’s letters and diaries to present the unique view of an American woman who had access to the inner activities of the second congress.
  • Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. New York: Harper & Row, 1950. A good work filled with quotations and characterizations of the early patriots.
  • Randall, Willard Sterne. Jefferson: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1993. A close look at the public and private life of the man who put into words many of the great ideas and ideals of the second congress.

Albany Congress

Stamp Act Crisis

Townshend Crisis

Boston Massacre

Boston Tea Party

Quebec Act

Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery Is Founded

Battle of Lexington and Concord

Paine Publishes Common Sense

France Supports the American Revolution

Declaration of Independence

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Publication of The Federalist

Washington’s Inauguration

Judiciary Act

First U.S. Political Parties

U.S. Bill of Rights Is Ratified

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Continental Congress, Second (1775)