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Congress, Continental

The first Continental Congress assembled in Carpenters' Hall, Philadelphia, Pa., on Sept. 5, 1774, when eleven of the English-American colonies were represented by forty-four delegates—namely, two from New Hampshire, four from Massachusetts, two from Rhode Island, three from Connecticut, five from New York, five from New Jersey, six from Pennsylvania, three from Delaware, three from Maryland, six from Virginia, and five from South Carolina. Three deputies from North Carolina appeared on the 14th. Peyton Randolph, of Virginia, was chosen president of the Congress, and Charles Thomson, of Pennsylvania, was appointed secretary. Other delegates appeared afterwards, making the whole number fifty-four. Each colony had appointed representatives without any rule as to number, and the grave question at once presented itself, How shall we vote.? It was decided to vote by colonies, each colony to have one vote, for as yet there were no means for determining the relative population of each colony.

Patrick Henry, in a speech at the opening of the business of the Congress, struck the key-note of union by saying, “British oppression has effaced the boundaries of the several colonies; the distinction between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, and New-Englanders is no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American.” This was the text of every speech afterwards. It was voted that the session of the Congress should be opened every morning with prayer, and the Rev. Jacob Duche, of the Protestant Episcopal Church, was employed as chaplain. There was much difference of opinion concerning the duties and powers of the Congress, Henry contending that an entirely new government must be founded; Jay, that they had not assembled to form a new government, but as a continental committee of conference, to try to correct abuses in the old. The members were unanimous in their resolves to support Massachusetts in resistance to the unconstitutional change in her charter. They appointed a committee to state the rights of the colonists in general, the several instances in which those rights had been violated or infringed, and to suggest means for their restoration. Other committees for various duties were appointed, and at

Carpenters' Hall.

about the middle of September the Congress was a theatre of warm debates, which took a wide range. On Sept. 20 they adopted a request for the colonies to abstain from commercial intercourse with Great Britain. They tried to avoid the appearance of revolution while making bold propositions. Some were radical, some conservative, and some very timid. The tyranny of Gage in Boston produced much irritation in the Congress; and on Oct. 8, after a short but spicy debate, it passed the most important resolution of the session, in response to the Suffolk resolutions, as follows: “That this Congress approve the opposition of the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay to the execution of the late acts of Parliament; and if the same shall be attempted to be carried into execution by force, in such case all Americans ought to support them in their opposition.” Thus the united colonies cast down the gauntlet of defiance. On the 14th the Congress adopted a Declaration of colonial rights. This was followed on the 20th by the adoption of The American Association, or [316] general non-importation league. An Address to the people of Great Britain, written by John Jay, and a memorial To the inhabitants of the several British-American colonies, from the pen of Richard Henry Lee, were adopted on the 21st. On the 26th—the last day of the session—a Petition to the King and an Address to the inhabitants of the province of Quebec, or Canada, both drawn by John Dickinson, were agreed to. A vote of thanks to the friends of the colonists in Parliament was sent to the colonial agents, with the petition of the King. Having already recommended the holding of another Continental Congress at Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, this Congress adjourned in the afternoon of Oct. 26, 1774, and the next day the members started for home, impressed with the belief that war was inevitable. The actual sessions of the Congress occupied only thirty-one days. Their proceedings produced a profound sensation in both hemispheres. The state papers they put forth commanded the admiration of

Room in which Congress met in Carpenters' Hall.

the leading statesmen of Europe. The King and his ministers were highly offended, and early in January Lord Dartmouth issued a circular letter to all the royal governors in America signifying his Majesty's pleasure that they should prevent the appointment of deputies to another Continental Congress within their respective governments, and exhort all persons to desist from such proceedings. The members of the first Continental Congress were cautious concerning the assumption of direct political authority. They had met as a continental committee of conference. Even the American Association, the nearest approach to it, was opposed by Galloway of Pennsylvania, Duane of New York, and all the South Carolina delegation but two.

The Southern members of the first Continental Congress were disturbed by the clause in the American Association, then adopted, by which they determined “wholly to discontinue the slave-trade” ; and the paragraph in the Declaration of Independence in which Jefferson denounced the slave-trade and slavery was rejected by the Congress of 1776, in deference to the people of South Carolina and Georgia. A few days after the amended declaration was adopted, in the first debates on a plan for a confederation of the States, there appeared much antagonism of feeling between the representatives of the Northern and Southern States, founded partially upon climate, pursuits, and systems of labor, but more largely on the latter. When members from the North spoke freely of the evils of slavery, a member from South Carolina declared that “if property in slaves should be questioned, there must be an end to the confederation.” So, in the convention that framed the national Constitution, that instrument could not have received the sanction of a majority of the convention [317] had the immediate abolition of the slavetrade been insisted upon. Soon after the arrival of Gerard, the first French minister, at Philadelphia, he wrote (1778) to Vergennes: “The States of the South and of the North, under existing subjects of estrangement and division, are two distinct parties, which, at present, count but few deserters. The division is attributed to moral and philosophical causes.”

The sessions of the Continental Congress were opened at the following times and places: Sept. 5, 1774, Philadelphia; May 10, 1775, ditto; Dec. 20, 1776, Baltimore; March 4, 1777, Philadelphia; Sept. 27, 1777, Lancaster, Pa.; Sept. 30, 1777, York, Pa.; July 2, 1778, Philadelphia; June 30, 1783, Princeton, N. J.; Nov. 26, 1783, Annapolis, Md.; Nov. 1, 1784, Trenton, N. J.; Jan. 11, 1785, New York. This continued to be the place of meeting from that time until the adoption of the Constitution of the United States in 1788. From 1781 to 1788 Congress met annually on the first Monday in November, which time was fixed by the articles of Confederation (q. v.). The presidents of the Continental Congress were:

Name.Where From.When Elected.
Peyton RandolphVirginiaSept. 5, 1774.
Henry MiddletonSouth CarolinaOct. 2, 1774.
Peyton RandolphVirginiaMay 10, 1775.
John HancockMassachusettsMay 24, 1775.
Henry LaurensSouth CarolinaNov. 1, 1777.
John JayNew YorkDec. 10, 1778.
Samuel HuntingtonConnecticutSept. 28, 1779.
Thomas McKeanDelawareJuly 10, 1781.
John HansonMarylandNov. 5, 1781.
Elias BoudinotNew JerseyNov. 4, 1782.
Thomas MifflinPennsylvaniaNov. 3, 1783.
Richard Henry LeeVirginiaNov. 30, 1784.
Nathan GorhamMassachusettsJune 6, 1786.
Arthur St. ClairPennsylvaniaFeb. 2, 1787.
Cyrus GriffinVirginiaJan. 22, 1788.

The colonists had been compelled to take up arms in self-defence. To justify this act, Congress agreed to a manifesto (July 6, 1775), in which they set forth the causes and necessity of their taking up arms. After a temperate but spirited preamble, presenting an historical view of the origin, progress, and conduct of the colonies, and of the measures of the British government towards them since 1763, they specified the various acts of Parliaments which were oppressive to the colonies. Having reverted to their fruitless petition to the throne and remonstrances to Parliament; to the unprovoked attack of British troops on the inhabitants of Massachusetts at Lexington and Concord; to the proclamation declaring the people of the colonies to be in a state of rebellion; to the events at Breed's Hill and the burning of Charlestown, the manifesto proceeded: “Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable.” After acknowledging the evidence of divine favor towards the colonists by not permitting them to be called into this controversy until they had grown strong and disciplined by experience to defend themselves, the manifesto most solemnly declared that the colonists, having been compelled by their enemies to take up arms, they would, in defiance of every hazard, “with unabating powers and perseverance, employ for the preservation of their liberties all the means at their command, being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves.” Disclaiming all intention of separating from Great Britain and establishing independent States, they declared that having been forced to take up arms, they should lay them down when hostilities should cease on the part of the aggressors, and all danger of their being made slaves should disappear. In that manifesto the united colonies cast at the feet of their blinded sovereign the gauntlet of defiance.

A petition to the King was adopted and signed by the members of the Congress present July 8, 1775, in which, after allusion to the oppression the colonists had been subjected to, they declared their loyalty to the throne. It was taken to England from Philadelphia by Richard Penn, who delivered it to Lord Dartmouth. Penn assured him the colonies had no designs for independence. On the strength of that testimony the Duke of Richmond moved in the House of Lords that the petition, which had been laid before Parliament, be made the basis of a conciliation with America. After a warm debate the motion was rejected, and no further notice was taken of the petition.

The second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia May 10, 1775. Peyton Randolph was chosen president; Charles Thomson, secretary; Andrew McNeare, [318] door-keeper, and William Shed, messenger. To this Congress all eyes were anxiously turned. Randolph was soon called to Virginia to attend a session of the Assembly as speaker, when his seat was temporarily filled by Thomas Jefferson, and his place as president by John Hancock. On May 25 Georgia was represented in the Continental Congress for the first time, Lyman Hall having been elected special representative from the parish of St. Johns and admitted to a seat, but without a vote.

In committee of the whole the Congress considered the state of the colonies. A full account of recent events in Massachusetts was laid before them; also a letter from the Congress of that province, asking advice as to the form of government to be adopted there, and requesting the Continental Congress to assume control of the army at Cambridge. This second Congress was regarded by the colonists as no longer a committee of conference, but a provisional government. The first Congress claimed no political power, though their signatures to the American Association implied as much. The present Congress, strengthened by the public voice of the colonists, entered at once upon the exercise of comprehensive authority, in which the functions of supreme executive, legislative, and sometimes judicial powers were united. These powers had no fixed limits of action nor formal sanction, except the ready obedience of a large majority in all the colonies. The committee of the whole reported and the Congress resolved (May 26) that war had been commenced by Great Britain.

The Congress denied any intention of casting off their allegiance, and expressed an anxious desire for peace; at the same time voted that the colonies ought to be put in a position of defence against any attempt to force them to submit to parliamentary schemes of taxation. Another petition to the King was adopted; and it was resolved that no provisions ought to be furnished by the colonists to the British army or navy; that no bills of exchange drawn by British officers ought to be negotiated, and that no colonial ships ought to be employed in the transportation of British troops. Committees were appointed to prepare an address to the people of Great Britain and Ireland; also to the Assembly of Jamaica, and an appeal to the “oppressed inhabitants of Canada.” They also issued a proclamation (June 9) for a day (July 20) of general solemn fasting and prayer. They resolved that no obedience was due to the late act of Parliament for subverting the charter of Massachusetts, and advised the Congress of that province to organize a government in as near conformity to the charter as circumstances would admit. The Congress adopted the army at Cambridge as a continental one; appointed a commander-in-chief (June 15), with four major-generals and eight brigadiers; arranged the rank and pay of officers, and perfected a preliminary organization of the army. They worked industriously in perfecting a national civil organization and for support of the military force, authorizing the issue of bills of credit to the amount of $2,000,000, at the same time taking pains not to give mortal offence to the British government. But the inefficiency of the executive powers of Congress was continually apparent. The sagacious Franklin, seeing the futility of attempting to carry on the inevitable war with such a feeble instrument, submitted a basis of a form of confederation, similar in some respects to the one he proposed in convention at Albany (q. v.) twenty-one years before. It was a virtual declaration of independence, but it was not acted upon at that time. The Congress also established a postal system (July 26, 1775) and appointed Dr. Franklin postmaster-general. It also established a general hospital, with Dr. Benjamin Church as chief director. The army before Boston and an expedition for the conquest of Canada engaged much of the attention of the Congress for the rest of the year.

Late in December, 1776, the Congress, which had fled from Philadelphia and reassembled at Baltimore, cast aside its hitherto temporizing policy. Up to this time the Congress had left on their journal the suggestion that a reunion with Great Britain might be the consequence of a delay in France to declare immediately and explicitly in their favor. Now they voted to “assure foreign courts that [319] the Congress and people of America are determined to maintain their independence at all events.” It was resolved to offer treaties of commerce to Prussia, Austria, and Tuscany, and to ask for the intervention of those powers to prevent Russian or German troops from serving against the United States. They also drew up a sketch for an offensive alliance with France and Spain against Great Britain. These measures delighted the more radical members in Congress and, with the victory at Trenton which immediately followed, inspirited the people.

The extent and intensity of the struggle of the Continental Congress during the fifteen years of its existence to maintain its financial credit and carry on the war may never be known. Enough is known to prove that it involved great personal sacrifices, much financial ability, unwearied patriotism, and abounding faith in the cause and its ultimate triumph. As that Congress approached its demise, it addressed itself to a final settlement of its financial accounts. Since the adoption of the peace establishment, commencing with 1784, the liabilities incurred by the general government, including two instalments of the French debt, amounted to a little more than $6,000,000, over one-half of which had been met. Only $1,800,000 of the balance had been paid in by the States; the remainder had been obtained by three Dutch loans, amounting in the whole to $1,600,000, a fragment of which remained unexpended. The arrearage of nearly $8,000,000 consisted of interest on the French debt, and two instalments of over-dues. This indebtedness was passed over to the new government. The accounts of the quartermaster, commissary, clothing, marine, and hospital departments were either settled or about to be settled. The accounts of many of the loan offices were unsettled. There seems to have been much laxity in their management. The papers of the first Virginia loan office were lost. In South Carolina and Georgia, the loan-office proceeds had been appropriated to State uses, and from only five States had returns been made. Out of more than $2,000,000 advanced to the secret committee for foreign affairs prior to August, 1777, a considerable part remained unaccounted for. The expenditure of full one-third of the money borrowed abroad remained unexplained.

The Congress was barely kept alive, for several months before it expired, by the occasional attendance of one or two members. Among the last entries in its journals by Charles Thomson, its permanent secretary, was one under date of “Tuesday, Oct. 21, 1788,” as follows: “From the day above mentioned to the 1st of November there attended occasionally, from New Hampshire, et cetera, many persons from different States. From Nov. 3 to Jan. 1, 1789, only six persons attended altogether. On that day Reed, of Pennsylvania, and Bramwell, of South Carolina, were present; and after that only one delegate was present (each time a different one) on nine different days.” The very last record was: “Monday, March 2. Mr. Philip pell, from New York.” The history of that Congress has no parallel. At first it was a spontaneous gathering of representative patriots from the different English-American colonies to consult upon the public good. They boldly snatched the sceptre of political rule from their oppressors, and, assuming imperial functions, created armies, issued bills of credit, declared the provinces to be independent States, made treaties with foreign nations, founded an empire, and compelled their king to acknowledge the States which they represented to be independent of the British crown. The brilliant achievements of that Congress astonished the world. Its career was as short as it was brilliant, and its decadence began long before the war for independence had closed. Its mighty efforts had exhausted its strength. It was smitten with poverty, and made almost powerless by a loss of its credit. Overwhelmed with debt, a pensioner on the bounty of France, unable to fulfil treaties it had made, insulted by mutineers, bearded, encroached upon, and scorned by the State authorities, the Continental Congress sank fast into decrepitude and contempt. With ungrateful pride, the recipients of its benefits seem not to have felt a pang of sorrow or uttered a word of regret when the once mighty and beneficent Continental Congress expired. [320]

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