Sunday, June 10, 2018

Episode 048: The First Continental Congress

During the fall of 1774, at the same time the colonists in Massachusetts were taking military and political control of the colony, colonial leaders headed to Philadelphia to see if the could coordinate a peaceful, yet effective response to the Coercive Acts.

Travel to Congress

In Episode 45, I discussed how in June 1774 Samuel Adams had gotten the Massachusetts Assembly to call for the Congress.  After, Gage closed Boston Harbor and moved the legislature to Salem, Adams locked the assembly doors, passed the resolution calling for a Continental Congress in September.   The legislature appointed himself, his cousin John Adams, Speaker Thomas Cushing, Robert Treat Paine, and James Bowdoin to the delegation that would attend.  He did this all while the Governor’s representative was screaming outside the locked doors that the assembly was dissolved and all of this was illegal.

First Continental Congress (from US Capitol)
Even so, the invitation went out to the other colonies.  Most them had also called for some similar sort of meeting, if only to avoid any immediate and devastating economic boycott of Britain.  I’m not going to go through the list of all the 55 delegates.  The men represented 12 of the colonies, only Georgia failed to send a delegation from the colonies that eventually became States.  Many of the men were already well known Patriots.  George Washington and Patrick Henry came with the Virginia delegation.  John Dickinson attended with the Pennsylvania delegation.  Many others attended not to create a united opposition, but to prevent radicals from committing their colonies to some crazy scheme.  Many of them ended up on the loyalist side once war began.

Quite a few of the delegates arrived early, allowing them to chat with other colonial delegations and get to know each other in an informal setting, such as dinner or a night of drinking at a tavern.

Setting up Congress

Carpenters Hall
(from Wikimedia)
On September 5, 1774, Congress convened and got to action.  Before getting to the debate, they settled a few preliminary matters.  First, they had to settle on where they would meet.  The 44 delegates present on the first day met at City Tavern.  That was great for informal meetings, but not to host the Congress.  They considered using the State House, the same building we today call Independence Hall.  They decided against it though.  Using the colony’s legislative building might imply they were taking government power without the consent of the Crown.  In the end, they decided on a smaller hall a few blocks away.  Carpenters Hall was a relatively newly built structure for local artisans to use.  The delegates decided it would meet their needs.

Delegates took their seats and got to business.  They elected Peyton Randolph of Virginia to serve as President of the Congress.  They decided each colony would get one vote regardless of size.  A majority of each delegation would determine how that colony would vote.  Finally, on September 7, they prepared to turn to the issue which had brought them together, how to respond to the Coercive Acts.

News of War

Just as delegates were getting down to business a messenger brought news from Boston that the British army had fired artillery on Boston, killing six.  This news was not true.  It was only a rumor based on the British powderhouse raid on Salem I discussed two weeks ago in Episode 46.  But it took a few days for the true story to arrive.

Duché leads opening prayer (from Weebly)
Just after receiving the news, the Congress opened its session with a prayer from local Anglican minister Reverend Jacob Duché of Christ Church.  Even the selection of the reverend was a political test of sorts.  The New England delegations were made up of Congregationalists, and not part of the Church of England.  By selecting an Anglican chaplain, they showed that they were willing to retain some ties with the old country and will the Anglican delegate in the central and southern colonies.

Still thinking regulars had just killed colonists in Massachusetts, the delegates began to debate as if open war had already begun.

On September 16, Paul Revere arrived with more details about the crisis in Massachusetts.  Delegates learned that the people had essentially shut down all government operations in Massachusetts outside of military-occupied Boston.  Blood had not been spilled, but a military standoff made clear that it would if neither side backed down.

Suffolk Resolves

Revere also brought with him the Suffolk Resolves that I discussed last week.  The Congress published and unanimously approved the resolves.  I find it amazing that the Congress would approve such a radical document given some of the moderate and downright loyalist members sitting in the Congress.  Part of this may have been that Congress had thought for over a week that the British had fired on Boston and killed civilians.  Even after they discovered that was not true, the news of the Powder Alarm left an impression with many that a shooting war could break out at any time.  The other colonies felt that Massachusetts was getting a raw deal.  Even if they were not ready to sacrifice all in a fight with Britain, the Congress seemed to admire the courage of Massachusetts to stand against their oppressor in such a bold and open way.

Richard Henry Lee
(from Wikimedia)
Part of the effectiveness of the radicals in Congress was in their strategy.  Many of the moderates and conservatives from New York and Pennsylvania prepared to take on the New Englanders directly, assuming they would call for radical action.  The moderates would counter that they had gotten themselves into this mess through their own actions and that moderation and compromise would lead to a better resolution.

The New Englanders, however, remained relatively silent in the debate.  They left the radical argument to southerners, men like Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry of Virginia, as well as Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina.  These men did not call on the Congress to help their own colonies, they acted out of principle to help their New England comrades.  This was designed to guilt the middle colonies into expressing support as well.

Several of the southern delegates proposed sending soldiers to Massachusetts, and calling on the citizens of Boston to abandon the city so that a colonial force could assault the military garrison occupying the town.  The delegates defeated this proposal, but after doing so, supporting the Suffolk Resolves seemed like the more moderate approach.  As a result, moderate and conservative leaders felt compelled to go along.

The Galloway Plan

Some moderates did try to develop a better long term solution to the ongoing fights between Britain and her colonies.  Joseph Galloway from Pennsylvania had long been an advocate for having Parliament grant the colonies some representation in Parliament.  This, he argued would end the fight over taxation without representation.  Years ago, some members of Parliament seemed amenable to such an idea.  The radicals, however, had long rejected such a plan.  A small minority in Parliament would do nothing to prevent Parliament from taxing the colonies with impunity and against their interests.  One would have to look no further than Scotland where members made up less than 10% of the Parliament, which routinely passed laws against Scottish interests.

Joseph Galloway (from Wikimedia)
At Congress, Galloway did not make an argument for Colonial representation in Parliament.  He knew that was a losing battle.  Instead Galloway proposed the creation of a Grand Council of colonies.  This council would be made up of representatives from all the colonies, much like the current Congress, and would have authority to veto any Parliamentary laws affecting the colonies.

The radicals saw the Galloway plan as a danger to their agenda of getting a united colonial effort to boycott Britain and force Parliament to back down fully.  They wanted Parliament to recognize the sovereignty of colonial legislatures, not create another layer of bureaucracy to control those legislatures.

In the end, the delegates tabled Galloway’s plan and even expunged all references to its debate in the Congressional Journal.  They simply did not want such a plan to become a distraction.

No Independence

Despite the shift toward more radical ideas, it does not seem that anyone in Congress was considering independence.  At least no one said it out loud.  Virginia delegate George Washington heard rumors that the Massachusetts delegation was seeking independence.  He spoke directly with the delegation.  John Adams told him there was some talk of independence among some of the country radicals, probably the source of the rumors Washington had heard.  The leadership though, had absolutely no wish to move in that direction.  Washington later reported this conversation in a letter to a friend.  He noted that no one was considering independence and that “no such thing is desired by any thinking man in all North America.”

Declaration of Rights and Grievances

If the moderates had hoped to use the Congress to slow down the radical opposition to Parliament, they were sorely disappointed.  Events in Massachusetts allowed the radical position to control the agenda in Congress.

Over the next few weeks, Congress integrated many of the proposals set forth in the Suffolk Resolves into a new document spelling out the consensus view of the Congress.  They also drew heavily from a document entitled A Summary View of the Rights of British America submitted by a Virginian named Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson was not a delegate, but was a member of the Virginia legislature.  His work seemed to resonate with many members of the Congress.  On October 17 Congress issued and approved its Declaration of Rights and Grievances.  The Summary view and the Declaration are worth reading these in full at the links above.  But I will summarize the Declaration of Rights and Grievances:

Summary View pamphlet, sent to members
of the First Continental Congress
(from Declaration Project)
The Declaration first challenged the Parliament’s authority in the Declaratory Act to pass any laws for the colonies in all cases whatsoever.  It challenged Parliament’s authority to impose duties for the purpose of raising revenue, objected to the American board of Customs Commissioners, and the use of admiralty courts.  It also objected to making colonial officials dependent on the Crown for their salaries, for keeping standing armies in the colonies in times of peace, and for threatening to transport colonists accused of treason to England for trial.

Next, the declaration turned to the Coercive Acts, calling the Port Act, the Government Act, the Justice Act, and the Quebec act “impolitic, unjust, and cruel, as well as unconstitutional, and most dangerous and destructive of American rights.”  It also objected to Colonial Governors regularly dissolving elected assemblies which were attempting to discuss grievances or draft petitions to resolve disputes peacefully and according to law.

Because of these actions the Congress held it appropriate to declare following:

First, like all men, they had a right to “life, liberty, and property,” an expression of fundamental rights coined by John Locke a century earlier.  Second, that as their ancestors had emigrated from England, they have the same rights and liberties as the subjects still living in England.  Third, that emigrating from England or being a descendant of an emigrant did not forfeit or lose such rights.

Fourth, a fundamental English liberty is the right to representation in the legislature.  English colonists could not properly be represented in Parliament, and therefore had authority to maintain their own colonial legislatures.  These local legislatures had full authority over taxes and local laws, with only the King having authority to veto legislation, just as the king could veto acts of  Parliament.  Not mentioned was the fact that the King had not vetoed a bill in almost 70 years.  In other words, colonial laws would, in almost all cases, be final for the colonies, just as Parliament’s laws were in England.  The Congress did recognize Parliament’s right to regulate external trade and to control foreign policy for the Empire.

Payton Randolph
Fifth, the Congress demanded recognition of the common law right to trial by jury in the locality where a crime was committed.  Also sixth the right to benefit from the laws of England as they existed when their colonies were first established.  Seventh, they further held the rights established in their colonial charters or in laws passed by their colonial legislatures.

Eighth, they retained the right to assemble, consider grievances, and petition the King.  Ninth, keeping standing armies in a colony in time of peace without the consent of the colonial legislature is illegal.  Tenth, legislative power by an appointed council was unconstitutional.  Not only had Parliament just made this change in Massachusetts, but several other colonies had long lived under appointed councils.  Therefore, they backed off a bit and said they were only concerned about changes made since the end of the French and Indian war.  They then listed the specific acts of Parliament they found objectionable.

In light of these wrongs, the Declaration agreed to a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement, with an association to enforce such rules.  The Congress also agreed to prepare a public address for the people of Great Britain and America, as well as a petition to the King consistent with the Declaration.

The Continental Association

The most controversial proposal to come out of the Congress was the creation of the Continental Association.  Effective December 1, the Congress agreed that the Colonies should stop all imports from and exports to Britain, Ireland and the West Indies (in other words the British colonies in the Caribbean).  They also included a non-consumption clause, agreeing not to consume any such products.  This meant that smugglers who had violated the import agreement would have no market to sell their goods anywhere in the colonies.

John Dickinson
(from American History Central)
The articles also completely banned any participation in the international slave trade, though it did nothing to prevent the internal sale and purchase of slaves in and among the colonies.  No one was thinking about this being a first step toward emancipation.  Rather, there were too many slaves in the colonies.  This was reducing the price of slaves by more than the slave owners liked.  The ban was also part of the larger effort to shut down trans-Atlantic trade on everything.

Delegates also pledged to use “Frugality, Economy, and Industry” to limit extravagances that had led them to be indebted to Britain.  It discouraged any horse racing, cock fights, plays, etc.  It even asked mourners at funerals to cut back on traditions that required purchase of goods from Britain.

The southern colonies balked at some of this.  And it had nothing to do with the slave trade ban.  Virginia and South Carolina were particularly concerned about the ban on all exports.  Both colonial economies were almost completely dependent on exports of cash crops, tobacco for Virginia, and indigo and rice for South Carolina.  Even a cut back on imports and extravagances would not save many rich planters from bankruptcy if they could not service their debts by selling their cash crops.

In the end, Congress compromised, calling for the ban on exports to begin a year later, in September 1775 if Britain had not yet repealed the Coercive Acts by then.  Even with that, delegates could only convince South Carolina to go along by allowing the continued export of rice permanently.

Unlike earlier merchants agreement, the Congress created an ongoing Association to observe trade throughout the colonies and report anyone violating the terms of the Association.  Many conservatives both in the Congress and in the population generally objected to the terms.  They noted that colonial legislatures objected to Parliament legislating on their behalf.  Why then, they asked, was it ok for this quasi-legal Continental Congress to legislate on behalf of colonial legislatures?

Many though, supported the action.  If the British closed the Port of Boston to all trade, the other colonies had to stand in solidarity with the people of Boston.  Surely London could not handle a complete cessation of trade with her colonies for long.  She would have to back down and respect colonial rights.

Petitioning the King

Petition to the King
Congress’ final product for the year was the Petition. A committee headed by Richard Henry Lee, and thought to be drafted primarily by John Dickinson, modeled the Petition on the Declaration of Rights and Grievances that they had approved a week earlier.  It largely spelled out the same sentiments, primarily requesting that the coercive acts be repealed.  But it began and ended with praise for the king and humble language, and an expression of loyalty. Basically, it was a request to undo all the laws and rules relating to colonial trade and taxes since the end of the Seven Years War, which coincidentally was about the same time George III became King.  Congress received the petition on October 25, made a few changes and gave final approval the following day.  It ordered the final document shipped to King George.

Lord North received the Petition in December on behalf of the King.  Parliament had refused even to receive earlier petitions that had questioned Parliament’s authority to pass laws for the colonies.  Despite that this petition similarly denied that right, North found it respectful enough to allow Parliament to receive it.  Still, he did not make it available to Parliament until late January.  He simply laid it before Parliament with other newspapers and information about events in the colonies without any effort to debate it or respond to it.  Leaders in London ended up paying far more attention to the Declaration and other reports printed in newspapers.

Let’s do this again next year.

On October 26, 1774, the same day Congress gave final approval to its petition it wrapped up its work, allowing the delegates to return home after nearly two months in session.  Before leaving the delegates agreed to meet again for a second congress the following spring, May 1775.  By then Britain would have had time to react to the petition and to back down and resolve all these problems.

Next week, Massachusetts sets up a Provincial Congress that is completely independent of Britain.

Next Episode 49: The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts

Previous Episode 47: The Suffolk Resolves

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web sites: 

Declaration of Rights and Grievances (full text):

First Continental Congress Petition to the King (full text):

Wolf, Edwin “The Authorship of the 1774 Address to the King Restudied” The William and Mary Quarterly, 1965, pp. 189-224: (free to read online with registration).

Cecere, Michael “The First Continentental Congress responds to the Coercive Acts” Journal of the American Revolution, 2014:

The Continental Association:

Articles of Association:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of Congress, Vol 1, (contains minutes of First Continental Congress and first year of the Second Continental Congress.

Boucher, Jonathan, A letter from a Virginian: to the members of the Congress to be held at Philadelphia, on the first of September, 1774, (Supposedly written by John Adams, 1774).

Gray, Harrison, A few remarks upon some of the votes and resolutions of the Continental Congress: held at Philadelphia in September, and the Provincial Congress, held at Cambridge in November 1774, Boston? 1775 (loyalist pamphlet by the Treasurer of Massachusetts).

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Beeman, Richard R. Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Bunker, Nick An Empire on the Edge, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Carp, Benjamin Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Raphael, Ray & Marie The Spirit of ‘74: How the American Revolution Began, New York: The New Press, 2015.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

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