Sunday, September 30, 2018

Episode 064: The Second Continental Congress Begins

On the morning of May 10th, 1775, just hours after Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen stormed Fort Ticonderoga, and three weeks into the Siege of Boston, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia.

Getting Organized

The First Continental Congress, which I looked at back in Episode 48, had set this date to meet when it disbanded at the end of October in 1774.  At that time, its purpose was to decide was steps to take next if the King and Parliament refused to take acceptable action on their petitions.  Well, not only had London refused to consider the petitions, but now war had broken out. Congress had to play catch up with what was now a shooting war.

Many of the representatives were returning from the First Congress.  There were some new faces though who would have major roles.  John Hancock had joined the Massachusetts delegation.  Benjamin Franklin, returned from London and sat with the Pennsylvania delegation.  Thomas Jefferson joined from Virginia, replacing Peyton Randolph a few weeks into the session.  Georgia had not sent a delegation to the First Congress, This time, one Georgia parish, sent a single delegate, Lyman Hall.  A full delegation would arrive a few months later.

Congress met in Pennsylvania's legislative hall,
later known as Independence Hall. (from General Atomic)
The Second Congress seemed more willing to take more radical action than the First Congress. Part of that was the fact that several prominent Tories who had gone to the First Congress now decided that further participation could be seen as treason.  Part of it also was that many moderates had seen intervening events and recognized that the outbreak of war required a new response.

Congress essentially broke down into three factions.  The most conservative faction led by men like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, still wanted to return to the relationship that the colonies had with Parliament at the end of the French and Indian War.  Parliament held authority over the Empire, but essentially respected the rights of the colonies to govern and tax themselves.  Even these most conservative delegates would be considered radicals by Parliament’s standards though.

Most delegates probably fell into the middle moderate category. They believed that Parliament could not be trusted to govern the colonies.  They still hoped to fashion a compromise with London that would allow the colonial legislatures to govern and tax themselves, but still operate as loyal subjects to the King.  They wanted a new power sharing arrangement that would keep them within the protection of the Empire.  Most of the southern delegates fell into this category, as well as some from other regions.

Finally, the most radical faction accepted the idea that with war having come, there really was no option other than full independence.  John Adams and a few other New Englanders had reached this conclusion, but they dared not express it openly in Congress yet.  They realized they needed the moderates to bring the other colonies into the fight.  They could not afford to scare them away.  As events progressed, they hoped others would accept that nothing would work but independence.

Peyton Randolph of Virginia, who had presided over most of the First Continental Congress, received unanimous reelection to the Second.  Randolph a lawyer from one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in Virginia was a well respected moderate.  Within weeks, he had to return home though.  Congress then elected John Hancock to preside over Congress.

The first few weeks of Congress were a scene of chaos and confusion for the delegates as they received the depositions from Lexington and Concord.  The siege of Boston involving tens of thousands of armed militia was only one issue.  Congress soon began to receive reports about the capture of Fort Ticonderoga.  All over the Continent, colonists rose up, formed armies, and confiscated arms and ammunition from public armories.  They forced royal governors, and even outspoken Tories, to flee for their lives.  The small contingent of British regulars in New York were stuck on navy ships in the harbor.  The soldiers dared not set foot on land.

Royal governors up and down the continent found their positions completely untenable.  Absent arrival of British Regulars, each governor realized his options were becoming limited to being asked to leave, being taken prisoner, or joining the Patriot cause.  No governor with a royal appointment took the third option, not even Gov. William Franklin of New Jersey, who split permanently with his father Benjamin, now in the Continental Congress.  Only the elected Governor of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull transitioned to the patriot leadership.

More Negotiations or War?

One of Congress’ first decisions was whether their goals had changed.  Were they seeking independence?  Were they supporting an armed rebellion? Or were they simply trying to get the King and Parliament to move back to the status quo.

John Dickinson gave a lengthy speech urging Congress not to go too far too fast.  His views really had not changed much since he wrote the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania years earlier to stir up opposition to the Townshend Acts.  Dickinson thought they had three options.  One was to stop talking to London and simply fight the war.  Dickinson raised fears of British-incited slave revolts in the south, using the French and Indians against New England and devastation by regular army and navy as making this option far too dangerous.

John Dickinson
(from American History Central)
His next option was to continue military opposition while petitioning the King and Parliament once again.  Although previous petitions fell on deaf ears, now that Lexington and Concord had shown the colonists would fight, perhaps London would be more amenable to petitions.  The third option would be to send negotiators to London to work out a solution in person.  To Dickinson, this seemed like the best option.

Dickinson’s position requesting that Parliament simply restore the status quo put him squarely within mainstream patriot thought from five years earlier. Others though, had moved on.  Most delegates realized that they could never trust Parliament to support their best interests.  They wanted complete autonomy over domestic affairs, with only a shared loyalty to the King.  A few did not even want that, but they were keeping quiet, at least for now.  Several delegates spoke in opposition to Dickinson, including Patrick Henry.  Even that outspoken Virginia radical did not propose Independence.  John and Samuel Adams both opposed Dickinson’s ideas in letters written afterwards.  They did not want to appear too radical to the rest of Congress in the debates quite yet.  The Massachusetts delegation still feared, the rest of the colonies saying you guys are nuts and leaving them to fight a war on their own.

The Dickinson debates resulted in four votes, the first three nearly unanimous, referring to themselves as “his majesty’s most faithful subjects” had been put in a precarious situation that unfortunately resulted in the battles at Lexington and Concord, that all the colonies would work toward defending their fellow citizens in Massachusetts, and that they hoped for a restoration of harmony between the colonies and the mother country, though they stayed away from any specifics about what that “harmony” might entail.  The fourth vote passed only narrowly, to submit another petition to the King calling for negotiations to work out an acceptable power sharing plan.

The fact that the last vote was so controversial says that most delegates accepted that the time for talk really was over.  Based on the next few weeks, it seems clear that even many of those who supported another petition, did not see much coming from it.  They would prepare for war, but if you want to send another document to the King, knock yourself out.

The final votes on the debate took place on May 26, just one day after the HMS Cerberus landed in Boston, bringing the first military reinforcements from London.

News of Fort Ticonderoga

During the debates on a petition, word reached  Congress about Allen and Arnold capturing Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point.  Unlike Lexington and Concord, which could be portrayed as self defense against British aggression, capture of these forts clearly constituted an aggressive act of war.  For the moderates and conservatives still looking for a negotiated peace, this was a nightmare.

John Adams
(from Journal of Am. Rev.)
Although Allen claimed his capture in the name of the Continental Congress, no one in Philadelphia heard of the attack before it was over.  It is almost certain Congress never would have approved it ahead of time.  Not only did it create a divide between the war factions and negotiation factions in Congress. It started a big colonial dispute as well.

New York was probably the most pro-loyalist colony among those attending the Congress.  The fact that extra-legal committees from Massachusetts and Connecticut approved an invasion into New York without notice or consent did not sit well with many New Yorkers.  The fact that Ethan Allen was involved only made things worse.  Many NY delegates considered the man a terrorist.

To keep New York happy and prevent any further conflict, Massachusetts agreed to turn over the Fort to New York, but asked that the cannon be shipped to Boston for use in the Siege.  There is actually very little in the Congressional records about Ticonderoga.  Apparently most of the discussions were done in committee and without much written record.  What we do know though, shows that Congress simply was not ready to start managing a war before it even decided to create an army.

Creating an Army

With the Dickinson debates over, Congress in early June finally turned to the matter of creating an army.  It was clear that the Massachusetts Provincial Congress was in over its head.  The Massachusetts delegation had been pushing all along to get the other colonies more involved in the fighting.  When Benjamin Church arrived with news from Boston and Joseph Warren’s request that Congress take control of its army, Congress got down to business.

After a few days of debate, Congress agreed to support a 10,000 man army in Massachusetts and a 5000 man army in New York.   The Army in Massachusetts already far exceeded 10,000 men, so I guess not all of them would be able to go on the Continental payroll.  Many of those besieging Boston were happy to stay in their militia and not join this new Continental Army.  The New York Army would need to incorporate New York militia, which had not flocked to Boston in significant numbers.  But with the capture of Crown Point and Ticonderoga, New York would likely have to defend against a British invasion from Canada.  Congress also made an effort to ensure some of the middle colonies at least got involved in the conflict.  It called for six companies of riflemen to be raised in Pennsylvania, still one of the most reluctant Colonies to commit to the cause.  Maryland and Virginia would also raise two companies of riflemen each.

Spanish Silver Dollar broken into pieces of eight
(from the2nomads). 
To pay for all this, Congress authorized raising $2 million Spanish dollars.  This act alone probably needs explanation on multiple levels.  First, why are we now using Spanish dollars instead of pounds?  The spanish silver dollar had become common currency throughout the Americas.  Spanish colonial gold and silver mines sent their product to mints, also in Latin America, meaning that lots of this hard money circulated all over the western hemisphere. A shortage of British hard currency in America caused colonists to turn to spanish dollars. About four Spanish dollars was worth about 1 British pound.  Spanish dollars were often broken into eighths.  They literally broke the coin into pieces.  This is where we get the term “pieces of eight” sometimes used in pirate movies.  The pieces were often called “bits” which is why today we still call a quarter of a dollar “two bits”.  Calculating the authorization in Spanish dollars, meant that no single colonial currency would be involved and that the authorization would likely hold its value, unlike colonial currencies which often sank with inflation.

Where did Congress get the authority to do this?  The Continental Congress really was just a meeting of colonial delegations to discuss foreign policy.  It had no authority to raise taxes or spend large sums of money.  Congress simply decided to act on its own.  It called upon each of the colonies to pony up the necessary funds.  Success in collecting that money was mixed at best, and would prove an ongoing problem for the next decade or so.  But for now, Congress would issue paper notes, essentially IOUs promising to pay the bearer in Spanish hard currency, at some point, when they could get their hands on it.  For now, we cannot worry about the money, we’ve got a war to fight.  Maybe we’ll all be dead before the bills come due anyway.

Picking a General

Having approved the creation of an army, Congress next had to select someone to lead it.  Doing this was no easy task.  First, there were no experienced Generals in America, unless you count militia generals who may never have seen combat, or those guys in Massachusetts who the Provincial Congress made Generals a few weeks earlier.  This new leader would have to create a whole new army and put it into battle against British regulars almost immediately.

But military ability was only one consideration.  Another was loyalty to Congress.  Next to defeat, The greatest fear of many delegates was that they would create a successful General who would become the next Cromwell, the Puritan General who overthrew King Charles I and then Parliament a century earlier.  Armies had a way of turning into dictatorships.  Any military leader could not have anything even hinting at such an inclination.

Another consideration was diversity.  Political leaders wanted to make sure the new commanders would represent many different colonies.  If all the colonies were going to participate in the fighting, they simply could not be seen to be joining a Massachusetts army.  The Continental Army had to be truly continental, with leaders from North, south, and middle.

Congress considered a number of people.  Although this debate did not make it into the records, we know from letters and other recollections what delegates were debating among themselves, probably mostly in evening discussions at taverns over a few beers.

One of the top military leaders allied with the patriot cause was Charles Lee, who had served as at Lt. Col. in the British Army.  He had seen combat in America and Europe during the Seven Years War, and had served in the Polish and Portuguese armies to get more battlefield experience when Britain was a peace.  Unable to secure a full colonelcy, Lee retired from the Army and moved to Virginia in 1773.  Now, he was in Philadelphia, offering his services to Congress.  Despite his battlefield experience, Lee was a professional soldier, and a bit of a mercenary, having served in several foreign armies.  Congress was not ready to hand over command to someone who might not be completely dedicated to the political cause.

Charles Lee
(from Wikimedia)
Artemas Ward, the Commander and Chief of the Massachusetts Provincial Army was another top contender, since he was essentially already doing the job.  But Ward was old, and had already proven sickly on several occasions.  Besides, Congress really wanted to look outside of Massachusetts.  Not even the Massachusetts delegation was pushing for Ward.

John Hancock had been the titular commander of the Massachusetts militia at one point.  But he really had not commanded men in combat.  Besides, he seems to have taken the political route, becoming the President of Congress. He was from Massachusetts at a time when everyone seemed to be looking for someone from another colony.

Horatio Gates also got serious attention.  Like Lee, he had served for many years in the British Army, rising to Major, and eventually retired to Virginia.  Gates was old enough to have fought in the War of Austrian Succession.  He followed Gen. Braddock to America at the beginning of the Seven Years war, marching alongside fellow officers Thomas Gage and Charles Lee, along with militia officer George Washington, at the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755.  He served throughout the war and as a peacetime officer through the 1760’s.  Eventually, however, he realized he did not have the money nor influence for further promotions and retired to a farm in Virginia.  Again, Congress liked his experience but was not sure about his dedication to the cause and Congress to make him overall commander.

Finally, there was George Washington.  The delegate from Virginia, in a classic case of dressing for the job you want, not the job you have, began attending Congressional sessions in his Virginia Militia uniform.  Although Washington had experience from the French and Indian War, he had done little to distinguish himself during the war.  He lost most of the battles in which he fought.  He had tried to get a commission in the regular army and failed.  He had been commander of the Virginia militia, but had been primarily a ceremonial leader for the past decade, pursuing instead the life of a gentleman farmer and part time politician.  He had not even taken up arms when Virginia had fought Lord Dunmore’s war against the Indians a year earlier.

All that said, Washington seemed to meet all the criteria.  He had decent military experience.  He was from Virginia, which would help bring the south into the war.  He seemed dedicated to the idea of civilian rule and to Congressional authority.  According to some, the tall silent Washington just looked like a military commander.  Perhaps it’s not the best reason to choose a commander based on looks, but it seems like it was a factor.

Congress select George Washington as Commander in Chief
(from Wikimedia)
John Adams rose on June 15 to propose a new Commander in Chief.  Evidently, he had not discussed his choice even with the members of the Massachusetts delegation.  As he began his speech, according to several witnesses, John Hancock thought he might be the nominee.  After a few minutes, he realized Adams was talking about Washington, which his change of expression made known to everyone in the room.

Washington immediately left the room so delegates could debate without him present.  After surprisingly little debate, Congress unanimously selected Washington.

There is no evidence that Washington wanted or sought the position directly.  Some historians have argued it would have been unseemly to campaign for the job, which is true, and that Washington was subtly jockeying for it by wearing his uniform to Congress and working on all the military committees there.

Washington did see himself as a military expert, and probably expected to get some high ranking commission.  But his reaction immediately following the appointment indicates that even he questioned his own ability to serve as commander.  In his acceptance speech, he said that he did not seek the job and questioned his own capacity and experience to fulfill its duties.  Perhaps this was false modesty, but Washington repeated his own self doubt in numerous letters, including to his wife in the days following his appointment.  Still, he accepted the job, and spent the next few days getting his affairs in order and preparing to make the trip to Boston.  Washington further endeared himself to Congress by refusing to take the proposed $500/month salary, and instead agreeing to seek only reimbursement for his expenses.

Unlike the First Continental Congress, which sat for less than two months, the Second Continental Congress continued in session for the next six years.  It then morphed into the Confederation Congress.  We will leave it now in June 1775 and come back later to discuss its ongoing debates.

- - -

Next Episode 65: Provincials Occupy Bunker Hill

Previous Episode 63: Buzzard's Bay and Machias

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Further Reading:
Resources to learn more about today’s topic.

Web sites:
LOC: Washington’s Commission as Commander in Chief:

Hatfield, Stuart "Continental Congress vs. Continental Army: The Officer Corps" Journal of the American Revolution, Oct. 30, 2018:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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

Dickinson, John The Political Writings of John Dickinson, Wilmington: Bonsol and Niles, 1801.

Lincoln, William (ed) The journals of each Provincial congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of safety, Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838.

Lodge, Henry Cabot George Washington, Vol. 1, Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co. 1898.

Morse, John T. John Adams, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912 (original 1889).

StillĂ©, Charles The Life and Times of John Dickinson, Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891.

Van Doren, Carl Benjamin Franklin, New York: Viking Press, 1938.

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.

Borneman, Walter American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution, New York: Little, Brown & Co. 2014.

Chernow, Ron Washington: A Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2010.

Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2003.

McCullough, David John Adams, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Morgan, Edmund Benjamin Franklin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Phillips, Kevin 1775: A Good Year for Revolution,  New York: Penguin Books, 2012.


  1. Looks like you've stopped posting to Google podcasts at #62. Are dropping that platform?

  2. Listening to episode 62 today. I enjoy your explanation of the historical events. 09/10/2023.

  3. Episode 64. 09/10/2023