The first Continental Congress had decided, shortly before its dissolution in October 1774, to convene again the following year, in order to evaluate how matters were progressing. Few delegates would have expected that when they came together again in May 1775 the colony of Massachusetts would be at war with the mother country. The killing at Lexington-Concord had fuelled even more hostility towards the British as rural militia units from all over New England marched on Boston and set camp around its perimeter. Even on the very day the second Congress gathered, militia groups continued to escalate the conflict: in western New York the Green Mountain Boys (the Vermont militia, led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold) attacked the British stronghold Fort Ticonderoga, stealing several cannon and raiding munitions stores. Despite this spontaneous and rather independent spirit amongst some militias, one of the first actions of the second Congress was to discuss means of controlling and coordinating the war effort. Congress adopted the various New England militias around Boston as a ‘Continental Army’. In need of a commander, on June 14 it appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief. Though Washington was one of the few in the colonial elite with combat and command experience, his appointment was also political as it would involve Virginia (Washington’s native colony) more deeply in the revolution. In July 1775 the Congress issued two further declarations: the ‘Declaration of the Causes and Necessities for taking up arms’ (see picture) and the more conciliatory ‘Olive-Branch petition’.
Unlike the first Congress, the second would remain established almost permanently until the last fighting of the Revolutionary War in 1781. Perhaps its most notable achievement during this time was the decision to declare independence, first taken in June 1776 after a motion by Richard Henry Lee. On passing the motion successfully a five-man committee was established to draft a ‘declaration of independence’, a document that would not only formalise the separation from England but would also be crucial for attracting support, both from within America and from potential foreign allies. Congress’ other great document was less successful. Sandwiched between the suspicions and the competing interests of the states, the delegates struggled to conceive the nation’s first written constitution: the Articles of Confederation, passed in November 1777. So divided were the states though that this document would not be ratified until March 1781 – and only then after considerable watering-down of federal power as the draft passed around each of the states.
During its lifetime the second Congress repeatedly came under attack. Some of this was literal: Congress was always considered an illegal body by the British and its delegates were treasonous criminals, so it was often the target of British military advances. On one occasion in late 1776 the members of Congress were forced to hurriedly flee Philadelphia and relocate to Maryland. There were also heavy criticisms from other Americans, unhappy with the progress of the war effort and the condition of the Continental Army. General Washington was constantly imploring Congress to heed his requests: more soldiers, soldiers with longer terms of enlistment, better supplies and more of them. In reality there was little Congress could do about the latter, given that it had no coercive power over the thirteen states and could only request these things – requests that were often denied. For much of the war the Continental Congress seemed to have inherited a poisoned chalice: it was blamed for military defeats but could do nothing to rectify the condition of the army; it was a symbol of unity between thirteen squabbling states who didn’t really want to be unified.