The first Continental Congress

first continental congress
An artistic representation of the first Continental Congress in 1774

With the Coercive Acts imposing political and economic sanctions on Boston, the radicals in Massachusetts stepped up their propaganda campaign. The key groups involved in this were the Committees of Correspondence, which had come into being in 1772-3 in the wake of British attempts to pay royal governors and officials independently. Samuel Adams was a leading figure in these committees and soon more than 300 separate chapters existed around the thirteen colonies, more than a third of them in and around Boston. Consisting of men from the middle- and upper classes, they worked studiously by lamplight in taverns and private homes, formulating, drafting, copying and sealing letters and broadsides to be circulated around the other 12 colonies. Their aim was to promote the Massachusetts plight as that of the other provinces; what was happening in Boston could easily occur in Philadelphia, New York, Richmond or Charleston. In the wake of the Coercive or ‘Intolerable’ Acts, their writing increased, and one of their suggestions also came to fruition: an inter-colonial summit to discuss the worrying events in Boston.

The first Continental Congress met in Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for a period of six weeks in September-October 1774. It opened with a prayer, asking God to support the American cause (see picture). In its first incarnation, the Congress consisted of 55 men from twelve colonies. Some of the 55 who did attend the first Congress were key revolutionaries: Samuel Adams and his cousin John Adams, both of Massachusetts; George Washington, Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia; and John Jay of New York. These delegates were not necessarily elected to attend; their presence was related more to whether they could fund the trip to Philadelphia themselves. Nevertheless, they considered themselves representatives of their individual colonies, though none of them seemed to identify the significance of this gathering. Just like its predecessors the Albany Congress (1754) and the Stamp Act Congress (1765), the Continental Congress was a single-purpose body, intended to discuss one particular problem – but within a year it would become a war committee; within two years it would be the de facto government of a new nation.

A historian’s view:
“The more moderate delegates [of the first Congress], including Joseph Galloway, argued that the colonial system was salvageable and proposed a plan, calling for a new American government, led by a crown-appointed president-general and by a grand council, whose members would be selected by the colonial governments. This government would have the power to veto any Parliamentary act that affected the colonies. The radicals numbered in the majority at the Congress and Galloway’s plan did not gain acceptance.”
Alan Axelrod

The delegates hotly debated the Coercive Acts and conditions in Massachusetts. Not all were fully sympathetic: there were many delegates who believed that the Bostonians were the architects of their own fate, thanks to their belligerence and stubbornness. The southern delegates, in particular, thought the actions of the Boston radicals were far too excessive. The delegates did agree though on several principles: that the British had no right to tax the American colonies while they were not represented; that British legal and political interference in the colonies was unconstitutional; and that the Quebec Act was in direct contravention of the rights and the interests of the existing British colonies. They drafted the Articles of Association, which outlined these grievances in a series of petitions while pledging an organised and unified trade boycott of British goods until Westminster adjusted its current policies. The Articles even set parameters for colonial frugality, dictating what women could wear in order to avoid the purchase of new (British) clothing. Recognising that a review would be needed to ascertain how successful the Articles of Association had been, the Congress pledged to reconvene in May 1775, around seven months later. The delegates were not to know it but by the time they would meet again, the Americans and the British would be in a state of open conflict.

Citation information
Title: “The First Continental Congress”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: January 27, 2015
Date accessed: July 05, 2022
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