The Continental Congress, also known as the Philadelphia Congress, was a convention of delegates called together from the Thirteen Colonies which became the governing body of the United States during the American Revolution.
- First Continental Congress, 1774
- Second Continental Congress, 1775–1781
- Confederation Congress, 1781–1789
The Congress met from 1774 to 1789 in three incarnations. The first call for a convention was made over issues of the blockade and the Intolerable Acts penalizing the Province of Massachusetts, which in 1774 enabled Benjamin Franklin to convince the colonies to form a representative body. Much of what we know today comes from the yearly log books printed by the Continental Congress called "Resolutions, Acts and Orders of Congress" which gives a day to day description of the debates and issues.
Although the delegates were divided early on as to whether to break from Crown rule, the second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776, passed a resolution asserting independence, with no opposing vote recorded. The Declaration of Independence was issued two days later declaring themselves a new nation: the United States of America. It established a Continental Army, giving command to one of its members, George Washington of Virginia. It waged war with Great Britain, made a militia treaty with France, and funded the war effort with loans and paper money.
The third Continental Congress was the Congress of the Confederation, under the Articles of Confederation.
First Continental Congress, 1774
The First Continental Congress met briefly in Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from September 5 to October 26, 1774. It consisted of fifty-six delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies that were to become the United States of America. The delegates, who included George Washington (then a colonel of the Virginia Colony's volunteers), Patrick Henry, and John Adams, were elected by their respective colonial assemblies. Other notable delegates included Samuel Adams from Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Joseph Galloway and John Dickinson from the Province of Pennsylvania. Peyton Randolph of Virginia was its president.
Benjamin Franklin had put forth the idea of such a meeting the year before, but he was unable to convince the colonies of its necessity until the 1773 British blockade at the port of Boston in response to the Boston Tea Party. All of the colonies sent delegates except the newest and most southerly one, the Province of Georgia – which needed the British Army's protection in order to contend with attacks from several Native American tribes. Most of the delegates were not yet ready to break away from Great Britain, but they wanted the King and Parliament to act in what they considered a fairer manner.
Convened in response to the Intolerable Acts passed by Parliament in 1774, the delegates organized an economic boycott of Great Britain in protest and petitioned the King for a redress of grievances. The colonies were united in their effort to demonstrate to the mother country their authority by virtue of their common causes and their unity; but their ultimate objectives were not consistent. The Pennsylvania and New York provinces had sent with their delegates firm instructions to pursue a resolution with Great Britain. While the other colonies all held the idea of colonial rights as paramount, they were split between those who sought legislative equality with Britain and those who instead favored independence and a break from the Crown and its excesses.
On October 26, 1774, the First Continental Congress adjourned; but it agreed to reconvene in May 1775, if Parliament still had not addressed their grievances.
Second Continental Congress, 1775–1781
In London, Parliament debated the merits of meeting the demands made by the colonies; however, it took no official notice of Congress's petitions and addresses. On November 30, 1774, King George III opened Parliament with a speech condemning Massachusetts and the Suffolk Resolves. At that point it became clear that the Continental Congress would have to convene once again.
The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, at Philadelphia's State House, passing the resolution for independence the following year on July 2, 1776, and publicly asserting the decision two days later with the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia drafted the declaration, and John Adams was a leader in the debates in favor of its adoption. John Hancock of Massachusetts was the president during those debates. To govern during the American Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress continued, meeting at various locations, until it became the Congress of the Confederation when the Articles of Confederation were ratified on March 1, 1781.
Confederation Congress, 1781–1789
The newly founded country of the United States next had to create a new government to replace the British Parliament/13 colonies government that it was in rebellion against. After much debate, the Americans adopted the Articles of Confederation, a declaration that established a national government which was made up of a one-house legislature known as the Congress of the Confederation. It met from 1781 to 1789. The Confederation Congress helped guide the United States through the final stages of the Revolutionary War, but during peacetime, the Continental Congress steeply declined in importance.
During peacetime, there were two important, long-lasting acts of the Confederation Congress:
- The passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. This ordinance accepted the abolition of all claims to the land west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River by the states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and the ordinance established Federal control over all of this land in the Northwest Territory—with the goal that several new states should be created there. In the course of time, this land was divided over the course of many decades into Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota.
- After years of frustration, an agreement was reached in 1786 at the Annapolis Convention to call another convention in May 1787 in Philadelphia with the mission of writing and proposing a number of amendments to the Articles of Confederation in order to improve the form of government. The report was sent to the Confederation Congress and the State. The result was the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 which was authorized by all the States thus fulfilling the unanimous requirement of the Articles of Confederation to allow changes to the Articles.
Under the Articles of Confederation, the Confederation Congress had little power to compel the individual states to comply with any of its decisions. More and more prospective delegates elected to the Confederation Congress declined to serve in it. The leading men in each State preferred to serve in the state governments, and thus the Continental Congress had frequent difficulties in establishing a quorum. When the Articles of Confederation were superseded by the Constitution of the United States, the Confederation Congress was superseded by the United States Congress.
The Confederation Congress finally set up a suitable administrative structure for the Federal government. It put into operation a departmental system, with ministers of finance, of war, and of foreign affairs. Robert Morris was selected as the new Superintendent of Finance, and then Morris used some ingenuity and initiative—along with a loan from the French Government—to deal with his empty treasury and also runaway inflation, for a number of years, in the supply of paper money.
As the ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin not only secured the "bridge loan" for the national budget, but he also persuaded France to send an army of about 6,000 soldiers across the Atlantic Ocean to America—and also to dispatch a large squadron of French warships under Comte de Grasse to the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina. These French warships proved to be decisive at the Battle of Yorktown along the coast of Virginia by preventing Lord Cornwallis's British troops from receiving supplies, reinforcements, or evacuation via the James River and Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Robert Morris, the Minister of Finance, persuaded Congress to charter the Bank of North America on Dec. 31, 1781. Although a private bank, the Federal Government acquired partial ownership with money lent by France. The Bank of North America played a major role in financing the war against Great Britain. The combined armies of George Washington and Nathanael Greene, with the help of the French Army and Navy, defeated the British in the Battle of Yorktown during October 1781. Lord Cornwallis was forced to sue for peace and to surrender his entire army to General Washington. During 1783, the Americans secured the official recognition of the independence of the United States from the United Kingdom via negotiations with British diplomats in Paris, France. These negotiations culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, and this treaty was soon ratified by the British Parliament.
The delegates to the Continental Congress had extensive experience in deliberative bodies before coming to Congress, with "a cumulative total of nearly 500 years of experience in their colonial legislatures, and fully a dozen of them had served as Speakers of the houses of their legislatures." Both the Parliament of Great Britain and many of their own Colonial assemblies had powerful Speakers of the House and standing committees with strong chairmen, with executive power held by the British Monarch or the colonial Governor. However, the organization of the Continental Congress was based less on the British Parliament or on local state assemblies than on the nine-colony Stamp Act Congress. Nine of the 56 delegates who attended the First Congress in 1774 had previously attended the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. These were some of the most respected of the delegates, and they influenced the direction of the organization from its opening day, when decisions were made on organization and procedures that lasted over fourteen years until the Congress was adjourned on March 2, 1788.
The delegates chose a presiding President of the Continental Congress to monitor the debate, maintain order, and make sure journals were kept and documents and letters were published and delivered. Otherwise, the President had little power, and he was largely a figurehead used to meet visiting dignitaries: the office was "more honorable than powerful". The job was not much sought after or retained for long: there were 16 Presidents in 14 years.
The turnover of delegates was enormously high as well, with an average year-to-year churn rate of 37% by one calculation, and 39% by session-to-session. Of the 343 serving delegates, only 55% (187 delegates) spent 12 or more months in Philadelphia at the Congress. Only 25 of the delegates served longer than 35 months. This high rate of turnover or churn was not just a characteristic; it was made into a deliberate policy of term limits. In the Confederation phase of the Congress "no delegate was permitted to serve more than three years in any six". Attendance was variable: while in session, between 54 and 22 delegates were in attendance at any one time, with an average of only 35.5 members attending between 1774 and 1788.
Between 1775 and 1781 they created a few standing committees to handle war related activities, such as the committee of secret correspondence, the treasury board, the board of war and ordnance, and the navy board. However, most of their work was done in small "ad hoc" committees consisting of members nominated from the floor. The delegate with the most votes became the chair of the committee. Committees typically had 3 to 5 members: roughly 77% of the committees had only 3 members. They created 3,294 committees over the 14.5 year calendar life of the congress – nearly 19 committees a month.
At the opening of the Congress, when one delegate suggested they appoint a committee on rules and voting, the motion was rejected, as "every Gent. was acquainted" with the British House of Commons usage, and such a committee would be a "waste of time." They did write up rules of debate that guaranteed equal rights to debate and open access to the floor for each delegate. Voting was by the "unit rule": each state cast a single vote. Votes were first taken within each state delegation. The majority determined vote was considered the vote of the state on a motion: in cases of a tie the vote for the state was not counted.
The Continental Congress took on powers normally held by the British monarch and his council, such as the conduct of foreign and military affairs. However, the right to tax and regulate trade was reserved for the states, not the Congress. They had no formal way to enforce their motions on the state governments. Delegates did not report directly to the President, but to their home state assemblies: its organizational structure has been described as "an extreme form of matrix management". It ran with very low overhead of 4 men for the 56 delegates, having only Secretary Charles Thomson as its operating officer for the whole period from 1774 to 1789, supported by a scribe, a doorman, and a messenger. They also appointed initially one, and later two, Congressional Chaplains.
There is a long running debate on how effective the Congress was as an organization. The first critic may have been General George Washington. In an address to his officers, at Newburgh, New York, on March 15, 1783, responding to complaints that Congress had not funded their pay and pensions, he stated that he believed that Congress will do the army "complete justice" and eventually pay the soldiers. "But, like all other large Bodies, where there is a variety of different Interests to reconcile, their deliberations are slow."
In addition to their slowness, the lack of coercive power in the Continental Congress was harshly criticized by James Madison when arguing for the need of a Federal Constitution. His comment in Vices of the Political System of April 1787 set the conventional wisdom on the historical legacy of the institution for centuries to come:
A sanction is essential to the idea of law, as coercion is to that of Government. The federal system being destitute of both, wants the great vital principles of a Political Cons[ti]tution. Under the form of such a Constitution, it is in fact nothing more than a treaty of amity of commerce and of alliance, between so many independent and Sovereign States. From what cause could so fatal an omission have happened in the Articles of Confederation? From a mistaken confidence that the justice, the good faith, the honor, the sound policy, of the several legislative assemblies would render superfluous any appeal to the ordinary motives by which the laws secure the obedience of individuals: a confidence which does honor to the enthusiastic virtue of the compilers, as much as the inexperience of the crisis apologizes for their errors.
Many commentators take for granted that the leaderless, weak, slow, and small-committee driven, Continental Congress was a failure, largely because after the end of the war the Articles of Confederation no longer suited the needs of a peacetime nation, and the Congress itself, following Madison's recommendations, called for its revision and replacement. Some also suggest that the Congress was inhibited by the formation of contentious partisan alignments based on regional differences. Others claim that Congress was less ideological than event driven. Others note that the Congress was successful in that the American people "came to accept Congress as their legitimate institution of Government", but the "rather poor governmental record" of the Congress forced the constitutional convention of 1787.
Political scientists Calvin Jillson and Rick Wilson in the 1980s accepted the conventional interpretation on the weakness of the Congress due to the lack of coercive power. They explored the role of leadership, or rather the lack of it, in the Continental Congress. Going beyond even Madison's harsh critique, they used the "analytical stance of what has come to be called the new institutionalism" to demonstrate that "the norms, rules, and institutional structures of the Continental Congress" were equally to blame "for the institution's eventual failure", and that the "institutional structure worked against, rather than with, the delegates in tackling the crucial issues of the day."
The Historian Richard P. McCormick rendered a more nuanced judgment. He suggested that Madison's "extreme judgment" on the Congress was "motivated no doubt by Madison's overriding desire to create a new central government that would be empowered veto the acts of state legislatures," but that it fails "to take any notice of the fact that while the authority of the Confederation Congress was ambiguous, it was not a nullity".
Benjamin Irvin in his social and cultural history of the Continental Congress, praised "the invented traditions by which Congress endeavored to fortify the resistance movement and to make meaning of American independence." But he noted that after the war's end, "Rather than passively adopting the Congress's creations, the American people embraced, rejected, reworked, ridiculed, or simply ignored them as they saw fit."
An organizational culture analysis of the Continental Congress by Neil Olsen, looking for the values, norms, and underlying assumptions that drive an organization's decisions, noted that "the leaderless Continental Congress outperformed not only the modern congress run by powerful partisan hierarchies, but modern government and corporate entities, for all their coercive power and vaunted skills as 'leaders'." Looking at their the mission as defined by state resolutions and petitions entered into the Congressional Journal on its first day, it found that on the common issues of the relief of Boston, securing Colonial rights, eventually restoring harmonious relations with Great Britain, and repealing taxes, they overachieved their mission goals, defeated the largest army and navy in the world, and created two new types of republic. Olsen suggests that the Congress, if slow, when judged by its many achievements – not the least being recognizing its flaws, then replacing and terminating itself – was a success.