I. The Second Continental Congress
A. Assuming Political and Military Authority
Delegates to the Second Continental Congress were well-established figures in their
home colonies, but they had to learn to know and trust each other and often did not agree.
Most of the delegates were not yet prepared to break with Britain; the few who did desire
independence were from Massachusetts, the colony the British had stripped of its civil
government under the Coercive Acts and whose capital was occupied by the British
Even the hesitant moderates agreed that the colonies needed to take swift action to
coordinate a military defense, for the Massachusetts countryside was under threat of
Congress chose southerner George Washington as commander in chief of the newly
created Continental army, a move designed to signal to the British that there was
commitment to the war beyond New England.
Congress then drew up “A Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,”
which rehearsed familiar arguments about the tyranny of Parliament and the need to
defend English liberties.
To pay for the military buildup, the congress authorized a currency issue of $2 million.
In just two months, the Second Continental Congress had taken on the major functions of
a legitimate government, both military and financial, without any legal basis for its
B. Pursuing Both War and Peace
Three days after the congress voted to raise the Continental army, one of the bloodiest
battles of the Revolution occurred as British generals tried to root out Boston rebels.
The Battle of Bunker Hill proved costly for the British, who, despite winning the battle,
suffered many more casualties than the Americans.
British general William Howe decided against pursuing the fleeing Americans, unwilling
to risk more raids into the countryside, and pulled his army back to Boston.
A week after Bunker Hill, General Washington arrived to take charge of the new
Continental army; he found enthusiastic but undisciplined troops and quickly imposed
hierarchy and authority.
While military plans moved forward, the Second Continental Congress pursued its
second, contradictory objective: reconciliation with Britain.
By the fall of 1775, however, reconciliation was out of the question.
C. Thomas Paine, Abigail Adams, and the Case for Independence
Pressure for independence started mounting in January 1776, when a pamphlet titled
, outlining a lively and compelling case for independence, appeared in
In simple yet forceful language, Thomas Paine elaborated on the absurdities of the British
monarchy and argued for republican government.