Early Conflicts and Colonial Actions: 1774–1776

Continental Congress

First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress met in September 1774 to discuss the colonies' response to Great Britain's Coercive Acts.

Prior to 1774 all 13 colonies were governed by independent legislatures. As dissatisfaction with British rule grew in the early 1770s, the legislative bodies appointed local Committees of Correspondence to provide leadership and help the colonies work together. Although the Committees of Correspondence communicated with one another, they didn't work together as a unit. Each viewed itself as separate and distinct from the others.

This attitude changed with the Coercive Acts of 1774. Although most of the new laws punished Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party, every colony was impacted by Parliament's order to house British soldiers in unoccupied buildings. Many colonists felt this was unfair. The Committees of Correspondence arranged for a meeting of representatives from all colonies to discuss how they should respond to the new laws. A representative is also known as a delegate.

Fifty-six delegates from all colonies except Georgia met in Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 5, 1774, as the First Continental Congress. George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Jay were there, as was Peyton Randolph, president of the congress. Very few people in this congregation had any interest in the colonies becoming an independent country. They wanted to air their grievances, or complaints, to King George III and Parliament and secure the same rights afforded to other subjects of the British Crown. Colonial legislator and British loyalist Joseph Galloway put forth "a plan of a proposed Union between Great Britain and the Colonies," which came to be known as the Galloway Plan. As part of the Galloway Plan, King George would appoint a president general to oversee the colonies, and the colonial legislature would adopt duties similar to Great Britain's House of Commons. The plan was dismissed by the Continental Congress.

Two major documents were produced during the First Continental Congress's session. The first, now called the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, was a response to the Coercive Acts. It listed the colonists' objections to Parliament's punitive laws as well as other legislation they found unfair. It also detailed colonists' rights, such as "life, liberty, and property," the ability to participate in a legislative body, and trial by a jury of American peers.

The second document, the Articles of Association, was an agreement by the 12 colonies to boycott the import of British goods until the Coercive Acts were repealed. It also outlined how colonies would work together to resist the efforts of Great Britain.

The First Continental Congress ended on October 26, 1774, with an agreement to reconvene in May 1775 to discuss Great Britain's response to its demands.

Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress

What it says: What it means:
"That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent." Every person has the right to life, liberty, and property no matter what the king or anyone else says.
"That by such emigration they by no means forfeited, surrendered, or lost any of those rights, but that they were, and their descendants now are, entitled to the exercise and enjoyment of all such of them." The colonists' ancestors didn't give up their status as British citizens when they moved to the colonies. Citizenship is hereditary; therefore, descendants of colonists should be afforded the same rights as those living in Great Britain.
"That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council." Everyone has the right to participate in government.
"That they have a right peaceably to assemble, consider their grievances, and petition the king." Everyone has the right to gather to talk about problems in the colonies. They also have the right to ask the king for changes.
"That the keeping a standing army in these colonies, in times of peace, without the consent of the legislature of that colony, in which such army is kept, is against law." The British army must return to Britain.

Second Continental Congress

The Second Continental Congress's first job, in May 1775, was figuring out how to turn separate militias into a united army.

The battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, changed the priorities of the Continental Congress. It reconvened as the Second Continental Congress on May 10, 1775, in Philadelphia and remained in session until the end of the American Revolution. American blood had been shed at the hands of British soldiers. The army meant to protect citizens of the British Empire—which the colonists were—had turned against them. The first order of business was to figure out what to do with the 16,000 volunteers from various New England militias still surrounding Boston. It was agreed the best course of action would be to form a real army that provided its soldiers basic necessities, such as food, shelter, and weapons, as well as actual training. George Washington, one of the few delegates with military experience, agreed to command the newly minted Continental Army, the first official army of the American colonies.

The official formation of an American army makes it seem like the Second Continental Congress, which now included a representative from Georgia, was initially set on separating the colonies from Great Britain, but this wasn't the case. The congress was split into three different factions. The conservatives, led by John Dickinson, wanted the colonies' relationship with Great Britain to return to the way it was prior to 1763, when Great Britain began restricting the colonists' rights to claim new land. The radicals, supported by Samuel Adams and John Adams, wanted complete independence from Great Britain. But the majority of the congress agreed with the moderates, led by Thomas Jefferson. The moderates wanted to remain within the British Empire out of loyalty to King George III, but they disapproved of Parliament's authority over the colonies. Parliament was the enemy, not the monarchy.

King's Reaction

Angry at colonial military victories, King George III refused to negotiate with colonial leaders and instead escalated military action against them.

The Second Continental Congress made this position clear in the Olive Branch Petition, which was approved by the congress on July 5, 1775. The document was essentially a request for negotiation of tax and trade policies. King George III received the news about the Battle of Bunker Hill and the petition on the same day. He was so incensed by the former, he refused to read the latter. After declaring the colonies to be "in a state of rebellion," he hired Hessian (German) mercenaries to engage in battle with the colonists.

Although the members of the Second Continental Congress were now wanted for treason, or plotting against their own government, they continued to act as the unified governing body of the American colonies (and did so throughout the American Revolution). They authorized the printing of money, which would help fund army supplies. It was certain the colonies would need the assistance of foreign allies if a long-term war with Great Britain developed, so the Congress also established a committee to build relationships with foreign governments. Yet until the beginning of 1776, very few people were willing to publicly support colonial independence.
George Washington, center, was named commander in chief of the Continental Army. He took charge of the army on July 3, 1775, just a few weeks after the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Credit: U.S. Army Center of Mlitary History