Following the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, the British government closed the Boston port, placed a British general in charge of Massachusetts’s government, and prohibited Massachusetts from trying any British officer. Rather than comply, the people of Boston chose to resist. People throughout the colonies rallied to their cause and established committees of correspondence to learn what was happening in Boston. By the summer, the colonies had agreed to congress to coordinate their efforts. In September 1774, 12 of the 13 colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia to participate in the First Continental Congress. This was the first official assembly of the colonies since 9 colonies had convened for the Stamp Act Congress of 1765.
The First Continental Congress decided to stand in solidarity with Boston. It created the Continental Association, which called for a boycott of British trade, for internal discipline and sacrifice, and for committees in each community to publish the names of merchants violating the boycott, confiscate contraband, and encourage public discipline and sacrifice. Edward Countryman wrote that this decision “may have been the most important single step in the transformation of the American movement from one of resistance to one of revolution” (Countryman 1985, 5). The First Continental Congress adjourned in October after agreeing to meet the next year in order to assess the effectiveness of the association.
Before the Second Continental Congress convened, open hostilities between British soldiers and colonial minutemen had broken out in Lexington and Concord. The battle of Bunker Hill and the American capture of Fort Ticonderoga soon followed. All 13 colonies sent delegates to the Second Continental Congress; included in attendance were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The Second Continental Congress lacked legal authority but assumed responsibility to govern. It appointed George Washington to head the army located outside Boston, authorized printing paper certificates to help pay for the war, and ratified the Declaration of Independence that formally dissolved the colonies’ ties to Britain.
Between 1776 and 1781, the Continental Congress was the de facto government of the 13 colonies. Lacking the power to compel the states, it passed nonbinding resolutions for the states to provide money, supplies, and troops to support the war effort. Those states proximate to the fighting were most likely to heed the Continental Congress’s resolutions. Recognizing the need for a stronger national government, the Continental Congress drafted, approved, and sent to the states for ratification the Articles of Confederation. Upon final ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, the Continental Congress was retired.
Edward Countryman, The American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985); and Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1969).
Troy E. Smith
Last updated: 2006