Continental Congress


The Continental Congress met in one of the most conservative of the seaport towns from which the revolutionary movement stemmed. Philadelphia patriots complained that there was more Toryism in Pennsylvania than in all the colonies combined; certainly the Quakers who dominated the province were more concerned in putting down radicalism at home than resisting tyranny from abroad. The character of the delegates who assembled in Philadelphia in September 1774 was likewise a good augury to the conservatives. The Continental Congress was composed of "the ablest and wealthiest men in America"; Chatham pronounced it to be "the most honourable Assembly of Statesmen since those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, in the most virtuous Times".


John Adams calculated that they were "one third Tories, another Whigs, and the rest mongrels"; and he found "Trimmers & Timeservers" upon every side. Fifth columnism was at work, as the patriots soon learned; despite the best efforts of Congress to preserve secrecy, the British government was informed of all its proceedings (Stephen Sayre to Samuel Adams).


The work of the Continental Congress soon demonstrated that the American aristocracy was divided against itself and that this division worked in favor of the triumph of radicalism.


In May 1775, Congress resolved that "these colonies be immediately put into a state of defense"; the Massachusetts militia was taken over by Congress; an army of twenty thousand men was ordered to be raised; and George Washington was appointed to command. Congress directed that paper money be printed and in July 1775 Benjamin Franklin drew up "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union," which, although too bold to be entered upon the journals of Congress, were openly discussed by the members.


The liberties enjoyed by the colonists prior to 1763, which before Lexington seemed fully ample for American prosperity and happiness, now appeared to many Americans little better than slavery. "Good God," exclaimed a Virginian, "were we not abject slaves (in 1763)? We wanted but the name. . . . It was not till 1763 that we were openly insulted, and treated as slaves" (Virginia Gazette, Purdie) By returning to 1763 fundamental grievances would be untouched: American trade and manufactures would be cramped by British restrictions; colonial laws would have to be approved by the British government; and Americans would "always be peeled and pillaged" for the benefit of English pensioners and courtiers. Moreover, the sacrifices already made for American liberty would have been in vain if such a poor palliative were accepted as the terms of peace (Principles and Acts of the Revolution). The "blood and treasure" already expended by Americans, exclaimed the radicals, and made reconciliation impossible except upon the colonists\' own terms. Thus the blood of the "precious Sons of Liberty" spilled in the cause of liberty was used to silence the advocates of reconciliation. Now that men were being asked to die, a richer reward than a return to 1763 had to be offered for their sacrifice (American Archives, Fourth Series).


The radicals in the Continental Congress rejoiced that Great Britain\'s "unexampled cruelties" now barred the path of compromise. They proposed to gird for war before another blow could be struck. Their program was to open American ports to foreign powers; construct a navy; set up state governments; break off negotiations with Great Britain; seize the Tories and hold them as hostages.


Thus far, the radical policy of relying mainly upon events to bring the issue of independence before the people was fully vindicated. Disillusionment with English liberalism was widespread; "measures short of war" had been discredited; and the United Colonies had undertaken an armed invasion of part of the British Empire. And there were other evidences that Americans were moving steadily in the direction of independence even though they failed to read the signposts.


The Continental Congress was taking long strides in that direction as it strove to prepare the colonies for the inevitable struggle with Great Britain. On July 15, Congress resolved to relax the Association to permit the importation of military supplies; and in September a secret committee was appointed to take charge of the importation of powder and munitions. In August 1775, Congress rejected Lord North\'s conciliatory plan. In November, news was received that no answer would be given the "Olive Branch" petition, and the King\'s proclamation declaring