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The Meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

Mural from the U.S. Capitol building. The left painting shows a colonist paying taxes. The center painting shows debate among the delegates during the First Continental Congress. The right painting shows a British solider blocking the path of a woman

Mural from the U.S. Capitol building. The left painting shows a colonist paying taxes. The center painting shows debate among the delegates during the First Continental Congress. The right painting shows a British solider blocking the path of a woman

Growing Unrest in the American Colonies Over the Tea Act

Unrest stirred in the towns and cities that dotted the eastern seaboard of colonial America when the citizens learned that Parliament had enacted the Tea Act in May 1773. This act gave the British East India Company (BEIC) a monopoly on the sale of tea in the British colonies of North America. The BEIC was in financial trouble. It held large stockpiles of tea stored in London warehouses that it could not sell. To bail out the company, Parliament passed the Tea Act to allow the company to dump its surplus tea on the colonial market in America. In the colonies, most tea sold was smuggled in from Holland. The smuggled “Dutch Tea” was cheaper than the British tea since it was effectively duty free. Even though the tea from the BEIC was less expensive, it put the American tea merchants, both legal and the smugglers, out of business. With so many colonial merchants involved in the distribution and sale of tea, the new law potentially had significant consequences.

As word of the new law started to reach the coastal cities of America the citizens began to grow angry, and protests arose. The revolutionary activist, Samuel Adams, wrote in the Boston Gazette under the pen name “Observation” proposing “a congress of American States be assembled as soon as possible; draw up a Bill of Rights;…choose an ambassador to reside at the British court to act for the united colonies; appoint where the congress shall annually meet.” The radical group The Sons of Liberty, of which Adams was one of the ringleaders, declared that anyone who aided in unloading or selling the British tea when it arrived would be considered as one of the “enemies of America.” In September 1773, seven ships laden with tea from the BEIC set sail for the shores of America.

On October 21, 1773, the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence sent a letter signed by Samuel Adams and Thomas Cushing to the other colonies urging them to “be united” in rejecting the tea from the British East India Company. The British were sending shipments of the tea to the port cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. The Dartmouth arrived in Boston Harbor on Sunday, November 28, loaded with the hated tea. According to customs rules, within 20 days duties on the tea must be paid and the cargo unloaded or it would be impounded. Two more ships arrived a few days after the Dartmouth also loaded with tea. Thomas Hutchinson, the British loyalist governor of Massachusetts, ordered that the three ships be unloaded over the loud objections of the colonists.

The Boston Tea Party

December 17 was the day when the 20 days were up, and the tea had to be unloaded per the order of the governor. Anger was growing within the ranks of the patriots over the tea remaining in the port. On the night of December 16, the colonists decided to take matters into their own hands. Samuel Adams and fellow patriots held a large rally at Boston’s Old South Church to decide what to do about the tea. When the meeting disbanded a group of around 160 men dressed as Mohawk Indians marched to Griffin’s Wharf, boarded the three ships, and without damaging the ships or assaulting the crew, proceeded to throw overboard over three hundred chests of tea into Massachusetts Bay. The next day, Adams set to work writing letters to the other colonies informing them of the happenings in Boston. The British authorities were outraged with the episode, valuing the tea at a hefty £10,000 sterling. In Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston the tea ladened ships were rejected by the colonists and forced to return to England with their cargo.

The Boston Tea Party.

The Boston Tea Party.

The Coercive Acts

As soon as word reached England of the “Boston Tea Party,” Parliament’s retaliation was swift and harsh. Parliament issued a set of four punitive laws they collectively called the Coercive Acts, which the colonists called the “Intolerable Acts.” The most economically crippling of the four acts was the Boston Port Act, which closed the harbor from June 1, 1774, until the city paid for the destroyed tea. The Act for the Impartial Administration of Justice let the royal governor transfer to England the trial of any British official accused of committing a capital offense in the line of duty, effectively making the British immune from colonial justice for serious crimes. The Quartering Act required local authorities to provide lodging for British soldiers, in private homes if necessary. Lastly, the Massachusetts Government Act virtually annulled the colony’s 1691 charter and gave the royal governor control over town meetings. In May, the civilian governor Hutchinson was replaced by General Thomas Gage, putting Boston under military control with 4,000 British troops, called “redcoats” by the colonists, stationed in the city for enforcement. The British assumed the Coercive Acts would bring the colonists to heal; instead, it galvanized their resistance. Patriots all up and down the eastern seaboard rallied to the cause of the besieged Bostonians, sending money, provisions, and boycotting British goods.

Resistance Grows Throughout the Colonies

Rumors of the British blockade of the Boston port had been circulating in Williamsburg, Virginia, for days. Two weeks into the Virginia General Assembly session, the Virginia Gazette ran an article outlining the desperate state in Boston. Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, and a handful of the younger burgesses became alarmed, believing something must be done to alert Virginians to the British aggression. On May 23, they called a secret meeting and introduced a resolution calling for “a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer” on June 1, the day the port of Boston was to be closed. Their purpose was to dramatize to the people the eminent danger inherent in the British actions in Boston. The governor immediately dissolved the assembly, forcing the members to meet in private at Raleigh Tavern. As alarm spread to the other colonies, their leaders resolved to form a Continental Congress to represent all the colonies. A meeting was called for September 1774 in Philadelphia to develop a coordinated response to the events in Boston. One of the delegates from Virginia to the First Continental Congress was a tall robust plantation owner named George Washington. Shortly before Washington left to represent Virginia at the gathering, he wrote to a friend, “The crisis is arrived when we must assert our right.” Otherwise, he warned, the British “shall make us tame and abject slaves, as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.”

Even with the harsh treatment by the Parliament, most of the English living in the American colonies were loyal to the British Crown and had no desire to separate from their mother country. As the revolutionary writer John Dickinson put it in his popular set of essays, Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, most English in America were bound to the Crown “by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relations, language, and commerce.” Soon this would all change.

Philadelphia Welcomes the Congressional Delegates

The city of Philadelphia warmly welcomed the delegates to the First Continental Congress as they arrived in the city. The delegates were from 12 of the 13 colonies; only Georgia did not send any representatives due to its strong loyalist leanings. For most of the delegates this was their first time traveling such a great distance from home. Many traveled for weeks to get to the city of brotherly love. Philadelphia, with 38,000 inhabitants, was by far the largest city in colonial America. New York City with a population of 22,000 and Boston with 17,000 people were a distant second and third. Situated on the neck of land about two miles wide between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, Philadelphia was unusual in that it had been a planned city rather than just unfolding like most colonial cities. The straight and parallel streets bore names like 3rd, 4th, and 5th, with the cross streets named from forest and fruit trees—Pear Street, Apple Street, and so on.

The Delegates

56 delegates were chosen to attend the convention by the assemblies of each of the states. The distinguished group mainly consisted of middle-aged property owners, with several being rich. Many of the men were well educated, with degrees from European universities, Harvard, Yale, William and Mary College, and other colonial schools. Nineteen future signers of a document yet to written, the Declaration of Independence, were among the group, as well as two future presidents. The small group of men represented some of the best and brightest minds the colonial assemblies had to offer to the Congress in hopes of finding a solution to the escalating crisis.

Samuel Adams, one of the Massachusetts delegates, was known for his radical stance and unlike the other delegates was not wealthy or in a position of power. He had failed as a brewer and was the clerk of the Massachusetts Assembly. He had spent the last many years of his life fostering the revolutionary cause and had thought little of building his own personal fortune. Joseph Galloway, a prosperous and polished Philadelphia lawyer who aspired to the leadership of the conservatives in Congress, summed up Samuel Adams as such: “A man, who though by no means remarkable for brilliant abilities, yet is equal to most men in popular intrigue, and the management of a faction. He eats little, drinks little, sleeps little, thinks much, and is most indefatigable in the pursuit of his objectives.” Samuel’s cousin, the lawyer John Adams, was also a Massachusetts delegate to the Congress. John, though lacking Samuel’s fervor, was an ardent American Patriot. His prolific writings throughout the revolutionary period have been an invaluable source of firsthand accounts of some of the most important events in the formation of the United States.

John Adams, member of the Massachusetts delegation to the First Continental Congress.

John Adams, member of the Massachusetts delegation to the First Continental Congress.

The First Continental Congress Begins

The meeting of the First Continental Congress opened on Monday, September 5, 1774, at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia. The first order of business of the Congress was to choose a president, for which Peyton Randolph from Virginia was unanimously chosen. Next, Charles Thomson of Philadelphia was also unanimously chosen as the secretary of the Congress. The presidency of the Congress was intended as an honorary, non-executive office with the duties of chairman. Randolph was a 53-year-old London educated lawyer who had recently been speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses. According to the Connecticut delegate Silas Deane, Randolph “…seems designed by nature for business. Of an affable, open and majestic deportment—large in size, though not out of proportion, he commands respect and esteem by his very aspect, independent of the high character he sustains.” The new secretary, Charles Thomson, was a hardened patriot, known as the “Sam Adams of Philadelphia.” Thomson had started his life in America as a ten-year-old orphan from Ireland who had worked his way up to become the headmaster of a school and then a prosperous merchant. Thomson would serve as secretary of Congress up until the formation of the United States of America in 1789.

Carpenter’s Hall as it appears today.

Carpenter’s Hall as it appears today.

News from Boston

On the second day of the Congress, disturbing news arrived that the redcoats had bombarded and burnt Boston. John Adams wrote in his diary that night,”…confused account but an alarming one indeed…God grant that it may not be found true.” The next day further news arrived confirming the rumored attack on Boston. “An express arrived from N. York,” wrote the delegate Silas Deane to his wife, “confirming the acct. of a rupture at Boston. All is in confusion. I cannot say that all faces gather paleness, but they all gather indignation, and every tongue pronounces revenge.” The news from Boston gave credence to the more radical element within Congress that sought a more reactionary response to the actions of the British. The rumor of the destruction of Boston later turned out to be false, but the incident did influence the mood of the delegates.

The Suffolk Resolves

On September 16, the courier Paul Revere arrived from Boston with a copy of the Suffolk Resolves. The document was the work of the patriots of Boston who had gone to a village in Suffolk County, under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Warren, to draft a statement of rights and grievances. The document listed 19 articles that detailed “infractions of the rights to which we are justly entitled by the laws of nature, the British constitution, and the charter of the providence.” The five key points of the resolves were:

  1. They declared the Intolerable Acts as being unconstitutional and not to be obeyed.
  2. Since the British had dissolved the Massachusetts assembly, Massachusetts should create a new assembly, collect all taxes, and withhold them from the Crown until the Massachusetts government is restored.
  3. The colonist should arm themselves, form their own militias in preparation for a possible British attack.
  4. The jailing of any patriot leader by the British gave the colonists in turn the right to jail British officials.
  5. Recommended stringent economic sanctions against the British.

Years later when Joseph Galloway had become a loyalist and moved to England, he wrote in a pamphlet that he believed the Suffolk Resolves were dangerous and the whole affair was orchestrated by Samuel Adams, writing, “Mr. Adams advised and directed to be done; and when done, it was dispatched by express to Congress. By one of these expresses came the inflammatory resolves of the county of Suffolk, which contained a complete declaration of war against Great Britain.” The Suffolk Resolves were applauded by some in the Congress; however, the defiant language of the document made many of the delegates extremely nervous. Action on the resolves would have to wait as the Congress now turned its attention to the delegate from Pennsylvania, Joseph Galloway, who had a proposal on how to deal with Great Britain and the Intolerable Acts.

Galloway’s Plan of Union

The more radical element of the delegates led by the New Englanders was opposed primarily by Joseph Galloway and other sympathetic delegates. Galloway’s plan was to change the basis of the relationship between the colonies and Great Britain. His “Plan of Union” was to form a separate American Legislature, called the Grand Council, that would be elected by colonial assemblies. He proposed that the individual colonies continue to govern their own internal affairs with the Grand Council regulating commercial, civil, and criminal matters that affected the colonies as a whole. The Grand Council would have the authority to veto parliamentary legislation but would still be inferior to Parliament. Effectively, the Grand Council would be an inferior branch of the British Parliament. Galloway’s plan received a mixed review. It was strikingly similar to the Albany Plan, a proposal made by Benjamin Franklin at the 1754 Albany Conference. The Congress voted on Galloway’s Plan for Union and it was narrowly defeated in a vote of five to six. Galloway blamed what he called the “violent party” for his loss. Per the agreement of the delegates, only items that were successfully voted upon were included in the Journals of the American Congress. Details of discussions and debates have come down through history by personal notes kept by the delegates, of whom John Adams was the most prolific.

With the defeat of Galloway’s proposal, Congress began mulling over the Suffolk Resolves once again. They realized they had not gone far enough in supporting the cause of the beleaguered colonists from Massachusetts. On Saturday, October 8, the delegates voted in a show of support for Massachusetts as recorded in the Journals of the American Congress: “Resolved, That this Congress approve of the opposition by the Inhabitants of the Massachusetts-Bay, to the execution of the late acts of Parliament; and if the same shall be attempted to be carried into execution by force, in such case, all America ought to support them in their opposition.” Not everyone approved of the Suffolk Resolves. One British loyalist who thought the delegates must have been drunk to approve such an inflammatory declaration, commented that the delegates must have “came into this vote immediately after drinking 32 bumpers of Madeira.”

Declaration and Resolves

One of the goals of the Continental Congress was to write a clear statement of the rights of the colonists. The process was not as straightforward as it would initially appear. Never had a Western colony taken up the path of revolution in quite the same manner, leaving no historical precedence as a guide. The 13 colonies were quite different places with a wide spectrum of peoples and needs. In the New England colonies, small family farms and towns were the norm, the soil was generally rocky, slavery was of a limited nature, and the British were beginning to aggressively oppress the people. In the Southern colonies, large agricultural plantations growing tobacco, rice, cotton, and indigo dominated the society. The large plantations relied upon the labor of hundreds of African slaves and indentured servants from Europe to function. The Southern colonies tended to be more closely aligned with the British Crown. This great diversity within the colonies made writing a clear statement of colonial rights a challenge.

The committee that drafted the Declaration and Resolves based their arguments on the laws of nature, principles of the English Constitution, and the charters of the colonies. They felt that the right of assembly, right of petition, right of trial by a jury of their peers, the right to be free of a standing army, and the right to choose their own assemblies were basic rights defined in the English Constitution and had been violated. One of the questions that vexed the committee responsible for drafting the Declaration and Resolves was the limitations of the power of Parliament. John Adams, who was on the committee, wrote, “Indeed the essence of the whole controversy; some were for a flat denial of all authority; others for denying the power of taxation only; some for denying internal, but admitting external, taxation.” In the end the small committee completed their task, creating a list of colonial objections to the Intolerable Acts, a list of colonial rights, and a number of their grievances with the mother country.

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A Petition to King George III

Congress also drafted a petition to King George III informing him of the evil plot in Parliament to subvert the rights of the colonists. The Congress appointed a committee consisting of Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, Thomas Johnson, Patrick Henry, and John Rutledge to prepare the address to the king. The petition listed a number of grievances against the Parliament and asked for a repeal of the Coercive Acts. By petitioning the king directly rather than Parliament, the delegates believed that the king was still the figurehead to be reckoned with to resolve their problems. Benjamin Franklin, who was in London as a representative of Pennsylvania, delivered the petition to the Houses of Parliament. It wasn’t until mid-January 1775 that the petition was presented to Parliament, who paid little attention to the document. Likewise, the king never responded to the Congress with a reply.

First page of the petition sent to King George III by the First Continental Congress.

First page of the petition sent to King George III by the First Continental Congress.

Formation of the Continental Association

Out of the Congress came what would turn out to be one of the group’s most important accomplishments: formation of the Continental Association, or the “Association.” The Association was system that brought all the colonies into a network to enforce non-importation—the term boycott did not yet exist—of British goods. The articles of the Continental Association imposed a ban that began on December 1, 1774, on all goods from Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies. As stated in the opening paragraphs of the articles of the Association: “To obtain redress of these Grievances, which threaten destruction to the Lives, Liberty, and Property of his Majesty’s subjects in North America, we are of opinion that a Non-Importation, Non-Consumption, and Non-Exportation Agreement, faithfully adhered to, will prove the most speedy, effectual, and peaceable measure…” Since the 13 colonies were Britain’s largest trading partner, a boycott of British goods would clearly get their attention. One of the articles in the Association’s charter established committees with the colonies to enforce the non-importation, and stated: “That a committee be chosen in every County, City, and Town, by those who are qualified to vote for Representatives in the Legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this Association; and when it shall be made to appear to the satisfaction of a majority of any such Committee, that any person with the limits of their appointment was violated this Association…universally condemned as enemies of American Liberty; and thenceforth we respectively will break off all dealing with him or her.” These were very contentious words for the average colonist, effectively telling them they either comply with the directives of their local Committees or become “enemies of American Liberty.” The formation of the local committees to enforce the edicts of the Congress brought thousands of common people into the cause and formed a network of like-minded individuals in the colonies. After the articles of the Continental Association were finalized and approved by Congress, the delegates signed the final document, and 120 copies were ordered to be printed and distributed to the colonies.

The End of the First Continental Congress

At the end of October, after just seven weeks of discussion the work of this group of distinguished men came to a close. The final act of the Congress was to agree to meet again in May 1775 if their grievances were not addressed. Since the petition to the king and work of the Congress would take at least six weeks to reach London, May 1775 would be enough time for the British to respond. Now the delegates dispersed back to their own states to deliver the messages from the Congress to the state assemblies. All the assemblies from the colonies, except New York, adopted the recommendations of the Congress, thus imputing their decisions at the local level.

The revolution was effected before the war commenced. The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.

— John Adams

The English Response

As word reached Britain of the entities of the Continental Congress and their boycott of British goods, members of Parliament and King George III became more determined to break the backs of the rebels in America. More British troops were sent to North America to squash the nascent rebellion before it got out of hand. In February 1775, Parliament declared that Massachusetts was in a state of rebellion and it endorsed the king’s intentions to take “the most effectual measures to enforce due obedience to the laws and authority of the Supreme Legislature.” In addition, Parliament denied the New Englanders access to the North Atlantic fisheries and restricted trade outside the colonies. Later Parliament imposed the same sanctions on Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, which were considered to be supporters of Massachusetts and the Continental Congress.

On the fateful day of April 19, 1775, on Lexington Green in Massachusetts, a small band of colonial Minutemen, mainly farmers and their sons, faced off against hundreds of British regulars. Shots were fired, lives were lost, and an eight-year struggle for independence of the American colonies against the most powerful army in the world had begun.

Aftermath of the Congress in America

In late 1774 the results from the Continental Association were starting to be felt within the colonies. The Committees of Inspection that were responsible for the enforcement of the non-importation mandate of the Congress became effective in carrying out the inspection for imported British goods. In New York in 1774 they important roughly £370,000 of goods from Britain; in 1775 that number had dropped dramatically to £1,000. As the British continued to bring more troops into the Boston area, tensions between the colonists and the redcoats escalated. The colonials who were loyal to the Crown, known as “the king’s friends” or “friends of the government,” found it increasingly hard to remain neutral. Those loyal to Britain were viewed with suspicion and were ostracized by the rebels or patriots who sought redress for the colonial’s grievances at the very least and possibly independence from the parent state. The forced inspections of purchases dictated by the Continental Association irritated many, claiming the fight for American liberty was curbing the liberties of individuals. One loyalist wrote that the only liberty the patriots sought was “of knocking out any man’s Brains that dares presume to speak his mind freely upon the present Contest.” Choosing to remain loyal to the British Crown in the middle of a growing resistance movement had its consequences; it put your livelihood, property, and sometimes your personal safety at jeopardy. As people were forced to choose sides, friendships ended, and families were torn apart.

References

  • Boyer, Paul S. (Editor in Chief) The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928-1995.
  • Freeman, Joanne. “HIST 116 The American Revolution: Lecture 9 - Who Were the Loyalists?” Open Yale Courses, 2020. Accessed May 1, 2021. https://oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-116/lecture-9
  • Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress 1774-1790. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishing, 1950.
  • Norton, Mary Beth. 1774 The Long Year of Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 2020.
  • Randall, Willard S. George Washington: A Life. New York: Owl Books, 1997.
  • Tindall, George B. and David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. Seventh Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.
  • West, Doug. The First Continental Congress: A Short History. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2021.
  • West, Doug. Samuel Adams: A Short Biography: Architect of the American Revolution. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2019.

© 2021 Doug West

Comments

James C Moore from Joliet, IL on June 23, 2021:

Packed with information. Also, Sam Adams leaves an impressive legacy as both a brewer of beer and a revolutionary.

Doug West (author) from Missouri on June 23, 2021:

AB:

Thanks for the read and the comment. My articles on HP are typically background research for my books. I am trying to write shorter hubs but it is hard, there is just too much detail in the stories.

A B Williams from Central Florida on June 23, 2021:

Hi Doug,

I always enjoy reading your articles.

Well researched, thorough and informative.

Doug West (author) from Missouri on June 23, 2021:

Fran:

Thanks for the comment. The Revolutionary period in America was a fascinating time and I am sure scary for those who lived through it.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on June 23, 2021:

Doug, your article is about such an important part of our history. And, I love your pics. Thank you for an informative piece.

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