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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Henningsen: The First Continental Congress

When the First Continental Congress adjourned on this date in 1774, America was in chaos. What might happen next was anyone’s guess.

Responding to the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament imposed the “Intolerable Acts”, harsh laws intended to punish Massachusetts and force the rest of the colonies into submission. They had the opposite effect, provoking widespread defiance, including calls for an inter-colonial congress.

This was unusual. Britain’s American colonies didn’t get along, preferring competition to cooperation; self-interest to the common good. There'd been only two congresses during the last century and a half. Neither lasted longer than three weeks; neither included all thirteen colonies. This one wouldn’t either, since Georgia refused to attend.

As representatives from the other twelve gathered in Philadelphia, their primary challenge was each other. Plainly dressed New Englanders were shocked by wealthy southerners arriving in elegant carriages, driven by liveried slaves. Conservative Pennsylvanians plotted to undercut other delegations and seize control of the proceedings. Everyone eyed the Massachusetts delegation, led by the radical Adams cousins, Sam and John, with deep suspicion. Their Tea Party, after all, got everyone into this mess.

And they weren’t clear on exactly whom they represented. Colonial government was collapsing. Royal governors watched helplessly as assemblies dissolved themselves to be replaced by extra-legal bodies of all kinds.

In this context of internal mistrust and external anarchy, Congress struggled. Hearing that the British army had wiped out Boston, it passed resolutions withholding tax revenues from the Crown and urging citizens to take up arms.

Learning that the report was false, conservative delegates struck back with a plan to unite the colonies with Great Britain. It failed by one vote.

In the end, Congress did four important things. First, it issued a declaration of resolves foreshadowing the Declaration of Independence. Second, it declared an immediate boycott of British goods and threatened suspension of all trade with the mother country. Although this might cripple their economy it showed how far colonists would go to defend their rights. Third, Congress gave responsibility for enforcing these sanctions to the people themselves. Not only did this help get local governments on board, it reflected a fundamental principle of the American Revolution – governments derive their power from the governed.

Finally, during their fifty-one day session, delegates began to learn how to work together toward common goals. That would be more important than they could have imagined. When they reconvened the following May, they’d be in a shooting war. Even then, it would take a year to reach agreement on independence, and another seven years of war to make that independence a reality.

But they were on their way.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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