Path to the Revolution: Continental Congress
The Continental Congress was one of the organizations, events, or pieces of legislation in the aftermath of the French and Indian War that would lead us to the American Revolution. These include:
- Committees of Correspondence
- Pontiac’s War
- Sugar Act
- Quartering Act
- Stamp Act
- Declaratory Act
- Townshend Acts
- Boston Massacre
- Tea Act
- Boston Tea Party
- Intolerable Acts
- Continental Congress
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine
- Declaration of Independence
The Continental Congress was a series of legislative bodies which met in the British American colonies and the newly declared United States just before, during, and after the American Revolution. The term “Continental Congress” most specifically refers to the First and Second Congresses of 1774–1781 and may also refer to the Congress of the Confederation of 1781–1789, which operated as the first national government of the United States until being replaced by the current congress. Thus, the term covers the three congressional bodies of the Thirteen Colonies and the new United States that met between 1774 and 1789.
The First Continental Congress was called in 1774 in response to growing tensions between the colonies culminating in the passage of the Intolerable Acts by the British Parliament. It met for about six weeks and sought to repair the fraying relationship between Britain and colonies while asserting the rights of colonists. The Second Continental Congress convened in 1775 in response to the breakout of hostilities in Massachusetts. Soon after meeting, this second Congress sent the Olive Branch Petition to King George III while also selecting George Washington as the head of the new Continental Army. After peace was not forthcoming, the same congress drafted and adopted the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, proclaiming that the former colonies were now independent sovereign states.
The Second Continental Congress served as the provisional government of the U.S. for most of the War of Independence. In March 1781, the nation’s first Frame of Government, the Articles of Confederation, came into force, at which time the body became the Congress of the Confederation. This unicameral governing body would convene in eight sessions prior to being disbanded in 1789, when the 1st United States Congress under the new Constitution of the United States took over the role as the nation’s legislative branch of government.
Both the First and Second Continental Congresses convened in Philadelphia, though with the capture of the city during the Revolutionary War, the Second Congress was forced to meet in other locations for a time. The Congress of Confederation was also established in Philadelphia and later moved to New York City when it became the U.S. capital in 1785.
Much of what is known today about the daily activities of these congresses comes from the journals kept by the secretary for all three congresses, Charles Thomson. Printed contemporaneously, the Papers of the Continental Congress contain the official congressional papers, letters, treaties, reports and records. The delegates to the Continental and Confederation congresses had extensive experience in deliberative bodies, with “a cumulative total of nearly 500 years of experience in their Colonial assemblies, and fully a dozen of them had served as speakers of the houses of their legislatures.”
The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), also known as the Revolutionary War or the American War of Independence, was initiated by delegates from thirteen American colonies of British America in Congress against Great Britain over their objection to Parliament’s taxation policies and lack of colonial representation.[m] From their founding in the 1600s, the colonies were largely left to govern themselves. The cost of victory in the 1754 to 1763 French and Indian War and the 1756 to 1763 Seven Years’ War left the British government deeply in debt; the colonies where the war was fought equipped and populated the British forces there, at the cost of millions of their own funds. The Stamp Act and Townshend Acts provoked colonial opposition and unrest, leading to the 1770 Boston Massacre and 1773 Boston Tea Party. When Parliament imposed the Intolerable Acts upon Massachusetts, twelve colonies sent delegates to the First Continental Congress to draft a Petition to the King and organize a boycott of British goods.[n]
Battles of Lexington and Concord
The battles of Lexington and Concord were the first military engagements of the American Revolutionary War. The battles were fought on April 19, 1775 in Middlesex County, Province of Massachusetts Bay, within the towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Menotomy (present-day Arlington), and Cambridge. They marked the outbreak of armed conflict between the Kingdom of Great Britain and its thirteen colonies in America.
In late 1774, Colonial leaders adopted the Suffolk Resolves in resistance to the alterations made to the Massachusetts colonial government by the British parliament following the Boston Tea Party. The colonial assembly responded by forming a Patriot provisional government known as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and calling for local militias to train for possible hostilities. The Colonial government exercised effective control of the colony outside of British-controlled Boston. In response, the British government in February 1775 declared Massachusetts to be in a state of rebellion.
About 700 British Army regulars in Boston, under Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, were given secret orders to capture and destroy Colonial military supplies reportedly stored by the Massachusetts militia at Concord. Through effective intelligence gathering, Patriot leaders had received word weeks before the expedition that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations. On the night before the battle, warning of the British expedition had been rapidly sent from Boston to militias in the area by several riders, including Paul Revere and Samuel Prescott, with information about British plans. The initial mode of the Army’s arrival by water was signaled from the Old North Church in Boston to Charlestown using lanterns to communicate “one if by land, two if by sea”.
The first shots were fired just as the sun was rising at Lexington. Eight militiamen were killed, including Ensign Robert Munroe, their third in command. The British suffered only one casualty. The militia was outnumbered and fell back, and the regulars proceeded on to Concord, where they broke apart into companies to search for the supplies. At the North Bridge in Concord, approximately 400 militiamen engaged 100 regulars from three companies of the King’s troops at about 11:00 am, resulting in casualties on both sides. The outnumbered regulars fell back from the bridge and rejoined the main body of British forces in Concord.
The British forces began their return march to Boston after completing their search for military supplies, and more militiamen continued to arrive from the neighboring towns. Gunfire erupted again between the two sides and continued throughout the day as the regulars marched back towards Boston. Upon returning to Lexington, Lt. Col. Smith’s expedition was rescued by reinforcements under Brigadier General Hugh Percy, a future Duke of Northumberland styled at this time by the courtesy title Earl Percy. The combined force of about 1,700 men marched back to Boston under heavy fire in a tactical withdrawal and eventually reached the safety of Charlestown. The accumulated militias then blockaded the narrow land accesses to Charlestown and Boston, starting the siege of Boston.
Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the first shot fired by the Patriots at the North Bridge in his “Concord Hymn” as the “shot heard round the world”.
Second Continental Congress
The Second Continental Congress was a meeting of delegates from the Thirteen Colonies in America that united in the American Revolutionary War. It convened on May 10, 1775, with representatives from 12 of the colonies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, succeeding the First Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia from September 5 to October 26, 1774. The Second Congress functioned as a de facto national government at the outset of the Revolutionary War by raising armies, directing strategy, appointing diplomats, and writing petitions such as the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms and the Olive Branch Petition. All thirteen colonies were represented by the time the Congress adopted the Lee Resolution which declared independence from Britain on July 2, 1776, and the congress agreed to the Declaration of Independence two days later.
Afterward, Congress functioned as the provisional government of the United States of America through March 1, 1781. During this period, its achievements included: Successfully managing the war effort; drafting the Articles of Confederation, the first U.S. constitution; securing diplomatic recognition and support from foreign nations; and resolving state land claims west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Many of the delegates who attended the Second Congress had also attended the First. They again elected Peyton Randolph to serve as President of the Congress and Charles Thomson to serve as secretary. Notable new arrivals included Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and John Hancock of Massachusetts. Within two weeks, Randolph was summoned back to Virginia to preside over the House of Burgesses; Hancock succeeded him as president, and Thomas Jefferson replaced him in the Virginia delegation. The number of participating colonies also grew, as Georgia endorsed the Congress in July 1775 and adopted the continental ban on trade with Britain.
Battle of Bunker Hill
The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775, during the Siege of Boston in the first stage of the American Revolutionary War. The battle is named after Bunker Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts, which was peripherally involved in the battle. It was the original objective of both the colonial and British troops, though the majority of combat took place on the adjacent hill which later became known as Breed’s Hill.
On June 13, 1775, the leaders of the colonial forces besieging Boston learned that the British were planning to send troops out from the city to fortify the unoccupied hills surrounding the city, which would give them control of Boston Harbor. In response, 1,200 colonial troops under the command of William Prescott stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. During the night, the colonists constructed a strong redoubt on Breed’s Hill, as well as smaller fortified lines across the Charlestown Peninsula.
By daybreak of June 17, the British became aware of the presence of colonial forces on the Peninsula and mounted an attack against them that day. Two assaults on the colonial positions were repulsed with significant British casualties; the third and final attack carried the redoubt after the defenders ran out of ammunition. The colonists including over 100 African Americans, retreated over Bunker Hill, leaving the British  in control of the Peninsula.
The battle was a tactical, though somewhat Pyrrhic, victory for the British, as it proved to be a sobering experience for them; the British incurred many more casualties than the Americans had sustained, including many officers. The battle had demonstrated that inexperienced militia were able to stand up to regular army troops in battle. Subsequently, the battle discouraged the British from any further frontal attacks against well defended front lines. American casualties were comparatively much fewer, although their losses included General Joseph Warren and Major Andrew McClary, the final casualty of the battle.
The battle led the British to adopt a more cautious planning and maneuver execution in future engagements, which was evident in the subsequent New York and New Jersey campaign, and arguably helped rather than hindered the American forces. Their new approach to battle was actually giving the Americans greater opportunity to retreat if defeat was imminent. The costly engagement also convinced the British of the need to hire substantial numbers of Hessian auxiliaries to bolster their strength in the face of the new and formidable Continental Army.
Olive Branch Petition
The Olive Branch Petition was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 5, 1775, and signed on July 8 in a final attempt to avoid war between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies in America. The Congress had already authorized the invasion of Canada more than a week earlier, but the petition affirmed American loyalty to Great Britain and beseeched King George III to prevent further conflict. It was followed by the July 6 Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, however, which made its success unlikely in London. In August 1775, the colonies were formally declared to be in rebellion by the Proclamation of Rebellion, and the petition was rejected by the British government; King George had refused to read it before declaring the colonists traitors.
Battle of Quebec
The Battle of Quebec (French: Bataille de Québec) was fought on December 31, 1775, between American Continental Army forces and the British defenders of Quebec City early in the American Revolutionary War. The battle was the first major defeat of the war for the Americans, and it came with heavy losses. General Richard Montgomery was killed, Benedict Arnold was wounded, and Daniel Morgan and more than 400 men were taken prisoner. The city’s garrison, a motley assortment of regular troops and militia led by Quebec’s provincial governor, General Guy Carleton, suffered a small number of casualties.
Montgomery’s army had captured Montreal on November 13, and early in December they became one force that was led by Arnold, whose men had made an arduous trek through the wilderness of northern New England. Governor Carleton had escaped from Montreal to Quebec, the Americans’ next objective, and last-minute reinforcements arrived to bolster the city’s limited defenses before the attacking force’s arrival. Concerned that expiring enlistments would reduce his force, Montgomery made the end-of-year attack in a blinding snowstorm to conceal his army’s movements. The plan was for separate forces led by Montgomery and Arnold to converge in the lower city before scaling the walls protecting the upper city. Montgomery’s force turned back after he was killed by cannon fire early in the battle, but Arnold’s force penetrated further into the lower city. Arnold was injured early in the attack, and Morgan led the assault in his place before he became trapped in the lower city and was forced to surrender. Arnold and the Americans maintained an ineffectual blockade of the city until spring, when British reinforcements arrived.
Fortification of Dorchester Heights
The Fortification of Dorchester Heights was a decisive action early in the American Revolutionary War that precipitated the end of the siege of Boston and the withdrawal of British troops from that city.
On March 4, 1776, troops from the Continental Army under George Washington’s command occupied Dorchester Heights, a series of low hills with a commanding view of Boston and its harbor, and mounted powerful cannons there threatening the city and the Navy ships in the harbor. General William Howe, commander of the British forces occupying Boston, planned an attack to dislodge them. However, after a snowstorm prevented its execution, Howe withdrew instead. British forces, accompanied by Loyalists who had fled to the city during the siege, evacuated the city on March 17 and sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
. In July 1776, Congress unanimously passed the Declaration of Independence. Hopes of a quick settlement were supported by American sympathizers within Parliament who opposed Lord North’s “coercion policy” in the colonies. However, after the British were driven out of Boston the new British commander-in-chief, General Sir William Howe, launched a counter-offensive and captured New York City. After crossing the Delaware Washington engaged and routed Hessian forces at the Battle of Trenton and the British at the Battle of Princeton. After British General Burgoyne surrendered at the Battles of Saratoga in October 1777, Howe’s 1777–1778 Philadelphia campaign captured that city. Washington retreated to Valley Forge during the winter of 1777–1778 where Prussian allied General von Steuben drilled the largely untrained Continental Army into an organized fighting unit.
French Foreign Minister Vergennes saw the war as a way to create an America economically and militarily dependent on France, not Britain. Although talks on a formal alliance began in late 1776, they proceeded slowly until the Patriot victory at Saratoga in October 1777. Fears Congress might come to an early settlement with Britain resulted in France and the United States signing two treaties in February 1778. The first was a commercial treaty, the second a Treaty of Alliance; in return for a French guarantee of American independence, Congress agreed to join the war against Britain and defend the French West Indies. Although Spain refused to join the Franco-American alliance, in the 1779 Treaty of Aranjuez they agreed to support France in its global war with Britain, hoping to regain losses incurred in 1713.
In other fronts in North America, Governor of Spanish Louisiana Bernardo Gálvez routed British forces from Louisiana. The Spanish, along with American privateers supplied the 1779 American conquest of Western Quebec (later the US Northwest Territory). Gálvez then expelled British forces from Mobile during the Battle of Fort Charlotte and the siege of Pensacola, cutting off British military aid to their American Indian allies in the interior southeast. Howe’s replacement, General Sir Henry Clinton, then mounted a 1778 “Southern strategy” from Charleston. After capturing Savannah, defeats at the Battle of Kings Mountain and the Battle of Cowpens forced Cornwallis to retreat to Yorktown, where his army was besieged by an allied French and American force. An attempt to resupply the garrison was repulsed by the French navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake, and Cornwallis surrendered in October 1781.
Although their war with France and Spain continued for another two years, Yorktown ended the British will to continue the war in North America. The North Ministry was replaced by Lord Rockingham, who accepted office on the basis George III agreed to American independence. Preliminary articles were signed in November 1782, and in April 1783 Congress accepted British terms; these included independence, evacuation of British troops, cession of territory up to the Mississippi River and navigation to the sea, as well as fishing rights in Newfoundland. On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed between Great Britain and the United States, then ratified the following spring.
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