First Continental Congress

In September and October of 1774, colonial leaders met in Philadelphia's Carpenters Hall for the First Continental Congress. The Massachusetts House of Representatives had called for an intercolonial congress that would take any actions necessary to preserve or establish colonial rights. Only Georgia was not represented among the fifty-five delegates of the First Continental Congress.

Bringing even this small number of representatives together was no easy task. They bickered about who would give the opening prayer, and they disputed how many votes each colony would have, until they finally settled on one vote for each colony, regardless of that colony's size. In fact, the British attempts to divide colonial support almost succeeded.

In a pamphlet titled “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Thomas Jefferson of Virginia denounced all parliamentary legislation. Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania proposed a much more conciliatory plan that would create a grand council overseeing matters of taxation and legislation in association with a royally approved governor-general. The delegates did away with Galloway's plan, but only by a narrow margin. They adopted the views of more radical patriots, like those outlined in the Suffolk Resolves, the documents that Paul Revere had in hand when he galloped into Philadelphia from beleaguered Boston. This document enumerated many colonial grievances, demanded that the British back down over certain items, and gave the ultimatum that if the British did not acquiesce, they would face consequences.

What was the punishment for rebelling against the British Crown?

A rebel would be dragged to the gallows, hanged by the neck, and then cut down alive; his entrails would be taken out and burned while he was still alive; his head would be cut off and his body divided into four parts; and his head and quarters would be at the king's disposal.

Still hoping to reconcile their complaints with the British Crown, the delegates approved the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Members of this First Continental Congress concluded their sessions by agreeing to meet again, in May 1775, to vote on stronger measures if the British had not addressed their grievances. They had taken the first steps toward freedom.

It Seemed Like Common Sense

In January 1776, political philosopher Thomas Paine wrote a fifty-page pamphlet titled “Common Sense.” The pamphlet went through twenty-five editions in 1776 and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Although it was published anonymously, it rallied the masses. Paine's rhetorical style was blunt, outlining the economic benefits of freedom and asking whether “a continent should continue to be ruled by an island.” Even some loyalists, by now clearly in the minority, pondered the predicament Paine posed and agreed with his assertion that the British exploited the American colonies, and that establishing independence was only common sense: “Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'Tis Time to Part.” Paine continued writing a series of pamphlets between 1776 and 1783 called “the American Crisis.” In fact, General Washington ordered these read to his troops to inspire them to fight even harder for freedom.

The king and the British government remained steadfast in the face of colonial concerns. As relations worsened between Britain and the colonies, so did trade as the value of British exports to America fell. Merchants petitioned the king to settle the disputes quickly, for they feared financial ruin if the colonists could not pay the bills they'd accrued.

Lord North, the British prime minister, presented a number of proposals to Parliament, including one that would allow the colonies to tax themselves enough to pay for their own defense and administration of colonial government. Parliament approved Lord North's proposition, but unfortunately the news did not reach the colonies until April 24, 1775.

Paul Revere's Ride

Earlier that same April, British orders had been sent to General Thomas Gage, then governor of Massachusetts, advising him to arrest dissidents and to capture their arms and munitions. On April 19, Gage ordered British troops to Concord, where he'd learned of a stockpiled arsenal. But the troops first met colonial resistance at Lexington, where on the evening of April 18, Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott rode ahead to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams, two patriots whom Gage wanted to arrest. Revere's historic midnight ride has become part of American folklore, though slightly exaggerated in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's ballad “Paul Revere's Ride.” In fact, The British detained Revere while he was en route with his message.

At Lexington, approximately fifty minutemen met the British advance guard. When the British major John Pitcairn ordered the patriots to disperse, a pistol shot rang out. Who fired this first shot is not entirely clear, but one thing was certain: British troops opened fire on the minutemen even as the colonists retreated. By the time the firing stopped, eight minutemen were killed and ten wounded.

Why were the colonial rebels called “minutemen”?

The term “minuteman” is used to describe an armed man who could be prepared “in a minute's notice” to fight against the British during the Revolutionary War.

As British troops reached Concord, they confiscated what few arms they found and suffered attack by colonists, resulting in the death of three British soldiers and the wounding of eight more. This time, as the British made their way back to Lexington, an increasing number of colonists joined in the assault. By the time the redcoats reached Boston, at least 270 British soldiers were dead, missing, or wounded in battle — a higher number than the colonial casualties.

Canadian Invasion

In the aftermath of Lexington and Concord, Americans occupied Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point, both on Lake Champlain. Thinking they could convince the French-speaking Canadians to rally with their cause, a few rather gutsy patriots — General Richard Montgomery and Colonel Benedict Arnold — invaded Quebec. Not only did they hope for allies, but they also wanted guns and gunpowder. However, the Canadians refused to join the patriot cause. What's more, many of Arnold's men had met the requirements of their military service, and they left before the siege of Quebec.

Undeterred, Montgomery and Arnold attacked on New Year's Eve, but when Montgomery was killed and Arnold wounded, the British took hundreds of prisoners. The remaining American troops were forced back to Lake Champlain.

The Second Continental Congress

On May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to determine the fate of the colonies' relationship with Britain. It took the delegates some time to gather, but by June sixty-five delegates had arrived, representing twelve colonies (Georgia wasn't represented until September). If you think this was a unified bunch, guess again. In past congressional sessions, debate, fretting, and fuming took center stage, but the delegates hadn't confronted the ultimate decision the push for independence. By now the time had come to confront the inevitable.

Many moderates, led by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, held out hope that the American colonies could somehow remain British with Parliament recognizing particular rights. Radicals, however, held firm to their support for complete independence, advocated by the staunch patriot Samuel Adams. Richard Henry Lee, representing Virginia, moved that the colonies absolve themselves of allegiance to the British Crown. John Adams of Massachusetts seconded the motion, but action was deferred until July.

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