The First Continental Congress

Delegates from every colony except Georgia met at Philadelphia on September 5, 1774. Altogether fifty-six men attended. Voting was done by colony, establishing a precedent that would last until the adoption of the Constitution. There was a wide range of opinion among the members of Congress. Men like Samuel Adams, John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee rejected Parliament's authority. Others like Joseph Galloway, James Duane, and George Read argued for a more measured response. The more radical members of Congress initially had their way. Congress approved the Suffolk Resolves, which had originated in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. These rejected the Intolerable Acts and called for concerted colonial resistance to British authority.

Galloway responded with a “Plan of a Proposed Union between Great Britain and the Colonies.” Galloway's proposal harkened back to the Albany Plan. Galloway envisioned that the colonies would continue to manage their own internal affairs. To handle matters of general concern, a presidentgeneral appointed by the King would preside over a council elected by the colonies. This body would work with Parliament and would possess the right to veto any legislation. Galloway's plan fell short by only one vote, indicating the strength of the moderates.

The Declaration and Resolves

John Adams crafted a compromise that Congress could support more wholeheartedly. The Declaration and Resolves was a comprehensive repudiation of British legislation since 1763. The Coercive Acts and Quebec Act were denounced as “unconstitutional, dangerous, and destructive.” In language foreshadowing that of the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration and Resolves defended Americans' Lockean right to “life, liberty, and property.” It reiterated the American position that only the colonial legislatures could impose taxes in America. It criticized all the measures that Britain had taken to enforce its will on the colonies. A call for a return to the situation that existed before 1763 revealed the essential conservatism of American demands. Congress rhetorically was searching for a way to turn back the clock. For all its defiance of the British enactments, Congress conceded the right of Parliament to regulate trade and professed its continuing loyalty to the empire.

But the retrospective nostalgia inherent in the Declaration and Resolves was ultimately a bittersweet gesture and no more. A decade of struggle with Parliament had changed things. A grand compromise of the sort hoped for by men like Joseph Galloway was difficult to envision. The First Continental Congress itself represented a ripening of a new self-consciousness and unity among the American colonists. Even if a settlement could be achieved with the mother country, the relationship between Britain and America would never be the same.

The Continental Association

The steps taken by Congress to respond to the Intolerable Acts reflected the emergence of continental thinking in America. Patrick Henry declared, “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American…. All distinctions are thrown down. All America is thrown into one mass.” Many would have disagreed with Henry, and provincial and regional distinctions continued to be important for years to come. But Congress recognized that the colonies had to stand together if they were to preserve their rights and persuade the King and Parliament to back down.

The Continental Association was an elaborate plan to exert economic pressure on Britain. It was the result of intense negotiation between congressmen representing the varying economic interests of their regions. Nonimportation of goods from Britain would commence on December 1, 1774. If Parliament did not act to redress colonial grievances, nonconsumption of British goods would begin March 1, 1775, and an embargo on American exports to Britain on September 1. This incremental process allowed merchants to adjust inventories and southern planters to sell their upcoming crop. Congress called for the creation of committees in every locality to monitor compliance. These committees could investigate and punish with a boycott anyone violating the association. By the spring of 1775, the association was being enforced in all thirteen colonies.

The First Continental Congress adjourned on October 22, 1774. Arrangements were made to reconvene in May 1775 if the British government refused the colonies' demands. Congress had begun to act like a government, setting political and economic policy and creating an elaborate continent-wide structure of committees to impose its will. Many merchants and planters defied Congress for reasons of principle or interest. The King's writ still ran in America. But Congress had wrested control of the political agenda in the colonies.

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