The Continental Congress was a series of legislative bodies, with some executive function, for thirteen of Britain's colonies in North America, and the newly declared United States just before, during, and after the American Revolutionary War. The term "Continental Congress" most specifically refers to the First and Second Congresses of 1774–1781 and, at the time, was also used to refer to the Congress of the Confederation of 1781–1789, which operated as the first national government of the United States until being replaced under the Constitution of the United States. 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 the colonies, while asserting the rights of colonists, proclaiming and passing the Continental Association (a unified trade embargo against Britain), and calling for a second congress. The Second Continental Congress convened in 1775 in the wake of 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 Independence resolution and 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 and Perpetual Union, came into force, at which time the body became what later was called the Congress of the Confederation. This unicameral governing body would convene in eight sessions before adjourning 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 city's capture 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 which served as the U.S. capital from 1785 to 1790.
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 Journals 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 idea of a congress of British American Colonies was first broached in 1754 at the start of the French and Indian War, which started as the North American front of the Seven Years' War between Great Britain and France. Known as the Albany Congress, it met in Albany, New York from June 18 to July 11, 1754, and representatives from seven colonies attended. Among the delegates was Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, who proposed that the colonies join in a confederation. Though this idea was rejected, Franklin and others continued to argue that the colonies should act more cohesively. Though participants did not meet in person, the intermittent activation of committees of correspondence during times of crisis would further bring the colonies together.
In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act requiring that many printed materials in the colonies be produced on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp. The act provoked the ire of merchants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, who responded by placing an embargo on British imports until the Stamp Act was repealed. To present a united front in their opposition, delegates from several provinces met in the Stamp Act Congress, which convened in New York City from October 7 through 25, 1765. It issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which it sent to Parliament. Subsequently, under pressure from British companies hurt by the embargo, the government of Prime Minister Lord Rockingham and King George III relented, and the Stamp Act was repealed in March 1766.
The colonists' resistance to the Stamp Act served as a catalyst for subsequent acts of resistance. The Townshend Acts (which imposed indirect taxes on various items not produced within the colonies, and created a more effective means of enforcing compliance with trade regulations), passed by Parliament in 1767 and 1768, sparked renewed animosity in the colonies, which eventually resulted in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Three years later, the Tea Act (which granted the British East India company the right to directly ship its tea to North America and the right to the duty-free export of tea from Great Britain) became law, exacerbating the colonists' resentment toward the British government, inciting the December 1773 Boston Tea Party, and inspiring the September 1774 Suffolk Resolves.
The First Continental Congress met briefly in Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from September 5 to October 26, 1774. Delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies that would ultimately join in the Revolutionary War participated. Only Georgia, where Loyalist feelings still outweighed Patriotic emotion, and which relied upon Great Britain for military supplies to defend settlers against possible Indian attacks, did not, nor did East and West Florida, which at the time were also British colonies. Altogether, 56 delegates attended, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, and John Adams. Other notable delegates included Samuel Adams from Massachusetts Bay and Joseph Galloway and John Dickinson from the Pennsylvania. Peyton Randolph of Virginia was its president.
Benjamin Franklin put forward the idea of such a meeting the year before, but he was unable to convince the colonies of its necessity until the Royal Navy instituted a blockade of Boston Harbor and Parliament passed the punitive Intolerable Acts in 1774, in response to the Boston Tea Party. During the congress, delegates organized an economic boycott of Great Britain in protest and petitioned the King for a redress of grievances. The colonies were united in their effort to demonstrate to the mother country their authority by virtue of their common causes and their unity, but their ultimate objectives were inconsistent. Most delegates were not yet ready to break away from Great Britain, but they most definitely wanted the king and parliament to act in what they considered a fairer manner. Delegates from the provinces of Pennsylvania and New York were given firm instructions to pursue a resolution with Great Britain. While the other colonies all held the idea of colonial rights as paramount, they were split between those who sought legislative equality with Britain and those who instead favored independence and a break from the Crown and its excesses.
In London, Parliament debated the merits of meeting the demands made by the colonies; however, it took no official notice of Congress's petitions and addresses. On November 30, 1774, King George III opened Parliament with a speech condemning Massachusetts and the Suffolk Resolves. At that point it became clear that the Continental Congress would have to convene once again.
The Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, at Pennsylvania's State House in Philadelphia shortly after the start of the Revolutionary War. Initially, it functioned as a de facto national government by raising armies, directing strategy, appointing diplomats, and making formal treaties. The following year it adopted a resolution for independence on July 2, 1776, and two days later approved the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson drafted the declaration, and John Adams was a leader in the debates in favor of its adoption. Afterward, the Congress functioned as the provisional government of the United States of America through March 1, 1781.
To govern the war effort and to foster unity among the states, Congress created various standing committees to handle war-related activities, such as the committee of secret correspondence, the treasury board, the board of war and ordnance, and the navy board. Much work was also done in small ad hoc committees. One such small group was tasked with developing a constitution to perpetuate the new Union. Such an agreement, the Articles of Confederation was approved by Congress on November 15, 1777, and sent to the states for ratification.
The Articles of Confederation came into force on March 1, 1781, after being ratified by all 13 states, and the Second Continental Congress became the Congress of the Confederation (officially styled the "United States in Congress Assembled"), a unicameral body composed of delegates from the several states. A guiding principle of the Articles was to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states. The weak central government established by the Articles received only those powers which the former colonies had recognized as belonging to king and parliament. Congress had the power to declare war, sign treaties, and settle disputes between the states. It could also borrow or print money, but did not have the power to tax. It helped guide the United States through the final stages of the Revolutionary War, but steeply declined in authority afterward.
During peacetime, there were two important, long-lasting acts of the Confederation Congress:
Under the Articles of Confederation, the Confederation Congress had little power to compel the individual states to comply with its decisions. More and more prospective delegates elected to the Confederation Congress declined to serve in it. The leading men in each State preferred to serve in the state governments, and thus the Continental Congress had frequent difficulties in establishing a quorum. When the Articles of Confederation were superseded by the Constitution of the United States, the Confederation Congress was superseded by the United States Congress.
The Confederation Congress finally set up a suitable administrative structure for the Federal government. It put into operation a departmental system, with ministers of finance, of war, and of foreign affairs. Robert Morris was selected as the new Superintendent of Finance, and then Morris used some ingenuity and initiative—along with a loan from the French Government—to deal with his empty treasury and also runaway inflation, for a number of years, in the supply of paper money.
As the ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin not only secured the "bridge loan" for the national budget, but he also persuaded France to send an army of about 6,000 soldiers across the Atlantic Ocean to America—and also to dispatch a large squadron of French warships under Comte de Grasse to the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina. These French warships were decisive at the Battle of Yorktown along the coast of Virginia by preventing Lord Cornwallis's British troops from receiving supplies, reinforcements, or evacuation via the James River and Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Robert Morris, the Minister of Finance, persuaded Congress to charter the Bank of North America on December 31, 1781. Although a private bank, the Federal Government acquired partial ownership with money lent by France. The Bank of North America played a major role in financing the war against Great Britain. The combined armies of George Washington and Nathanael Greene, with the help of the French Army and Navy, defeated the British in the Battle of Yorktown during October 1781. Lord Cornwallis was forced to sue for peace and to surrender his entire army to General Washington. During 1783, the Americans secured the official recognition of the independence of the United States from the United Kingdom via negotiations with British diplomats in Paris, France. These negotiations culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, and this treaty was soon ratified by the British Parliament.
Both the British Parliament and many of their own Colonial assemblies had powerful speakers of the house and standing committees with strong chairmen, with executive power held by the British Monarch or the colonial Governor. However, the organization of the Continental Congress was based less on the British Parliament or on local colonial assemblies than on the 1765 Stamp Act Congress. Nine delegates to that congress were in attendance at the First Congress in 1774, and their perspective on governance influenced the direction of both the Continental Congresses and the later Confederation Congress. Congress took on powers normally held by the British King-in-Council, such as foreign and military affairs. However, the right to tax and regulate trade was reserved for the states, not Congress. Congress had no formal way to enforce its ordinances on the state governments. Delegates were responsible to and reported directly to their home state assemblies; an organizational structure that Neil Olsen has described as "an extreme form of matrix management".
Delegates chose a presiding president to monitor the debate, maintain order, and make sure journals were kept and documents and letters were published and delivered. After the colonies declared their independence in 1776 and united as a quasi-federation to fight for their freedom, the president functioned as head of state (not of the country, but of its central government); Otherwise, the office was "more honorable than powerful". Congress also elected a secretary, scribe, doorman, messenger, and Chaplain.
The rules of Congress guaranteed the right to debate and open access to the floor for each delegate. Additionally, to ensure that each state would be on an equal footing with the others, voting on ordinances was done en bloc, with each state having a single vote. Prior to casting its yay or nay vote, preliminary votes were taken within each state delegation. The majority vote determined here was considered the vote of the state on the motion; in cases of a tie the vote for the state was marked as "divided," and thus not counted.
Turnover of delegates was high, with an average year-to-year turnover rate of 37% by one calculation, and 39% by session-to-session. Of the 343 serving delegates, only 55% (187 delegates) spent 12 or more months in attendance. Only 25 of the delegates served longer than 35 months. This high rate of turnover was not just a characteristic, it was due to a deliberate policy of term limits. In the Confederation phase of the Congress "no delegate was permitted to serve more than three years in any six". Attendance was variable: while in session, between 54 and 22 delegates were in attendance at any one time, with an average of only 35.5 members attending between 1774 and 1788.
There is a long-running debate on how effective the Congress was as an organization. The first critic may have been General George Washington. In an address to his officers, at Newburgh, New York, on March 15, 1783, responding to complaints that Congress had not funded their pay and pensions, he stated that he believed that Congress would do the army "complete justice" and eventually pay the soldiers. "But, like all other large Bodies, where there is a variety of different Interests to reconcile, their deliberations are slow."
In addition to their slowness, the lack of coercive power in the Continental Congress was harshly criticized by James Madison when arguing for the need of a Federal Constitution. His comment in Vices of the Political System of April 1787 set the conventional wisdom on the historical legacy of the institution for centuries to come:
A sanction is essential to the idea of law, as coercion is to that of Government. The federal system being destitute of both, wants the great vital principles of a Political Cons[ti]tution. Under the form of such a Constitution, it is in fact nothing more than a treaty of amity of commerce and of alliance, between so many independent and Sovereign States. From what cause could so fatal an omission have happened in the Articles of Confederation? From a mistaken confidence that the justice, the good faith, the honor, the sound policy, of the several legislative assemblies would render superfluous any appeal to the ordinary motives by which the laws secure the obedience of individuals: a confidence which does honor to the enthusiastic virtue of the compilers, as much as the inexperience of the crisis apologizes for their errors.— James Madison, Vices of the Political System
Many commentators take for granted that the leaderless, weak, slow, and small-committee driven, Continental Congress was a failure, largely because after the end of the war the Articles of Confederation no longer suited the needs of a peacetime nation, and the Congress itself, following Madison's recommendations, called for its revision and replacement. Some also suggest that the Congress was inhibited by the formation of contentious partisan alignments based on regional differences. Others claim that Congress was less ideological than event-driven. Others note that the Congress was successful in that the American people "came to accept Congress as their legitimate institution of Government", but the "rather poor governmental record"  of the Congress forced the constitutional convention of 1787.
Political scientists Calvin Jillson and Rick Wilson in the 1980s accepted the conventional interpretation on the weakness of the Congress due to the lack of coercive power. They explored the role of leadership, or rather the lack of it, in the Continental Congress. Going beyond even Madison's harsh critique, they used the "analytical stance of what has come to be called the new institutionalism" to demonstrate that "the norms, rules, and institutional structures of the Continental Congress" were equally to blame "for the institution's eventual failure", and that the "institutional structure worked against, rather than with, the delegates in tackling the crucial issues of the day."
The historian Richard P. McCormick rendered a more nuanced judgment. He suggested that Madison's "extreme judgment" on the Congress was "motivated no doubt by Madison's overriding desire to create a new central government that would be empowered to veto the acts of state legislatures," but that it fails "to take any notice of the fact that while the authority of the Confederation Congress was ambiguous, it was not a nullity".
Benjamin Irvin in his social and cultural history of the Continental Congress, praised "the invented traditions by which Congress endeavored to fortify the resistance movement and to make meaning of American independence." But he noted that after the war's end, "Rather than passively adopting the Congress's creations, the American people embraced, rejected, reworked, ridiculed, or simply ignored them as they saw fit."
An organizational culture analysis of the Continental Congress by Neil Olsen, looking for the values, norms, and underlying assumptions that drive an organization's decisions, noted that "the leaderless Continental Congress outperformed not only the modern congress run by powerful partisan hierarchies, but modern government and corporate entities, for all their coercive power and vaunted skills as 'leaders'." Looking at their mission as defined by state resolutions and petitions entered into the Congressional Journal on its first day, it found that on the common issues of the relief of Boston, securing Colonial rights, eventually restoring harmonious relations with Great Britain, and repealing taxes, they overachieved their mission goals, defeated the largest army and navy in the world, and created two new types of republic. Olsen suggests that the Congress, if slow, when judged by its many achievements – not the least being recognizing its flaws, then replacing and terminating itself – was a success.