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Second Continental Congress

Before adjourning in late October 1774, the First Continental Congress had provided for reconvening at a later time if circumstances dictated. The skirmishes at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, and the gathering of an American army outside of Boston provided sufficient impetus to assemble the delegates at the State House in Philadelphia. The first meeting convened on May 10, 1775, the same date as the American capture of Fort Ticonderoga.

The Second Continental Congress was presided over by John Hancock, who replaced the ailing Peyton Randolph, and included some of the same delegates as the first, but with such notable additions as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Joseph Galloway, the Pennsylvania conservative, was not in attendance. All of the colonies sent delegates, although the Georgia delegation did not arrive until fall. As time passed, the radical element that included John Adams, Samuel Adams and Richard Henry Lee began to eclipse the more conservative faction represented by John Dickinson. Nonetheless, many of the delegates expected at the outset, that the rupture between colony and mother country would be healed.

Congress lacked the legal authority to govern, but boldly assumed that responsibility. Major contributions included the following:

  • Military Matters. On June 15, Congress assumed control of the army encamped outside of Boston. John Adams labored hard among his fellow Northerners to gain support for George Washington as the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Adams realized that many people in the South and wealthy Americans in all areas harbored deep reservations about the new armed conflict, and reasoned that the appointment of a prominent Southerner to head the military effort would generate a broader base of support for the struggle. Washington, present in Philadelphia in full military dress, accepted the responsibility and departed for Boston on June 23.

    Congress appointed four majors-general to serve under Washington: Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Philip Schuyler and Israel Putnam.

    In late May, the Congress addressed the residents of Canada, hoping to ignite the passions of the French and have the province join America as the 14th state. In order to thwart an anticipated invasion from the north, Congress authorized the ill-fated invasion of Canada.

  • Statements of Position. The Congress went to great lengths to offer a philosophical justification for its participation in the war. In early July, approval was given to Dickinson's Olive Branch Petition, a statement of abiding loyalty to the king, but disapproval of the actions of his ministers and Parliament. A stronger statement followed on July 6, 1775, the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms, which held out the possibility of independence if American rights were not restored. The colonists still identified their opponent as parliament, rather than the king:
    The legislature of Great-Britain, however, stimulated by an inordinate passion for a power not only unjustifiable, but which they know to be peculiarly reprobated by the very constitution of that kingdom, and desparate of success in any mode of contest, where regard should be had to truth, law, or right, have at length, deserting those, attempted to effect their cruel and impolitic purpose of enslaving these colonies by violence, and have thereby rendered it necessary for us to close with their last appeal from reason to arms.
    In May, 1775, Lord North offered "reconciliation" to the colonies, by which the colonies would pay their fair share of expenses and Parliament would not itself impose taxes beyond levies for the regulation of commerce. The Congress considered the proposal and resolved on July 30, on the advice of a committee including John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, that
    ...the colonies of America are entitled to the sole and exclusive privilege of giving and granting their own money; that this involves a right of deliberating whether they will make any gift, for what purposes it shall be made, and what shall be it's amount; and that it is a high breach of this privilege for any body of men, extraneous to their constitutions, to prescribe the purposes for which money shall be levied on them, to take to themselves the authority of judging of their conditions, circumstances and situations; and of determining the amount of the contribution to be levied.
  • Financing the War. The Congress attempted to pay for the conflict by issuing paper certificates and by borrowing from domestic and foreign sources. The continental currency, and its state-issued equivalents, depreciated sharply in value and sparked a debilitating inflationary period. The effort to raise money for paying soldiers and purchasing arms and supplies remained a problem for much of the war.

  • Independence. Richard Henry Lee's resolution (June 1776) promoting independence reflected changing public opinion on the matter of retaining ties with Britain. This measure was adopted by Congress and then fleshed out in Jefferson's Declaration.

  • Opening of Diplomatic Channels. In 1776, Silas Deane was dispatched to France, where he successfully secured supplies, arms and the services of a number of experienced European military officers. His mission was later supplemented by Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin, and resulted in the conclusion of the Franco-American Alliance (1778).

  • Legislation. The Congress lacked the authority to pass binding legislation, but did approve non-binding resolutions. The delegates could ask the states to provide money, supplies and men for the war effort, but the states were free to accept, reject or modify those requests.

    The Congress recognized that a successful prosecution of the war necessitated stronger central authority. In July 1776, a proposal, the Articles of Confederation, was introduced and sparked lengthy debate before adoption in November 1777; ratification of the Articles by the states was not completed until 1781.

    Despite these accomplishments, much of the Congress's time was spent in regional feuding. Infant political parties began to emerge. Usually the states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia worked together, often in opposition to the wishes of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. The middle states swung from one side to the other, depending on the issue under consideration.

    Further confusion was added to the deliberations of Congress by recurring military threats; the approach of British armies forced several changes of meeting location during the course of the war.