Continental Congress, Second

The First Continental Congress adjourned in October 1774 after agreeing to call a second gathering if circumstances warranted. Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, the delegates met again at Philadelphia on May 10. Although lacking any legal authority, the Second Continental Congress saw no alternative. It began to govern. Presiding was John Hancock, new to the Congress, in the stead of Peyton Randolph, a Virginia attorney, who was ill. Some delegates were veterans of the First Continental Congress, but some were new notably Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Absent was the Pennsylvania conservative Joseph Galloway. Although all colonies sent delegations, Georgia’s arrived only in the fall. Initially, Congress was conservative. Most believed that reconciliation was still possible. A handful assumed that the time for reconciliation had passed
John and Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, Franklin, perhaps Hancock and Jefferson and the radicals slowly began to dominate such conservatives as John Dickinson. The issue was irrelevant to the business of the Congress, though. Its initial purpose was the redress of grievances, not determining the possibility of independence. What it did, it did of necessity. On June 15, Congress took charge of the army outside Boston. John Adams wanted George Washington as commander in chief to gain Southern support for what was primarily a Northern-based conflict. Adams had some doubts about Washington after his mismanagement of the military campaign around New York. Still, Washington had the best military reputation in the colonies, he had good judgment and self-control, and he was commander of the Virginia militia. He even wore his uniform to the Congress’s sessions. The selection of Washington converted the New England army into a continental army. Under Washington were four major generals Charles Lee, Israel Putnam, Philip Schuyler, and Artemas Ward. Lee, who had experience as a British officer and had lobbied for the position of commander in chief in Philadelphia, was the only alternative to Washington. Support for Lee ended, however, when the British surprised and captured him in New Jersey in December of 1776. Washington’s major Christmas triumph at Trenton, New Jersey, came shortly thereafter. Even as it prepared to wage war, Congress denied any intent to be disloyal to the British Crown. Its so-called Olive Branch Petition to the king, prepared by John Dickinson and John Jay, was almost fawning. Congress expressed loyalty to the king and disapproval of the actions of his ministers and Parliament. The messenger, Richard Penn, was a Tory. Congress sent addresses to the people of Great Britain, Ireland, and Canada. It also issued $2 million in currency, proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, and authorized the creation of governments of the states. The next major document, the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, was stronger than the Olive Branch Petition. It raised the possibility of independence unless England restored American rights. Congress was never able to solve the problems of raising money for arms, supplies, and soldiers’ pay. It could issue paper money by fiat, and it could borrow domestically and abroad. But neither its money nor the state currencies had backing. The continental and state currencies depreciated rapidly, fueling high inflation. And while Congress could enact nonbonding resolutions, it could pass no laws. It could ask the states for men, money, and materials, but the states could refuse, and many did. In late May of 1776, Congress attempted, unsuccessfully, to bring French Canada in as the fourteenth state. It also authorized an invasion of Canada, in order to forestall Canadian invasion of the colonies. In June, Richard Henry Lee presented a resolution calling for independence. Public opinion by this time had shifted. Congress passed the petition and directed Jefferson to rework it into the Declaration of Independence. A 1777 broadside reports on developments at the Second Continental Congress, which first convened as a governing body in May 1775 after the start of the Revolution. The Congress directed the war effort and adopted both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. (Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-66969) Needing a stronger central authority to prosecute the war, in July 1776, Congress began considering the Articles of Confederation. Adopted in November 1777, the Articles were finally ratified in 1781. Meanwhile, Congress had sent Silas Deane to France in March 1776. He managed to get French aid in supplies, arms, and experienced military officers. Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin joined him later, and, together, they cemented the 1778 Franco-American Alliance. Regional conflict hampered the work of the Congress. Political alignments reflected sectional differences, with the Southern colonies opposing the Northern ones, and the middle states providing the balance, favoring one side, then the other, depending on the specific issue. Members of Congress also had to worry about the real risk of attack by British armies. They relocated their deliberations several times between 1776 and 1778. From Philadelphia, Congress went to Baltimore, back to Philadelphia, then on to Lancaster and then York, Pennsylvania, before returning again to Philadelphia in 1778. After the war, Congress continued its itinerant ways, meeting in Princeton, New Jersey, Annapolis, Maryland, and Trenton, New Jersey. In 1785, it finally settled in New York, where it remained until 1789. John H. Barnhill See also: Adams, John; Adams, Samuel; Dickinson, John; Jefferson, Thomas; Lee, Richard Henry; Politics and Government (Chronology); Politics and Government (Essay); Revolutionary War; Washington, George; Documents: Letters between Abigail Adams and John Adams (1776); The Declaration of Independence (1776). Bibliography Beeman, Richard. Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. New York: Random House, 2009. Burnet, Edmund C. The Continental Congress. Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1975 (reprint of 1941 edition). Henderson, H. James. Party Politics in the Continental Congress. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774 1789. New York: Harper, 1950. Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. The Second Continental Congress and the Olive Branch Petition … 1775 – The Second Continental Congress/ Olive Branch Petition … The Second Continental Congress

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