What Was the First Continental Congress and What Did It Achieve? | History Hit

What Was the First Continental Congress and What Did It Achieve?

Shannon Callahan

27 Jun 2022
Delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies that would ultimately join in the American Revolutionary War met from 05 September to 26 October 1774 at Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia to discuss responses to increased British oppression
Image Credit: US Capitol, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in 1774, a new government was forming in North America. The First Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, comprised of delegates from across the colonies who were frustrated by recent measures imposed by the British government.

12 of the 13 colonies gathered in Carpenter’s Hall from 5 September to 26 October 1774 to discuss boycotting British goods and establishing rights for colonists. Additionally, they made plans for a second gathering in the near future. This event exemplified a growing defiance against British rule, raising important questions; namely, who had the right to govern the colonies and how?

What event prompted the formation of the First Continental Congress?

In early 1774, Britain passed the Coercive Acts – known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts – which were a reaction to the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, which saw American protestors destroy a shipment of British tea. The Acts reasserted British dominance and punished the colonies for the rebellion.

The Boston Tea Party

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Cornischong at lb.wikipedia / Public Domain

Part of the Coercive Acts closed off the Boston Port and rescinded the Massachusetts Charter to punish the rebels in Massachusetts especially, but it also impacted the colonies at large and gave them less control to govern themselves. As a result, colonists as far south as Georgia shipped goods up to Massachusetts, and by spring, there was a call to organise a continental congress. 

Who attended the First Continental Congress?

In early September 1774, 55 delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies gathered in Philadelphia. Georgia was the only colony that did not send any delegates, as they were on the verge of war with neighbouring indigenous tribes and did not want to lose British military support. Delegates at the gathering were elected by the public directly, by local legislatures or by committees of correspondence within the respective colonies.

Delegates from New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Massachusetts arrived at Carpenter’s Hall and included Samuel Adams, George Washington and John Adams. Peyton Randolph was elected president of the convention and would preside over the delegates as they debated the future of the colonies. Each state’s delegates arrived with different desirable outcomes in mind; however, the purpose of the gathering was to present a united front against Britain.

What were the struggles of the First Continental Congress?

The First Continental Congress met from 05 September to 26 October 1774, in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia

Image Credit: Zack Frank / Shutterstock.com

Despite the differences in desirable outcomes, all of the delegates agreed that the King and Parliament must understand the grievances of the colonies, and these grievances needed to be communicated to the whole of America as well. This was, however, the first time that the colonies were acting in union, as up until this point they had always acted independently of each other. There was a bit of distrust and discomfort to overcome if they were to work towards shared goals.

The First Continental Congress struggled to form a list of rights, grievances and demands. It was therefore necessary to create a Grand Committee to address larger issues of British abuse. The delegates debated for weeks, attempting to create a statement that would answer questions that had been plaguing colonies for over a century. How would they answer the question of Britain’s right to regulate trade? 

One solution came from Pennsylvania delegate Joseph Galloway. A Plan of Union was drafted to create a Colonial Parliament that would work alongside the British Parliament. The intention would be for the British monarch to appoint a President General so that the colonies could have greater control over trade and commerce. Ultimately, this plan was voted down, and the delegates returned to the Continental Association. Eventually, the First Continental Congress successfully organised an economic boycott of British trade and delivered a petition for redress of grievances to King George III and Parliament.

What did the First Continental Congress achieve?

The first act of the congress was to support the Suffolk Resolves that had already passed in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Here, citizens were ordered not to obey the Intolerable Acts, to refuse British goods and to raise a militia. Next, they began drafting the Continental Association. This called for an end to British imports and an end to the exporting of goods to Britain. This would be enforced by local committees checking ships, having colonists sign documents pledging loyalty to the Continental Association, and suppressing mob violence. As a result, imports from Britain dropped by 95% in 1775 compared to the previous year. 

Using non-importation as leverage was not a new idea, as 8 colonies had already endorsed the measure ahead of the gathering and others had already began working to ban importation. In fact, future president George Washington had been advocating for non-importation as early as 1769, which can be found in letters between Washington and George Mason. At this stage, many delegates believed it was too late to appeal to the British Parliament by petitioning. It would no longer be useful to change Parliament’s ways. 

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though the first gathering in Carpenter’s Hall proved fruitful, there was still work to be done to create explicit demands. Eventually, delegates were able to draft a Declaration of Rights which included life, liberty, property and the right to establish their own taxes within the colonies. The final draft was approved on 14 October 1774, in which King George and Parliament were warned a revolution would occur if the demands were not met.

By the end of the first gathering, after 51 days of deliberation, the delegates decided a Second Continental Congress would reconvene the following spring. Their intention was to give Britain time to respond to the Continental Association and discuss any developments. In this time, several delegates, including George Washington, purchased muskets and began studying military strategy.

Though a war had not yet been declared, many were starting to believe that one was inevitable, as Britain would not redress. As these delegates returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1775, they learned of the Battles of Lexington and Concord that would mark the start of the Revolutionary War

Shannon Callahan