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This Week in History

August 26 - September 1, 1774
The First Continental Congress Meets at Philadelphia

August 2012

Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
A painting of President John Adams (1735-1826), 2nd president of the United States, by Asher B. Durand (1767-1845).

Looking back over the events leading to the American Revolution, John Adams wrote in 1818 that, "The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people.... This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution." How that change led to the call for a Continental Congress is the story of bold leadership against a voracious British Empire and, more importantly, a leadership dedicated to developing citizens who could sustain a republic.

When the French and Indian War, known in Europe as the Seven Years War, ended in 1763, victorious Britain took over the French possessions in India, and Britain's East India Company, for all intents and purposes, took over the government of Great Britain. Before that year, British colonial policy had indeed been restrictive, forcing its colonies to buy only from the mother country and to produce only raw materials, not finished goods. But the Americans had found ways around the restrictions and, when Britain needed their aid during European wars, had managed to build up some of the forbidden activities, such as ironmaking.

But what the colonists faced in 1763 was something they had not dealt with before—an empire owned by a company which cared nothing for individual freedom and opposed any kind of technological breakthroughs in its "possessions." Within a short period of time, the oligarchs who controlled the East India Company tightened not only their economic control, but their political control as well. Even as the war was ending, an attempt in Boston to collect duties on imported foreign sugar and molasses led to writs of assistance, which enabled customs officers not only to break open ships, stores, and houses to find articles that were suspected to have paid no duty, but, as a clear forerunner of the traitorous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, also enabled the officers to draft any person to help them in the task, and prosecute them if they refused.

This was coupled with a Parliamentary act which assigned the duties of customs officers to the officers of the British Navy, thus militarizing the extraction of import duties and the suppression of trade between America and the Caribbean colonies. And, any American control over its judiciary was dealt a heavy blow when provincial governors were allowed to appoint judges for terms "during the King's pleasure," rather than the former custom of appointing them "during good behavior." This rash of oppressive legislation led to the colonists resolving to clothe themselves only in cloth manufactured in America.

As act after act was passed by the British Parliament, trying to shore up the rate of profit obtained from America, the references to Britain as a latter-day copy of the degenerate Roman Empire became more pointed. John Adams declared that England was at the point "where the Roman republic was when Jugurtha left it, and pronounced it 'a venal city, ripe for destruction, if it can only find a purchaser.'"

Patrick Henry, when opposing Joseph Galloway's proposal for an American Legislature under the Crown, warned that its members would be bribed "by that nation which avows, in the face of the world, that bribery is a part of her system of government."

In this ca.1772 portrait by John Singleton Copley, Samuel Adams points at the Massachusetts Charter, which he viewed as a constitution that protected the peoples' rights.

During the 1760s, the American colonists advanced from merely protesting British measures, to building a basis for continental unity and developing working republican institutions. The place where this process was most organized was New England, where Massachusetts and Connecticut had, in their early days, been functioning republics. There, Samuel Adams organized the Sons of Liberty into well-trained singing societies, and express riders from the Committees of Correspondence fanned out all over the colonies to bring broadsides, proposals, and news of the latest British moves. When the Massachusetts royal governor forbade public meetings after a certain date, the Sons of Liberty began town meetings before the deadline and then continued them in session at all times, so that they could not be legally shut down.

Virginia, too, developed a capability in depth. George Washington developed a non-importation agreement in 1769 which was followed by all the colonies. When the Massachusetts legislature was dissolved by the Royal Governor, the Virginia House of Burgesses took up the fight by opposing the destruction of the right of trial by jury, which was contained in a new British law which sent all colonists accused of treason to Great Britain for trial. By 1767, the East India Company position had hardened to the point that Lord North stated that he would not withdraw the tax on tea because "a total repeal cannot be thought of, till America is prostrate at our feet."

The event which solidified colonial unity was the well-planned and well-executed Boston Tea Party in December of 1773, and the wild reaction of Britain as embodied in the "Intolerable Acts." The port of Boston was closed, even to short-distance ferries. The Royal Government was transferred to Salem, and the customs house shifted to Marblehead. Additional military reinforcements were sent to the British Army already occupying the city, and the Royal Navy blockaded the harbor. Any Crown official charged with a capital offense in putting down a riot or collecting revenue was to be sent to England for trial, thus seeming to give the Crown officers free rein to use violence against the colonists without any legal restraint.

The Massachusetts Bay Charter was abrogated by a new law aimed at "better regulating the government of Massachusetts Bay and purging their constitution of all its crudities." Crudities were prevented by having all public officials selected by the Crown or Royal Governor. Juries were to be selected by a Crown-appointed Sheriff. The venerable institution of the New England Town Meeting could only occur by written consent of the royal governor, who also had to approve the agenda. Finally, the Quebec Act brought down the border of Canada to the Ohio River and walled off all land beyond the Allegheny Mountains.

The British policy-makers viewed all this as a matter affecting only Massachusetts, and hoped the other colonies would try to cash in on the trade diverted from Boston Harbor. But, by this point, the colonies viewed an attack upon one as an attack upon all. South Carolina sent money and rice to the starving city, and New York guaranteed Boston a ten-year supply of food. The Virginia Legislature passed a resolve that "A Congress should be appointed ... from all the Colonies to concert a general and uniform plan for the defense and preservation of our common rights...."

Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia, the meeting place of the First Continental Congress.

That First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on Sept. 5, 1774, and numbered George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Samuel and John Adams among the 51 delegates. The first vote cast by the delegates chose Carpenters Hall as the location of their deliberations, rather than the State House, the seat of royal government. As the delegates were deliberating, Paul Revere rode into Philadelphia bringing a copy of the Suffolk Resolves which had just been passed in Massachusetts. The Congress passed them, word for word, declaring all of Britain's Coercive Acts unconstitutional. The people of Massachusetts were urged to form a government of their own, and collect taxes until the acts were repealed. They were also advised to gather arms and form their own militia companies. Finally, heavy economic sanctions against Great Britain were suggested.

To carry out those sanctions, the Congress adopted the Fairfax Resolves of Virginia, authored by George Washington. The Resolves proposed the most perfect union and cooperation among the colonies, and the founding of a Continental Association. As of Dec. 1, 1774, all imports from England were to cease. A committee was to be elected in every city, town, and county to enforce the decrees of the Association, and the cooperating colonies should renounce all dealings with any colony, town, or province that should refuse to agree to the plan adopted by the General Congress.

The Congress also tackled the problem of slavery. Many colonial legislatures had voted to ban the slave trade, but their legislation was voided by their respective Royal Governors, who also forthwith dissolved the assemblies that dared to challenge such a profitable undertaking. Many pamphlets and sermons of the period also refuted John Locke's justification of slavery, which presented it as a proper alternative to condemning criminals to death. The First Continental Congress accordingly pledged itself to discontinue the slave trade everywhere in America.

The legislative session lasted for 51 days, and included a letter to the King, telling him not to reduce his faithful subjects in America to desperation, and to reflect, that "from our sovereign, there can be but one appeal," meaning an appeal to arms. The Congress agreed to meet again in six months, and when they convened again on May 10, 1775, they were a working government, for the Battles of Lexington and Concord had already made the appeal to arms a reality. 


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.