Over a period of 15 years, from 1774 to 1789, the Continental Congress underwent profound changes. Beginning as a temporary group that came together to resolve American settler issues with British rule, it evolved into the de facto government of the 13 colonies, and eventually into an official governing body of the United States.
These different phases of the Congress are often called the First Continental Congress, the Second Continental Congress and the Confederate Congress. Here are the main achievements of each.
WATCH: History VAULT video collection on the American Revolution.
First Continental Congress (1774)
The First Continental Congress began under British rule in September 1774. Made up of 56 delegates from 12 of the original 13 colonies, the group met in Philadelphia and lasted less than two months. He focused primarily on how to respond to the passage by the British Parliament of Intolerable Acts – also known as Coercive Acts – a series of repressive acts designed to restore order to Boston after Tea Party and punish the settlers for their daring insurgency. During its short meeting period, the Continental Congress compiled a list of grievances which it sent to the then British ruler, King George III. He also adopted the statutes, which initiated a boycott of British products from the colonies.
The association’s statutes are the most significant achievement of the first continental convention, says Benjamin H. Irvin, professor of history at Indiana Bloomington University and author of Dressed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Outside. In addition to the boycott, the document authorized the creation of local committees to help transfer power between Britain and the colonies.
Unlike later versions of the Continental Congress, the former did not see itself as a governing body. The British Empire was still the recognized governing authority, and the statutes issued by the First Continental Congress were not law. Even so, “the Continental Congress took steps to prepare the settlers for a possible overthrow of British authority,” says Irvin.
“Congress approved the Suffolk Resolutions, in which the people of Suffolk County, Massachusetts were determined to ‘familiarize themselves with the art of war,’ he said. And by calling on local communities to establish inspection committees in the statutes, “Congress has prepared the American people to get rid of British rule and establish local government.”
READ MORE: 7 events that enraged settlers and led to the American Revolution
Second Continental Congress (1775-1781)
The Second Continental Congress began in May 1775, less than a month after the first battles of the War of Independence at Lexington and Concord. This time, the role of the Continental Congress was different, as it became the de facto government of the 13 colonies during their war with the British Empire.
“The delegates wasted no time deliberating on the nature or extent of their authority; instead, they came together in the spirit of a council of war, ”says Irvin. The Continental Congress established an army, navy, and post office, and issued currency. “In this way, and without hesitation, the Continental Congress began to assume legislative and executive responsibility. “
Many of the men who attended the First Continental Congress returned for the Second, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, and cousins John and Samuel Adams. Newcomers included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and John Hancock.
The most significant achievement of the second continental congress? The adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which it ratified on July 4, 1776.
“The creation of the continental army, the printing of the continental currency, the recommendation that the colonies write new constitutions, the pursuit of an alliance with France, the disavowal of the parliament -: these are the works by which the ‘US independence has been achieved,’ he says.
The Second Continental Congress also created the first American constitution, known as the Articles of Confederation, which came into effect in 1781 while the war was in progress. (It ended in 1783.) The constitution made the Continental Congress an official governing body of the United States. But although the Continental Congress continued to operate under the same name and with many of the same members, the Articles of Confederation placed limits on what it was able to do.
READ MORE: 9 Things You May Not Know About The Declaration Of Independence
Congress under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789)
The Confederation Congress, as many historians call it, had very limited powers compared to the US Congress we have today. The Confederation Congress could not tax Americans, and in many cases needed nine of the 13 states to approve legislation before a bill could pass.
This Confederation Congress, however, made its mark. She chartered the first American bank; and more importantly, he called for the seizure of native lands through measures like the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
“The most important actions of the Congress of Confederation were the land ordinances of the 1780s,” explains Irvin. “These ordinances encouraged the westward migration of Americans of European descent, who seized lands inhabited by Indigenous peoples, waged war against them and ultimately pushed for their forcible eviction.”
Members who served in Congress of Confederation included James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who were also two of the 55 delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Members of this convention drafted a new constitution which, when it became law in 1789, replaced the Articles of Confederation, and dissolved the Congress of Confederation, replacing it with the United States Congress.