The events of the First Continental Congress of 1774



There were great differences of opinion among the members of the Congress as to the real state of the case, and the proper duties to be performed. This was foreshadowed by remarks of Henry and Jay, at the beginning. The former declared that an entirely new government must be founded. Jay said all government had not come to an end, and that they had not assembled to frame an American constitution, but to correct the faults of the old one. But in one important matter there was, from the first, much unity of feeling, namely, that the whole continent ought to support the people of Massachusetts in resistance to the unconstitutional change in their charter. At the opening of their business, they appointed a committee to state the rights of the colonists in general, the several instances in which those rights had been violated or infringed, and the means most proper to be pursued for obtaining a restoration of them. They also appointed a committee to examine and report the several statutes which affected the trade and manufactures of the colonies. The reports of these committees furnished the materials for work, and at about the middle of September, the Congress was a theatre of warm but always friendly discussion. The debates took a wide range, and were very interesting and instructive. The foundations of their rights were discussed--the law of nature, the British constitution, and the force of prescribed allegiance. Then their work took a practical turn; and on the 22nd of September, the Congress, by unanimous vote, requested "the merchants and others in the several colonies not to send to Great Britain any order for goods, and to direct the execution of all orders already sent to be delayed or suspended, until the sense of the Congress on the means to be taken for the preservation of the liberties of American was made public."

How to avoid the appearance of revolution in their acts, was a perplexing question. There was a great diversity of opinion. Some were very radical, many were conservative, and some, true patriots at heart, were very timid. Some proposed to recognize the full force of the navigation acts; also the authority of Parliament to regulate the trade of the colonies, grounding that power not on the consent of the Americans, but upon "compact, acquiescence, necessity, and protection." Others were disposed to deny the authority of Parliament altogether. A compromise was offered that pleased nobody; and Joseph Galloway, then in secret communication with royal governors, proposed, in plausible terms, a scheme suggested many years before, for a Continental Union, with a president-general appointed by the king, and a grand council chosen every three years by the several assemblies, the British Parliament having power to revise their acts, and they in turn having the privilege of opposing a veto on British statutes relating to the colonies. The mover made an ostentatious display of patriotism, boasting of his readiness to spend blood and fortune in defence of the liberties of his country. At first some timid ones were disposed to fall in with his insidious scheme for defeating the great ends for which the Congress were assembled. He was defeated; but while all were determined to maintain their liberty, not one gave a decided voice in favor of independence.



Meanwhile news came from Boston from time to time of the petty tyranny of Gage and his troops, endured by the patriotic citizens, and the marvellous fortitude of the afflicted, who declared they would abandon their homes, fortune, everything, before they or their children would submit to be slaves. These tales of sorrow wrought hot anger in the bosoms of some of the members; and Christopher Gadsden, who had preached resistance and independence for ten years, and who, when reminded that war with Great Britain would destroy the seaport towns, exclaimed: "Our towns are built of wood and brick; if they are burned down, we can rebuild them; but liberty once lost is gone forever." Gadsden proposed, in his righteous wrath, to make immediate war upon the oppressor. Nay, nay, said the Congress; we must exhaust every means for obtaining redress peacefully, before we appeal to the arbitrament of the sword.

There was much irritation of feeling that demanded self-restraint. Washington, who had said in the Virginia Convention, "I will raise a thousand men, subsist them at my own expense, and march with them at their head for the relief of Boston," expressed his indignation freely, yet he was willing to wait a little longer--to try peaceful measures for a short season more. He was resolved to fight, when war or submission should be the alternative offered. His mind was freely expressed in a letter to Captain Mackenzie of the British army, which he wrote from his lodgings in Philadelphia in October, in reply to one from that officer, who had been Washington's companion in arms. "Permit me," he said, "with the freedom of a friend (for you know I always esteemed you), to express my sorrow, that fortune should place you in a service that must fix curses to the latest posterity upon the contrivers, and, if success (which, by the way, is impossible) accompanies it, execrations upon all those who have been instrumental in the execution." After further expressing his views of the situation, and the determination of the colonies to defend their just rights, Washington remarked: "Give me leave to add as my opinion, that more blood will be spilled on this occasion, if the ministry are determined to push matters to extremity, than history has ever furnished instances of in the annals of North America."

On the 8th of October, 1774--the day before Washington's letter was written--the Great Council at Philadelphia (the First Continental Congress), after a very short but spicy debate, resolved:

"That this Congress approve the opposition of the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay to the execution of the late acts of Parliament; and if the same shall be attempted to be carried into execution by force, in such case all America ought to support them in their opposition."

This was the whole business performed by the Congress on that remarkable day, according to the minutes of Secretary Thomson. It was enough. It was the most momentous act of that body during the whole session. From that hour the crystallization of the British-American colonies into an independent nation, went rapidly on. That resolution was like the luminous writing on the wall, warning Belshazzar of impending danger. Wise seers interpreted it as a prophecy of the dismemberment of the British empire. But the British monarch, too blind to perceive the ominous light, and too deaf to hear the prophecy, in his anger because of that resolve, proclaimed his subjects in America to be rebels.

That resolution was elicited by a letter from the Boston Committee of Correspondence, written on the 29th of September, in which was a recital of the wrongs endured by the citizens of that town, and asking the advice of the Congress whether they should abandon their homes and leave Boston, or suffer a little longer, for it was believed that when the place should be inclosed with the fortifications then a-building, the inhabitants would be held as hostages for the whole country. The resolution was the quick and glorious answer. It startled the timid in the Congress. Galloway the spy and Duane the arch-conservative, asked leave to enter upon the minutes their protest against the measure. Their request was denied, when they exchanged certificates privately, that they had opposed it as treasonable. Two days afterward the resolution was strengthened by another, which declared that any person who should accept or act under any commission or authority derived from the act of Parliament for changing the form of the government and violating the charter of Massachusetts "ought to be held in detestation and abhorrence by all good men, and considered as the wicked tool of that despotism which is preparing to destroy those rights which God, nature, and compact have given to America." On the same day, the Congress sent a letter to General Gage, telling him of the just complaints of the citizens of Boston made to them, and their suspicions that a plan was formed for the overthrow of the liberties of America; warning him that the oppression to which they were subjected might involve the colonies in the horrors of a civil war, and asking him, in order to quiet the public mind, to discontinue the erection of fortifications in and around Boston. On the 14th of October (1774), the Congress adopted a Declaration of Colonial Rights, reported by a committee composed of two deputies from each colony, in which the several obnoxious acts of Parliament, including the Quebec Act, were declared to be infringements and violations of their rights, and that the repeal of them was necessary in order to restore harmony between America and Great Britain. This was followed on the 20th by the adoption of The American Association--a "non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement" applied to Great Britain. Ireland, the West Indies, and Madeira, by which the inhabitants of all the colonies were bound to act in concert and good faith, or incur the displeasure of the faithful ones. The agreement, which was embodied in fourteen articles, and was to go into effect on the first of December next ensuing, covered broad ground. In the second article the Congress, in the name of their constituents, struck a blow at the slave-trade, saying: "We will neither import, nor purchase any slave imported, after the first day of December next; after which time we will wholly discontinue the slave-trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it." By the fourth article, it was agreed that after the first of September the next year, in case their grievances were not redressed, not to export any "merchandise or commodity" to the countries above-named. Committees were to be appointed in every county, city, and town to enforce compliance with the terms of the Association; and it was resolved that they would have no "trade, commerce, dealings or intercourse, whatsoever, with any colony or province, in North America, which shall not accede thereto," or which should thereafter violate the Association, but would hold "them as unworthy of the rights of freemen, and as inimical to the liberties of their country."

The several articles of the Association were adopted unanimously, excepting the one concerning exportations. Three of the five delegates from South Carolina refused to vote for that resolution or sign the Association, because, they said, the agreement to stop exports to Great Britain was an unequal arrangement. New England, they said, exported a large portion of their staple, fish, to Portugal and Spain, and would be very little affected; while South Carolina sent rice to Great Britain to the amount of a million and a half dollars annually, and would be ruined. When that resolution was carried, the three South Carolinians seceded from the Congress. Gadsden and another, in the spirit of Henry, declared by their act that they were not South Carolinians but Americans, and did not count the cost of patriotism. They stood by the other colonies, voted for the general good, and trusted to the virtue and generosity of their constituents. This secession caused a delay of several days in the business of the Congress. It was important to have the vote on the Association unanimous. The seceders were finally brought back, and induced to sign the Association, by allowing the unconditional export of rice, so that no burden of sacrifice might fall upon their province.

An eloquent Address to the People of Great Britain, written by John Jay, and a memorial to The Inhabitants of the several British-American colonies, from the pen of William Livingston, were adopted on the 21st of October; and on the 26th--the last day of the session--a Petition to the King, drawn by John Dickinson, in which the final decision of the colonies was given in conciliatory terms, and an elaborate Address to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, also written by Mr. Dickinson, were agreed to. A few days before, the Congress had recommended the holding of another at Philadelphia on the 10th of May following, if the grievances were not redressed in the meantime; and all the American colonies were invited to participate, by delegation, in its deliberations. Letters addressed to other colonies not represented in the Congress were approved, and on the afternoon of the 26th of October, 1774, the First Continental Congress ended. All of the members and a few other gentlemen spent that evening together socially at the City Tavern, in Philadelphia. The next day they began to disperse to their homes. Almost every man was impressed with a belief that war was inevitable. Most of them were bold, but few of them were so lion-hearted as Samuel Adams, who publicly said: "I would advise persisting in our struggle for liberty, though it were revealed from Heaven that nine hundred and ninety-nine men were to perish, and only one of a thousand to survive and retain his liberty. One such freeman must possess more virtue, and enjoy more happiness, than a thousand slaves; and let him propagate his like, and transmit to them what he hath so nobly preserved."

The first Continental Congress was in actual session only thirty-one days of the eight weeks of the term. The remainder of the time was occupied in preparatory business. There was much talking (as in all deliberative bodies), for there were diversities of opinion, and every one was free to express his own. Of what they said we know very little, for the sessions were held in secret, and there were no professional newspaper reporters in those days. What they did we all know. The records of their acts were soon published to the world, and produced a profound impression upon the minds of thoughtful men. The state-papers put forth by them were models of their kind, and commanded the admiration of the leading statesmen of Europe. The British monarch and counsellors were highly offended, and early in January, 1775, Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the colonies, issued the following Circular to all the royal governors in America--a "bull without horns," which did not frighten the patriots. Here is the letter:

"Certain persons, styling themselves delegates of his Majesty's colonies in America, having presumed, without his Majesty's authority or consent, to assemble together at Philadelphia, in the months of September and October last; and having thought fit, among other unwarrantable proceedings, to resolve that it will be necessary that another Congress should be held in this place, on the 10th of May next, unless redress for certain pretended grievances be obtained before that time, and to recommend that all the colonies in North America should choose delegates to attend such Congress, I am commanded by the King to signify to you his Majesty's pleasure, that you do use your utmost endeavors to prevent such appointment of deputies within the colony under your government; and that you do exhort all persons to desist from such unwarrantable proceedings, which cannot but be highly displeasing to the King."

No doubt the amiable Dartmouth signed that foolish letter with reluctance and regret, for he well knew that its only effect would be to produce fresh irritations in the colonies, and make reconciliation and peace less possible.





Return to Our Country, Vol II