What is the Second Continental Congress?

In a large room of the State-house in Philadelphia, now known as Independence Hall, the Second Continental Congress met on Wednesday, the 10th of May, 1775 and chose Peyton Randolph of Virginia for the President, and Charles Thomson, Secretary. Again Mr. Duche was invited to become the chaplain of Congress. Representatives of all the colonies were present on that day, except from Georgia, but late in July there were delegates present from that province. They met under a dense cloud of difficulties, through which, for awhile, few rays of sunlight could pierce. They had met as the representatives of separate colonies that were in a state of virtual rebellion against a powerful government which had declared its intention to bring them into submission by force of arms. Armies and navies were already on their coasts for the purpose, and more men were on the way. War had actually begun in two of the colonies, and overt acts of treason had been committed in nearly all. As an executive body, they were legally powerless. They had no authority from any one to employ a soldier or levy or collect a tax. They had no executive head, no legislative functions, no treasury. They were assembled, as was the First Congress, simply as a great advisory committee composed of smaller committees from the several colonies. They were representatives of colonies groaning under serious grievances and petty tyrannies, and ready to fight for their rights, and yet loyal and loving subjects of the king of Great Britain. Even so radical a Son of Liberty as Dr. Warren, wrote from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress after the 19th of April, expressing a hope that the government would see the folly of its course and act justly, and saying: "This I most heartily wish, as I feel a warm affection still for the parent state." The delegates were more varied in their nationalities, their theological views, and their local interests than the prismatic colors; how were they to combine and become white, powerful, life-giving sunlight? was the vital question of the hour. The unexpected kindling of war compelled them to consider measures for defence, and yet there was indecision, for many members believed reconciliation possible, and wished to keep the door open.

The Congress having resolved themselves into a committee of the whole to take into consideration the state of the colonies, reported on the 26th of May, that war had been commenced by Great Britain; that they had no intention to cast off their allegiance to the crown; and that they anxiously desired peace. At the same time they declared that the colonies ought to be put in a posture of defence against any attempt to coerce them into submission to parliamentary taxation. They resolved that no provisions ought to be furnished the British army or navy; that no bills of exchange drawn by British officers ought to be negotiated, and that no colonial ships ought to be employed in the transportation of British troops. They considered it useless to memorialize the Parliament; but after strenuous opposition from the Massachusetts delegation, among whom the idea of independence was fast blossoming, it was resolved that another petition to the king should be drawn up and sent to his majesty. It was done. An Address to the Inhabitants of Canada; a Declaration setting forth the causes and the necessity for the colonies to take up arms; an Address to the Assembly of Jamaica, to the Inhabitants of Great Britain, and to the People of Ireland, were also adopted. To the king they expressed their continued devotion to his person, and their deep regret that circumstance had in the least weakened their attachment to the crown. To the people of Great Britain, they truthfull declared that their acts were wholly defensive; that the charge that they were seeking absolute independence was a malicious slander, and that they had never applied to a foreign power for countenance or aid in prosecuting a rebellion, as had been falsely alleged. They set forth, in very nervous sentences, that ill-treatment by the British government in the rejection of petitions, and oppressive acts of Parliament, was the cause that placed them in the attitude of resistance which they then assumed, contending that it was necessary and justifiable, and worthy of the free character of the subjects of Great Britain. They boldly said, when commenting upon the wanton exercise of arbitrary power; "Shall the descendants of Britons tamely submit to this? No, sirs! We never will, while we revere the memory of our gallant and virtuous ancestors, we never can surrender those glorious privileges for which they fought, bled, and conquered. Admit that your fleets could destroy our towns, and ravage our sea-coasts; these are inconsiderable objects, things of no moment to men whose bosoms glow with the ardor of liberty. We can retire beyond the reach of your navy, and without any sensible diminution of the necessaries of life, enjoy a luxury which, from that period, you will want-the luxury of being free."

From this time the Continental Congress were less timid. From the beginning they had evinced a determination to sustain Massachusetts in her defence of her charter. Now they assumed comprehensive authority with out any fixed limits of action. They did not wait for the result of their petition to the king, but went forward in preparations for a struggle for life. They exercised supreme executive, legislative, and sometimes judicial functions; and in the ready obedience to their mandates observed by the several colonies, they derived their authority. The supporters of the Congress throughout the land were so strong in character and intelligence, that, from the summer of 1775 until the end of the war, that body never lacked moral strength for the exercise of the functions of a nations government. All subjects of a genera character were submitted to the consideration of the Congress. For example: When a rumor prevailed that a British regiment had been ordered from Ireland to New York, the Committee of One Hundred, of that city, which had been appointed to supersede that of Fifty-one, asked the Congress how they should act; and when a Provincial Congress had been organized in that colony in May, 1775, that body submitted grave questions of public policy to the Continental Congress as a national and supreme tribunal, and suggested to them the propriety of issuing bills of credit in the name of the United Colonies, to furnish funds for defraying the expenses of defending the whole people. This was the first suggestion for the Congress to exercise national functions.

New York was advised to permit the troops to land, and live in barracks, but not to fortify the city. They also suggested the inviting of General Wooster to come to their borders with his Connecticut regiment to assist in defending the city against any hostile movement of the expected troops. It was done, and Wooster was encamped at Harlem, whence he sent detachments to Long Island to guard against British cruisers and foragers, and to intercept supplies of provisions sent to the troops in Boston.

At first the Continental Congress hesitated to approve the capture of the forts on Lake Champlain, but when timidity gave place to courage, they were anxious to maintain possession of them as a means for keeping the control of the Hudson Valley. For the like purpose, they directed the Provincial Congress of New York to fortify posts at the upper end of New York Island, and on both sides of the Hudson in the Highlands. At about the same time, when President Randolph was called to the chair as Speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, they chose John Hancock to succeed him. Mr. Harrison of Virginia, as he conducted Hancock to the chair, said: "We will show Britain how much we value her proscriptions."

The Congress were now called upon to exercise still higher national functions. It was soon perceived that the aged, good, and virtuous General Ward was not possessed of sufficient military ability to be chief commander of the motley forces which had been suddenly gathered at Cambridge. The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts apprehended the fading away of that army unless a more efficient commander might be found, and they gladly perceived a way for making a change without offence by asking the General Congress to assume the regulation and direction of that army. The war was, evidently, to become a continental one, and it was proper that a continental army should be organized. The request was made, and in a private letter written by Joseph Warren to Samuel Adams, it was intimated that the request was to be interpreted as a desire for the appointment of a generalissimo or commander-in-chief of all troops that might be raised. The request was immediately followed by the news that reinforcements for the army in Boston were arriving, and that Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne were already there. The Congress felt compelled to act promptly, for there were indication that war would be commenced at some points remote from Massachusetts, in order to distract the colonies. They did not then know that Gage had advised his government to send fifteen thousand troops to Boston, ten thousand to New York, and seven thousand Canadians and Indians to operate in the region of Lake Champlain, falsely accusing the Americans of employing savages against British troops.

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