Who called the Continental Congress?


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Dear Straight Dope: OK, who called the Continental Congress? I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the revolutionary period recently, but there’s one thing I never figured out: Who said, “Hey, let’s all meet at Philadelphia and work this stuff out”? A lot of organizing had to be done, but who did it? Who decided how many delegates should come, how many votes each state would get and all that sort of stuff? — Robert Rodger, Cambridge, MA Dan Wasser, Gaithersburg, MD

SDStaff Gfactor replies:

The committees of correspondence did. I assume you’re talking about the First Continental Congress (as opposed to the Second or Third Continental Congresses) and not the Confederation Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Stamp Act Congress, or the Albany Congress (more on these last two later). The First Continental Congress gathered in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774.

At least two intercolonial “congresses” had met before that. The first was the Albany Congress, which met in June 1754 at the suggestion of the British. The British anticipated the French and Indian War and “urged colonial leaders to prepare for the common defense,” according to u-s-history.com. The Albany Congress discussed the Albany Plan,

a proposal for colonial unity in the face of the coming war with France. The plan called for the creation of new layers of government, including a president-general who would be appointed by the Crown and exercise broad powers over relationships with the natives, making war and governing the frontier areas until new colonies were created.

The plan also included a grand council with members appointed by colonial assemblies. Representation was to be based on each colony’s financial contribution. The Albany plan never got off the ground.

The Stamp Act Congress convened in New York City on October 7, 1765 in response to the new taxes imposed by the Stamp Act. Again, according to u-s-history.com,

at the urging of James Otis, usually in the radical forefront, the Massachusetts assembly sent a circular letter to the other colonies, which called for an inter-colonial meeting to plan tempered resistance to new tax.

The Stamp Act Congress met for the last time on October 19, 1765. Nine colonies attended the meeting, which produced the 14-point Declaration of Rights. This document protested the taxation of colonists without their consent and the expansion of admiralty court jurisdiction to include violations of the Stamp Act, effectively denying the colonists jury trials for such offenses.

From that time until 1774, there were periodic calls for a congress, but the colonies lacked cohesion. As Jack Rakove notes in his book, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress (1979):

One common assumption united … attempts to foresee the future course of imperial politics: that colonial leaders could themselves do little to alter the state of politics. They had either to react to events abroad or else wait until the passage of time and the development of American society provided new solutions to old problems. What is striking about their speculations, then, is the essential tone of passivity that runs through them. In the early 1770’s, the task of organizing an active, viable intercontinental resistance movement posed almost insuperable obstacles. In the absence of a galvanizing crisis on which they could capitalize, effective political organization seemed inconceivable.

In 1773, the Virginia House of Burgesses called for the colonies to establish committees of correspondence, which were groups of like-minded activists that corresponded with one another and attempted to whip up public sentiment on some pressing issue. These committees ultimately worked out the details of the First Continental Congress. But that didn’t happen until 1774. Committees of correspondence weren’t new. Colonial assemblies had formed them before, during the Stamp Act crisis, for example. But they were established for specific purposes and disbanded when the purposes were accomplished.

The committees of correspondence arranged the Continental Congress. Beyond that, it’s difficult to nail down the when and where. According to Samuel Griffith, in The War of Independence: From 1760 to the Surrender at Yorktown in 1781 (1976),

The idea that a congress of delegates from all colonies must soon assemble to define their rights, discuss common grievances, and seek means of redress speedily gained momentum during an exciting summer [of 1774]. No one individual or particular group may be given credit for the concept; the seed had been germinating for more than a year, and Franklin had been assiduously cultivating it from London.

Nevertheless there are a couple of documents that are credited with the beginnings of the First Congress. As you probably recall from history class, the British responded to the Boston Tea Party with several laws known collectively as the Intolerable Acts (to American colonists – the British called them the Coercive Acts). One of these was the Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston. The Virginia House of Burgesses responded with a resolution declaring a day of “Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer” in solidarity and protest. In response, John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore, and royal governor of the colony of Virginia, dissolved the house.

Ex-House members then drew up a paper called An Association, Signed by 89 Members of the Late House of Burgesses. That document, dated May 27, 1774, called for a united political front:

We are further clearly of opinion, that an attack, made on one of our sister colonies, to compel submission to arbitrary taxes, is an attack made on all British America, and threatens ruin to the rights of all, unless the united wisdom of the whole be applied. And for this purpose it is recommended to the committee of correspondence, that they communicate, with their several corresponding committees, on the expediency of appointing deputies from the several colonies of British America, to meet in general congress, at such place annually as shall be thought most convenient; there to deliberate on those general measures which the united interests of America may from time to time require.

A few days earlier, on May 23, 1774, the New York Committee of Fifty-One similarly realized that the colonies needed to unite in order to prevail:

The cause is general, and concerns a whole continent, who are equally interested with you and us; and we foresee that no remedy can be of avail unless it proceeds from the joint act and approbation of all; from a virtuous and spirited union which may be expected while the feeble efforts of a few will only be attended with mischief and disappointment to themselves and triumph to the adversaries of our liberty. Upon these reasons we conclude that a congress of deputies from the colonies in general is of the utmost moment; that it ought to be assembled without delay, and some unanimous resolution formed in this fatal emergency, not only respecting your deplorable circumstances, but for the security of our common rights.

Other committees wrote similar letters, and as Griffith tells us, “By August, the colonies had agreed a general congress would convene in Philadelphia on Monday, September 5, 1774.” That was the First Continental Congress.

There was no agreement on how many delegates a colony should send. And it was left for the first act of the First Continental Congress to decide how colonies were to vote. Originally some lobbied for votes to be weighted based on population, “opulence,” or import-export volume. Eventually they realized they lacked a statistical basis for making such calculations. Patrick Henry, who came from one of the larger colonies, originally advocated the weighted voting system, then thought better of it. According to Griffith, he announced

that the colonies were now in a state of nature; that government was dissolved and that no distinction between the colonies existed. He closed this speech with an explosive statement: I am not a Virginian, but an American. This proud declaration induced the delegates to stop haggling and to resolve unanimously that each colony would have one vote.

That overstates matters. As Rakove notes, “virtually all the delegates admitted [that] the First Congress had no practical alternative to giving each colony one vote; nor did its agenda demand a different solution.” The larger colonies would not have been satisfied with a vote by delegates because they had not sent delegations that reflected their size. Massachusetts, the colony with the second largest population, had sent only four delegates, while Delaware, the one with the smallest, sent three. Richard Bland pointed out that, “The Question is whether the Rights and Liberties of America shall be contended for, or given up to arbitrary Power.” The Colonies wanted to join together to assert their rights against Britain. To accomplish this, they had to to pass measures that were acceptable to all of the colonies. A colony that did not agree with a measure could pretty much ignore it. What they needed was consensus.

The First Continental Congress on the face of things didn’t accomplish much. It adopted the Articles of Association and arranged for a Second Continental Congress to meet. It was the Second Continental Congress that produced the Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless the First Continental Congress was an important step, laying the groundwork for the Revolutionary War and commencing the arduous task of cementing the farflung colonies into a nation, a process that many would argue did not conclude until the Civil War.

SDStaff Gfactor, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.