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The first national legislative assembly in the United States, existing from 1774 to 1789.
During its fifteen-year existence, the Continental Congress served as the chief legislative and executive body of the federal government. Although hobbled by provisions such as an inability to raise funds directly through taxation, it nevertheless created a viable, if sometimes ineffective, national union during the earliest years of the United States. The Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence and other lasting measures, and it set important precedents for the government instituted under the Constitution in 1789. Some of the most important figures of early American history were members of the Continental Congress, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, Samuel Chase, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.
The First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia between September 5 and October 26, 1774. Although it was officially called simply the Congress, contemporaries referred to it as the Continental Congress in order to distinguish it from the various state congresses. Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies (Georgia did not participate) assembled in an attempt to unite the colonies and restore rights and liberties that had been curtailed by Great Britain. The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Rights, agreements regarding common policies toward Britain, and a resolution that it would meet again the following year if its grievances were not settled.
When Britain rebuffed their demands, the colonists assembled the Second Continental Congress in May of 1775, again in Philadelphia. Fighting between Britain and Massachusetts at the Battles of Lexington and Concord had already occurred, and the Continental Congress voted to back Massachusetts. It appointed George Washington as commander in chief of colonial armed forces. With this decision, Congress undertook a vital role directing the Revolutionary War.
As the war continued, colonial opinion began to move toward permanent separation from Great Britain. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which announced the formation of the United States of America as a new nation. In succeeding months, the Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation, the new country's first constitution. The Congress approved the Articles on November 15, 1777, but the states did not ratify them until 1781.
The Articles contained provisions for a national legislature designated simply Congress. Although some historians have called this subsequent body the Congress of the Confederation, most group it with its predecessor and call it the Continental Congress. In this Congress, each state had from two to seven delegates but only one vote. Delegates were to serve no more than "three years in any term of six years" (art. V).
During the struggle to approve and then ratify the Articles, the advocates of States' Rights greatly weakened its provisions for a strong federal, or national, government. As a result, the Articles did not allow the federal government to raise its own funds directly through taxation. Instead, the central government could only requisition money from the states. The Articles also required a unanimous vote of Congress to approve any amendments, a feature that made it difficult to adapt their provisions to the changing needs of the nation. In addition, Congress as it was constituted under the Articles proved ill suited to tasks that the Constitution later assigned to the Executive Branch, including the conduct of diplomatic, military, and commercial affairs. For example, Congress fared poorly in negotiating with Britain and France, in paying war debts, and in putting down armed revolts such as Shays's Rebellion.
The problems of the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation led to plans for a new federal constitution. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, leading members of the Continental Congress joined with other politicians and lawmakers to create a framework for a new national government, including a new Congress. Following ratification of the Constitution by the states in 1789, the Continental Congress handed over its legislative powers to the Congress that continues in form to the present day.
Although the Continental Congress had weaknesses, it nevertheless passed crucial legislation and set vital precedents for the framing of the Constitution. Its legislative legacy includes the establishment of the Northwest Territory, provisions for the sale and oversight of western land, and many other laws adopted by the later Congress. According to Edmund C. Burnett, a leading historian on the subject, the
Continental Congress … developed and formulated many of those fundamental principles
of government that have become our national heritage. Indeed it is not too much to say that [a] great part of the materials built into the structure of the Constitution itself were wrought in the forge of the Continental Congress.
Burnett, Edmund C. 1941. The Continental Congress. New York: Macmillan.
Davis, Derek H. 2000. Religion and the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Contributions to Original Intent. New York: Oxford Univ. Press
McCormick, Richard P. 1997. "Ambiguous Authority: The Ordinances of the Confederation Congress, 1781-1789." American Journal of Legal History 41 (October): 411–39.