Edition for Educators—Continental Congress
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
“I see the best effects produced by sending our young statesmen here. They see the affairs of the . . . [nation] from a high ground; they learn the importance of the Union and befriend federal measures when they return. Those who never come here, see our affairs insulated, pursue a system of jealousy and self interest, and distract the Union as much as they can.”—Excerpt of a letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison discussing the election of delegates to the Continental Congress in 1784
About this object
George Washington, the first U.S. President, represented Virginia in the First and Second Continental Congresses before being unanimously chosen as commander in chief of the Continental Army. He later served as president of the Federal Convention in 1787, which drafted the Constitution.
Fifteen years before the First Federal Congress met, Great Britain’s American colonies convened a Continental Congress in response to the Intolerable Acts, a series of taxes imposed in the wake of the Boston Tea Party incident of December 1773. Charged with seeking restitution from the British government, the Congress, which gathered in September 1774, sent a formal declaration of rights to British authorities and signed an agreement to boycott British imports to the colonies as a sign of protest.
As tensions escalated between Britain and the colonies through 1775, colonial authorities reconvened the Continental Congress. The fledgling national legislature managed the crises of war, occupation, and diplomatic maneuverings with European nations. It also provided an important forum for colonial authorities to seek consensus and speak with a unified voice against Great Britain. Its more prominent members—George Washington of Virginia, Alexander Hamilton of New York, and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, among them—were the young Republic’s key founders.
In 1781, delegates met under the newly ratified Articles of Confederation, a fairly weak and ineffective form of federal government. The Continental Congress was dissolved after ratification of the Constitution, prior to the convening of the First Federal Congress in the spring of 1789.
Below are highlights and blog posts related to this short-lived experiment in national government.
Featured Historical Highlights
George Washington Wrote the Continental Congress About Conditions in Boston
March 24, 1776
On this date, General George Washington wrote a letter to the Continental Congress about conditions in the city of Boston, which British troops had evacuated after a one-year occupation.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787
July 13, 1787
On this date, the Continental Congress approved “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio.” Better known as the Northwest Ordinance, it provided a path toward statehood for the territories northwest of the Ohio River.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, housed the Continental Congress during much of the Revolutionary War and was the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Loyalists in the Legislature
When the Second Continental Congress convened in 1775, firebrands such as Patrick Henry of Virginia steered the 13 colonies of the United States toward a complete break with Great Britain. But that sentiment wasn’t universally shared a year earlier by members of the First Continental Congress. Grievances against British government policies were rife in the session which met in 1774, but some of the delegates counseled against fully separating from the British Empire.
Chasing Congress Away
In the summer of 1783, a rowdy, slightly tipsy band of unpaid soldiers chased the Continental Congress from Philadelphia, its home for much of the Revolutionary War.
Delegates Who Signed the Constitution
One of the legacies of the Continental Congress was the convening of the Federal Convention of 1787. Six years after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, which established the first national government, a majority of Delegates to Congress agreed that the Articles needed significant revisions. On February 21, 1787, the Congress resolved that “a convention of delegates . . . appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Many of the convention delegates who would sign the Constitution had served in the Continental Congress at some point in their careers.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.