They never dreamed what they would end up doing. They had to make it up as they went along.
The First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia during September and October of 1774, had been selected in various ways, all outside the law (necessarily, since there could be no legal basis for such a gathering). Probably the delegates thought of themselves as an extension of the committees of correspondence – in other words, a mechanism for coordinating the opinions and the efforts of the colonies. They wound up petitioning the king for repeal of the Coercive Acts, and coordinating a boycott of British goods, and they agreed to meet again in May.
But when the second congress convened on May 10, 1775, Lexington and Concord were already three weeks in the past, and a long, long step had been taken. Events had a logic of their own, and over time circumstances turned this second congress into a de facto government. As the man said about the dog walking on its hind legs, the wonder wasn’t that he did it so badly, but that he could do it at all.
Granted, the congress had plenty of talent to draw on. Besides holdovers from the previous year, it had newcomers Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson. In addition, July saw the arrival of representatives of the state of Georgia, which had not participated in 1774, thus completing the roster of colonies..
But the problem to be solved was unprecedented, in a way that we, who are the heirs to their solution, have to work to realize.
It wasn’t just that these men had no legal authority to become the government. All rebels have that problem.
Nor was it that they had to overcome staggering disproportions between the means at hand and the work to be done.
Nor that their former protector, now to be their enemy, was the world’s greatest naval power and one of the top two economic powers.
Nor that the colonists themselves were by no means united in their perceptions and goals. (It would take this congress 14 months to achieve unanimity on the need for independence.)
It wasn’t even the problem of converting the colonies into states with a republican form of government: John Adams, out of his vast scholarship and industrious scribbling, would show them how to do that.
No, the problem was greater than any of these, and more intangible. It was this: Although the colonies spoke the same language and shared the same traditions and (more or less) the same grievances, they were thirteen governments, not one. The British Empire had never governed them as one unit. Each was as separate at Bermuda, say, or East and West Florida, or Upper and Lower Canada. None of the colonies was prepared to give up sovereignty, not to another colony and certainly not to a faceless entity that would purport to represent them all.
The key to all the financial and logistical problems of the revolution, and many of the military ones, is to be found right here in e pluribus unum. What history had made plural, imagination and skill would have to find a way to make one. If the colonies continued to act in isolation, Britain would divide them and break them one by one: It wasn’t just the men in the forefront of action who were going to hang together or hang separately; it was the cause of American self-government.
Throughout the war, Congress would be hampered by its inability to assess the new state governments for money or supplies or soldiers. It could determine each state’s assessment; it could plead undoubted necessity; it could beg. But the fact of the matter was, it had no means of compelling them to do so, and no recognized moral authority to act as a general government.
The delegates didn’t yet know it, but time, and the pressure of events, would demonstrate the need for another layer of government above state government, a layer that would concern itself with matters that would affect them all, and matters such as foreign affairs that required them to speak with a single voice, but would nonetheless leave them sovereign within their areas of competence.
The Second Continental Congress was an expedient that kept growing under the pressure of events. It never had the resources or authority it needed, and it often lacked vision. Still, it functioned. In June, it renamed the militia units in the field as the Continental Army and named George Washington to command it. In July, it approved a Declaration of Causes, justifying their resort to arms, and at the same time voted to send what was called the Olive Branch petition to King George. The following May, it would pass a resolution recommending that every colony form a revolutionary government.
And, finally, this congress would have to take it upon itself to declare the colonies independent of Great Britain, because no other authority existed to do it, and, if they were to have a hope of foreign assistance, it had to be done. (Nobody was going to intervene as long as it remained, or seemed to remain, an internecine struggle that might be patched up.)
Declaring independence led, in turn, to the Articles of Confederation, which would bind thirteen states into “a firm league” able to act together. The Confederation government came into effect in 1781, got them through the war and the immediate postwar period, and then gave way to the great federal experiment.
It all came out of this Second Continental Congress, one improvisation upon another. Perhaps it is no wonder that contemporaries saw the hand of divine providence in the events they had lived through.