First Continental Congress

The American revolution was a snowball rolling downhill, gathering mass and momentum as it went. Conspiracy theorists see a deep design behind each new event. Coincidence theorists argue that the revolution “just happened,” because of this or that decision or action.

Well, it didn’t “just happen,” but neither was it planned. We of a later age can see that many of the events were the unintended consequences of decisions made for other reasons, but on the other hand, those events had their own logic, rooted in a century and a half of de facto American self government. The way America was governed was going to change, but it didn’t have to change in just the way it did. The specifics were determined by chance, or divine providence, or destiny, however you choose to think the world’s events are determined. The one thing we may be sure of is that no one envisioned what happened.

Take, for example, the First Continental Congress. Who really brought it into being, the colonists, or Parliament? You could argue it either way. The delegates were meeting to coordinate a response to what were called the Intolerable Acts. Parliamentary spokesmen might have replied, accurately, that the acts were passed in response to the Boston Tea Party, which took place the previous December. Colonists might have replied that “the Tea Party only took place because…” You get the idea. You can always find a preceding cause for anything.

We’ll get to the Boston Tea Party in the next section. You know what happened anyway. To English eyes, it was an act of vandalism and defiance that had the complicity of the colonial government of Massachusetts. As all governments think themselves obliged to do, it took firm measures, and, as usually happens, those actions proved to have unexpected and undesired consequences.

The acts were:

The Boston Port Act, which closed the port until the East India Company should be repaid for the tea that was destroyed.

The Massachusetts Government Act, which suspended the legislative functions of the colonial government, and the Administration of Justice Act, which provided that royal officials accused of crimes could be tried in Great Britain rather than in Massachusetts.

The Quartering Act, which required private citizens to lodge British soldiers in their houses upon official request.

The Quebec Act, which expanded the boundaries of the province to the Ohio, and guaranteed freedom of religion to Catholics.

Taken together, these laws were a masterpiece of legislative stupidity. One can imagine the British MPs, rubbing their hands together and saying to each other, “this will teach those recalcitrant colonials.” It did. It taught them the need for unity amongst themselves.

It didn’t occur to the MPs, perhaps, that the major port cities of New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk and Charleston might look at Boston’s fate and consider that they might be next, and hence might better unite to defend Boston than wait their turn. Or that the other colonial governments might look at what happened to the Massachusetts government and draw analogies to their own situations. Nor that the Quartering Act went directly against a cherished English tradition that said that a man’s home was his castle. And as for the Quebec Act, there they managed to jangle two nerves with one measure: Regardless what the Crown wanted, the colonists were going to cross the Appalachians and settle. And (less creditably, but also in the English tradition of the previous 200 years) granting Catholics freedom of religion aroused all their fears of renewed domination by a Roman church. (To understand this fear, we need to recall American fears of Communist subversion that were rife in the 1950s.)

The acts presented a common threat. They required a common response. In Boston, the Sons of Liberty called for a boycott, but to succeed a boycott would require unanimity among the colonies, or at least widespread agreement, and enforcement provisions. That required coordination. Various colonial legislatures named delegates to attend a common assembly to argue it out. And so in September, 1774, in Philadelphia (which was not only centrally located but was the largest city in the colonies), 55 men met, calling themselves the Continental Congress, and representing every colony but Georgia. Among them were George Washington and John Adams.

The delegates weren’t radical. They still thought their position, if stated clearly enough, might obtain a fair hearing. They sent separate addresses to the people of Great Britain and to the North American colonies, explaining the colonial position, and added a similar address for the people of Quebec. They sent a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” directly to the king. (Note, they didn’t send it to Parliament, which they saw as the source of the problem.)

But they didn’t just plead. They made it clear that they were serious.

For one thing, they agreed that the colonies boycott British goods beginning on December 1. Each colony was to form committees of observation and inspection to assure enforcement of the boycott. (And, in fact, in 1775, imports from Britain were down to three percent of the 1774 figures.) They also provided that if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed, exports to Britain would cease as of September 10, 1775, but by the time that date came around, matters had proceeded far beyond boycotts.

Then they agreed to reconvene in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, and they went home.

So what had they accomplished? More than they knew, perhaps. For the first time representatives from New England, southern and middle colonies had met in a common assembly and had learned to work together and understand each other. They had come to common understanding, had agreed on measures, and – more important than anyone could guess – they had arranged to meet again, the following year, never dreaming that in calling for that meeting they had provided the nucleus around which a government and a nation would eventually coalesce.

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