A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Rowe's Revolution

"The Genl Court Chose a Committee of five to go to the General Congress - James Bowdoin, Jn Adams, Saml Adams, The Speaker & Mr Payne of Taunton"

Diary of John Rowe,
17 June 1774

Read more of John Rowe's diary

The First Continental Congress

Introduction

News of the Coercive Acts arrives in the colonies in the spring of 1774. In response to the punitive measures outlined in the Boston Port Bill, Bostonians propose to cease all trade with Britain, as set forth in the Solemn League and Covenant. Haunted by the failure of earlier commercial resistance initiatives, the other twelve colonies (as well as most towns in Massachusetts) are wary of yielding to Boston's leadership. A colony-wide congress to discuss a united course of resistance emerges as a logical alternative. By July 1774, each of the American colonies (except Georgia, where elections are thwarted by the royal governor) has elected delegates to a "Grand Continental Congress."


Massachusetts delegates John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Cushing begin their journey to Philadelphia on 10 August, surveying the political landscape and meeting fellow delegates along their route. The Congress convenes on 5 September at Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia. Virginian Peyton Randolph is elected chairman, and Charles Thomson of Pennsylvania is elected secretary. The fifty-six delegates have a vital mandate: to organize an appropriate response to the Coercive Acts, and to determine the nature of Parliament's authority over the colonies. Throughout the proceedings, John Adams records the spirited debates.

On 6 September, delegates are informed that General Thomas Gage has seized provincial military supplies stored in Charlestown, Massachusetts, causing quite a stir among the colonists there. As delegates ponder the fate of Massachusetts, Joseph Warren and a committee of men from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, formulate a plan of resistance. This plan—the Suffolk Resolves—is presented to Congress on 17 September. Speaking with one voice, the delegates unanimously endorse the document, their first official act.

The Congress next considers implementing nonimportation, nonexportation, and nonconsumption movements to force Parliament to repeal the Coercive Acts. Hoping to bankrupt Britain and save America through commercial resistance, delegates endorse a plan, known as the "Continental Association," on 26 October 1774. Less defiant delegates, however, continue to promote accommodation as the best course of action. On 28 September, Pennsylvania delegate Joseph Galloway proposes a plan of union that calls for the creation of an American legislature subservient to Parliament. Galloway's proposal fails, but conservative delegates persuade Congress to send a humble petition to King George III.

Seeking additional support for their cause, delegates compose an address to the people of Great Britain and, in a separate letter, remind their fellow colonists, "Your own salvation ... depends upon yourselves." Arguing that Parliament's actions are part of "a system formed to enslave America," the Congress adopts a declaration of rights and grievances on 14 October 1774. Prior to adjourning on 26 October, delegates agree to convene again on 10 May 1775, unless Parliament addresses their concerns.

The Congress does not publish any of its proceedings until after it has adjourned. Throughout the months of September and October 1774, few reports from Philadelphia are forthcoming. When, in the form of pamphlets and broadsides, Congress's proceedings are made public in the fall of 1774, loyalists question the legitimacy of the assembly and denounce its "arbitrary and tyrannical" schemes. Their campaign fails, however, as colonists rally around the Congress. Advocates, including Alexander Hamilton, write in support of the gathering, most colonial legislatures endorse its proceedings, and thousands of colonists form local committees to enforce the Association.

Colonists are left to wonder how the King and Parliament will react to their declarations, petitions, and addresses. They will not have to wait long. By the spring of 1775, colonists learn that the British ministry has no intention of meeting their demands.