Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CONGRESS, Continental (IN U. S. HISTORY). When the attempt of George III. to govern his American dominions through his British parliament had become patent, it was evident that separate resistance by the individual American assemblies would only result in failure, and that some representative body for all the colonies was a necessity for united resistance. Such a union had been attempted for other purposes in 1754 (see ALBANY PLAN OF UNION), and Franklin, who had then been a leading advocate of union, now first renewed the suggestion in a letter of July 7, 1773, to the assembly of Massachusetts, of which colony be was the agent in London. The first step was taken by the Virginia assembly in May, 1774, upon receipt of news of the passage of the Boston port bill. (See REVOLUTION.) Its members advised the local committee of correspondence at Williamsburgh to suggest to the other colonial committees the calling of a continental congress, that is, a meeting of delegates from all the English colonies on the continent, for the hope was long cherished that the Canadian colonies would make common cause with their brethren south of the great lakes and the St. Lawrence. June 7, the Massachusetts assembly named a time and appointed delegates to the proposed congress. Other colonies followed the example, and the result was the meeting of the first continental congress (see STAMP ACT CONGRESS), "the delegates appointed by the good people of these colonies," which met at Philadelphia, Sept. 5, 1774, Georgia alone being unrepresented, though it took part in succeeding congresses. The North Carolina delegates did not arrive until Sept. 14.


—In calling any such deliberative assembly of their own volition, and without the previous assent of him whom they still ingenuously acknowledged to be "their sovereign lord, the king," the colonies evidently took the difficult first step on the straight road toward rebellion and revolution. Neither the delegates nor their principals, however, thought of such a result. The powers given by the colonies were all alike advisory, and limited to the recommendation of such measures as would restore harmony between Great Britain and the colonies. The action of this congress was therefore confined to a declaration of the rights and wrongs of the colonies, the recommendation to their colonies of an agreement not to import British goods after Dec. 1, 1774, and not to export goods to Great Britain, Ireland, or the West Indies, after Sept. 10, 1775, unless their wrongs should be righted (see EMBARGO), and the preparation of addresses to the king, to the British people, to their own constituents, and to the people of the province of Quebec. But the germ of measures of a stronger nature may be seen in a resolution commending the people of Massachusetts for their temperate resistance to the objectionable measures of parliament, and declaring that if these acts "shall be attempted to be carried into execution by force, in such case all America ought to support them in their opposition."


—The first congress recommended the immediate selection of delegates to a second congress, to be held at Philadelphia, May 10, 1775. Surely every man who, personally or by his acknowledged representatives, ratified the action of the first congress by choosing delegates to the second, with the resolution just cited staring him in the face, did so with the full consciousness that the proposed second congress was, in case of the application of force by the British parliament, to be a different body from the first, a revolutionary assembly, plenipotentiary in its nature, and empowered by its constituents, to use, if necessary, every means of resistance. The delegates, therefore, when first appointed, though nominally retaining allegiance to the British crown, were potentially members of a national assembly; and the first shot fired at Lexington, April 19, 1775, crystallized thirteen of the king's American colonies into a separate nation, with their own full concurrence previously and advisedly given. The new nation, it is true, was still bound to the old by the frail tie of allegiance to a common king, but the great appanages of sovereignty, the power to make peace, war, treaties and foreign alliances, to send ambassadors, to control commerce, and open the ports of the nation to all the world, to raise and equip armies and navies, to issue national currency, to authorize letters of marque and reprisal, to create a national postal system, many of which were never enjoyed by the rival parliament of Great Britain, were exercised by the second continental congress with the hearty acquiescence of the people at large, who thus continually re-confirmed their former grant to congress of temporary but unlimited power. Indeed, the impatience of the people outran the moderation of the congress. Provincial congresses called upon the continental congress for advice, direction and complete national action; and even when the king had proclaimed the American people out of his protection, and had declared war against them by land and sea, only a strong outside pressure at last impelled congress to assume before the world the station as a national assembly which it had held for more than a year in reality, to renounce allegiance to a tyrant, and to make the United States foreign soil forever to the king and people of Great Britain. (See ALLEGIANCE, I.; DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.) The session between the two nations was thus final; the union between the constituent units of the American nation on the one hand, and of Great Britain on the other, remained undisturbed and complete as before.


—The appointment of the delegates to both these congresses was generally by popular conventions, though in some instances by state assemblies. But in neither case can the appointing body be considered the original depositary of the power by which the delegates acted; for the conventions were either self-appointed "committees of safety" or hastily assembled popular gatherings, including but a small fraction of the population to be represented, and the state assemblies had no right to surrender to another body one atom of the power which had been granted to them, or to create a new power which should govern the people without their will. The source of the powers of congress is to be sought solely in the acquiescence of the people, without which every congressional resolution, with or without the benediction of popular conventions or state legislatures, would have been a mere brutum fulmen; and, as the congress unquestionably exercised national powers, operating over the whole country, the conclusion is inevitable that the will of the whole people is the source of national government in the United States, even from its first imperfect appearance in the second continental congress.


—The power to select delegates to what might perhaps be called the third continental congress, Dec. 20, 1776, and to succeeding sessions until the adoption of the articles of confederation, was appropriated by the state legislatures. No such right could be drawn from the articles, for they were not binding until ratified by all the states in 1781. In eight of the ten states, by which constitutions were adopted in 1776-7, the power to appoint delegates to congress was vested in the legislature. But no such power was given by the new constitution of New Jersey in 1776; no such power was given in Massachusetts until 1780, or in New Hampshire until 1784; and Connecticut until 1818, and Rhode Island until 1842, remained under the royal charters, which of course gave no such power to the legislature. And yet the legislatures of these five states continued to exercise a power of delegation to congress to which they had no claim by the organic law of state or nation. In this respect, indeed, they were only imitating their sister legislatures, most of which had actually seized the power of delegation before it was formally granted by the state constitutions; and this whole course of legislative appropriation of ungranted powers is of interest and importance as explaining the manner in which the continental congress was becoming the creature of the state legislatures even before the close of the year 1776, and the underlying cause of the peculiar character of the confederation which follows. (See STATE SOVEREIGNTY.)


—The "first" and "second" continental congresses have been so called, but after the first meeting of the second congress it is impossible to specify any other distinctive congresses. The state legislatures, from their first appropriation of the right to choose delegates, chose them for varying times, and recalled them at pleasure, so that congress became a body, theoretically in perpetual session, subject to perpetual change, but with no distinct period of renewal. From the first meeting of the first congress, the delegates of each colony had but one vote; not because the collective body of delegates from each colony were the ambassadors from a sovereign and independent state, but because, as the first congress was careful to specify, there was no present means of ascertaining the relative number of citizens in the separate colonies. By usage this mode of voting soon hardened into custom, and the smaller states finally claimed as a right, and embodied in the confederation, that which was originally due only to the lack of a census, and of which the constitution retained a remnant in the senate. (See COMPROMISES, 1.) A comparison of the machinery and functions of the old Germanic diet with those of the continental congress would very plainly show the marked differences between an assemblage of ambassadors and the true, though imperfect, national government of the American revolution.


—It has just been said that the revolutionary congress was a true, though imperfect, type of national government. It was imperfect in that it never ventured to claim three important functions of a national assembly: 1, it never attempted to lay general taxes, or control individuals, being content with recommendations to the states to lay the taxes and make the laws necessary for each case as it arose; 2, it made no attempt to regulate the mode of election or term of service of its members, leaving those matters also to the discretion of the states; and 3, it did not lay claim to the allegiance of the citizens of the whole country, but yielded that badge of sovereignty to the states. (See ALLEGIANCE, I.) On the slender foundation of these three omissions, which passed into the frame of the confederation, has been erected the whole argument against the national nature of the revolutionary government; and the mere statement of the basis of this objection, as compared with the mass of national power actually exercised by the continental congress, is sufficient to show the weakness of the argument. But it is necessary to notice, further, that the continental congress, to which the power of the sword had been confided by the will of the people, had an unquestionable right, by the laws of war, not only to regulate these three unregulated matters, but even to abolish slavery, to order a general draft, and to confiscate the last dollar in the country, so long as the country remained the theatre of a war which the people were bent upon continuing. The doctrine is harsh, but it is the recognized law of war, and controls, by the necessity of the case, the laws and constitution of every civilized nation in which war is flagrant. (See WAR POWERS.) Of course it does not apply to a country which is waging a war beyond its own limits; only the right of self-preservation can thus stand above the laws. The few omissions of the revolutionary government, then, to do that which it had a right to do, can not militate against the evident intention of the people to establish and support a national government.


—Apart from its assumption of such national powers as the poverty of the country, the difficulties of communication, and the lack of material left feasible, the most important political work of the continental congress was its long continued effort to transform itself from a revolutionary assembly into a representative body limited by law. June 10, 1776, the day on which the committee was appointed to prepare a declaration of independence, a committee of one from each colony was appointed "to prepare and digest the form of a confederation to be entered into between these colonies." Its report was made July 12, debated until Aug. 20, and dropped until April 8, 1777. It was then resumed, debated and amended, and was finally adopted Nov. 15. and recommended to the state legislatures for ratification in a circular letter of Nov. 17. By instructions from the state legislatures the articles were signed by the delegates of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina, July 9, 1778; of North Carolina, July 21; of Georgia, July 24; of New Jersey, Nov. 26; of Delaware, May 5, 1779; and of Maryland, March 1, 1781. The delay of the last three states in signing was due to the omission of the articles to make any provision for dividing the western lands among all the states (see TERRITORIES), and they only signed at last in the full confidence that those states whose nominal boundaries extended indefinitely west would resign their pretensions to the lands which were conquered by the common exertions of all the states. New Jersey interposed the further and more farsighted objection that the articles were defective in not giving the general government the control of commerce. March 2, the revolutionary congress changed its basis of existence, and began its short-lived career as the congress of the confederation. (See CONFEDERATION, ARTICLES OF.)


—Most of the state legislatures, as has been said, originally usurped the power to choose delegates to congress. When we come to the further question of the right of the legislatures to ratify and make valid that which their new servant, the continental congress, had offered for their ratification—a scheme of government which was professedly a league or treaty between sovereign and independent states—the usurpation becomes yet more glaring. Whence did the legislatures derive those "competent powers" with which the congress invited them to invest the delegates of their states for signing the articles of confederation? They can not be found in the state constitutions, not one of which authorized its legislature to form any league or treaty with other states; nor in any claim of a revolutionary and unlimited character for the legislatures, for they were all expressly limited by the organic law of the states, their charters or constitutions; nor in the undefined boundaries of legislative power, for the treaty power is essentially an executive, not a legislative, power, except so far as the legislative is admitted to it by the organic law. If, then, we are not to consider the articles of confederation as the extra-legislative and usurping action of state legislatures, we must look for their basis in the revolutionary character of the congress which framed them and which chose to offer them to the state legislatures for decision; and thus we are forced back again to the will of the whole people as the source even of the clumsy national government of the confederation. [The many instances in which the particularist bias of the American people caused their actions, and those of their representatives, to swerve from the straight line of theory, are considered under DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, and STATE SOVEREIGNTY.]—Appended is a summary of the successive sessions and locations (see CAPITAL, NATIONAL) of the continental congress, before and after the adoption of the articles of confederation. After Oct. 21, 1788, the congress was nominally kept in existence in New York city by occasional meetings of a few delegates for the purpose only of adjournment, until the inauguration of the new federal government under the constitution. Sept 5, 1774 - Oct. 26, 1774. Philadelphia, Pa.; May 10, 1775 - Dec. 12, 1776, Philadelphia, Pa.; Dec. 20, 1776—March 4, 1777, Baltimore, Md; March 4, 1777 - Sept. 18, 1777, Philadelphia, Pa.; Sept. 27, 1777, Lancaster, Pa.; Sept. 30, 1777 - June 27, 1778, York, Pa.; July 2, 1778 - June 21, 1783, Philadelphia, Pa.; June 30, 1783 - Nov. 4, 1783, Princeton, N. J.; Nov. 26, 1783 - June 3, 1784, Annapolis, Md.; Nov. 1, 1784 - Dec. 24, 1784, Trenton, N. J.; Jan. 11, 1785 - Nov. 4, 1785, New York city; Nov. 7, 1785 - Nov. 3, 1786, New York city; Nov. 6, 1786 - Oct. 30, 1787, New York city; Nov. 5, 1787 - Oct. 21, 1788, New York city. (See UNITED STATES; STAMP ACT CONGRESS; CONFEDERATION, ARTICLES OF; REVOLUTION; ORDINANCE OF 1787; ANNEXATIONS, I.; STATE SOVEREIGNTY)


—See 8 Franklin's Works, 63; 1 Pitkin's United States, 282; 3 Burk's History of Virginia, 379; 1 Gordon's History of the Revolution, 239; 1 Marshall's Washington, 29; 7 - 9 Bancroft's United States; 3 Hildreth's United States; 1 von Holst's United States, 1 - 30; 1 Schouler's United States, 1 - 56; 1 Curtis' History of the Constitution, 1 - 137; Story's Commentaries, §§ 198 - 228; Frothingham's Rise of the Republic; Niles' Principles and Acts of the Revolution; Greene's Historical View of the Revolution, 78 - 135; 2 Adams' Works of John Adams (notes of debates in Cont. Cong.); 1-4 Public Journals of Congress (to March 3, 1789); 1 Secret Journals of Congress (domestic affairs, 1774-88); 1 Stat. at Large (Bioren and Duane's ed.) 1-60; 1 Stephen's War Between the States, 52-81; 1 Calhoun's Works (disq. on government); Pollard's Lost Cause (cap. 1); Poore's Political Register, and Federal and State Constitutions; and authorities under CONSTITUTION, IV.


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