Today in 1774: The First Continental Congress is held

September 5, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryToday’s Congress is politically deadlocked.  The parties can’t seem to agree on anything, and opposition seems to be often based on nothing more than political alignment.

One could argue, however, that disagreement is a part of the heritage of any national legislative body convening in the U.S.  After all, the very first Congress – the First Continental Congress – had its beginnings seeded in distrust and disagreement between the delegates.

And that very first Congress began in Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia 240 years ago today, on September 5, 1774.

While the delegates from 12 colonies (Georgia sent no delegates) agreed that something must be done about the colonial relationship with Great Britain, the solidarity largely ended there.  Pennsylvania and New York, for example, wanted reconciliation with England.  Other delegations advocated for outright separation from the mother country.  Some delegations, such as Virginia’s (comprised of Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, and Edmund Pendleton) were split between these two ideological boundaries even among themselves.

Further dividing the delegates was the fact that this was the first Congress, and that, up until this point, the colonies governed themselves independently (aside from the hegemony of British rule) and acted independently.  The idea of the colonies coming together for a common purpose was novel, to say the least.

But the colonies were faced with unprecedented measures taken by Britain – ones that threatened their very livelihood – that forced this new step of cooperation.

These “measures” were the “Coercive Acts” (also known as the Intolerable Acts), passed in response to the Boston Tea Party, which enraged Parliament.  And while the colonies had already faced other such adverse measures taken by Britain, such as the Stamp Act and the Tea Act, the Coercive Acts took oppression to an entirely new level.

The Acts established formal British military rule in Massachusetts and closed off Boston to merchant shipping.  But the effects of the Coercive Acts extended beyond Massachusetts borders: they also made British officials immune to criminal prosecution in the colonies, and furthermore required colonists to quarter British troops if so ordered.

These acts alarmed the colonies so much that they took their first step towards collective self-governance in holding the First Continental Congress.  After seven weeks of debate, including the discussion of a proposal to create a self-governing political body for the colonies (yet one that was still loyal to Britain), the Congress ended, and several documents were created as a result.

First was the Articles of Association, in which the colonies collectively agreed to a boycott of British imports as a sign of protest against the Coercive Acts – and further called for the end of exports to Great Britain the next year if the Acts were not repealed.

Next was the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, which cataloged Congress’s grievances not only with the Coercive Acts but with British rule of the colonies in general.  The Declaration also listed the rights of the colonies.

Finally, a formal petition to King George III specifying the colonies’ grievances to the king – of course, while assigning blame elsewhere.

The delegates agreed to hold another Second Continental Congress the following May.  By this time, however, armed conflict had broken out in Boston, and the colonies were progressing ever more towards revolution.  Nevertheless, it was the first Congress, held before tensions had escalated to violent levels, that laid the foundations for colonial independence and self-governance.

Delegates were able to overcome their disputes and reach a common end that advanced the interests of all represented.  Our current Congress could learn something from this example.