The colonies are abuzz following the adjournment of the First Continental Congress. As colonists deliberated and implemented Congress’s mandates, they also pondered the future of their relationship with Great Britain.
The first document ratified by Congress – the Suffolk Resolve – was carried to Great Britain in October 1774. In response, King George III opened Parliament on November 30, 1774 with a speech condemning Massachusetts and declaring the colony to be in a state of rebellion.
As news of the speech spread throughout Massachusetts and the American colonies, residents shared their hopes, fears, and opinions with one another.
On February 3, 1775 Abigail Adams wrote to Mercy Otis Warren, reporting among other things, “The die is cast … but it seems to me the Sword is now our only, yet dreadful alternative”.
Many delegates were skeptical about changing the king’s attitude towards the colonies, but believed that every opportunity should be exhausted to de-escalate the conflict before taking more radical act.
War Breaks Out Before The Second Continental Congress Convenes
Instead, war broke out in Massachusetts (Lexington and Concord) on April 19, 1775. Many delegates are already enroute to Philadelphia, where Congress was scheduled to convene on May 10, 1775.
For the first few months of this conflict, the Patriots had carried on their struggle in an ad-hoc and uncoordinated manner. At this point, the Second Continental Congress intervened and assumed leadership of the war effort. They resolved to prepare for war but continued to seek reconciliation.
Notable additions of attendees include Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Lyman Hall, the lone delegate representing a single parish in Georgia.
In Massachusetts, the Provincial Congress formed when military governor Thomas Gage dissolved the legislature in 1774. Arguing that “General Gage hath actually levied war” against them, Massachusetts patriots hope Congress will suggest a mechanism for creating a civil government to manage the colony.
As British authority crumbled in the colonies, the Continental Congress effectively took over as the de facto national government, thereby exceeding the initial authority granted to it by the individual colonial governments. However, the local groups that had formed to enforce the colonial boycott continued to support the Congress.
On June 14, the Second Continental Congress created a continental army and appointed George Washington commander-in-chief.
Meanwhile, the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 forced many delegates to rethink their position on reconciliation. As accounts of the battle reach Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson are drafting the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking up Arms. John Adams calls the document a spirited Manifesto.
Before sending Washington to Boston to meet the troops in July, Congress adopted a comprehensive set of military regulations designed to marshal the troops.
In addition, on June 22, 1775, it approved the first release of $1 million in bills of credit (paper currency), Issued in defense of American liberty, Congress authorized the printing of another $1 million in July. (By the end of 1775, Congress will authorize a total of $6 million bills of credit.)
Olive Branch Petition
Unwilling to completely abandon their hope for peace, the Olive Branch Petition was adopted by Congress on July 5, 1775 to be sent to the King as a last attempt to prevent formal war from being declared. The Petition emphasized their loyalty to the British crown and emphasized their rights as British citizens.
After a flurry of activity in June and July, Congress adjourned for a brief respite on August 2, 1775.
William Penn carried the Olive Branch Petition to London, but the king refused to see him.
Second Continental Congress Reconvenes
When the body reconvened on September 13, 1775 three new delegates representing the entire colony of Georgia are present.
As Massachusetts had done in 1775, individual colonies seek the advice of Congress. John Adams explains his own opinions on the “divine science of politicks” and the most advantageous structure of government in the pamphlet Thoughts on Government.
In February 1776, Congress received news of the Prohibitory Act, which subjects all American vessels to confiscation by the Royal Navy. In March 1776, Congress sends a message of its own to British shipping interests: enemy vessels beware!
Opposition to independence is steadily waning in Congress, thanks in part to the popular support. Common Sense is published in Philadelphia in January 1776. Offering “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense,” the pamphlet is a publishing success that stirs debate on the subject of independence.
On April 6, 1776, Congress responded to Parliament’s actions by opening American ports to all foreign ships except British vessels. Reports from American agent Arthur Lee in London also served to support the revolutionary cause.
Lee’s reports suggested that France was interested in assisting the colonies in their fight against Great Britain. With a peaceful resolution increasingly unlikely in 1775, Congress began to explore other diplomatic channels and dispatched congressional delegate Silas Deane to France in April of 1776.
As Congress continued to mobilize for war, delegates also debate the possibilities of foreign assistance and the “intricate and complicated subject” of American trade.
Deane succeeded in securing informal French support by May. By then, Congress was increasingly conducting international diplomacy and had drafted the Model Treaty with which it hoped to seek alliances with Spain and France.
Action for the Establishment of Alternative Structures of Authority
In late 1775 and early 1776, the provincial congresses of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Virginia asked the Second Continental Congress for advice on what to do about the unsettled condition of government caused by the outbreak of war with Britain.
Congress agreed that there was a crisis of authority, but recommended only the convening of popularly elected assemblies to set up interim measures for exercising governmental authority to last until the establishment of a reconciliation with Great Britain.
In the congressional debates on these requests, John Adams of Massachusetts and like-minded colleagues urged Congress to act more decisively by recommending the establishment of alternative structures of authority as early as possible before any final break with Britain.
Conservative delegates such as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and James Duane and John Jay of New York argued in opposition that adopting new forms of government would be tantamount to declaring independence and would prevent reconciliation with the mother country.
It was not until May 10, 1776, that the Second Continental Congress finally adopted the following resolution drafted by John Adams. Five days later Congress accepted a preamble to the act also written by Adams.
Declaration of Independence
Many delegates fear their actions – such as the creation of new civil governments and the search for potential foreign allies – are tantamount to declaring independence. By June, delegates consider a resolution on the matter of independence itself
On July 4, 1776 the Congress took the important step of formally declaring the colonies’ independence from Great Britain.
In September, Congress adopted the Model Treaty, and then sent commissioners to France to negotiate a formal alliance. They entered into a formal alliance with France in 1778. Congress eventually sent diplomats to other European powers to encourage support for the American cause and to secure loans for the money-strapped war effort.
Congress and the British government made further attempts to reconcile, but negotiations failed when Congress refused to revoke the Declaration of Independence, both in a meeting on September 11, 1776, with British Admiral Richard Howe, and when a peace delegation from Parliament arrived in Philadelphia in 1778.
Instead, Congress spelled out terms for peace on August 14, 1779, which demanded British withdrawal, American independence, and navigation rights on the Mississippi River. The next month Congress appointed John Adams to negotiate such terms with England, but British officials were evasive.
The war raged on throughout this time.
The Second Congress continued to meet until March 1, 1781, when the Articles of Confederation that established a new national government for the United States took effect.
Click the following link to a general summary about the Second Continental Congress: