Throughout the mid-1700s, the colonists had become increasingly angry with British Parliament. To pay for foreign wars, Parliament had passed a series of laws that negatively impacted those in the colonies.
Colonists felt that these laws were unjust, as they did not have direct representation in the distant British Parliament, and thus had no opportunity to defend their position.
The First Continental Congress convened in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, between September 5 and October 26, 1774.
Delegates from twelve of Britain’s thirteen American colonies met to discuss America’s future under growing British aggression. The list of delegates included many prominent colonial leaders, such as Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, and two future presidents of the United States, George Washington and John Adams.
Delegates discussed boycotting British goods to establish the rights of Americans. They promptly began drafting and discussing the Continental Association. This would become their most important policy outcome.
The Association called for an end to British imports starting in December 1774 and an end to exporting goods to Britain in September 1775.
This policy would be enforced by local and colony-wide committees of inspection. These committees would check ships that arrived in ports, force colonists to sign documents pledging loyalty to the Continental Association, and suppress mob violence.
The committees of inspection even enforced frugality, going so far as to end lavish funeral services and parties. Many colonial leaders hoped these efforts would bond the colonies together economically.
The idea of using non-importation as leverage was neither new nor unexpected. Prior to the Continental Congress, eight colonies had already endorsed the measure and merchants had been warned against placing any orders with Britain, as a ban on importation was likely to pass.
Some colonies had already created their own associations to ban importation and, in some cases, exportation. The Virginia Association had passed at the Virginia Convention with George Washington in attendance.
Washington’s support of using non-importation as leverage against the British can be traced back as far as 1769 in letters between him and George Mason.
When the colonies first started publicly supporting non-importation, Bryan Fairfax, a longtime friend of Washington’s, wrote to him urging him to not support the Continental Association and to instead petition Parliament.
Washington dismissed this suggestion, writing “we have already Petitiond his Majesty in as humble, & dutiful a manner as Subjects could do.”
Washington, like many delegates at the First Continental Congress, no longer saw petitioning as a useful tool in changing Parliament’s ways.
Many delegates felt that using the Continental Association as leverage would be impractical without explicit demands and a plan of redress. However, Congress struggled to come up with a list of rights, grievances, and demands.
Furthermore, to only repeal laws that were unfavorable to the delegates without a list of rights would be a temporary fix to the larger issue of continued British abuse. To address these issues, Congress formed a Grand Committee. (National Archives)
The delegates of the First Continental Congress were careful not to criticize the king, but express their unhappiness at the current state of affairs. The Congress used the Virginia Association, which wished to increase cooperation between the colonies, as its template.
The document was signed on October 20, 1774 by 53 delegates, including George Washington, John Adams, and Peyton Rudolph, who was President of the First Congress.
The boycott was relatively successful while it lasted, and succeeded in damaging the British economy. The Crown responded in 1775 with the New England Restraining Act which failed to rein in the colonists and facilitated the start of the Revolutionary War. (National Archives Foundation)
Click the following link to a general summary about The Association (Continental Association):