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THE American Revolution has two aspects. On the one hand, it was a contest between the government of Great Britain and those colonists who determined, in the beginning of the controversy, to resist the policy of the mother country, and finally to throw off her rule altogether. To bring this contest to a successful issue, the Revolutionists formed committees, assemblies, and national congresses; they raised troops, levied taxes, borrowed money, negotiated with foreign powers, and waged war in the field. On the other hand, when independence was declared, the Revolutionists had to provide some form of united government for the realization of their common purposes, and at the same time to establish permanent state governments. Thus cooperation among the Revolutionists of all the colonies and internal reconstruction within each colony proceeded simultaneously, and the result at the close of the war was a collection of "free, sovereign, and independent states "- each with a constitution of its own-leagued in a "perpetual union" under the Articles of Confederation.

Union under the Continental Congresses

The Revolution was the work of definite groups of men cooperating for specific purposes. In the preliminary stages of resistance to Great Britain, the colonists relied mainly on their regular assemblies as organs for the expression of revolutionary opinion, but as the contest became more heated and acts were performed for which there was no legal sanction, the Revolutionists began to form independent committees to represent them. This was necessary for the purposes of agitation, and later for organized rebellion, especially in those colonies with royal governors.

The germs of these revolutionary organizations which soon widened into state and national governments are to be found in the committees of correspondence small groups of persons selected by the Revolutionists in parishes, towns, and counties for the purpose of corresponding with one another, comparing views, and finally coöperating in the great task of overturning the old government and setting up a new system. These committees began as local organizations, but spread so rapidly and coöperated so effectively that they soon gathered sufficient force to accomplish the work of the Revolution.1

As early as November, 1772, a committee of correspondence was formed in Boston under the direction of Samuel Adams; it held regular meetings, sent emissaries to neighboring towns to organize similar bodies, and carried on a campaign of popular education in opposition to British colonial policy.

Early in the following year the Virginia House of Burgesses appointed a special committee which was charged "to obtain the most early and authentic intelligence of all such acts and resolutions of the British Parliament or proceedings of administration as may relate to or affect the British colonies in America; and to keep up and maintain a correspondence and communication with our sister colonies respecting those important considerations; and the result of such their proceedings from time to time to lay before this house." This official example was speedily followed by other legislative assemblies, so that within about a year there were twelve colonial committees appointed in regular form. Imposing as they seemed, however, they were by no means as active and important as the unofficial local committees representing the Revolutionists directly.

These local committees sprang up everywhere under the direction of the county committees, and assumed control of the revolutionary forces. Thus there was organized a government within a government, with the old territorial subdivisions of the colony as a basis. For example, in New Jersey each township had its committee which chose delegates to form the

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1 Collins, Committees of Correspondence of the American Revolution, Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1901, Vol. I, pp. 247 ff.

2 For the significant Boston resolution establishing this committee, see Readings, p. 17.

county committee, which in its turn selected representatives to compose a committee for the entire colony. These committees were powerful organs for action; they kept up the general agitation; they called periodical conventions of Revolutionists; and indeed assumed the reins of government.

The skeleton or framework of the revolutionary machine was therefore well perfected when Samuel Adams in 1774 proposed in the Massachusetts legislature a resolution in favor of calling a congress of delegates from all the colonies to meet at Philadelphia in September.1 While the messenger of the governor, sent to dissolve the assembly, was thundering at the door, the momentous resolve was passed and the call for united action against Great Britain was issued. The other colonies except Georgia responded to this appeal with alacrity by selecting, in some fashion or another, representatives for the general Congress. The method of choice varied so greatly that the Congress was in every way an irregular and revolutionary body. The colonies without the consent of the British crown can scarcely be said to have enjoyed the right of calling and organizing such a congress. In Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, the representatives were chosen informally by the colonial assembly; in New Hampshire they were selected by a meeting of delegates appointed by the several towns. In Connecticut they were elected by committees of correspondence; in New York practically by the Revolutionists of New York county; in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia by conventions composed of county delegates, many of whom had been members of the colonial legislatures; in South Carolina by a "general meeting of the inhabitants of the colony," and in North Carolina by "a general meeting of the deputies of the province." In all of these irregular elections, the lead was taken by the men who had been most active in the organization of committees of correspondence and the agitation against Great Britain.


The general purpose of this Congress, ostensibly at least, was stated in the instructions which were given to the delegation of each colony by the body that elected it. These instructions

1 This call is printed in the Readings, p. 18.

2 The South Carolina Resolution appointing delegates is in the Readings, p. 19.

did not speak of union or independence; perhaps it was not thought wise by the leaders to announce any distinctly revolutionary purpose, even if they entertained it. The Massachusetts instructions authorized the delegates to consult upon the state of the colonies, and to deliberate and determine upon wise and proper measures to be recommended for the recovery and establishment of their just rights and liberties and the restoration of harmony between Great Britain and the colonies. Indeed, most of the instructions indicated a desire to see good feeling restored; and those of South Carolina only authorized the delegates to take "legal" measures to obtain the repeal of the obnoxious laws. The tone of the colonists was determined, however, and North Carolina instructed her representatives to "take such measures as they may deem prudent to effect the purpose of describing American rights with certainty and guarding them from any future violation."

'As the whole procedure, strictly speaking, could not have been regarded as legal at all, the limitations imposed on the delegates could not have had anything more than moral force. The bodies that chose them were not independent and sovereign states with law-making powers, but groups of discontented subjects of Great Britain seeking a redress of grievances. In accordance with the letter of the instructions, the Congress contented itself with remonstrating against British policy, recommending the colonists to join in the non-importation of British goods, and adopting other measures calculated to bring the British government to terms.

This boycott of British goods and the provisions for enforcing it had a marked effect on the course of events. It was agreed by the Congress that a committee should be chosen in every county, city, and town "by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association." These local committees were instructed to publish the names of all citizens who violated the terms of the boycott, to the end that all such foes to American rights might be publicly known and universally contemned. Thus a clear-cut test of allegiance to the revolutionary political system was provided, and tribunals competent to deal with refractory citizens were authorized to

apply the test.' The Revolutionists, consciously or not, were burning their bridges behind them.

The first Congress, furthermore, recommended the call of a second Congress for the purpose of continuing the work thus begun; and, acting on this suggestion, the revolutionary bodies in the colonies, organized in the form of the old assemblies, or conventions, or committees, selected the delegates to a new Congress. This time the instructions were a little more determined in tone, and there was less talk about reconciliation and legal measures. The Massachusetts and New York instructions spoke of the restoration of harmony, but likewise of the firm and secure establishment of American rights and privileges; New Hampshire gave "full and ample power in behalf of this province to consent and agree to all measures which shall be deemed necessary to obtain redress of American grievances"; and the Connecticut instructions authorized them "to join, consult, and advise with other delegates on proper measures for advancing the best good of the colonies."

When this second Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, the cause of Revolution had advanced beyond the stage of mere negotiation. Within two months, Ethan Allen's troops took Fort Ticonderoga "in the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress," the battle of Bunker Hill was fought, and Washington was called to the command of the American troops. In the midst of the crisis, Congress seized and exercised sovereign powers; it assumed the direction of the war; entered into diplomatic negotiations with other countries; declared independence, regulated common concerns; raised funds; and finally designed a firmer national union in the form of the Articles of Confederation. It was not an assembly of delegates formally chosen and instructed by legally constituted states; it was the central organ, not of colonies or of states, but of that portion of the American population that was committed to the cause of Revolution.

'On the political significance of the first Continental Congress, see C. L. Becker, History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-76, University of Wisconsin Publications, 1909.

For the Declaration of Independence, see Readings, p. 21.

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