First Continental Congress: History, Delegates, Achievements, & Major Facts

First Continental Congress

First Continental Congress

Between September 5 and October 26, 1774, the nation’s first significant Congress – the First Continental Congress – congregated at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to protest against Britain’s Intolerable Acts of 1774. Apart from the colony of Georgia, delegates from all the colonies were present.

The body met to discuss the various grievances in Britain’s thirteen American colonies. For years, colonies had come under immense aggression from Great Britain and their soldiers stationed across the colonies. This aggression was made worse by the various coercive acts passed the British Parliament as well as the outrageous taxes levied on the colonies.

The First Continental Congress was hugely significant in the sense that it fueled America’s pursuit of freedom and liberty. Delegates of the First Continental Congress included leading colonial figures such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Adams and George Washington; the last two went on to become presidents of the United States.

The major achievement of the First Continental Congress was coming out with the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which rejected Britain’s unjust taxation without representation in Parliament.

The article below presents everything that you need to know about the First Continental Congress, including its significance and the various discussions and debates that were had in Carpenters’ Hall.

Origins and Brief history

A look back at history and one cannot help but notice that the Intolerable Acts of 1774 were one of the major reasons why the First Continental Congress was held. Also known as the Coercive Acts, the Intolerable Acts were Great Britain’s way of tightening its hold on the thirteen colonies. Passed by the British Parliament in 1774 without any sort of consultation with the colonies, the objective of those Acts was to make an example of Bostonians following the Boston Tea Party, an event that saw tea shipments dumped into the Boston Harbor by angry and frustrated colonists.

Great Britain was particularly aggrieved by the incidents at the Boston Port, where Bostonians threw tons of imported British tea overboard. The incident, which came to be known as the Boston Tea Party, prompted a flurry of aggressive moves by Britain. For example, the Boston Port was closed and the Massachusetts Charter was rescinded. In addition to British officials being immune from prosecution in the colonies, Britain also ordered the colonies to quarter British troops.

As a result of all those Coercive Acts of 1774, the colonies reasoned that coming together was the only option available to them.

Read More: Everything that you need to know about the Boston Massacre on King Street (1770)

Organization and invitations

Rather than have the desired effect, the Intolerable Acts gave birth to dissent from all over the colonies. There was also huge solidarity from the other 12 colonies with the people of Boston in particular.

Colonists from Virginia took a leading role and called on other colonies to take a strong stand against Great Britain’s aggressive tactics. The Committee of Correspondence in Virginia is generally seen as the organizers of the First Continental Congress.

With Carpenters’ Hall in Pennsylvania chosen as the venue, invitations were sent to all the thirteen colonies.

Did you know: The colony of Georgia was the only colony that failed to send any delegation to Carpenters’ Hall?

How were the delegates to the First Continental Congress selected?

Becoming a delegate to the Continental Congress required the election of the people or the respective colonial legislature. In some colonies, the delegates were elected by committees of correspondence. In Virginia for example, the seven delegates, including future president of the United States George Washington, were elected at the First Virginia Convention.

Instructions to the delegates

Delegates from Pennsylvania and New York were instructed to secure an amicable peace resolution with Great Britain.

On the other hand, other colonial delegates were instructed to strongly pursue the rights of their respective colonies. Those colonies wanted their representatives to be represented in the British Parliament.

Also, there were others that wanted an outright separation. Those colonies had had enough of being subjects of King George III and hence, they wanted to govern themselves.

Finally, there were the delegates from Virginia, who among all the colonies had the most diverse of objectives. There were some Virginian delegates that wanted the colonies to break away from the colonial masters; and there were others that wanted to pursue a path of dialog and resolve the issues in a diplomatic manner.

Did you know: The Virginia delegation, which was led by Peyton Randolph, included leading American Patriots such as George Washington, Benjamin Harrison, Richard Bland, Patrick Henry, Henry Lee, and Edmund Pendleton?

Objective of the First Continental Congress

First Continental Congress

Carpenters’ Hall, Philadelphia – the venue of the First Continental Congress,

The First Continental Congress met primarily to do something about Great Britain’s increased use of oppressive acts and authoritarian rule. The aims of the colonies were varied and not very specific; however they all had one common purpose – to stand united in the face of Britain’s use of force.

The member of the First Continental Congress all agreed that King George III and the British Parliament owed them a listening ear; and that the various grievances of the colonies had to be taken more seriously by the King.

The colonies that favored a more diplomatic resolution to grievances were worried that strong confrontation with the King could result in the abrupt end of British support, both military and financial. With that support gone, the colonies would have a difficult time fending off Native American tribes.

List of Delegates to the Continental Congress

Here, we present the names of all the 56 delegates to the First Continental Congress (1774).

American colonies

Delegates to the First Continental Congress

New Hampshire: John Sullivan, Nathaniel Folsom
Massachusetts: John Adams, Samuel Adams, Thomas Cushing, Robert Treat Paine
Rhode Island: Stephen Hopkins, Samuel Ward
Connecticut: Eliphalet Dyer, Roger Sherman, Silas Deane
New York: Isaac Low, John Alsop, John Jay, Philip Livingston, James Duane, William Floyd, Henry Wisner, Simon Boerum
New Jersey: James Kinsey, William Livingston, Stephen Crane, Richard Smith, John De Hart
Pennsylvania: Joseph Galloway, John Dickinson, Charles Humphreys, Thomas Miffin, Edward Biddle, John Morton, George Ross
Delaware: Caesar Rodney, Thomas McKean, George Read
Maryland: Matthew Tilghman, Thomas Johnson, William Paca, Samuel Chase, Robert Goldsborough
Virginia: Peyton Randolph, Richard Henry Lee, George Washington, Patrick Henry, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, Edmund Pendleton
North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, Richard Caswell
South Carolina: Henry Middleton, Thomas Lynch, Jr., Christopher Gadsden, John Rutledge, Edward Rutledge

Debates and discussions

When the delegates from the 12 colonies converged at Pennsylvania, the leader of the Virginia delegation, Peyton Randolph (1723 – 1775) – a lawyer from Virginia and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses – was unanimously elected president of the First Continental Congress. The secretary of the Congress was Charles Thomson of Pennsylvania.

In the first few weeks of the Congress, delegates engaged in a number of debates and discussions. Although some of the delegates had divergent opinions about the way forward, there was one thing that they could all agree on: they bemoaned the lack of unity among the colonies.

Delegates also discussed whether or not Britain had the right to regulate trade in the colonies. Whereas the likes of Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania supported the notion that Britain did indeed have the right to regulate trade, other delegates strongly rejected this notion, stating that those rights rested in the hands of the colonies.

As the discussions went on, plans were proposed; most notable of those plans came from Joseph Galloway. Galloway proposed that the colonies elect a body that will be known as the Grand Council with the President General of the Council appointed by the King. According to Galloway’s plan, the President General will act as representative of the king. The plan also included forming a Union of Great Britain and the Colonies that would allow the voices of the colonies to be better heard.

Colonists were frustrated by the lack of any response from Britain to their numerous petitions| Image: Embossed copy of the petition to King George III

The Suffolk Resolves

Although Galloway’s plan was regarded very sound by most of the delegates, it failed to get passed by a slim margin (a 6-5 vote). This was perhaps due to the rising tensions in Boston and the Suffolk County resolves.

The Suffolk County Resolves , which emerged from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, was a resounding statement that implored citizens in the county to disobey the Coercive Acts imposed on them by Britain. It also encouraged American colonists to sever ties with Britain, including boycotting British goods. Lastly, the Resolves from Suffolk County allowed for the establishment of a militia and stockpiling military equipment.

To the utter surprise of the British, many delegates to the First Continental Congress wholeheartedly gave a thumb up to the Suffolk Resolves.

Decisions made at the First Continental Congress

To show their strong distaste toward the Intolerable Acts, delegates at the First Continental Congress established what came to be known as the Continental Association. The goal of the Association was to encourage all the colonies to boycott British goods and companies beginning in December 1774. They also agreed that the colonies cease all exports to Britain in September 1775, if the King and the British Parliament failed to handle the grievances of the colonies.

It was agreed that the enforcement of this trade embargo would be done by committees at both the local and colony level.  The committees were required to secure the pledge of allegiance of merchants to the Continental Association.

About eight colonies had already agreed to place a ban on exportation to Britain prior to the formation of the First Continental Congress. For example, the Virginia Association, frustrated by the lack of any response from Britain to their numerous petitions, passed a resolution at the Virginia Convention to halt all exports to Britain. The colonists hoped to use the trade restrictions to force Great Britain into changing its aggressive attitude towards them.

Furthermore, the First Continental Congress set up a Grand Committee to discuss in specific terms the demands, rights and grievances of the colonies. Delegates were fully aware that mere import and export bans were not enough to communicate their grievances.

Towards the last few days of the discussions, delegates agreed to add the issue of trade regulations in the Grand Committee’s drafted Declaration of Rights and Grievances. The draft, which was accepted on October 14, 1774, also denounced the presence of British troops in the colonies without the consent of the colonies.

Finally, Congress voted to meet the following year, on May 10, 1775, if the King and the British Parliament failed to address the grievances. This decision of the delegates ranks as the most important outcome of the First Continental Congress, as it allowed for the colonies to keep the momentum going for another year. It also gave the King ample time to at least change its aggressive posture in the colonies.

First Continental Congress

First Continental Congress justifying why Great Britain’s stance towards the colonies constituted tyranny | Quote from Section Four of the Declaration and Resolves on Colonial rights of the First Continental Congress, October 14, 1774

Read More: Greatest Achievements of George Washington

Other interesting facts about the First Continental Congress

  • Prior to the First Continental Congress, American colonies had convened the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765 to protest against the Stamp Tax Act (1765) – taxes imposed on the colonies in order to fund British army bases in colonies. The Stamp Act Congress successfully rallied enough opposition to get Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in March 1766.
  • It has been stated that the “Nation’s Father” and first President George Washington acquired a number of muskets and military gear just a few days before leaving Philadelphia. Washington sensed that the colonies and Great Britain were about to lock horns, hence he started his preparation while other delegates optimistically hoped that a peaceful resolution could be reached with Britain. There was also a general consensus that the colonies would maintain open channels of communication with the King and Parliament.
  • As a sign of unity, the Congress ruled that every state should be given one vote each regardless of the size or population of the state.
  • Colonial forces clashed with British troops at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts even before the Second Continental Congress could convene in May, 1775.
  • Thomas Jefferson was the one who drafted the instructions for the Virginia delegates that attended the First Continental Congress. His draft, written in July 1774, took a firm stance against King George III and Parliament, stating that Britain had no governing rights over the American colonies. Jefferson’s draft somehow got published in Williamsburg in August that year. The publication read as “A Summary View of the Rights of British America”.
First Continental Congress

First Continental Congress | George Washington expressing his frustration at King George III’s reluctance to grant the colonies a listening hear.

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