Why Were There Two Continental Congresses?

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The First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress were meetings called by American colonial leaders to plan a response to attempts by the British Parliament (main governing body of Great Britain) to assert its control over the thirteen colonies. Two meetings were held because Britain rejected the plan developed at the First Continental Congress, so delegates (representatives from each colony) convened the Second Continental Congress to draft a stronger response. (The thirteen colonies were New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.) At the second meeting the colonists drafted the Declaration of Independence.

The First Continental Congress convened on September 5, 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to plan a response to the so-called Intolerable Acts (or the Coercive Acts). Parliament had passed these laws in an effort to control Massachusetts after the Boston Tea Party, a protest staged by colonists against the British tax on tea shipped to America by the East India Company. On the night of December 16, 1773, more than one hundred men disguised as Native Americans boarded British ships loaded with tea in Boston Harbor. They then dumped the tea into the harbor—hence the name "Boston Tea Party." In retaliation, Parliament passed the Boston Port Bill (1774), which closed Boston Harbor until the East India Company had been repaid for the destroyed tea. Sentiment grew among the colonists that they would need to band together in order to challenge British authority. Twelve colonies sent fifty-six delegates to the meeting in Philadelphia. (The thirteenth colony, Georgia, declined to send representatives but agreed to support any plan that was developed.) Delegates included Samuel Adams (1722–1803), George Washington (1732–1799), Patrick Henry (1736–1799), John Adams (1735–1826), and John Jay (1745–1829). Each colony had one vote. When the First Continental Congress ended on October 26, the delegates issued a petition to the British king, George III (1738–1820). The petition stated that the British Parliament had no authority over the American colonies, that each colony could regulate its own affairs, and that the colonies would not trade with Britain until Parliament lifted its trade and taxation policies. The delegates had stopped short of proclaiming independence from Britain, but they agreed to meet again the following May if necessary.

George III was determined to preserve the British Empire at all costs; he believed that if the empire lost the American colonies, other British possessions would be encouraged to demand independence. (At that time the British Empire also included possessions in India, the West Indies, and Canada.) He feared these losses would reduce the status of Britain, which was then a major world power. In April 1775 fighting broke out between British troops and colonists at the towns of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. These battles marked the beginning of the American Revolution (1775–83; an armed conflict in which the American colonies won independence from Britain). Recognizing the need for further action, the colonies convened the Second Continental Congress on May 10. Delegates included George Washington, John Hancock (1737–1793), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). They organized and prepared for a fight against Britain, creating the Continental army and naming Washington as the commander in chief. With armed conflict already under way, the Congress nevertheless moved slowly toward proclaiming independence from Britain. On July 10, two days after issuing a call for colonists to take up arms against Britain, Congress made another appeal to George III, hoping to settle the matter without further conflict. The attempt failed and the following summer the Second Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, which was unanimously adopted by the thirteen colonies on July 4, 1776, and severed all ties with Britain.

Further Information: "Continental Congress." Electric Library. [Online] Available http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/03107.html, October 26, 2000; "Continental Congress." MSN Encarta.[Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/index/conciseindex/3C/03CBC000.htm, October 26, 2000; The Second Continental Congress. [Online] Available http://www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/chronicle/continental.cong.html, October 26, 2000.

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