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The First Continental Congress: A Dangerous Journey Begins

By Carl G. Karsch

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Signatures on the Declaration of Rights and Grievances

First steps toward the eventual break with Great Britain took place in Boston shortly before Christmas, 1773, when 150 men, thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, dumped chests of East India Company tea into the harbor. The issue came down to money, as it so often does. Parliament had granted the Company exclusive rights to sell tea in the colonies through its agents. Merchants whose loyalty to the King was in doubt would be out of business. John Hancock, one of Boston's most affluent and least loyal merchants, fought back by giving tacit support to what became known as the Boston Tea Party. Later, in 1775, he would be elected President of the Second Continental Congress.

King George's reaction to this and similar protests in other cities was unflinching. "The die is now cast," he told his Prime Minister. "The colonies must either submit or triumph." Parliament backed this ultimatum with a series of bills called the Coercive Acts. The first closed the port of Boston until the ruined tea was paid for. The Massachusetts Regulating Act all but nullified the colony's charter. Finally, the Quebec Act extended Canada's borders westward into land New Englanders hoped to exploit themselves. Moreover, to help gain the loyalty of Quebec's settlers, the act established both French civil law and the Roman Catholic Church.

Parliament then provided muscle by sending as a replacement for the civilian governor a tough military commander, General Thomas Gage. It also strengthened the Quartering Act, giving Gage the right to demand food and lodging from Bostonians for more than 4,000 regulars.

Events now picked up speed. In May, 1774, five months after the tea party, Paul Revere made one of his less celebrated but crucial rides. Heading south from Boston, he brought news to each town and city as far distant as Philadelphia that beginning in June, Boston would be blockaded by warships of the British fleet, thus destroying the city's commerce. Committees of Correspondence made up of anti-loyalist leaders in each colony already were calling for a Congress to consider how to restore their rights as British citizens. Paul Revere's personal appeal for unified opposition helped assure the meeting.

Soon in every colonial Assembly from Massachusetts to South Carolina delegates were being selected for the journey to Philadelphia. Only one colony — Georgia, the newest and most distant — failed to respond.

By August representatives from eleven colonies commenced an often uncomfortable journey over rutted, dusty roads and with overnight stops at inns with few creature comforts. Pennsylvania's representatives had it easy; they already lived in America's largest, wealthiest and best appointed city. One of the colony's seven delegates was Samuel Rhoads, a civic leader as well as a member of the Carpenters' Company.

Massachusetts' four delegates — including John Adams and his firebrand cousin, Samuel — departed Boston August 19 following a gala dinner with 50 well-wishers. In high spirits, they reflected the optimism of other delegates to the Congress. A display of unity would certainly persuade Parliament and the King to retreat from the "Intolerable Acts," as they came to be known. The delegates were to be proved terribly wrong.

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City Tavern

Hot is an understatement for the summer and fall of 1774. Jouncing along in a cramped coach must have been an ordeal. Wool clothing added to discomfort. Abigail Adams worried about her husband but admitted she wanted him "upon the stage of action." She got her wish. For the rest of Adams' political life, that's where he would be found. On August 29 — 19 days after leaving Boston — the coach bearing the Massachusetts delegation pulled up at the City Tavern, Philadelphia's premiere hostelry. Although reconstructed, the Tavern is today at the same location, on Second Street just above Walnut.

After refreshing themselves, the men from Massachusetts crossed the street to the more modest, and affordable accommodations of Mrs. Sarah Yard's lodging house. John Adams recorded his expenses for room and board as 30 shillings a week in Pennsylvania currency; candles and firewood were extra. Nearby was the "slate roof house," where William Penn stayed during his second trip. Welcome Park, honoring Penn's ship, now marks the site.

The following week passed quickly as delegates became acquainted with each other and their political views. Differences soon surfaced. How far should Congress press Britain for control over governing colonial affairs, especially the inflammatory issue of taxation? No one spoke of independence or even considered it, except for Sam Adams whose anti-British views were well known.

First sticking point was the meeting place. Joseph Galloway, aristocratic speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and a loyalist, offered the State House, now Independence Hall. He and his conservative supporters felt these impressive surroundings would dampen enthusiasm for radical actions. It also was his turf. That's exactly the problem, responded the opposition. Neutral ground closer to the tastes of average citizens is what we need. Carpenters' Hall fit the bill. Galloway and his followers lost a crucial battle. But there were more to come.

Sam Adams, the tireless politician, also won the next two. Managing to be chosen temporary secretary of the Congress, he asked Thomas Lynch, a fervent revolutionary and prosperous planter from South Carolina, to nominate Charles Thomson as permanent secretary. Thomson, an arch enemy of Galloway, was known as the Sam Adams of Philadelphia. Despite vigorous objections, Thomson was elected — unanimously, according to the record.

For President of the Congress, delegates chose Peyton Randolph of Virginia, a calm proponent rather than a harsh advocate of united action. Randolph was not Galloway's first choice.

On Monday, September 5, Congress got down to business. A member of each delegation read aloud credentials from the respective colonial Assembly . All declared their support, but the reading took all day. So much for Monday. Tuesday brought agreement on several issues: that each colony would have one vote, regardless of population; that no one might speak more than twice on the same point without permission; and most important, "that the door be kept shut during the time of business, and that the members consider themselves under the strongest obligations of honor to keep the proceedings secret, until the majority direct them to be made public." In other words, no leaks to the press.

Congress also established two committees to recommend action on areas of dispute with Britain. Two delegates from each colony were appointed to a committee to define colonial rights and how Parliament and the King had infringed upon them. A second committee comprising one delegate per colony was charged with specifying how acts of Parliament had seriously affected the colonial economy. Consequently, daily sessions of Congress had to be suspended temporarily, since most delegates now sat on committees.

It was on Friday, September 16 — a day committees were deliberating — that Paul Revere galloped down Second Street to Philadelphia's City Tavern with a document which, if adopted, would make a break with Britain unavoidable. Ten days earlier, on September 6 — the day after Congress convened — 50 citizens representing Boston and other communities of Suffolk County endorsed what they named the Suffolk Resolves.

The Saturday morning session began at 9 o'clock with President Randolph reading aloud in as calm a voice as possible the nineteen paragraphs and concluding message to General Gage. The Resolves minced no words. "Arbitrary will ...military executioners ... murderous law ... villains ... our enemies." Further, the Resolves urged Suffolk communities to raise a militia "to learn the arts of war." The "Intolerable Acts" passed by Parliament were "gross infractions." As a parting shot, the Resolves called for an embargo on British goods, in effect closing British ports in retaliation for closing the port of Boston.

Everyone listened attentively until the end, then wild applause from most but not all the delegates. Galloway shouted over the din: "For Congress to countenance such a statement is tantamount to a complete declaration of war." He was right. But few were in a mood to listen. Congress adopted the Resolves by a unanimous vote, at least according to the record.

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Christ Church

The urgency of Congressional business, however, didn't prevent delegates from exploring their host city, largest in the empire except for London itself. Philadelphia had no peer in the colonies. The State House was the largest; so was Christ Church with its palladian window glistening above the chancel. Georgian-style mansions — most of them erected by Carpenters' Company members — lined the streets. On Sundays, the one day neither Congress nor committees met, delegates attended church services, sometimes two or three times. John Adams recorded his opinion of them all, including a brand new experience. Together with Washington and several others, he attended mass at Old St. Mary's Catholic Church, on south Fourth Street. One day, to get a bird's eye view of the city, Adams climbed ladders inside the 100-foot tower and steeple of Christ Church. Two decades earlier, the Penn family donated both the bells and money toward the landmark steeple, erected by Robert Smith, who also designed Carpenters' Hall. Benjamin Franklin, as public spirited as ever, conducted a city-wide lottery to complete the steeple, an engineering achievement.

Philadelphians had a reputation for entertaining, including guests with whom they might disagree politically. John Adams, fond of eating but accustomed to plainer New England fare, wrote to Abigail: " I shall be killed with kindness in this place. We go to Congress at nine and there we stay, most earnestly engaged until three in the afternoon, then we adjourn and go to dinner with some of the nobles of Pennsylvania at four o'clock and feast on ten thousand delicacies, and sit drinking Madeira, claret and burgundy 'til six or seven." His hosts included Benjamin Chew, Chief Justice of the Province, around whose country home in Germantown a Revolutionary battle would later swirl. Adams recorded "a most sinful feast again," at the home of Samuel Powel, on south Third Street. Powel, grandson of a member of the Carpenters' Company, had the distinction of being the last mayor under British rule and the first under the new American government. A tour of his magnificent four-story mansion is a highlight for visitors today.

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Powel House

The city's elite, gracious hosts that they were, disagreed with delegates who wanted a radical change in the relationship with England. Trade and the prosperity that it brought depended upon an uninterrupted flow of goods and raw materials through the largest port in the western hemisphere. A moderate, middle ground must be found. Joseph Galloway had a solution, a Plan of Union, which ironically became the precursor of constitutions other British colonies would adopt in the nineteenth century. A powerful speaker, Galloway outlined to the Congress his proposal for a British-American legislature. Each colony would manage its own affairs; issues concerning trade would be considered by the new legislature, in which both Britain and America would each have veto power over acts concerning America. Despite considerable support for Galloway's plan, it was voted down by a narrow margin of six to five. Later, when Galloway and his supporters were absent, Sam Adams proposed a motion striking all mention of the Plan from the record. Officially, the last best opportunity to avoid a war never even happened.

Congress was no longer in a mood to compromise. Each day's debate brought agreement closer on the meeting's two principal accomplishments: the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and formation of a Continental Association.

The first document, after rejecting the Coercive (or "Intolerable") Acts, specified the only acceptable basis for a continued relationship between England and America. The critically important Article Four, authored by John Adams, states that representation of the people in their legislature is a fundamental English right, essential to free government. Moreover, because colonists could not and were not represented in Parliament, then that body had no control over them; that only by consent of the colonies — which America cheerfully granted — did Parliament have a right to regulate trade. Regulation, however, must not have as its purpose the raising of any kind of revenue.

The Continental Association became the most visible symbol of political unity among the colonies. By December 1, 1774, they agreed not to import or consume British goods. To gain support of southern colonies, the non-exportation agreement would not go into effect until September 10, 1775. After that date, goods could no longer be exported to Britain, Ireland or the West Indies. There were other declarations: to the inhabitants of Quebec, to the "Several American Colonies," and a direct petition to the King himself.

In the days before adjournment Congress approved all the documents for publication by the official printer, William and Thomas Bradford, whose office was at the London Coffee House, at Front & Market Streets. A sign now marks the site. Paper was produced locally at mills along the Wissahickon Creek. Remnants of America's first paper mill may still be visited at the foot of Rittenhouse Lane.

A banquet at the City Tavern — hosted surprisingly by the Pennsylvania Assembly — was the gala finale to the First Congress. Five hundred guests raised thirty-five toasts, including one to the King. Optimism reigned. But by the sober light of morning, delegates must have wondered what the Congress had accomplished. How would Britain react to the declarations?

Joseph Galloway and his fellow conservatives must have been bitterly disappointed. In their minds, war could not be far distant. John Adams recorded the opinions of several delegates. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia told him, " ... all the offensive acts will be repealed; the army and fleet will be recalled, and Britain will give up her foolish project." Washington, Adams recorded, "was in doubt. He never spoke in public." But privately he believed success depended upon how well communities enforced the Continental Association's embargo on imports and exports.

Adams' own opinion was that the declarations and embargo agreements would cement the union of the colonies but "would be but waste paper in England." He voiced his fears to Patrick Henry who agreed. Then to test Henry's true sentiments, Adams read aloud a letter he received from a Major Hawley.

"We must fight," Hawley wrote, "if we cannot otherwise rid ourselves of British taxation, all revenues, and the constitution or form of government enacted for us by the British Parliament. It is evil against right — utterly intolerable to every man who has any idea or feeling of right or liberty." While Adams read, Henry listened attentively. Again Adams read, "Fight we must , finally, unless Britain retreats." At those words, Henry shouted, "By God, I am of that man's mind."

Carpenters' Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
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