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First Steps Toward Independence

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"We have not men fit for the times. We are deficient in genius, in education, in travel, in fortune — in everything." So wrote Massachusetts delegate and future President John Adams as the First Continental Congress got down to business. He had good reason for doubt. Although some had corresponded, the men had never met face-to-face. Travel was arduous; roads, even principal ones, were little more than muddy tracks. Regional differences were greater than any we know today. Plantation gentry of Virginia, for example, had little in common with mercantile men of Philadelphia and New England. Finally, colonies depended more on trade with England than with each other, despite warnings from Franklin to establish colonial manufacturing.

Nevertheless as debate progressed that humid September in 1774, Adams became aware that he was in remarkable company. During more than seven weeks of deliberations, Congress issued a declaration of American rights that denied Parliament's authority to tax America, to interfere with the right of trial by jury or to alter the charter of a colony. Next, delegates compiled a list of grievances, which included all legislation passed by Parliament and affecting the colonies since 1763. Finally and most important, Congress voted to create a Continental Association which would forbid imports from England after December 1774 and exports beginning in the fall of 1775. The latter date was a political compromise with Virginia so tobacco growers could sell a crop already in the ground. To enforce the embargo, Congress urged every city and town to form its own Association. This extra-legal act — flying in the face of every colonial Assembly -was in itself revolutionary.

The First Continental Congress ended with — what else — a party on a grand scale. Some 500 attended a farewell dinner paid for by the Pennsylvania Assembly at the City Tavern. Incredibly, there were 33 toasts proposed and drunk to both King and Congress. Nearly everyone hoped for a future of peace and harmony between Britain and her American colonies.

On a gray, rainy Friday in late October, John Adams left "the happy, the peaceful, the elegant, the hospitable and polite City of Philadelphia." Many fellow delegates would have agreed when he predicted "it is not very likely I shall ever see this part of the world again..."

How wrong he was.

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