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The Continental Congress: What it Represented Before, During and After the Revolutionary War
The continental congress was born from the minds of patriotic men who, after deposing the British parliament from the nations head, were required to fill the void of centralized power. The continental congress, similar to the revolutionary war that was occurring from their most nascent stage and beyond, experienced ups and downs between patriotic support and public apathy. This paper will expound on how the continental congress transformed after its creation. It will focus on how it was utilized and perceived by the public before, during and, after the revolutionary war. We find that, generally, the continental congress was waited upon for orders before military action was taken against the British-specifically at Lexington and Concord. Also, although congress passed many mandates across the colonies, there were moments when the states practiced their rights and ignored the mandates issued by the congress. Although congress exhibited its moments of inferiority to state power, it was in the minds of the nation’s people and did take control when issues were of a federal nature.
Beginning this paper before the war, we find the patriots in Massachusetts in dire need of direction since their harbors had been closed. In a source written on June 17th, 1774, the patriots of Massachusetts are in question as to how they and the other colonies should proceed with petitioning British parliaments Boston Port Act. Although they write to inform the colonies that they do not sit idly as the British take control of their province, they also write to inform them that they are awaiting advice from the continental congress. They write, “…we are waiting with anxious expectation for the result of a continental congress, whose meeting we impatiently desire, in whose wisdom and firmness we can confide, and whose determination we shall cheerfully acquiesce.” In this source, it is clear that the continental congress, in the eyes of the patriots, even before the war, is a legitimate, deliberative body, whose mandates are to be taken seriously.
To continue with the continental congress’ place before the war, an important source was discovered that was to be printed in all newspapers in Philadelphia in September 1774. In this source, a list of mandates issued by the patriots in Boston makes rather clear how they viewed the continental congress as a legislative, political body. In one of their mandates, they write:
That this county, confiding in the wisdom and integrity of the continental Congress…pay all due respect and submission to such measures as may be recommended by them to the colonies, for the restoration and establishment of our just rights, civil and religious, and for renewing that harmony and union between Great Britain and the colonies so earnestly wished for by all good men.
By September of 1774, the continental congress had established itself in the eyes of the patriots as a source of wisdom on how to proceed with Great Britain. This was an important step for the congress because they were beginning to become, although unknowingly at this point in its history, the sole representative federal power of the country who had the authority to pass laws, levy taxes, and issue currency-an issue that arises later in this paper. It is just as important to note that the people of the colonies, at least those who supported the patriot cause, legitimized the continental congress’ authority by recognizing their existence and sending delegates in order to discuss matters pertaining to each colony and the nation as a whole-as exhibited in the previous paragraph.
Now that the war has begun, we find that the continental congress is still very important to the patriots. In a letter written by Reverend William Gordon on June 7th, 1775, he is recounting the instances that occurred in Lexington and Concord to a gentleman in England. He writes, “Several were desirous of raising an army instantly upon hearing what had been determined at home, but it was judged best upon the whole not to do it, as that step might be immediately construed to the disadvantage of the colony by the enemies of it, and might not meet with the unanimous approbation of the Continental Congress.”it is made clear by the author of this letter that the continental congress continues to hold influential authoritative power over the colonies. Reverend Gordon blatantly states how the provinces, in terms of military action, do not act until they have been approved to do so by the congress. This speaks to how ingrained the continental congress has become to the patriots and their movement. For the patriots, the continental congress is more than a legislative body that advices them on military and social issues; they stand for what the patriots are fighting for and represent what British parliament denied them-the right to meet and discuss issues and make decisions as a collective body of people.
Towards the middle of the war, we find that the colonies are beginning to become, in a sense, disillusioned with some of congress’ mandates and overrule them by practicing state power. In this source, we find another mandate issued by congress. We also find, however, the first inklings of dissent by some of the states against congress. The mandate reads:
WHEREAS the Honorable the Continental Congress , taking into their most serious consideration the exorbitant prices of every kind of merchandize and necessities of life, have…recommended it to each of the United States, to enact laws for the purpose of regulating the prices of all goods, wares and merchandize, and also manufacturers and labourers wages.
At first glance, this mandate, issued on June 3rd 1778, seems to show that the continental congress continues to hold authority over federal issues such as price control. However, in the same source, we find that the colonies are, in fact, at odds with this mandate. The clerk of the general assembly, John Morris, writes about the mandate above:
AND WHEREAS it appears that similar Laws are enacted by few of the other States, and that some of those are about to repeal or suspend theirs for a certain time, and it would be greatly injurious to the good people of this State to reduce the prices of the several articles mentioned in the said Act, when at the same time our neighbours are selling them at a much higher rate.
Up until this point, this research paper has seemingly made the argument that the continental congress was able to influence state actions as easily as writing legislation. Although this may have been true during the outset of the war, the continental congress might easily have begun to lose its sway as the war progressed with no sight in end and a shortage of finances. As this occurred, the states, already inclined to resolve for more state power over federal power, took it upon themselves to control what occurred within their states and ignore the mandates issued by the congress. It is clear that the congress has lost some power at this point in its history.
As the war drew to a close, the issue of currency was beginning to take a toll on the states that had to finance the war. At this point in its history, we find that the continental congress once again uses its authority to influence state decisions. In an act mandated by the state of Pennsylvania on June 27th, 1781 it says, “Be it enacted, and it is hereby enacted by the representatives of the freemen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania…as declare the bills of credit emitted by the Honourable the Continental Congress…to be a legal tender, in discharge of debts, contracts or demands.” We find that some of the states, in this example Pennsylvania, recognize the currency that congress is issuing and pass acts to make it legal currency in their states. This is another important step for congress because they exhibit their federal power to the states and their patriot supporters. This example also shows that some of the states feel safe enough to put their faith into the currency and, therefore, into congress.
Two years after the war, we find that the continental congress had not been disbanded or replaced by another political entity. They continue to meet and discuss matters that pertain to the now unified United States of America. In a source that announced the congress’ arrival to New York, we find that they were still referred to in the highest of manners and were generally accepted by the population. The source reads, “We have the pleasure to announce the arrival in town of many Members of the Continental Congress , that have already met with such accommodations as were to be wished, and such is the deference and affection of the government and inhabitants of this city towards that supreme body…” In this source written on January 5th, 1785, we find that the continental congress had moved from Philadelphia to New York. From class lecture, we know that congress relocated after financial trouble arose in Philadelphia. One is to assume, however, from this source that the congress was still respected among the people of the nation. Given the fact that the United States had deposed the British parliament from the head of the nation, the continental congress had come to represent, in the minds of the public, everything the newly created country fought and stood for.
Lastly, six years after the war we find that the continental congress has established itself as the only federal power in the country and were ingrained into the political-mercantile system. In this last source written to the manufacturers and mechanics of Philadelphia on April 1st, 1789, it suggests that they should petition congress to impose taxes on foreign goods. The source reads:
A RESPECTABLE meeting of the manufacturers and mechanics of the city of Philadelphia, districts of Northern Liberties and Southwark, taking into consideration the propriety of petitioning the Honorable the Continental Congress , at this important period, to lay such duties or imposts on foreign manufactures imported into these states, as will give a decided preference to our own.
Clearly, the continental congress, by this point in its history, had established itself as the authoritative power in the country. Congress now represented a working entity that was consulted when matters transcended to the national level.
Although the continental congress had proven itself weak at times, it ingrained itself early on in the new American system of government. What the continental congress represented was the right for Americans to meet and discuss matters that pertained to their way of life. It represented everything that the British parliament took away from the early Americans as they tightened their grip on the country. It filled the void left after the Americans had deposed the British parliament from their system and was counted on by revolutionaries and patriots to act as a single legislative body that would establish and protect the rights they had all fought for.
Do you believe that the Continental Congress was an important element in shaping America?
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