Sites of the Continental Congress

Sites of the Continental Congress

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Military necessity compelled the Second Continental Congress to relocate several times during the War for Independence.










Lancaster, Pennsylvania


York, Pennsylvania

1778 on


Second Continental Congress

The Second Continental Congress was a meeting of delegates from the Thirteen Colonies in America that united in the American Revolutionary War. It convened on May 10, 1775, with representatives from 12 of the colonies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, succeeding the First Continental Congress which met in Philadelphia from September 5 to October 26, 1774. The Second Congress functioned as a de facto national government at the outset of the Revolutionary War by raising armies, directing strategy, appointing diplomats, and writing petitions such as the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms and the Olive Branch Petition. [1] All thirteen colonies were represented by the time the Congress adopted the Lee Resolution which declared independence from Britain on July 2, 1776, and the congress agreed to the Declaration of Independence two days later.

Afterward, Congress functioned as the provisional government of the United States of America through March 1, 1781. During this period, its achievements included: Successfully managing the war effort drafting the Articles of Confederation, the first U.S. constitution securing diplomatic recognition and support from foreign nations and resolving state land claims west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Many of the delegates who attended the Second Congress had also attended the First. They again elected Peyton Randolph to serve as President of the Congress and Charles Thomson to serve as secretary. [2] Notable new arrivals included Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and John Hancock of Massachusetts. Within two weeks, Randolph was summoned back to Virginia to preside over the House of Burgesses Hancock succeeded him as president, and Thomas Jefferson replaced him in the Virginia delegation. [3] The number of participating colonies also grew, as Georgia endorsed the Congress in July 1775 and adopted the continental ban on trade with Britain. [4]


The Constitution specifically protects members of Congress against interference with their deliberative function. The special privileges and immunities attendant on congressional membership are contained in the first clause of Article I, section 6, of the Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution, familiar with the devices used by the British king against members of Parliament and by royal governors against members of the provincial legislatures, sought to insulate the members of the federal legislature against pressures that might preclude independence of judgment.

The privilege from arrest, other than for felony, or breach of the peace, has been known in Anglo-American constitutional history since the advent of parliaments william blackstone cited an ancient Gothic law as evidence of the privilege's immemorial origins. The English Parliament claimed freedom of debate, that is, immunity from prosecution or civil lawsuit resulting from utterances in Parliament, at least from the thirteenth century that immunity was finally established in the English bill of rights (1689). In America, privilege from arrest during legislative sessions was first granted in Virginia in 1623, and freedom of debate was first recognized in the fundamental orders of connecticut (1639).

The articles of confederation extended both the privilege from arrest and the freedom of debate to members of Congress, in words transcribed almost verbatim from the English Bill of Rights: "Freedom of speech and debate in Congress shall not be impeached or questioned in any court, or place out of Congress, and the members of Congress shall be protected in their persons from arrests and imprisonments, during the time of their going to and from, and attendance on Congress, except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace." At the constitutional convention, these congressional privileges and immunities first appeared in the report of the Committee of Detail they were agreed to without debate and without dissent. The Committee of Style gave final form to the wording of the clause.

The privilege from arrest, limited as it is to arrest for debt, no longer has any practical application. The immunity from having to answer in court, or in any other place out of Congress, for congressional speech or debate is now primarily a shield against civil actions by private parties rather than against an executive jealous of his prerogative. That shield has been expanded to protect the whole legislative process, but not, as one senator learned to his chagrin in hutchinson v. proxmire (1979), to every public utterance of a member of Congress concerning a public issue.

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic Religion and the Congress of the Confederation

The Continental-Confederation Congress, a legislative body that governed the United States from 1774 to 1789, contained an extraordinary number of deeply religious men. The amount of energy that Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion in the new nation exceeded that expended by any subsequent American national government. Although the Articles of Confederation did not officially authorize Congress to concern itself with religion, the citizenry did not object to such activities. This lack of objection suggests that both the legislators and the public considered it appropriate for the national government to promote a nondenominational, nonpolemical Christianity.

Congress appointed chaplains for itself and the armed forces, sponsored the publication of a Bible, imposed Christian morality on the armed forces, and granted public lands to promote Christianity among the Indians. National days of thanksgiving and of "humiliation, fasting, and prayer" were proclaimed by Congress at least twice a year throughout the war. Congress was guided by "covenant theology," a Reformation doctrine especially dear to New England Puritans, which held that God bound himself in an agreement with a nation and its people. This agreement stipulated that they "should be prosperous or afflicted, according as their general Obedience or Disobedience thereto appears." Wars and revolutions were, accordingly, considered afflictions, as divine punishments for sin, from which a nation could rescue itself by repentance and reformation.

The first national government of the United States, was convinced that the "public prosperity" of a society depended on the vitality of its religion. Nothing less than a "spirit of universal reformation among all ranks and degrees of our citizens," Congress declared to the American people, would "make us a holy, that so we may be a happy people."

The Liberty Window

At its initial meeting in September 1774 Congress invited the Reverend Jacob Duché (1738-1798), rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, to open its sessions with prayer. Duché ministered to Congress in an unofficial capacity until he was elected the body's first chaplain on July 9, 1776. He defected to the British the next year. Pictured here in the bottom stained-glass panel is the first prayer in Congress, delivered by Duché. The top part of this extraordinary stained glass window depicts the role of churchmen in compelling King John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.

The Prayer in the First Congress, A.D. 1774. Stained glass and lead, from The Liberty Window, Christ Church, Philadelphia, after a painting by Harrison Tompkins Matteson, c. 1848. Courtesy of the Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of Christ Church, Philadelphia (101)

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George Duffield, Congressional Chaplain

On October 1, 1777, after Jacob Duché, Congress's first chaplain, defected to the British, Congress appointed joint chaplains: William White (1748-1836), Duché's successor at Christ Church, Philadelphia, and George Duffield (1732-1790), pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia. By appointing chaplains of different denominations, Congress expressed a revolutionary egalitarianism in religion and its desire to prevent any single denomination from monopolizing government patronage. This policy was followed by the first Congress under the Constitution which on April 15, 1789, adopted a joint resolution requiring that the practice be continued.

George Duffield. Oil on canvas by Charles Peale Polk, 1790. Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia (103)

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Military Chaplains Pay

This resolution directed that military chaplains, appointed in abundance by Congress during the Revolutionary War, were paid at the rate of a major in the Continental Army.

Congressional resolution, paying military personnel. [left page] - [right page] Broadside, April 22, 1782. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (102)

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Proposed Seal for the United States

On July 4, 1776, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams "to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America." Franklin's proposal adapted the biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea (left). Jefferson first recommended the "Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by Day, and a Pillar of Fire by night. . . ." He then embraced Franklin's proposal and rewrote it (right). Jefferson's revision of Franklin's proposal was presented by the committee to Congress on August 20. Although not accepted these drafts reveal the religious temper of the Revolutionary period. Franklin and Jefferson were among the most theologically liberal of the Founders, yet they used biblical imagery for this important task.

Legend for the Seal of the United States, August 1776. [left side] - [right side] Holograph notes, Thomas Jefferson (left) and Benjamin Franklin (right). Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (104-105)

Proposed Great Seal of the United States: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Drawing. by Benson Lossing, for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1856. General Collections, Library of Congress (106)

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Congressional Fast Day Proclamation

Congress proclaimed days of fasting and of thanksgiving annually throughout the Revolutionary War. This proclamation by Congress set May 17, 1776, as a "day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer" throughout the colonies. Congress urges its fellow citizens to "confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his [God's] righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness." Massachusetts ordered a "suitable Number" of these proclamations be printed so "that each of the religious Assemblies in this Colony, may be furnished with a Copy of the same" and added the motto "God Save This People" as a substitute for "God Save the King."

Congressional Fast Day Proclamation, March 16, 1776. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (107)

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Congressional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

Congress set December 18, 1777, as a day of thanksgiving on which the American people "may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor" and on which they might "join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance." Congress also recommends that Americans petition God "to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.'"

Congressional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, November 1, 1777. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (108)

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The 1779 Fast Day Proclamation

Here is the most eloquent of the Fast and Thanksgiving Day Proclamations.

Congressional Fast Day Proclamation, March 20, 1779. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (109)

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Another Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

Congress set November 28, 1782, as a day of thanksgiving on which Americans were "to testify their gratitude to God for his goodness, by a cheerful obedience to his laws, and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness."

Congressional Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, October 11, 1782. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (110)

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Morality in the Army

Congress was apprehensive about the moral condition of the American army and navy and took steps to see that Christian morality prevailed in both organizations. In the Articles of War, seen below, governing the conduct of the Continental Army (seen above) (adopted, June 30, 1775 revised, September 20, 1776), Congress devoted three of the four articles in the first section to the religious nurture of the troops. Article 2 "earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers to attend divine services." Punishment was prescribed for those who behaved "indecently or irreverently" in churches, including courts-martial, fines and imprisonments. Chaplains who deserted their troops were to be court-martialed.

Rules and Articles, for the better Government of the Troops . . . of the Twelve united English Colonies of North America. [page 4] - [page 5] Philadelphia: William and Thomas Bradford, 1775. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (111)

To all brave, healthy, able bodied well disposed young men. . . . Recruiting poster for the Continental Army. Historical Society of Pennsylvania (112)

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Morality in the Navy

Congress particularly feared the navy as a source of moral corruption and demanded that skippers of American ships make their men behave. The first article in Rules and Regulations of the Navy (below), adopted on November 28, 1775, ordered all commanders "to be very vigilant . . . to discountenance and suppress all dissolute, immoral and disorderly practices." The second article required those same commanders "to take care, that divine services be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays." Article 3 prescribed punishments for swearers and blasphemers: officers were to be fined and common sailors were to be forced "to wear a wooden collar or some other shameful badge of distinction."

Extracts from the Journals of Congress, relative to the Capture and Condemnation of Prizes, and filling out Privateers, together with the Rules and Regulations of the Navy, and Instructions to Private Ships of War. [page 16] - [page 17] Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1776. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (113)

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Commander-in-Chief of the American Navy

Etched on this horn beaker is Esek Hopkins (1718-1802), a Rhode Islander, appointed by Congress, December 22, 1775, as the first commander-in-chief of the American Navy. Hopkins was dismissed, January 2, 1778, after a stormy tenure in which he achieved some notable successes in spite of almost insuperable problems in manning the tiny American fleet.

Horn beaker with scrimshaw portrait of Esek Hopkins. Horn, c. 1876. Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia (114)

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Aitken's Bible Endorsed by Congress

The war with Britain cut off the supply of Bibles to the United States with the result that on Sept. 11, 1777, Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from "Scotland, Holland or elsewhere." On January 21, 1781, Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken (1734-1802) petitioned Congress to officially sanction a publication of the Old and New Testament which he was preparing at his own expense. Congress "highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion . . . in this country, and . . . they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States." This resolution was a result of Aitken's successful accomplishment of his project.

Congressional resolution, September 12, 1782, endorsing Robert Aitken's Bible. [page 468] -- [page 469] Philadelphia: David C. Claypoole, 1782 from the Journals of Congress. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (115)

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Aitken's Bible

Aitken published Congress's recommendation of September 1782 and related documents (Item 115) as an imprimatur on the two pages following his title page. Aitken's Bible, published under Congressional patronage, was the first English language Bible published on the North American continent.

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments: Newly translated out of the Original Tongues. . . . Philadelphia: printed and sold by R. Aitken, 1782. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (116)

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Settling the West

In the spring of 1785 Congress debated regulations for settling the new western lands--stretching from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi--acquired from Great Britain in the Peace Treaty of 1783. It was proposed that the central section in each newly laid out township be reserved for the support of schools and "the Section immediately adjoining the same to the northward, for the support of religion. The profits arising there from in both instances, to be applied for ever according to the will of the majority." The proposal to establish religion in the traditional sense of granting state financial support to a church to be controlled by one denomination attracted support but was ultimately voted down.

An Ordinance for ascertaining the Mode of disposing of Lands in the Western Territory, 1785. Broadside, Continental Congress, 1785. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (117)

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Northwest Ordinance

In the summer of 1787 Congress revisited the issue of religion in the new western territories and passed, July 13, 1787, the famous Northwest Ordinance. Article 3 of the Ordinance contained the following language: "Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." Scholars have been puzzled that, having declared religion and morality indispensable to good government, Congress did not, like some of the state governments that had written similar declarations into their constitutions, give financial assistance to the churches in the West.

An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, 1787. Broadside, Continental Congress, 1787. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (118)

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Christianizing the Delawares

In this resolution, Congress makes public lands available to a group for religious purposes. Responding to a plea from Bishop John Ettwein (1721-1802), Congress voted that 10,000 acres on the Muskingum River in the present state of Ohio "be set apart and the property thereof be vested in the Moravian Brethren . . . or a society of the said Brethren for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity." The Delaware Indians were the intended beneficiaries of this Congressional resolution.

Resolution granting lands to Moravian Brethren. [left page] - [right page] Records of the Continental Congress in the Constitutional Convention, July 27, 1787. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. (119)

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A Delaware-English Spelling Book

David Zeisberger (1721-1802) was a famous Moravian missionary who spent much of his life working with the Delaware Indians. His Spelling Book contains a "Short History of the Bible," in the English and Delaware languages, on facing pages.

Delaware Indian and English Spelling Book for the Schools of the Mission of the United Brethren. [left page] - [right page] David Zeisberger. Philadelphia: Mary Cist, 1806. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (120)

American Experience

The First Continental Congress formed in response to the British Parliament's passage of the Intolerable Acts (called the Coercive Acts in England), which aimed to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. In 1773 rebels unconvincingly disguised as Mohawk Indians boarded three docked ships in Boston Harbor and dumped 90,000 pounds of tea overboard. England moved swiftly to punish this act of blatant disrespect. The Intolerable Acts closed the busy port until the colonists repaid the damage caused by the Tea Party, installed a British general as governor of the colony, unilaterally changed the colony's charter, and even revoked certain liberties, including the right to hold meetings.

Courtesy: Library of Congress

The First Meeting Towards Independence
On September 5, 1774, delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met for the first time at Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia. Only Georgia didn't send a representative. John Adams served as one of four Massachusetts delegates and quickly established himself as a strong proponent for independence. He said independence, not reconciliation, could be the colonies' only course. It was a radical idea. Many of the delegates feared more trade boycotts and brutalization in a war that could not be won, but Adams knew that war was unavoidable if freedom was to be secured. During these congressional sessions, he earned the nickname the "Atlas of Independence."

Demands in Place
By the time the First Continental Congress adjourned in October 1774, significant steps had been taken toward Adams' goal. The colonies had formed a united front: If one colony was attacked, the other colonies would defend it. Under The Declaration and Resolves, the Congress condemned British Parliament and King George III for interfering in colonial matters and granted each colony the right to a colonial treasury and legislature. The Congress also passed the Suffolk Resolves in defiance of the Intolerable Acts (which would be repealed in 1778) set up the Continental Association to enforce a national embargo of trade with Great Britain and called for the training of a colonial militia. Lastly the Continental Congress issued a petition, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, to King George, a portion of which was written by John Adams. Something of a precursor to the Declaration of Independence, it called for greater American autonomy and limits on Parliament's power over the colonies.

A Change of Tone
By the time the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, with delegates from all 13 colonies in attendance, war had begun, and the tone of the Congress had changed. In a letter to Abigail, Adams described the delegates as falling into three camps: the loyalists who hadn't yet forsworn allegiance to the king the middle third, who were too cautious to take a stand on either side of the issue and those who believed independence must be the goal of the war. Adams, of course, was the truest of the true blue.

Courtesy: Library of Congress

Taking Action, Undecided Folly
The first session of the Second Continental Congress lasted from May to July, the second from September to December 1775. The Congress acted as a makeshift central government, creating the Continental Army, electing George Washington as its commander and issuing paper currency. It asked each colony to provide soldiers and money for the new army, issued a declaration allowing colonists to use their weapons, and reopened American ports in defiance of the Navigation Act. Yet the Congress still could not reach a consensus on independence. Although all the delegates recognized that America was at war, not all were prepared to relinquish ties to the British crown. Pennsylvania's John Dickinson called the goal of independence "suicidal folly." In July 1775 he drew up the Olive Branch Petition, which asked King George III for changes in governance, but did not threaten to end American allegiance. Over Adams' protest, Dickinson's petition was sent. The king refused to look at it.

Congress Uses Common Sense
By the summer of 1776, with many revolutionary battles already fought and lost, Congressional sentiment had swung almost unanimously toward independence, with a big boost from Thomas Paine's rousing pamphlet Common Sense. On June 7, 1776, Virginia's Richard Henry Lee put forth a resolution that proclaimed the colonies "free and independent states . absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown. . " In less than a month, the Second Continental Congress completed its most definitive task: the adoption of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

A Legacy
The Continental Congress continued to function until 1781 when it was supplemented by another, nearly similar body, under the Articles of Confederation. During all these war years, the Continental Congress managed America's political, military, and diplomatic needs.

Continental Congress

The Continental Congress provided leadership during the American Revolution and drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.

Social Studies, Civics, U.S. History

Continental Congress Washington

In the 1770s, the Continental Congress, composed of many of the United States' eventual founders, met to respond to a series of laws passed by the British Parliament that were unpopular with many of the colonists.

Photograph by Universal History Archive

The Continental Congress was a group of delegates who worked together to act on behalf of the North American colonies in the 1770s. Beginning with the Sugar Act in 1764, the British Parliament passed a series of laws that were unpopular with many colonists in the North American colonies. The colonists came together in what came to be known as the Committees of Correspondence to discuss their rights and how to respond to the acts that they believed trampled on those rights. These committees began to work together to forge a cooperative, united approach.

In 1774, matters came to a head after Britain passed the Coercive Acts, a series of acts that the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. These acts, which included the closing of the port of Boston and establishing British military rule in Massachusetts, were intended to punish the colony of Massachusetts for the infamous Boston Tea Party and to force that colony to pay for the lost tea. Britain also hoped to isolate the rebels in Massachusetts and dissuade other colonies from similar acts of defiance. In response, the Committees of Congress called for a meeting of delegates. On September 5, 1774, 56 delegates met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This First Continental Congress represented all the 13 colonies, except Georgia. It included some of the finest leaders in the land, including George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Jay. The group elected Peyton Randolph of Virginia as its president.

The group met in secret to discuss how the colonies should respond to what they perceived to be an imposition of their rights. At this meeting, the Congress adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. They declared that their rights as Englishmen included life, liberty, property, and trial by jury. The declaration denounced taxation without representation. The Congress called for a boycott of British goods and petitioned King George III for a remedy for their grievances. Before departing, the Congress agreed to meet again on May 10, 1775.

By the time this Second Continental Congress convened, hostilities had already broken out between British troops and its American colonists at Lexington, Massachusetts, and Concord, Massachusetts. The Congress agreed to a coordinated military response and appointed George Washington as commander of the American militia. On July 4, 1776, the delegates cut all remaining ties with England by unanimously approving the Declaration of Independence.

For the duration of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress served as a provisional, or temporary, government of the American colonies. The Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, which went into effect in 1781. Under this government, the Continental Congress gave way to the Confederation Congress, which included many of the same delegates. This group continued to provide leadership to the new country until a new Congress, elected under the new Constitution passed in 1789, went into effect.

In the 1770s, the Continental Congress, composed of many of the United States' eventual founders, met to respond to a series of laws passed by the British Parliament that were unpopular with many of the colonists.

Continental Congress

The Daughters of the American Revolution Continental Congress is a time-honored tradition that has been held in Washington, D.C. as the annual national meeting of the DAR membership since the organization’s founding in 1890. Not to be confused with the United States “Congress,” the DAR national meeting is named after the original Continental Congress which governed the American Colonies during the Revolutionary War.

National, State and Chapter DAR leaders as well as other members from across the world meet at the DAR National Headquarters for a week during the summer to report on the year’s work, honor outstanding award recipients, plan future initiatives and reconnect with friends. Those in attendance include over 3,000 delegates representing the membership of 190,000 Daughters from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and many international chapters. Since its founding, the DAR has promoted historic preservation, education and patriotism and those objectives are reflected in all of the events of DAR Continental Congress.

The week-long convention consists of business sessions, committee meetings, social functions, and is topped off with formal evening ceremonies: Opening Night, Education Awards Night and National Defense Night. These evening ceremonies, held in the historic DAR Constitution Hall, mix pomp and circumstance with touching award presentations and musical entertainment.

In addition to member awards and student essay and scholarship awards, the DAR presents its top national awards at the convention including:

  • DAR Medal of Honor
  • Founders Medals for Patriotism, Education, Heroism, and Youth
  • Americanism Award
  • DAR Media Award
  • Outstanding Veteran-Patient of the Year
  • Outstanding Youth Volunteer of the Year
  • Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee Award for the Army Nurse of the Year
  • Margaret Cochran Corbin Award for distinguished women in military service
  • Outstanding Teacher of American History
  • American History Scholarship Winner
  • DAR Good Citizen of the Year
  • Outstanding Community Service Award
  • DAR Conservation Award

DAR Members can visit the Members’ only section of the website to learn more detailed information and make arrangements to attend the most anticipated DAR event of the year, DAR Continental Congress.

Congress and the Continental Navy, 1775-1783

13 October 1775
The first legislation of the Continental Congress in regard to an American Navy directed the equipment of one vessel of 10 guns and another of 14 guns as national cruisers. At the same time an act was passed establishing a "Marine Committee," consisting of Messrs. John Adams, John Langdon, and Silas Deane, which was chosen by Congress from among its own members, and was to be in complete control of naval affairs.

30 October 1775
Act of the Continental Congress authorizing the equipment of two additional armed vessels, the one to carry twenty guns, the other thirty-six, and increasing the membership of the Marine Committee to eleven.

10 November 1775
Organization of a Marine Corps, to consist of two battalions, authorized by Act of Congress.

25 November 1775
Act of Congress authorizing the capture and confiscation of all British armed vessels, transports, and supply ships, and directing the issuing of commissions to captains of cruisers and privateers.

28 November 1775
Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies, the first regulations of the Navy.

3 December 1775
The first fleet of the United States put in commission.

11 December 1775
A Committee appointed by Congress "to devise the ways and means for furnishing these Colonies with a Naval Armament."

13 December 1775
The report of the Committee providing for the construction of "five ships of thirty-two guns, five of twenty-eight guns, and three of twenty-four guns," accepted by Congress, and a law passed for their immediate construction.

14 December 1775
The number of the members of the Marine Committee increased to thirteen, one from each colony, by Act of Congress.

22 December 1775
The Marine Committee appointed the following officers, with the approval of Congress:

Commander-in-Chief: Esek Hopkins
Captains: Dudley Saltonstall, Abraham Whipple, Nicholas Biddle, John B. Hopkins
First Lieutenants: John Paul Jones, Rhodes Arnold, Eli Stansbury, Hoysted Hacker, Jonathan Pitcher
Second Lieutenants: Benjamin Seabury, Joseph Olney, Elisha Warner, Thomas Weaver, James McDougall
Third Lieutenants: John Fanning, Ezekiel Burroughs, Daniel Vaughan

25 January 1776
The Marine Committee given full powers in the direction of the fleet under Commodore Esek Hopkins.

19 March 1776
Congress authorized the fitting out of armed vessels "to cruise on the enemies of these united colonies."

23 March 1776
General Letters-of-Marque and Reprisal issued by Congress, and thenceforth all British vessels, armed or unarmed, were liable to capture by American ships.

17 April 1776
With respect to the relative rank of the officers of the Navy, Congress decided that the nominations or appointments of captains or commanders "shall not establish rank." This was to be "settled by Congress before commissions are granted."

4 July 1776
Declaration of Independence of the United States of America.

5 September 1776
The Marine Committee decided upon the uniform to be worn by officers of the Navy and Marine Corps.
3 October 1776 Congress authorized the purchasing, arming, and equipping of "a frigate and two cutters in Europe."

10 October 1776
Congress established the rank and command of the Captains of the Navy.

29 October 1776
Act of Congress denying to private vessels the right of wearing "pendants" in the presence of Continental Navy vessels without the permission of the commanding officer thereof.

6 November 1776
A "Continental Navy Board, consisting of "three persons well skilled in maritime affairs," appointed by Congress "to execute the business of the Navy under the direction of the Marine Committee" This Board was subsequently divided into an "Eastern Board," and a "Board of the Middle District.

15 November 1776
Congress established the relative rank of Naval and Army officers.

20 November 1776
Law authorizing the construction of the first line-of-battle ship, to carry seventy-four guns.

23 January 1777
Congress authorized the construction of one 36-gun frigate and one 28-gun frigate.

6 February 1778
Treaty of Amity and Commerce concluded between the United States and France.

28 October 1779
A "Board of Admiralty" established which was given control of all naval affairs it consisted of three commissioners who were not in Congress and two who were.

11 January 1781
James Reed, by resolution of Congress, invested with full powers to conduct the business of the Navy Board in the "Middle Department."

7 February 1781
Alexander McDougal, a major-general, who had been a seaman in his youth, appointed "Secretary of Marine," with all the duties previously confided to the Board of Admiralty.

29 August 1781
An "Agent of Marine"" appointed "with authority to direct, fit out, equip, and employ, the ships and vessels of war belonging to the United States, according to such instructions as he shall from time to time receive from Congress."

7 September 1781
Resolution of Congress by which the duties prescribed to the "Agent of Marine," until he should be appointed, devolved on the Superintendent of Finance, Robert Morris, who, indeed, appears to have had the chief agency in the civil administration of the Navy during the greater part of the Revolutionary War.

2 September 1782
Presentation of the U.S. 74-gun line-of-battle ship America to Louis XVI, King of France, to replace the Magnifique, 74, lost in Boston Harbor.

3 September 1783
Definitive treaty of peace concluded with Great Britain and the United States, acknowledged a sovereign and independent state. On April 11, 1783, a cessation of hostilities bad been proclaimed.

Sites of the Continental Congress - History

In history we find some of the best writings to be apologetics or in defense of rights. In 1774 the Continental Congress published its Declaration and Resolves stating in part: “…By the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following rights… life, liberty and property.” The British Parliament had passed the “Intolerable Acts” (laying siege to Boston, shutting down colonial assemblies, making British officials immune to criminal prosecution, and quartering soldiers) as punishment for the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Intending to isolate Boston, England was shocked by the response of Colonies sending in supplies and calling a day of fasting and prayer. And it was prayer the initial prayer of the delegates that was the source of the clarity written in the Declaration and Resolves.

The colonists, well instructed in the principle of the “lower magistrate,” created their own government by consent called the Continental Congress. This principle of resistance by the lower magistrate, drawn from the Reformation, stated that one must be submitted to the rule of law before any form of resistance can be legitimately given to civil authorities. Since England had begun to dissolve the colonial Assemblies, they formed their own so that any form of self-defense would be “under authority” and they would take no direct resistance against the British Empire. It was taught in the pulpits of America that direct resistance is rebellion and God would become our adversary. Spiritually speaking they were right for one must submit to God’s authority before successfully resisting the enemy (James 4:7).

When the Continental Congress first met on September 5, 1774 at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, there was a sober atmosphere, knowing that England, their mother country, which had the greatest army on earth, was sending troops to force them into submission. The delegates were as conscious of submitting to God as the people that sent them. J. T. Headley, author of the book The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution, published in 1864, described the scene by quoting the letter John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

“When the Congress met, Mr. Cushing made a motion that it should be opened with Prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of New York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina because we were so divided in religious sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists, that we could not join in the same act of worship. Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said, ‘that he was no bigot, and could hear a Prayer from any gentleman of Piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his Country. He was a stranger in Philadelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duche’ deserved that character and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche’, an Episcopal clergy man, might be desired to read Prayer to Congress tomorrow morning.’ The motion was seconded, and passed in the affirmative.”

The date was September 7, 1774 when Jacob Duche arrived before the Continental Congress. He read several Prayers in the established form and then read the Psalter for the 7 th of September which was the 35 th Psalm. Adams writes to Abigail “you must remember this was the next morning after we had heard of the cannonade of Boston.” He then added, “it seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning.”

Adams went on to say “After this, Mr. Duche unexpectedly to everybody, struck out into extemporary Prayer, which filled the bosom of every man present… It had excellent effect upon every body here.”

Adams then quotes from part of Psalm 35 to his wife Abigail: “Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me fight against them that fight against me take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for my help draw out also the spear, and stop the way against them.”

As recorded by Headley, Duche’ prayed:

“O Lord, our Heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings and Lord of lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers on earth, and reignest with power supreme and uncontrolled over all kingdoms, empires and governments, look down, we beseech thee, on these our American States, who have fled to thee from the rod of the oppressor, and thrown themselves on thy gracious protection, desiring henceforth to be dependent only on thee – to thee have they appealed for the righteousness of their cause – to thee do they now look up for that countenance and support which thou alone canst give. Take them, therefore, Heavenly Father, under thy nurturing care, give them wisdom in council, and valor in the field. Defeat the malicious designs of our cruel adversaries. Convince them of the unrighteousness of their cause, and if they still persist in their sanguinary purpose, O let the voice of thine own unerring justice sounding in their hearts constrain them to drop the weapons of war from their unnerved hands in the day of battle.

Be thou present, O God of wisdom, and direct the councils of this honorable Assembly. Enable them to settle things on the best and surest foundation, that the scene of blood may be speedily closed – that order, harmony, and peace may be effectually restored, and truth and justice, religion and piety may prevail and flourish amongst thy people. Preserve the health of their bodies and the vigor of their minds. Shower on them and the millions they here represent such temporal blessings as thou seest expedient for them in this world, and crown them with everlasting glory in the world to come. All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ thy Son, our Savior. Amen.”

This was one of those moments in history that captured the moving of God’s Spirit. Washington was there with Patrick Henry, John Randolph, Richard Henry Lee and John Jay along with John and Samuel Adams of Massachusetts. In all, 56 delegates from every colony except Georgia attended. John Adams wrote “It was enough to melt a heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave Pacific Quakers of Philadelphia.” Amazingly, Jacob Duche, who had been used so mightily in that hour and throughout the year of 1775, when he saw things go badly in 1776 and 1777, turned away from his country, ran to the British, and fled Philadelphia for England. But let us remember that God reigns, not mankind. The Scripture read by Duche, ordained by God, and then spontaneously prayed, inspired a group of patriots who began their deliberations on their knees. This is what must happen again – oh may the Spirit of God fill delegates and move our Congressional halls again!

Failed Continental Congress

The Stamp Act Congress, formed by colonials to respond to the unpopular Stamp Act taxes, was the direct precursor of the Continental Congress, which was itself formed largely in response to the so-called "Intolerable Acts". The First Continental Congress was planned through the permanent committees of correspondence, which kept the local colonial governments in communication with one another as their common opposition to Britain grew. It lasted only from September 5, 1774, to October 26, 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Peyton Randolph served as the first President of the Continental Congress.

The primary accomplishment of the First Continental Congress was the drafting of the Articles of Association on October 20. The Articles formed a compact among twelve of the thirteen colonies to boycott British goods, and to cease exports to Britain as well if the "Intolerable Acts" were not repealed. The boycott was successfully implemented, but its potential at altering British colonial policy was cut off by the outbreak of open fighting in 1775.

The Second Continental Congress met on May 10, 1775. The Congress resolved that Britain had declared war against them on March 26 of that year. The Continental Army was created on June 15 to oppose the British, and General George Washington was appointed commander in chief. On July 8 they extended the Olive Branch Petition to the crown as an attempt at reconciliation (King George III refused to receive it). Silas Deane was sent to France as an ambassador of the United States. American ports were reopened in defiance of the Navigation Acts. Most importantly, on July 7, 1776, they adopted the Declaration of Independence. This Congress nobly tried to lead the new country through the war with very little money and little real power. The Congress had disagreements with others such as politicians who wanted payment and the military who wanted more control.

At the end of the War, in 1783, disagreements between the members of the Congress lead to the formal close of the congress: each of the United States of America would follow their own paths and alliances from now on.

Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Representatives of twelve colonies assembled in Philadelphia in September 1774 at Carpenters’ Hall, then and since the meeting hall for the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia.

The choice of Carpenters’ Hall, rather than the Pennsylvania State House, reflected the complex politics surrounding the independence movement. The State House was the seat of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly, which in the fall of 1774 was not only against independence but was viewed by many in Philadelphia as highly sympathetic to the British Crown. Galloway had served as Speaker of the Assembly since 1766, and he was clear in his belief that the colonies needed to reconcile their differences with Britain (later, in 1788, he moved to England). Carpenters’ Hall also housed the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia, established in 1731 by Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), of which the delegates were made subscribing members. (Twentieth-century photograph, Historic American Buildings Survey)

Congress Voting Independence

This painting by Edward Savage is the most accurate known depiction of the interior of the Pennsylvania State House at the time of the Declaration of Independence. It is a recreation of the event, painted after the fact in the late 1780s or early 1790s. But it is believed to be based on an earlier work by Robert Edge Pine, who occupied the same room as his art studio in the early 1780s.

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Continental Congresses

At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, independence from the British Crown was an outlandish thought in the minds of many American colonists. They enjoyed the protections of one of the world’s most powerful empires and rights and freedoms granted to its subjects. Little more than a decade later, delegates from these same colonies assembled in Philadelphia, risking their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” as they declared independence from Great Britain. The First and Second Continental Congresses, held in Philadelphia in 1774 and 1775-81, engaged in the complex politics surrounding independence and heightened the city’s role in a world-changing moment in history.

Tensions between the British Crown and the American colonies had simmered since the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. The Coercive Acts, passed by the British Parliament in 1774 to punish the city of Boston for the Boston Tea Party, put the Massachusetts government under direct British control, closed the port of Boston, and increased British troops there. While the Acts were designed to bring only the Massachusetts colony under tight control, the highly punitive legislation drew concern from all thirteen colonies. Many outside of Massachusetts viewed the acts as a violation of their valued rights under the English constitution the outrage demanded a unified response from the colonies.

But what response? Only the most radical among the colonists advocated for independence. Many others, including Pennsylvania political leaders John Dickinson (1732-1808) and Joseph Galloway (1731-1803), acknowledged the need for political unity but also encouraged caution, non-violent action, and a desire to reconcile their differences with the British government.

Carpenters’ Hall, meeting place of the First Continental Congress, in a twentieth-century photograph for the Historic American Buildings Survey. (Library of Congress)

Representatives of twelve colonies assembled in Philadelphia in September 1774 at Carpenters’ Hall, then and since the meeting hall for the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia. (Georgia, in dire need of the services of British regulars to fend off incursions of Creek Indians on its borders, did not send a delegation.) The choice of Carpenters’ Hall, rather than the Pennsylvania State House, reflected the complex politics surrounding the independence movement. The State House was the seat of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly, which in the fall of 1774 was not only against independence but was viewed by many in Philadelphia as highly sympathetic to the British Crown. Galloway had served as Speaker of the Assembly since 1766, and he was clear in his belief that the colonies needed to reconcile their differences with Britain (later, in 1788, he moved to England). Carpenters’ Hall also housed the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia, established in 1731 by Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), of which the delegates were made subscribing members.

Largest Port City

Then the largest port city in the colonies, Philadelphia was well situated to play a critical role in the slow march to independence. Its strategic location, wealth, population, industrial and commercial capacity, and professional and business classes were unsurpassed in America. On a more practical level, the city’s public buildings—including the State House, the “British Barracks” in Northern Liberties, the Pennsylvania Hospital, and Walnut Street Prison—could accommodate any of the needs of both Congresses.

Philadelphia also contained more than enough diversions to entertain its distinguished visitors. Massachusetts’ John Adams (1735-1826) and Connecticut’s Silas Deane (1737-1789) both noted the nearly unparalleled luxury found in the Second Street home of John Cadwalader (1742-1786), with whom they both dined. Delegates also were entertained in the many exclusive clubs of Philadelphia’s elite, including the Schuylkill Fishing Company, which was founded in 1732 and still exists as State on Schuylkill, one of the oldest private clubs in the United States.

At the First Continental Congress, little consensus existed as whether to declare independence. When Galloway proposed a “plan of union” with Great Britain, the delegates voted it down, but narrowly. After seven weeks of debate, the first Congress ended with the delegates agreeing only to form an “Association” to boycott British goods and to meet again in May 1775. By the time the Second Continental Congress assembled, this time in the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall), events had moved forward rapidly. The delegates were not dealing solely with philosophical and political questions related to their rights as Englishmen, but were responding to the hostilities that began between British regulars and Massachusetts militiamen at the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. This Congress, now joined by Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and presided over by John Hancock (1737-1793), appointed George Washington (1732-1799) as commander of the Continental forces, managed the loosely organized colonial war effort, and debated whether to declare independence.

Initially, many of the delegates favored Dickinson’s long-held position—reconciliation with Great Britain. Jefferson, later the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, also wrote the first version of the Olive Branch Petition, which in July 1775 affirmed the colonists’ loyalty to the British king in an attempt to avoid further bloodshed. When the petition was rejected by King George III (1738-1820), who viewed the Second Congress as an illegal assembly and insincere in its intentions, members of the Congress who favored independence saw their opportunity and pushed for independence.

Congress Voting Independence, a painting by Edward Savage, recreates the scene inside the Pennsylvania State House in 1776. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Congress Flees Philadelphia

After formally declaring independence on July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress became the government of the United States, and Philadelphia became the nation’s capital city. This location did not last long as the British army took control of Philadelphia in the fall of 1777, forcing the Congress to flee and conduct its business from a variety of locations, including York, Pennsylvania Princeton, New Jersey Baltimore, Maryland and New York City. When the British army left Philadelphia after nine months of occupation, the national government returned its capital to Philadelphia, where it remained until 1781.

Regardless of its location, the weak powers of this first national government nearly caused its failure. To fight the American Revolution, the thirteen American colonies cautiously entered the “firm league of friendship” established by the Articles of Confederation. Indicating its weakness as a frame of a unified national government, the document was not fully ratified by all of the colonies until 1781—four years after its initial creation in 1777. Fighting the war with borrowed money and little power to collect revenue from the states through taxes, the Continental Congress was bankrupt at the conclusion of the War for Independence. When the states, addressing this and other problems facing the new nation, ratified a new United States Constitution in September 1788, the Continental Congress began its slow fade into history. The end came on March 2, 1789, in New York when the Congress was adjourned by its lone member, New York’s Philip Pell (1753-1811), for the last time.

Michael Karpyn teaches History, Economics, and Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics at Marple Newtown Senior High School in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. He has served as a Summer Teaching Fellow at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, where he is a member of the Teacher Advisory Group.

Copyright 2012, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Tinkcom, Harry M. “The Revolutionary City, 1765-1783.” In Russell F. Weigley, ed. Philadelphia: A 300 Year History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1982.

Tsesis, Alexander. For Liberty and Equality: The Life and Times of the Declaration of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Hogeland, William. Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.


Museum Collection, Independence National Historical Park, Third and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia.

Papers of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia and other repositories (Biographical Directory of the United States Congress).

Papers of John Dickinson in Philadelphia and other repositories (Biographical Directory of the United States Congress).

Papers of Joseph Galloway in Philadelphia and other repositories (Biographical Directory of the United States Congress).

Papers of Thomas Jefferson in Philadelphia and other repositories (Biographical Directory of the United States Congress).

Places to Visit

Carpenters’ Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.

Independence Hall, Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets, Philadelphia.

Watch the video: First Continental Congress


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