The Second Continental Congress and the American War of Independence

Lauren George, Dickson College, 2008

The thirteen states of America represented in the Second Continental Congress

The Second Continental Congress was the de facto government for the United States during the American Revolution of the 18th Century. The Congress was responsible for the prosecution of the war against the British by maintaining the Continental Army, as well as moving the nation of America into the future by organising the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Congress also organised international relations with France to safeguard America’s future. Sitting from May 10, 1775 to March 1, 1781, the Second Continental Congress was preceded by the First Continental Congress and succeeded by the Congress of the Confederation upon the ratification of the Articles of Confederation [1] . All six of the sessions that were part of the Second Continental Congress were held in Pennsylvania with the exception of the session from December 20, 1776 to March 4, 1777, which was held in Baltimore, Maryland. This was due to the British Army’s attacks on Philadelphia. The sessions were attended by representatives from each of the thirteen states of America, and were presided over by five presidents throughout its duration [2] . The Congress achieved great things, considering it was formed merely as an advisory committee without authority, legislative powers or finances.

Congress’ first major role in the American Revolution was raising and maintaining armies. As the British had previously made it clear that they would use force to hinder the rebels, the Second Continental Congress required a military force to combat them. The Continental Army was the official colonist army (although they
Military Commander George Washington
were often joined by local militia), and was led by the Congress-selected commander George Washington. As well as electing military leaders, it was also Congress’ job to manage and supply the army. To help with this, the Congress elected five members to form a Board of War and Ordnance in June 1776. Duties of the board included advising the Congress on military strategy, as well as more specific tasks such as providing “estimates” to Congress for the acquisition of weaponry [3] . Congress then decided to increase the integrity of this board by insisting that it must be made up of members from outside the Congress, so that they could whole-heartedly dedicate their time to the effort. It appears that Congress kept the army well maintained, except for in 1780 when it is recorded that after the decrease in value of the Continental currency the Congress struggled to supply the army, resulting in a short-lived mutiny among some Connecticut soldiers in New Jersey [4] . The board was then replaced by a single Secretary at War in 1781 [5] as Congress saw that the full membership of the Congress still had to put a considerable amount of time into discussing America’s military efforts.

As well as maintaining the war effort, the Second Continental Congress planned America’s independence, and as such, began necessary action for America to survive as a union of states in 1776. In May, Congress made further progress towards independence when it directed the individual colonies to set up their own governments independent of British Crown rule [6] . This act would have allowed both the British military and the colonists to know that Congress was serious about developing their own independent nation, and would have increased faith within colonists by providing them with the knowledge that they had their own local governments to guarantee them a future. As a result, ‘The Committee of Five’ was soon chosen to organise the Declaration of Independence. The committee was composed of Congress members John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert R. Livingston [7] as well as the fifth committee member Thomas Jefferson, who was selected to draft the Declaration. The Declaration of Independence stated among other things,
Presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress
that the thirteen North American colonies were “free and independent states” [8] . According to Thomas Kindig, 56 members of Congress voted in favour of the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776 and signed and approved it in Congress on July 4. Once approved, the Declaration was then posted around the colonies for public reading [9] , showing the public that Congress was working hard in their favour.

The Second Continental Congress undertook further progress towards an independent union of states in the latter half of the 1770’s. In 1776 Congress organised a delegation of three men to develop foreign relations for the newfound Union. The three men chosen, Silas Deane, Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, were sent to Europe to organise foreign allies and to attempt to support the treasury by securing foreign loans for the nation. The most notable outcome as a result of the delegates’ overseas venture was that an alliance was forged between France and the United States, with the Treaty of Alliance being signed two years after the delegation’s departure, as negotiated by Benjamin Franklin [10] . Franklin organised for each nation to consider the other a “most favoured nation” for commerce, trade and friendship. France was also required to oblige to help fight for America’s independence. In return, America was required to assist France if war should b
The first page of the Articles of Confederation
reak out between France and Great Britain. Whilst Franklin was overseas, Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777. The Articles of Confederation were developed after Richard Henry Lee proposed a formal plan for union of the States. Lee, who was also responsible for proposing the motion for independence in 1776, foresaw that it was important for the states to be unified as a common entity. The Articles of Confederation represented the first constitution for the United States. However, they were not ratified until 1781, when the Second Continental Congress became the Congress of the Confederation. The Articles were important in providing guidelines for the governing of the American people, up until the Congress of the Confederation replaced them with the United States Constitution in 1788 [11] .

The Second Continental Congress, represented by all thirteen states, was the administration behind America’s independence from 1775 to 1781. Playing the role of the organising committee of the American War of Independence, Congress not only provided the material support needed to overthrow the British Empire, but also safeguarded the future of the nation. They were in charge of appointing military leaders, and contributing to the war effort, as well as directing strategies, and created a Board of War and Ordnance to assist with this. The Second Continental Congress, being represented by all states, looked after the whole of the newfound Confederation fairly, and was the driving force behind getting to the point of Independence in the first place. The Congress was responsible for two milestones of the American Revolution; the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. The Congress also helped preserve a future for Americans by sending diplomats to Europe to organise allies as well as loans. The Second Continental Congress put both short-term and long-term methods in place providing the groundwork for future generations to build on, and, as such, was the first independent government of America.


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  1. ^ The Early Congresses, 2007
  2. ^ Hancock, 2005
  3. ^ Horgan 2002, p. 82
  4. ^ America During the Age of Revolution, 1776 - 1789, 2007
  5. ^ Evolution of the Continental Army, 2005
  6. ^ America During the Age of Revolution, 1776 - 1789, 2007
  7. ^ The Committee of Five, 2007
  8. ^ Kindig, 2008
  9. ^ America During the Age of Revolution, 1776 - 1789, 2007
  10. ^ America During the Age of Revolution, 1776 - 1789, 2007
  11. ^ Mount, 2006