Home » The Continental Congress » The Continental Congress

The Continental Congress

The Continental Congress met in one of the most conservative of the seaport
towns from which the revolutionary movement stemmed. Philadelphia patriots
complained that there was more Toryism in Pennsylvania than in all the
colonies combined; certainly the Quakers who dominated the province were
more concerned in putting down radicalism at home than resisting tyranny
from abroad. The character of the delegates who assembled in Philadelphia
in September 1774 was likewise a good augury to the conservatives. The
Continental Congress was composed of “the ablest and wealthiest men in
America”; Chatham pronounced it to be “the most honourable Assembly of
Statesmen since those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, in the most
virtuous Times”.

John Adams calculated that they were “one third Tories, another Whigs, and
the rest mongrels”; and he found “Trimmers & Timeservers” upon every side.
Fifth columnism was at work, as the patriots soon learned; despite the best
efforts of Congress to preserve secrecy, the British government was
informed of all its proceedings (Stephen Sayre to Samuel Adams).

The work of the Continental Congress soon demonstrated that the
American aristocracy was divided against itself and that this division
worked in favor of the triumph of radicalism.

In May 1775, Congress resolved that “these colonies be immediately put into
a state of defense”; the Massachusetts militia was taken over by Congress;
an army of twenty thousand men was ordered to be raised; and George
Washington was appointed to command. Congress directed that paper money be
printed and in July 1775 Benjamin Franklin drew up “Articles of
Confederation and Perpetual Union,” which, although too bold to be entered
upon the journals of Congress, were openly discussed by the members.

The liberties enjoyed by the colonists prior to 1763, which before
Lexington seemed fully ample for American prosperity and happiness, now
appeared to many Americans little better than slavery. “Good God,”
exclaimed a Virginian, “were we not abject slaves (in 1763)? We wanted but
the name. . . . It was not till 1763 that we were openly insulted, and
treated as slaves” (Virginia Gazette, Purdie) By returning to 1763
fundamental grievances would be untouched: American trade and manufactures
would be cramped by British restrictions; colonial laws would have to be
approved by the British government; and Americans would “always be peeled
and pillaged” for the benefit of English pensioners and courtiers.
Moreover, the sacrifices already made for American liberty would have been
in vain if such a poor palliative were accepted as the terms of peace
(Principles and Acts of the Revolution). The “blood and treasure” already
expended by Americans, exclaimed the radicals, and made reconciliation
impossible except upon the colonists’ own terms. Thus the blood of the
“precious Sons of Liberty” spilled in the cause of liberty was used to
silence the advocates of reconciliation. Now that men were being asked to
die, a richer reward than a return to 1763 had to be offered for their
sacrifice (American Archives, Fourth Series).

The radicals in the Continental Congress rejoiced that Great Britain’s
“unexampled cruelties” now barred the path of compromise. They proposed to
gird for war before another blow could be struck. Their program was to open
American ports to foreign powers; construct a navy; set up state
governments; break off negotiations with Great Britain; seize the Tories
and hold them as hostages.

Thus far, the radical policy of relying mainly upon events to bring
the issue of independence before the people was fully vindicated.
Disillusionment with English liberalism was widespread; “measures short of
war” had been discredited; and the United Colonies had undertaken an armed
invasion of part of the British Empire. And there were other evidences that
Americans were moving steadily in the direction of independence even though
they failed to read the signposts.

The Continental Congress was taking long strides in that direction as it
strove to prepare the colonies for the inevitable struggle with Great
Britain. On July 15, Congress resolved to relax the Association to permit
the importation of military supplies; and in September a secret committee
was appointed to take charge of the importation of powder and munitions. In
August 1775, Congress rejected Lord North’s conciliatory plan. In November,
news was received that no answer would be given the “Olive Branch”
petition, and the King’s proclamation declaring the American colonies in a
state of rebellion reached Philadelphia. Congress responded by creating the
Committee of Secret Correspondence, later known as the Committee for
Foreign Affairs; and in December authorization was given for the
construction of an American navy.

When the American Revolution began, the British supposedly controlled
the seas, but the colonial army was still successfully supplied with
gunpowder and munitions, as well as cash, from Britain’s enemies. France
shipped supplies through Martinique, Spain through Havana and Haiti, but
most important were the shipments from Holland’s merchants through the
Dutch island of Saint Eustatius. Munitions went to northern ports on the
continent, while payment was made with exports of tobacco, indigo, flour,
and naval stores from southern ports such as Charleston.

The Andrew Doria, captained by Isaiah Robinson, was under orders to
sail to 8rant Eustatius, take aboard supplies for the Continental Army, and
deliver a copy of the Declaration of Independence to the governor of the
island. Upon the vessel’s arrival, its Grand Union flag flying, saluted
Fort Oranje with thirteen guns. The fort’s commanding officer, Abraham
Ravene, was reluctant to reply, but by order of Governor Johannes de
Graaff, Fort Oranje replied with eleven guns.
This action aroused great furor in the British. The president of St.
Kitts, Craister Greathead, denounced de Graaff for the indignity to His
Majesty’s colors by the honors paid by Fort Oranje to his rebel subjects.”
Greathead also reproached de Graaff for permitting an American ship, the
Baltimore Hero, to capture a British ship, the May, off the coast of Statia
within days of the Andrew Doria’s arrival, and for furnishing supplies to
the colonies. In response to King George’s protests, the Dutch brought de
Graaff home for an inquiry by the West India Company. He was able to defend
himself, though, and was returned to Saint Eustatius in 1779.

Recognition of another American ship flying the new Grand Union flag
preceded the Andrew Doria incident, but with little repercussion. In July
1776 the American sloop-of-war Reprisal, commanded by Captain Lambert
Wickes, was approaching the coast of French Martinique. Aboard was William
Bingham, who was to arrange for the importation of gunpowder and other
military supplies. On arrival, the Reprisal encountered the British sloop-
of-war Shark, which upon seeing the Reprisal’s strange American flag,
intercepted the vessel. Captain Wickes stood his course and fired at the
Shark, which replied with fire of her own. A battle ensued, but it was
interrupted when the French fort fired two warning shots at the Shark,
forcing it out to sea.

Bingham and Wickes were welcomed by the French, and Wickes was warmly
received by the governor, who said he fired at the Shark for challenging
the Reprisal in French waters. Bingham was given permission to outfit
privateers in Martinique and to bring captured ships into French ports. He
spent four years in Martinique, buying military supplies for the
Continental Congress as well as conducting business for his own account and
for his principals, Willing, Morris, and Company. He earned great wealth
for himself and for Robert Morris, a Philadelphia merchant who was
appointed superintendent of finance for the war effort.

The success of the Revolution was highly dependent upon the prevalent
British opinion that the West Indies were of much greater importance than
the American colonies. According to none other than William Pitt, 80
percent of Great Britain’s trading wealth came from the West Indies. The
islands meant sugar, and sugar plus slavery meant wealth. And it was sugar
that provoked the Americans’ ire early on. The British islands were
supposed to have a monopoly on sugar for all of the British Empire. New
England used great quantities of molasses for the production of rum, which
was a key element in the highly profitable slave and fur trades. The French
islands were taking away a lot of the American business with their lower
cost sugar in exchange for provisions. British plantation owners – many of
whom were influential members of Parliament – persuaded that body to pass
the Molasses Act in 1733, putting a 100 percent duty on non-British sugar.
This produced early protestations by the colonies of denial of rights
without representation in Parliament. Although the act was not enforced and
smuggling continued to supply the rum makers with French molasses, it was
an early sign of friction between the British and their North American

With the defeat of the French by the English in the Seven Years’ War, the
Treaty of Paris in 1763, among other things, had given Canada to Great
Britain and Guadeloupe to France. This was not an easy decision for the
British, who had agonizing debates about the question. Some favored taking
Guadeloupe, which had been captured in 1759, instead of taking Canada. Once
again, the arguments centered on sugar. Was the sugar wealth of Guadeloupe
more valuable than the potential market for British goods in Canada? Did
Britain have enough sugar islands of its own? Would more-efficient
Guadeloupe, which out produced all of the British islands, be undesirable
competition to present British owners? The final decision to take Canada
was of great import to the Revolution since it had always been assumed that
the colonies would remain loyal to Britain for its protection against the
feared French Catholic power in Canada. With the French gone, rebellion
became more attractive.

British naval and military priorities were often with the West Indies
– even in the midst of trying to quell the American Revolution. For
example, in 1778 five thousand British troops were transferred from
Philadelphia to the islands to protect them against French capture, this
while British general Sir Henry Clinton was crying for reinforcements in
New York. Worry about the islands also led to the British navy’s failure to
adequately blockade the French port of Brest, permitting a French squadron
to slip out with Comte de Rochambeau’s army of five thousand troops, which
arrived in Newport in 1780. After a remarkable march, these troops played a
key role in surrounding Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown; the decisive
battle there led to Cornwallis’s surrender.
The other key to the Battle of Yorktown was French admiral Francois-Joseph-
Paul de Grasse and his fleet, which arrived August 30, 1781, from the West
Indies in time to provide a blockade at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and
prevent Cornwallis’s escape. It is possible that British admiral Sir George
Rodney could have stopped de Grasse, but Rodney thought it more important
for his fleet to stay in the Caribbean to defend the islands, which he felt
were under imminent attack. Too, the British fleet under command of Admiral
Sir Thomas Graves and Admiral Sir Samuel Hood were late in setting sail
from New York to stop de Grasse.

De Grasse returned south, and in January 1782 he landed eight thousand
French soldiers who besieged Brimstone Hill Fort on St. Kitts for a month
before the less-than-one-thousand British soldiers surrendered on February
12. The British probably would have continued the war in America even after
the surrender at Yorktown, but with the loss of St. Kitts and other defeats
in the West Indies, she feared for all of her empire. The following year,
Britain ended the fighting, and the United States finally won its
independence with the signing of the peace treaty on September 3, 1783.

Today, visible on the rugged battlements of Statia’s Fort Oranje is a
bronze plaque marking the historic relationship of this tiny island and the
United States. It was President Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1939, recognized
Statia’s importance in his country’s history by presenting the plaque to
its citizens to honor that first signal – the eleven-gun salute by Dutch
governor de Graaff to the Andrew Doria – noting that it was “here the
sovereignty of the United States of America was first formally acknowledged
to a national vessel by a foreign official.”

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this essay please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Leave a Comment