The First Continental Congress and the First Battles

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the state of affairs between the colonies and the British home government in 1774
  • Explain the outcomes of the First Continental Congress

American colonial disaffection with the home government in Britain had reached new levels by 1774. Many colonists viewed the Intolerable Acts as a turning point and they now felt they had to take concrete actions to prevent a further assault on their liberty. The result was the First Continental Congress, a direct challenge to Lord North and British authority in the colonies. Still, it would be a mistake to assume there was a groundswell of support for separating from the British Empire and creating a new, independent nation. Strong ties still bound the Empire together, and colonists did not agree about the proper response to British overreach. Loyalists tended to be property holders, established residents who feared the loss of their property. To them, the protests seemed to promise nothing but mob rule, and the violence and disorder they provoked were shocking. Patriots were usually common people or small business owners who were the most affected by both the extra taxes and the political crackdown imposed by the Coercive Acts. They supported more extreme protests like the Boston Tea Party and the actions of the Sons of Liberty. On both sides of the Atlantic, opinions varied.

The Crown did not anticipate the other colonies coming to the aid of Massachusetts after the implementation of the Coercive Acts. Colonists collected food to send to Boston. Virginia’s House of Burgesses called for a day of prayer and fasting to show their support. Rather than isolating Massachusetts, the Coercive Acts fostered the sense of shared identity created over the previous decade. After all, if the Crown and Parliament could dissolve Massachusetts’s government, nothing could stop them from doing the same to any of her sister colonies. In Massachusetts, patriots created the Provincial Congress and passed the Suffolk Resolves in September 1774, which laid out a plan of resistance to the Intolerable Acts. Throughout 1774, they seized control of local and county governments and courts. In New York, citizens elected committees to direct the colonies’ response to the Coercive Acts, including a Mechanics’ Committee of middling colonists. By early 1774, Committees of Correspondence and/or extralegal assemblies were established in all of the colonies except Georgia. And throughout the year, they followed Massachusetts’s example by seizing the powers of the royal governments.

The First Continental Congress

Committees of Correspondence agreed to send delegates to a Continental Congress to coordinate an intercolonial response. The First Continental Congress was made up of elected representatives of twelve of the thirteen American colonies. (Georgia’s royal governor blocked the move to send representatives from that colony, an indication of the continued strength of the royal government despite the crisis.) The representatives met in Philadelphia from September 5 through October 26, 1774, and at first, they did not agree at all about the appropriate response to the Intolerable Acts. Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania argued for a conciliatory approach; he proposed that an elected Grand Council in America, like the Parliament in Great Britain, should be paired with a royally appointed President General, who would represent the authority of the Crown. More radical factions argued for a move toward separation from the Crown. The Congress issued a number of documents, including a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances,” which repeated the arguments that colonists had been making since 1765: colonists retained all the rights of native Britons, including the right to be taxed only by their own elected representatives as well as the right to a trial by jury.

In the end, Paul Revere rode from Massachusetts to Philadelphia with the Suffolk Resolves, which became the basis of the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress. In the Declaration and Resolves, adopted on October 14, the colonists demanded the repeal of all repressive acts passed since 1773 and agreed to a non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption pact against all British goods until the Acts were repealed. In the “Petition of Congress to the King” on October 24, the delegates adopted a further recommendation of the Suffolk Resolves and proposed that the colonies raise and regulate their own militias.

In the Declaration and Resolves and the Petition of Congress to the King, the delegates to the First Continental Congress refer to George III as “Most Gracious Sovereign” and to themselves as “inhabitants of the English colonies in North America” or “inhabitants of British America,” indicating that they still considered themselves British subjects of the king, not American citizens. At the same time, however, they were slowly moving away from British authority, creating their own de facto government in the First Continental Congress. One of the provisions of the Congress was that it meet again in one year to mark its progress—the Congress was becoming an independent elected colonial government.

Link to Learning

Visit the Massachusetts Historical Society to see a digitized copy and read the transcript of the First Continental Congress’s petition to King George.

Most importantly, the Continental Congress issued a document known as the “Continental Association.” The Association declared that “the present unhappy situation of our affairs is occasioned by a ruinous system of colony administration adopted by the British Ministry about the year 1763, evidently calculated for enslaving these Colonies, and, with them, the British Empire.” The Association recommended “that a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town . . . whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all persons touching this association.” These Committees of Inspection would consist largely of common colonists. They were effectively deputized to police their communities and instructed to publish the names of anyone who violated the Association so they “may be publicly known, and universally condemned as the enemies of American liberty.” The delegates also agreed to a continental nonimportation, nonconsumption, and nonexportation agreement and to “wholly discontinue the slave trade.” In all, the Continental Association was perhaps the most radical document of the period. It sought to unite and direct twelve revolutionary governments, establish economic and moral policies, and empower common colonists by giving them an important and unprecedented degree of on-the-ground political power.

The First List of Un-American Activities

An engraving shows an unruly crowd watching a cockfight and betting on the results.

Figure 1. Cockfights, as depicted in The Cockpit (1759) by British artist and engraver William Hogarth, were among the entertainments the First Continental Congress sought to outlaw, considering them un-American.

In her book Toward A More Perfect Union: Virtue and the Formation of American Republics, historian Ann Fairfax Withington explores actions the delegates to the First Continental Congress took during the weeks they were together. Along with their efforts to bring about the repeal of the Intolerable Acts, the delegates also banned certain activities they believed would undermine their fight against what they saw as British corruption.

In particular, the delegates prohibited horse races, cockfights, the theater, and elaborate funerals. The reasons for these prohibitions provide insight into the state of affairs in 1774. Both horse races and cockfights encouraged gambling and, for the delegates, gambling threatened to prevent the unity of action and purpose they desired. In addition, cockfighting appeared immoral and corrupt because the roosters were fitted with razors and fought to the death.

The ban on the theater aimed to do away with another corrupt British practice. Critics had long believed that theatrical performances drained money from working people. Moreover, they argued, theatergoers learned to lie and deceive from what they saw on stage. The delegates felt banning the theater would demonstrate their resolve to act honestly and without pretence in their fight against corruption.

Finally, eighteenth-century mourning practices often required lavish spending on luxury items and even the employment of professional mourners who, for a price, would shed tears at the grave. Prohibiting these practices reflected the idea that luxury bred corruption, and the First Continental Congress wanted to demonstrate that the colonists would do without British vices. Congress emphasized the need to be frugal and self-sufficient when confronted with corruption.

The First Continental Congress banned all four activities—horse races, cockfights, the theater, and elaborate funerals—and entrusted the Continental Association with enforcement. Rejecting what they saw as corruption coming from Great Britain, the delegates were also identifying themselves as standing apart from their British relatives. They cast themselves as virtuous defenders of liberty against a corrupt Parliament.

The colonists also wanted to distance themselves as much as possible from what they saw as the hedonistic, luxurious culture of the British landed aristocracy which controlled Parliament. Much like the Church of England had sought to distance itself from the opulent practices of the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the Colonies wanted to move toward a more sober, Spartan, working-class image that would appear morally superior to the foppish British upper-class that sought to control them.[1]

But not all colonists were patriots. Indeed, many remained faithful to the king and Parliament, while a good number took a neutral stance. As the situation intensified throughout 1774 and early 1775, factions emerged within the resistance movements in many colonies. Elite merchants who traded primarily with Britain, many of the Anglican clergy, and those colonists who held royal offices depended on and received privileges directly from their relationship with Britain. Initially, they sought to exert a moderating influence on the resistance committees, but, following the Continental Association, a number of these Loyalists began to worry that the resistance was too radical and was ultimately aiming for complete American independence. They, like most colonists in this period, still expected a peaceful conciliation with Britain and grew increasingly suspicious of the resistance movement.

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The First Revolutionary Battles (April 1775)

However, by the time the Continental Congress met again in May 1775, war had already broken out in Massachusetts. On April 19, 1775, British regiments set out to seize local militias’ arms and powder stores in Lexington and Concord and to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were staying in Lexington. The night before, Paul Revere took his famous midnight ride to warn the towns along the British route to rouse their militia.

Figure 2. The route that Paul Revere and his compatriots took to warn the Massachusetts countryside to rouse their militias against the British.

Link to Learning: Famous Phrases

The start of the Revolutionary War is responsible for some of the most famous American myths, stories, and phrases from our history:

  • “Give me liberty, or give me death!” were famous words spoken by Patriot Patrick Henry in March 1775, as he tried to convince the Virginia House of Burgesses to muster militia troops to defend the colony.
  • The famous phrase “one if by land, two if by sea” is a reference to when Revere was waiting to start his ride. He told his friend, Robert Newman, the sexton of Boston’s North Christ Church (now called the Old North Church), and asked him to put up two lanterns in the tower of Christ Church as a signal to let Revere know how the British troops were approaching. One lantern meant that the British were approaching “by land,” two lanterns meant that the British were rowing “by sea” across the Charles River.
  • The “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, commemorates Revere’s ride through Massachusetts.
  • The “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” is a colloquial reference to the first shot fired on the Lexington Green, which triggered the volley from the British troops and essentially kicked off the Revolutionary War. It is taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Concord Hymn,” which actually refers to a skirmish at the Old North Bridge in Concord after shots had already been fired at Lexington earlier in the day. The phrase stuck, however, as a way to refer to the start of the Revolution at Lexington and Concord.

Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775)

The colonial militia met the British regiment at the Lexington Green. The British ordered the militia to disperse, but someone fired their musket, setting off a volley from the British. The battle continued all the way to the next town, Concord.

The Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775)

News of the events at Lexington spread rapidly throughout the countryside. Militia members, known as minutemen (because they had to be ready to fight in a minute or less), responded quickly and inflicted significant casualties on the British regiments as they chased them back to Boston. Approximately 20,000 colonial militiamen laid siege to Boston, effectively trapping the British. In June, the militia set up fortifications on Breed’s Hill overlooking the city. In the misnamed “Battle of Bunker Hill,” the British attempted to dislodge them from the position with a frontal assault, and, despite eventually taking the hill, they suffered severe casualties at the hands of the colonists. These early battles would lead to another meeting of the Continental Congress and the official Revolutionary War, or American War for Independence, following the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Watch It

This CrashCourse video reviews the legislation and responses that led towards revolution.

You can view the transcript for “Taxes and Smuggling – Prelude to Revolution: Crash Course US History #6” here (opens in new window).

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Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Was reconciliation between the American colonies and Great Britain possible in 1774? Why or why not?
  2. Why did the colonists react so much more strongly to the Stamp Act than to the Sugar Act? How did the principles that the Stamp Act raised continue to provide points of contention between colonists and the British government?
  3. History is filled with unintended consequences. How do the British government’s attempts to control and regulate the colonies during this tumultuous era provide a case in point? How did the aims of the British measure up against the results of their actions?
  4. What evidence indicates that colonists continued to think of themselves as British subjects throughout this era? What evidence suggests that colonists were beginning to forge a separate, collective “American” identity? How would you explain this shift?


loyalists: colonists who hoped for the colonies to remain part of the British Empire, either because they were personally loyal to Britain, or because they were employed by the Empire as officials and were targeted by Patriots because of it

minutemen: colonial militia members who fought against the British, and whose derived from the requirement that they be ready to fight in less than a minute

patriots: colonists who resisted British rule, with varying degrees of support for the burgeoning independence movement

Suffolk Resolves: a Massachusetts plan of resistance to the Intolerable Acts that formed the basis of the eventual plan adopted by the First Continental Congress for resisting the British, including the arming of militias and the adoption of a widespread non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption agreement


  1. Edgerton, John Keith, "Ignoble society| The failure of British nobility in early America" (1985). Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers. 2639.