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The Second Continental Congress

KC‑3.2.I.B (KC)
NAT (Theme)
Unit 3: Learning Objective D
After violence broke out between Britain and its American colonies in 1775, delegates from the thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia to plot the course of war—and soon, independence. 


  • The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in the summer of 1775, shortly after the war with the British had begun. It was preceded by the First Continental Congress in the fall of 1774.
  • The Congress appointed George Washington as commander of the Continental Army, and authorized the raising of the army through conscription.
  • On July 4, 1776, the Congress issued the Declaration of Independence, which for the first time asserted the colonies’ intention to be fully independent of the mother country.
  • The Congress established itself as the central governing authority under the Articles of Confederation, which remained in force until 1788.

Fighting the Revolutionary War

In April 1775, at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, war between Britain and its North American colonies broke out. In order to direct the war effort and begin debating the contours of the system of government that would emerge to replace British rule, delegates from all 13 colonies convened in Philadelphia in the summer of 1775.start superscript, 1, end superscript
The most pressing order of business was the war effort. It was not unified, nor were there many leaders who could potentially command the disparate armed forces—which at this point were mostly composed of various local militias. In June, the delegates voted to raise an army through conscription and appointed George Washington to command the new Continental Army.squared
Portrait of George Washington
Rembrandt Peale, Portrait of George Washington, circa 1858. Image credit: The Athenaeum

Radicals and conservatives at the Second Continental Congress

There were two main factions represented at the Congress: the conservatives—headed by John Jay of New York and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania—and the radicals, led by John Adams of Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.
The conservatives still believed that reconciliation with the British was possible, and on July 5, the Congress authorized the Olive Branch Petition, which represented one final attempt at negotiation and affirmed the colonies’ loyalty to the Crown.
However, the following day, the Congress issued the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, which explained and justified the 13 colonies’ decision to go to war. This had the effect of invalidating the Olive Branch Petition, which the British summarily rejected. Though the ideas of conservatives continued to be debated in the Congress, the battles at Lexington and Concord and the subsequent siege of Boston pushed many of the delegates into the radical camp.

Declaring independence

The Second Continental Congress assumed the normal functions of a government, appointing ambassadors, issuing paper currency, raising the Continental Army through conscription, and appointing generals to lead the army. The powers of the Congress were still very limited, however. It did not have the authority to raise taxes, nor did it have the ability to regulate commerce.
On July 4, 1776, the Congress took a momentous step and issued the Declaration of Independence. Although the delegates were partly motivated by the necessity of securing foreign allies—particularly the French—to assist with the war effort against Britain, many of them also understood that the time for negotiations was over. Nothing short of full independence would suffice. Thomas Jefferson composed the first draft of the declaration, which was then edited by the other delegates to produce the final version that was approved on July 4.cubed
Painting depicting the Congress signing the Declaration of Independence
Robert Edge Pine, The Congress Voting Independence, circa 1785, completed by Edward Savage in 1790. Image credit: Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection

Waging war and making peace

As the delegates sought to direct the war effort, they were also looking ahead to the end of the war and the government that would replace British rule. What should this government look like? What would be its obligations to citizens, and most importantly, what checks on its power could be put in place so as to prevent another form of tyranny from arising?start superscript, 4, end superscript
After months of fierce debate, on November 15, 1777, the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, which established a unicameral legislature that served as the fledgling nation’s governing authority until 1788. The Continental Congress effectively transformed a collection of disparate colonies into a country under a functioning central government, and the Articles of Confederation served as the constitution of the new United States—until 1789.

What do you think?

In your opinion, what was the most important decision the Second Continental Congress made?
If you had been a delegate at the Congress, do you think you would have been a conservative or a radical? Why?
What was so significant about the Declaration of Independence?

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