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The Second Continental Congress

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. 

Overview

  • 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 1775.1
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.2
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 4.3
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?4
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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf orange style avatar for user E
    When Congress issued the Declaration of Independance, didn't England fight again or try to stop them? Or was that just the end, they were independant? Thank you.
    (12 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Hamilton Hardy
    Why did the Continental congress issue the olive branch petition the day after they finished the declaration of Independence?
    (5 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Wallie988
    The last paragraph in "Radicals and conservatives at the Second Continental Congress" mentions that "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."

    Just to confirm, was the declaration explaining Lexington and Concord or basically informing the British that the colonies were declaring a full-blown war (starting the Revolutionary War)? Thank you!
    (12 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user G Thompson
      It should be seen as a justification for a call to arms. Remember that the conflict needed soldiers and the colonies understood they were about to stand up to a global power. In addition to this it can be seen as posturing by the Colonies to show the British that they were ready for a fight. Having a huge debt from their war with Spain (War of Jenkin's Ear) and constant fighting with France, Britain was reluctant to get involved in another lengthy conflict, especially overseas.
      (12 votes)
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user CAMILLA528
    Why did the U.S. try to ally with the French when they had just beaten them in battle (7 Years War), and taken their territory?
    (7 votes)
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    • leaf grey style avatar for user Alex
      The Seven Years' War in America was considered a great deal, but European historians considered a rather minor theater of this global war, so the US and French weren't completely antagonized. However, the French did want to do everything to get under Britain's skin, and allying with the US would not only make Britain lose their giant colony but possibly give them favorable trade deals and resources with the US.
      (15 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user linh.khuong
    Why do you think most representatives at the 2nd Continental Congress want a peaceful resolution?
    (7 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user bigjoefreddynick
    Who is the president of the Second Continental Congress?
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      There were five presidents of the second continental congress between its opening and replacement. They were:
      Peyton Randolph of Virginia from May 10–May 24, 1775
      John Hancock of MA from May 24, 1775–Oct. 31, 1777
      Henry Laurens of SC from Nov. 1, 1777–Dec. 9, 1778
      John Jay of NY from Dec. 10, 1778–Sep. 27, 1779
      and
      Samuel Huntington of CT from Sep. 28, 1779–Mar. 1, 1781
      (10 votes)
  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user Jola and Jeri
    Would the British still attack America today if such was to happen again, or are the two nations friends?
    (3 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user L. E.
      Well... the situation's entirely different nowadays. This can't ever really happen again for the simple reason that America is no longer under British rule. Therefore the question of whether another declaration of independence, etc. would incite the two nations to war is purely academic-- there's nothing to be independent from.

      Since WWI at least, America and Great Britain have been on friendly terms with each other.

      Hope this helped!
      (13 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Peter Apostolakis
    Why didn't they wait for a response to the Olive Branch Petition before issuing the Declaration of the causes?
    (1 vote)
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    • mr pants purple style avatar for user sarah mazur
      Funny enough, the Olive Branch Petition, along with other various things the colonists sent to the King were thrown to the ground without even being read. Although the colonists sent it to the king in hopes that he would compromise rather than going to war, I think they knew at the time that war was becoming more and more inevitable
      (12 votes)
  • piceratops tree style avatar for user davids802
    why were there not any women who had a meet
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user 2137950
    In the photo I only see men! Why is that?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      It isn't a photo, it is a painting. But, you have observed correctly, there are only men in it. Beyond that, they were only WHITE men.

      The continental congress and the constitutional convention were made up on adult white male property-owning men. They did not consider youth, women, non-white and poor people to be as human as they were.
      (5 votes)