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Introduction

Between 1774 and 1789, 13 colonies became a nation - the United States of America. In 1774, Great Britain's North American colonies first came together to defend themselves against wrongs committed by their "mother country." By 1789, these colonies had become independent states, joined by a new federal constitution into a single nation.

 

Assembling representatives from every colony, the Continental Congress (1774-1789) began as a coordinated effort to resist the British. With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the Congress became the central institution for managing the struggle for American independence.

 

Independence raised new issues. How could thirteen separate self-governed states unite? What form would that union take? The Articles of Confederation (1781-1789) were America's first attempt to govern itself as an independent nation. They united the states as a confederation - a loose league of states represented in a Congress.

 

In 1783, with the war formally drawing to a close, the Congress faced a wider range of issues: the disbanding of the Continental Army, the large debts owed by each state, foreign debts owed by the Confederation, the governing of territories won from the British, and the establishment of formal relationships with foreign countries.

 

Despite the Congress's continued efforts to improve its effectiveness, many Americans saw the need for a more powerful central authority; the Congress as defined by the Articles of Confederation was too weak to make the states obey congressional mandates. Anxious for change, in 1786, leading statesmen called for a special convention to revise the Articles -- the Constitutional Convention.

 

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 proposed a new constitution establishing a much stronger national government. Although this controversial new Constitution provoked a great deal of resistance, it was eventually ratified by the necessary number of states, replacing the Articles of Confederation as the framework of the United States government.

 

Debate and compromise, controversy and tedious detail, foreign affairs and domestic problems, are all included in the 267 documents of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention Broadside Collections. Including public announcements of congressional actions, drafts of legislation, committee reports, and final versions of legislation or treaties, these broadsides illustrate the evolution of a government, from a legislative body called together in the crisis of war, to an intricate system of checks and balances. These documents show the birth of the American nation.

Organizing a War

The huge task of organizing thirteen separate governments and militia into a united, effective fighting force was a main concern of the Continental Congress. The hastily assembled Continental Army was an army without a precedent; Congress had to create rules for organization and conduct, and invent an effective system of raising money to fund the war effort.

Congress Makes Rules for Plundering Enemy Ships
 
In December 1775, Great Britain passed the Prohibitory Act, removing the colonies from the protection of the crown, banning trade with them, and allowing seizure of American ships at sea. The Continental Congress responded by issuing "letters of marque and reprisal", permitting Americans to arm private ships for attacking and seizing British vessels and cargoes at sea. Intended to supplement the infant Continental Navy, recently established under the command of Esek Hopkins, privateering was a frequent practice throughout the war, with the Continental Congress commissioning more than a thousand private vessels.
 
The displayed document, printed in 1781 by Benjamin Franklin, American Minister to France, reproduces congressional instructions to captains of privateers issued in May 1780.
 
Congress Provides for Prisoners of War

The colonies' first measures of resistance to British rule were enacted before they had officially declared themselves independent, and without a formal declaration of war. As combat between British troops and American militia increased, Congress quickly saw the need for formal rules and procedures in handling prisoners. A resolution, passed on May 21, 1776 and published by order of Congress, included specific instructions for feeding, housing, and imprisoning British prisoners of war. Although most prisoners were eventually exchanged, British Major John André suffered a different fate.

 Congress Reorganizes the Army

Throughout the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army suffered problems of low recruitment, supply shortages, and sinking morale. In January 1778, at General George Washington's urging, Congress sent a committee to military headquarters at Valley Forge, to confer with Washington on necessary improvements. Although the committee made proposals for reorganizing supply procedures and revising recruitment regulations, Congress's response was slow and piecemeal; other issues, such as the controversy surrounding a prisoner exchange, kept Congress distracted. Congress did not approve the plan for rearrangement of the army until May 1778, and it was November before implementation was completed.

Fanning the Flames of Patriotism

As the only institution encompassing all thirteen states, the Continental Congress served as a symbol of national unity, laboring to inspire patriotic spirit in support of the war, and communicating news of victories, defeats, and major political decisions.

Congress Declares Independence

On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee offered a formal resolution that the united colonies "are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." After some debate, a committee was appointed to write a formal declaration of independence; Thomas Jefferson of Virginia drafted the document. On July 2, 1776, Congress officially resolved that the united colonies should be free and independent states, and on July 4, the Declaration of Independence was formally approved by Congress. The displayed copy of the Declaration -- the first official printing with the names of the signers attached -- was printed by Baltimore printer Mary Katherine Goddard.

The new nation celebrated with prayer, speeches, fireworks, and formal readings of the Declaration. Delegate John Adams later stated that the vote for American independence was "the greatest question...which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men."

Congress Warns: "The British Are Coming"

On December 10, 1776, Congress warned citizens of Pennsylvania that British troops were fast approaching. It encouraged them to unite and offer strong resistance, and assured them that General Charles Lee was on his way with reinforcements. Despite its strong pleas to resist the British until Lee could arrive, Congress packed its bags and departed Philadelphia two days later, reassembling in Baltimore.

Congress Boosts Public Morale

In an effort to rally the nation in the midst of war, and attract popular support for itself, Congress addressed the inhabitants of the United States, reminding them of the cruelties they had suffered at the hands of the British, and warning them that more such treatment would result from a reunion with Britain. Because people regularly gathered at places of worship, Congress distributed the address to "churches and chapels and other places of religious worship" with the request that ministers read it aloud to their congregation immediately after divine service. Written by Congressman Gouverneur Morris, the address was sent throughout the states, and 50 copies were given to General Washington, to disperse throughout the army.

Congress Publicly Threatens the British

News of the French alliance with America in 1778 panicked the British, prompting them to send commissioners to America, with offers of peace. Congress replied that it would happily discuss peace, if Britain would accept American independence and recall its troops. The British commissioners, however, had no intention of granting American independence. They continued to press Congress to accept their proposals, even offering bribes to individual Congressmen, such as Joseph Reed, in exchange for help in re-uniting England and its colonies. Frustrated in their efforts, in October 1778, the British issued a manifesto questioning Congress's authority to make a treaty with France, and threatening dire consequences if their offer of conciliation was rejected. On October 30, 1778, Congress responded with a manifesto -- intended as a morale-boosting national statement of strength and confidence -- declaring that the American cause was just, success was assured, and if Britain carried through with its threats, "we will take such exemplary vengeance, as shall deter others from a like conduct."

Incorporating the Western Territories

Under the Treaty of Paris (1783) which ended the Revolutionary War, Britain relinquished to the United States a large tract of land west of the Appalachian mountains, doubling the size of the new nation. How would this territory be incorporated into the United States? Congressional debates about the division and government of the new territories resulted in precedents which were followed throughout the settlement of the west.

Congress Discusses Slavery in the Western Territories

 In 1783, Congress formed a committee to "prepare a plan for the temporary government of the western territory." Thomas Jefferson, chairman of the committee, delivered a report in March 1784 proposing the division of the land into ten territories, and their eventual admission to the Union on an equal footing with the original thirteen states. In addition, Jefferson proposed the prohibition of slavery in any of the new states. Congress rejected Jefferson's ban on slavery, but in 1785 Rufus King attempted to restore it, offering the displayed resolution. Congress, once again, rejected the proposal by a slight margin. Slavery was officially barred from the new western states in 1787.

Congress Decides How to Divide the Western Territories

 Congressman David Howell of Rhode Island complained that America's new western territories were "the most complicated and embarrassing Subject before Congress since peace has taken place." Deliberation over what to do with the territory continued for several years, but on May 18, 1785, a burst of activity resulted in a proposal for the orderly settlement of the western public lands. Rufus King of Massachusetts, a key figure in the debate, made many of the notations that appear in the document's margins. Congress adopted the final version of the Land Ordinance of 1785 on May 20.

 Congress Determines How New States Can Enter the Union

In 1787, Congress was approached by agents of the Ohio Company, a group of New England Revolutionary War veterans seeking to purchase vast tracts of western land. The prospect of earning real revenue for the western territories inspired Congress to resolve the long debate over the west; the Northwest Ordinance, passed on July 13, 1787, provided for a government in the western territories, created a procedure for the formation of states, established a formal method for the new states to enter the union as equals, guaranteed the inhabitants civil and religious liberties, and prohibited slavery. The president of Congress, Arthur St. Clair, was named first governor of the territory. The document above shows some of the final changes made in the ordinance before its passage.

Relations With Native Americans

Before permanently settling the western territories, the United States had to consider the presence of Native Americans already living on these lands. Great Britain may have agreed to give the United States the land, but no one had consulted with the Indian people concerning this change. Reacting to the pressure of American settlers anxious for new land, Congress sought treaties with Native Americans to insure the safety of the settlers, and to obtain clear title for the land.

Congress Tries to Appease Southern Indian Peoples

Although treaties with the Indian people were usually negotiated in good faith, the Congress found itself politically unwilling and actually unable to halt illegal settlement of Indian lands by a growing number of American settlers. These treaties are attempts by Congress to establish friendship between Congress and the Shawnee and Cherokee nations; the Southern states, as typified by North Carolinian delegate William Blount, objected so violently to the treaties's moderate land claims that the agreed-upon boundaries became impossible to enforce.

 Congress Increases the Army in the Northwest

By the early spring of 1786, Congressional commissioners had signed several treaties with a number of Indian nations. However, the Indian people were far from satisfied with America's increasing expansion into the west; many Indian tribes of the Northwest, such as the Mohawk nation, represented by Mohawk Joseph Brant, were not willing to concede that all of their land was destined to be occupied and settled by Americans. By the summer of 1786, skirmishes between Native Americans and settlers were on the rise, and war was a clear possibility. Unwilling to halt the expansion, on October 20, 1786, Congress responded to the crisis by calling for additional troops and increased fortifications in the west.

 A Cash-Poor Congress Decides to Strive for Peace

Although confident that America would continue its western expansion, Congress altered its policy due to the threat of warfare with the Indian people, combined with an empty treasury. In response to a report from Secretary of War Henry Knox, Congress retreated from its more aggressive attitude towards Native American lands, and on February 20, 1787, admitted that "certain encroachments are made on the lands of the Creek and Cherokee nations." Congress promised to strive for "peace with the Indians, provided it can be obtained and preserved consistently with the justice and dignity of the nation."

Identifying Defects in the Confederation

With the passage of time, weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation became apparent; Congress commanded little respect and no support from state governments anxious to maintain their power. Congress could not raise funds, regulate trade, or conduct foreign policy without the voluntary agreement of the states. Recognizing the need to improve the government, Congress tried to strengthen the Articles, but problems persisted.
 
Congress Can Not Improve Poor Attendance by Delegates

In November 1783, American diplomats sent Congress the final version of the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended America's war with Great Britain. A quorum of nine states had to be present for Congress to ratify the treaty, yet throughout December, scarcely that number was present. Weeks passed, the treaty sat, and Congress remained unable to act upon it. Some desperate congressmen went so far as to contemplate holding Congress in the sickroom of an ailing delegate, to add him to their numbers.

After years of experiencing frustrating delays due to lackadaisical attendance, delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania expected this predicament. In anticipation of the crisis, he voiced the need to "devise means for procuring a full representation in Congress." The displayed report, produced by a committee appointed to address the problem, does little more than agree with Wilson; Congress lacked the authority to do much more. Although some statesmen, like Secretary Charles Thomson, took their congressional responsibilities seriously, the weakness of Congress under the Articles of Confederation encouraged many delegates to pay far more attention to politics in their home states and to their personal affairs than to the nation's legislative body.
 
Congress Pleads with the States to Contribute Money to the National Treasury

By the end of the war, the new nation had a large debt. Although Congress proposed a number of ways for the states to raise revenue towards the national debt, the states almost never complied with Congress's suggestions. By June of 1786, the situation was desperate. The Board of Treasury submitted a report, warning that unless the states immediately adopted the measures recommended by Congress in 1783, "...nothing...can rescue us from Bankruptcy, or preserve the Union of the several States from Dissolution." Congress agreed with the board's findings, and prepared to address the states on the subject. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, whose copy of the document is included in the collection, chaired the committee in charge of drafting the address; friends warned him, however, that "Your Address to the States will (I fear) prove like Water spilled upon the Ground and have no Influence to awake us from our Stupor." Eventually, after much revision and argument, Congress decided not to send any address at all.
 
Congress is Unable to Control Commerce Between America and Foreign Nations

Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress lacked the authority to regulate commerce, making it unable to protect or standardize trade between foreign nations and the various states. In 1784, Congress requested that the states grant it limited power over commerce for a period of fifteen years, but many of the states did not comply. In 1785, twenty-seven-year-old delegate James Monroe again stressed the need for increased congressional power over commerce. Congress appointed a committee, chaired by Monroe, to investigate the problem. On February 16, 1785, the committee recommended amending the Articles of Confederation so that Congress would have power over commerce. Although Congress sent the proposed amendment to the state legislatures, along with a letter urging immediate action, few states responded. Monroe later concluded that the issue was so crucial, and potentially granted so much power to Congress, that the states were afraid to act.

Creating a Constitution

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called to revise the ailing Articles of Confederation. However, the Convention soon abandoned the Articles, drafting a new Constitution with a much stronger national government. Nine states had to approve the Constitution before it could go into effect. After a long and often bitter debate, eleven states ratified the Constitution, which instituted a new form of government for the United States.
 
Congress Tries to Revise the Articles of Confederation

In May 1786, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed that Congress revise the Articles of Confederation. Congress responded by appointing a committee to draft amendments to the Articles. On August 7, 1786, the committee produced these amendments, written chiefly by committee chairman Pinckney.

Among many changes, the amendments would have granted Congress exclusive power over commerce, and outlined punishments for poor attendance by members of Congress. Although the most ambitious effort to revise the Articles of Confederation, the amendments were never acted upon; a new convention meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, seemed likely to devise a plan for granting Congress power over trade.

The Constitutional Convention Drafts a New Constitution

On July 26, 1787, after two months of fierce debate over the structure and powers of a new federal government, the Constitutional Convention was ready to commit its resolutions to writing. Appointing a "committee of detail" to draft a written constitution, the Convention adjourned until August 6.
 
To prepare themselves, the committee first studied the Convention's resolutions, state constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, and other applicable reports and documents. Then, Edmund Randolph of Virginia wrote out a rough draft of a constitution, which the committee then discussed. James Wilson revised Randolph's draft, the committee reviewed it, and a clean copy was sent to prominent Philadelphia printers John Dunlap and David Claypoole. The Convention told them to print just enough copies for use by the delegates; the draft was to be kept secret to avoid controversy.


The Constitutional Convention Completes a New Constitution

After five weeks of debate over the committee of detail's draft Constitution, the Constitutional Convention appointed a committee of style to prepare a final version; Gouverneur Morris, later known as the "penman of the Constitution," did most of the work. On September 17, 1787, after several days of further revision, the Constitutional Convention voted in favor of the Constitution. The states were left to accept or reject this new plan of government. Delegate James Madison, one of the Constitution's most fervent advocates, felt that the success or failure of the American Constitution "would decide forever the fate of republican government."

The Continental Congress Institutes a New Government

As the states considered the proposed Constitution, Congress assembled, but with a new government in the making, the old government had little to do. As one delegate wrote: "To your demand to know what we are doing in Congress? I answer -- Nothing. To your enquiry what we have done? I answer -- almost nothing... The States have been in such a flutter about the New, that they have hardly paid attention to the old Government." On July 2, 1788, Congress received the momentous news that New Hampshire had just become the ninth state to ratify the new Constitution, making it the law of the land.
 
Congress responded by appointing a committee to schedule the first federal elections and fix the date when the new government would begin operation in New York City. This was the last major act of the Continental Congress.