Today, Americans are so familiar with the imagery and historical stories surrounding the creation of the Declaration of Independence that they often forget just how radical an event it was. The very notion that representatives from all thirteen American colonies would meet in secret to discuss a coordinated, organized resistance to British rule as part of an extralegal “Continental Congress” was an incredibly risky endeavor — though not completely without precedent (the colonies had convened the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, nine years earlier).
The idea of convening a new Continental Congress first occurred to colonial leaders in the summer of 1774, long before the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord. At that time, the notion of declaring independence from Great Britain was the furthest thing from most colonists’ minds (most of whom couldn’t even fathom the idea). The stated priority for the first Continental Congress was to facilitate a unified response among all thirteen colonies to the punitive Coercive Acts (also known as the Intolerable Acts) slapped on the colony of Massachusetts by Parliament in response to the Boston Tea Party of 1773.
On August 3, 1774, the colony of Connecticut formally selected the three men it would send to Philadelphia to attend the first Continental Congress: Roger Sherman, a lawyer from New Milford; Eliphalet Dyer, a lawyer from Windham; and Silas Deane, a merchant from Wethersfield. The first meeting of the Congress occurred in Carpenter’s Hall — now better known as Independence Hall — in Philadelphia on September 5, with representatives from every colony except Georgia present. While in session, delegates mutually agreed to boycott certain imported British goods and sent a formal list of grievances to Parliament. Before they disbanded on October 26, the delegates agreed to meet again the following year if tensions between the colonies and Great Britain remained unresolved. Little did they know that in less than a year’s time, their successors in the Second Continental Congress would be discussing preparations for war — and American independence.
“The Continental Congress,” PBS’ American Experience
“On This Day: The First Continental Congress Concludes,” National Constitution Center