Today, Americans are so familiar with the imagery and historical legends surrounding the creation of the Declaration of Independence that they often forget just how radical that event was. The very notion that representatives from all thirteen American colonies would meet in secret to discuss a coordinated, organized resistance to British rule in an extralegal “Continental Congress” was an incredibly risky endeavor, though it was not completely without precedent. The colonies had convened the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 to organize resistance to a new form of imperial taxation, and that gathering had coordinated a successful tax revolt.
The idea of convening another Congress nine years later, however, arose under dramatically different circumstances. It first occurred to colonial leaders in the summer of 1774, following both the Boston Tea Party and the Crown’s imposition of a series of punitive measures against the Bostonians named the Coercive Acts ( the colonists called them the Intolerable Acts.) These acts, among other things, closed Boston harbor, shut down the colonial government, took over the justice system, and effectively imposed martial law on Massachusetts until the colonists had paid for the tea destroyed by the protesters.
Colonials throughout America were furious at Britain’s fiercely repressive measures against Massachusetts, and called for a meeting of all the colonies to coordinate a unified response to a royal threat that suddenly seemed existential. To be sure, the notion of declaring independence from Great Britain was still the furthest thing from most people’s minds. (In fact, for most Americans, even as late as 1774, the idea of Independence was simply unthinkable. ) But the idea that the colonists had to join together to forge a Continental resistance to a mother country that had overstepped its bounds was – especially in the heated atmosphere of the moment – extremely radical.
On August 3, 1774, Connecticut formally selected the three men it would send to Philadelphia to attend this first Continental Congress: Roger Sherman, a lawyer from New Milford; Eliphalet Dyer, a lawyer from Windham; and Silas Deane, a merchant from Wethersfield. The initial meeting of that 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. At the Congress, delegates mutually agreed to double down on the economic resistance now symbolized by Boston’s destroyed tea. Every colony agreed to boycott a wide range of imported British goods, and sent a formal list of grievances to Parliament demanding redress. Before they disbanded on October 26, the delegates also 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 making preparations for war — and discussing American independence.
“The Continental Congress,” PBS’ American Experience
“On This Day: The First Continental Congress Concludes,” National Constitution Center