It was on May 10, 1775, the day that had witnessed the capture of the powerful fortress at the base of the Adirondacks by the intrepid Allen, that the Second Continental Congress met in Independence Hall, Philadelphia. It was composed of the best brains of the land. Most of the old members of the preceding Congress were present, but some of the strongest men in the body now took their seats for the first time. Among these were Thomas Jefferson, a youthful Virginian whose powers were beginning to unfold; Benjamin Franklin, the only American who enjoyed a world-wide fame; and John Hancook, who was chosen president in defiance of the king's proscription.1
The Congress was a conservative body. Only a few of the members--the two Adamses, Franklin, and possibly Jefferson and Hancock--honestly believed that a reconciliation with England was past all hope; but even these were agreed that any consideration of the subject was not then in place. This Congress, like its predecessor of the year before, was only a great committee, or a combination of committees, met for the avowed purpose of seeking and, it may be said, demanding a redress of grievances. Yet it was forced by existing conditions to assume some of the functions of a national government. Its most important act was to adopt the straggling army around Boston as the "Continental Army," and to appoint for it a commander in chief. George Washington, at the suggestion of John Adams, was chosen to be commander of the army. As Adams described, in an elaborate speech, the high qualifications necessary to the position and reserved mentioning the name of his choice to the close, Washington sat near and watched his face intently, and hearing his own name mentioned, perhaps without any expectation of it, he quickly arose and went into an adjoining room. A recess was then taken that the members might talk the matter over privately; and when they reassembled; Washington was elected unanimously.2 This choice was made for two reasons. First, the Continental army was thus far a purely New England army, and it was felt that a commander must be chosen from the South in order to secure the more firmly the aid and sympathy of that section and to allay any feeling of jealousy that might arise. Second, Washington was honestly believed to be the best choice that could be made. His military reputation was second to none in the country. The remarkable journey he had made while still a youth through the wilderness of Pennsylvania at the behest of Governor Dinwiddie had not been forgotten; nor his saving of Braddock's defeated army just twenty years before the meeting of this Congress. He was now commander of the Virginia militia, and moreover he was noted for his stanch character, his stalwart, commanding appearance, his marvelous self-control, and above all for his extraordinarily sound judgment.
This Congress, while recognizing a state of war and preparing for its vigorous prosecution, disclaimed any intention of casting off allegiance to the Crown of England. On the contrary, led by Dickinson and Jay, it prepared a new petition to the king, almost fulsome in its tone, and sent it to London by a special messenger, Richard Penn, who was himself a Tory. Addresses were sent to the people of Great Britain, to Ireland, and to Canada. Congress also authorized the issue of two million dollars in bills of credit, or paper money, set apart a day of fasting and prayer, authorized various colonies to form local governments, and did many other things. Thus gradually, as circumstances required, Congress was forced to assume sovereign powers. Meanwhile matters had reached a crisis at Boston, and before the coming of midsummer, before the arrival of the newly appointed commander, the most famous of all the battles of the Revolutionary War had been fought.
1Peyton Randolph was again chosen president, but he was called to Virginia; and Jefferson, who had been elected as an alternate, occupied his seat while Hancock was made president. Return
2Hancock had expected and desired the appointment. Congress at the same time appointed four major genecals, Artemas Ward, Charles Lee, Philip Schuyler, and Israel Pntnam, and eitht brigadiers. Return
History of the United States of America, by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XII p. 243-244
Transcribed by Kathy Leigh
The Revolution--War and Independence
Created September 15, 2000
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