The First Continental Congress — America’s First Government

September 5, 1774–October 26, 1774 — American Revolution

The First Continental Congress met in Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia, from September 5, 1774 until October 26, 1774. The meeting was called in response to acts of the British Parliament, collectively known in the Colonies as the Intolerable Acts.

Peyton Randolph, Illustration

Peyton Randolph was the first President of the First Continental Congress. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

First Continental Congress Summary

The First Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia at Carpenter’s Hall from September 5, 1774, to October 26, 1774, to discuss a response to the Coercive Acts — or Intolerable Acts.

After Britain passed the Boston Port Act to punish Boston for the Boston Tea Party, the political leaders in Boston called for an intercolonial trade boycott against British merchants. However, some of the other colonies were not entirely sure that was the best course of action, and they called for a new intercolonial Congress to discuss the issue.

By the time the colonies agreed and the delegates were elected, news reached the colonies of three more acts intended to punish Boston and Massachusetts and a fifth act that dramatically altered the boundaries and laws of the Province of Quebec.

Collectively, the five laws are known as the Coercive Acts or the Intolerable Acts. 12 of the 13 colonies sent delegates to the meeting.

At the time, Georgia was dealing with a threat on its frontier from Native American Indian tribes and needed British military aid, so the colony decided not to participate in the meetings.

Over the course of roughly six weeks, the delegates made several key decisions that organized colonial opposition to British authority. Congress adopted the Suffolk Resolves, discussed a plan of union, and produced a document called the Declaration of Rights and Grievances that was sent to King George III.

Congress decided to implement a trade boycott and informed the King the boycott would go into effect if the Coercive Acts were not repealed. In order to enforce the trade boycott, Congress formed the Continental Association. Congress also made one final critical decision — to reconvene in May 1775 if the Coercive Acts were not repealed.

This illustration depicts Reverend Jacob Duché delivering the opening prayer to the First Continental Congress. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The “Intolerable” Coercive Acts

King George III and some leaders in Parliament wanted to make it clear to all the colonies that rebellious behavior would not be tolerated. Four laws were written that reinforced Britain’s authority over Massachusetts, Boston, and all the colonies, and the fifth law, the Quebec Act, gave preferential treatment to the Province of Quebec. In Britain, they were called the “Coercive Acts” but in America, they were called the “Intolerable Acts.”

Lord North, Portrait
Frederick North, the 2nd Earl of Guilford, was Prime Minister of Great Britain in 1774 when the Coercive Acts were passed. Source: Wikipedia.

Boston Port Act

The first was the Boston Port Act. It closed the port of Boston, with few exceptions, on June 1, until the British East India Company was paid for the tea that was destroyed during the Boston Tea Party.

Massachusetts Government Act

The second was the Massachusetts Government Act. It revised the governing structure of Massachusetts, consolidating royal authority and severely limiting self-government.

Administration of Justice Act

The Administration of Justice Act was the third act. It authorized the governor of Massachusetts to move trials of royal officials accused of committing capital offenses, while performing their official duties, to another colony or to Great Britain, if he believed the accused would not receive a fair trial in Massachusetts.

Quartering Act

The fourth was a revision of the Quartering Act of 1765 which expanded the types of buildings in which soldiers could be housed. The Quartering Act of 1774 also removed the requirement the soldiers had to be provided with provisions.

Quebec Act

The final act, the Quebec Act, rewarded the loyal Province of Quebec by reestablishing its borders and greatly expanding its size by transferring land in the Ohio Country that had been promised to other colonies.

Purpose of the First Continental Congress

When news of the Coercive Acts arrived in America, there was outrage. The King and Parliament wanted to make an example of Boston. Instead, the other colonies rallied to help Boston. They sent food and provisions, and the Sons of  Liberty called for a boycott of British goods, as they had done before in response to British laws governing the colonies.

The colonial governments called for a Congress to be assembled and gave it the authority to set the terms and conditions of the boycott.

The First Continental Congress helped define common grievances against Great Britain and solidified colonial resolve to band together to encourage or force Parliament to address those grievances.

First Continental Congress Significance

The First Continental Congress is important to the history of the United States because it was the first unified governing body with authority to act on behalf of the Colonies. 12 of the 13 colonies sent delegates to the meetings in Philadelphia, and they agreed to several measures, including the establishment of the Continental Association and a commitment to reconvene in May 1775 if the Coercive Acts were not repealed. Georgia did not send delegates to the first Congress, but it did agree to participate in the Continental Association and send delegates to the Second Continental Congress.

Leaders of the First Continental Congress

Peyton Randolph, from the colony of Virginia, oversaw the proceedings until the last few days. When he was unable to continue his duties, Henry Middleton of South Carolina took over as President. The Secretary of the Congress was Charles Thomson. He was a leader of the Sons of Liberty in Philadelphia and was sometimes referred to as the “Samuel Adams of Philadelphia.”

Other prominent members of Congress included:

John Dickinson, Illustration
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania played a key role in the First Continental Congress. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Congress Responds to the Coercive Acts

At the time, the members of Congress did not seek independence, they wanted to end the enforcement of the Coercive Acts. The members hoped their grievances would be heard in London and right the perceived wrongs that had been inflicted upon the colonies. Congress allowed the colonies to coordinate their resistance to British rule, worked to balance the interests of different colonies, and established itself as the official liaison to Great Britain.

Congress Adopts the Suffolk Resolves

While Congress met in Philadelphia, representatives in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, which included Boston, held their own meeting to discuss a response to the Coercive Acts. The meeting produced 19 resolutions, which were primarily written by Joseph Warren, a leading Patriot in Boston. The Resolutions are known as the Suffolk Resolves They were approved by the delegates at the Suffolk Convention on September 9.

The Resolves were given to Paul Revere, who rode his horse from Boston to Philadelphia and delivered the document to the Massachusetts representatives at the Congress. Revere delivered the Resolves on September 16 and the Massachusetts delegates presented the Resolves to Congress on September 17.

The Resolves were controversial. Some members believed Massachusetts had gone too far because the Resolves instructed people to ignore the Coercive Acts and told the towns to raise militia forces.

After a debate, Congress endorsed the Suffolk Resolves and ordered them to be printed in the newspapers.

Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province Quebec

The delegates in Philadelphia believed they could convince the other British colonies in North America to join their cause. However, they ended up focusing on the Province of Quebec, as it was directly affected by the Quebec Act. On October 21, Congress created a committee to draft a letter. The members of the committee were Thomas Cushing, Richard Henry Lee, and John Dickinson, with Dickinson assumed to be the primary author. Five days later, on October 26, the “Letter to the Inhabitants of the Province of Quebec” was finalized and approved. The letter — 18 pages in all — was translated into French by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere and Philadelphia printer Fleury Mesplet printed 2,000 copies. Although the copies were distributed and discussed in town meetings throughout the Province, the reaction was mixed, and Quebec did not send any delegates to participate in the Second Continental Congress.

Petition to the King — the “Humble Petition”

On October 1, Congress agreed to prepare a “loyal address to his Majesty” to request “royal attention to the grievances that alarm and distress his…faithful subjects in North-America.” Further, the petition was to request the “removal of such grievances” in order to restore “harmony” between Britain and the colonies. A committee was formed to work on the petition. The members were Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, Thomas Johnson, Patrick Henry, and John Rutledge, with Lee serving as chairman. The petition was finalized and approved by Congress on October 25. The petition — which was officially called “The Petition of the Grand American Continental Congress, to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty” — was presented to the House of Commons and the House of Lords. However, according to Benjamin Franklin, it was “undistinguished by any particular Recommendation of it to the Notice of either House…” and it was given little attention. Further, the King never formally responded.

Patrick Henry, Founding Father, Illustration
Patrick Henry of Virginia. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Articles of Association and the Continental Association

On October 20, 1774, it adopted the Articles of Association, which stated that if the Coercive Acts were not repealed by December 1, 1774, a boycott of British goods would begin in the colonies. The Articles also provided plans for an embargo on exports if the Acts were not repealed by September 10, 1775. A formal petition to King George III was drafted on October 26 that outlined the grievances of the colonies. The Congress voted to reconvene in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.

Galloway’s Plan of Union

Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania proposed a plan that suggested the creation of an American Parliament, which would work along with the British Parliament. Galloway’s “Plan of Union” was supported by John Jay and Edward Rutledge, but opposed by delegates such as Patrick Henry. Galloway’s plan was defeated by a vote of six to five on October 22, 1774.

Delegates to the First Continental Congress

New Hampshire Delegates

Massachusetts Delegates

Rhode Island Delegates

Connecticut Delegates

New York Delegates

New Jersey Delegates

  • Stephen Crane
  • John De Hart
  • James Kinsey
  • William Livingston
  • Richard Smith

Pennsylvania Delegates

Delaware Delegates

Maryland Delegates

  • Samuel Chase
  • Robert Goldsborough
  • Thomas Johnson
  • William Paca
  • Matthew Tilghman

Virginia Delegates

North Carolina Delegates

  • Richard Caswell
  • Joseph Hewes
  • William Hooper

South Carolina Delegates

Presidents of The First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress was the first governing body of the 13 Original Colonies that existed before the United States Constitution was ratified. As with all meetings, the members selected someone to preside over the sessions. This person was usually been referred to as the President, and sometimes is mistakenly referred to as “President of the United States.” It is important to understand the role and authority of the position in the Continental Congress, prior to the implementation of the United States Constitution, was not the same as it is today. There were two men who oversaw the proceedings of the First Continental Congress.

Peyton Randolph, the First President of the Continental Congress

Peyton Randolph of Virginia was the first President of Congress. He served from September 5, 1774, to October 22, 1774. He was nominated by Thomas Lynch of South Carolina. Randolph came from a wealthy family in Virginia. He studied at Oxford and became a lawyer. His cousin was Thomas Jefferson and he was close friends with George Washington. Before he was elected to Congress, he led militia forces during the French and Indian War, served as the Attorney General of the colony, and was a member of the House of Burgesses. Randolph was elected unanimously by the members of Congress to preside over the meetings. He resigned as President in October so he could return to Virginia to tend to his responsibilities as Speaker of the House of Burgesses.

Henry Middleton, the Second President of the Continental Congress

Henry Middleton of South Carolina was the second President of Congress. He served from October 22, 1774, to October 26, 1774. Technically, he was still President when Congress disbanded, so he still held the position when Congress reconvened in May 1775. He was replaced by Peyton Randolph on May 10, 1775. Middleton came from a wealthy family. When his father died in 1737, he inherited property in South Carolina, Britain, and Barbados. Before he was elected to Congress, he served in the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly and was a member of the Royal Council. He resigned from the Council in 1770 and joined the Patriot cause.

First Continental Congress APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the First Continental Congress, the Intolerable Acts, and the 13 Original Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

First Continental Congress APUSH Definition

The First Continental Congress was a meeting of delegates from the 13 British colonies in North America that took place in 1774. The Congress was called in response to the Intolerable Acts (Coercive Acts), a series of measures imposed by the British government that were intended to punish the colonies for the Boston Tea Party and other acts of resistance. The Congress adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which outlined the colonies’ grievances with the British government and asserted their rights as Englishmen. The Congress also formed the Continental Association, a boycott of British goods, and prepared for the possibility of war.

First Continental Congress Video for APUSH Notes

This video from Heimler’s History discusses the First Continental Congress and the American Revolution.

Learn More About the First Continental Congress on American History Central

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  • Article Title The First Continental Congress — America’s First Government
  • Date September 5, 1774–October 26, 1774
  • Author
  • Keywords First Continental Congress, American Revolution, Continental Congress, First Continental Congress Date, 1st Continental Congress Date, What decisions did the First Continental Congress make, Why was the First Continental Congress important, What was the outcome of the First Continental Congress, Who attended the First Continental Congress, First Continental Congress Timeline
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 16, 2024