A delegate to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, John Adams described the frenzied proceedings to his wife, Abigail. "There is no idea of submission here in anybody's head," he affirmed, yet he feared the escalating fervor of the Congress would drive the colonies to premature and inconsidered war. But how were the colonies to resist submission and avoid war? Incensed to a new level by the Coercive Acts enacted to punish the colonies (especially Massachusetts) after the Boston Tea Party, the colonies had finally broken through the obstacles that blocked united action and sent delegates to the Continental Congress. Their charge: devise a united and fervent appeal to Britain, cement the fledgling entity they called the "united colonies," and avoid war. But soon after they began deliberations, news arrived—soon dispelled as rumor—that the British had bombarded Boston. "War! War! War!" the delegates yelled, as Adams relates. Was war now inevitable? Adams dreaded the thought: "let them avoid war, if possible, if possible." But first, let us review the acts deemed punitive and "intolerable" that brought delegates from twelve colonies to Philadelphia.
|COERCIVE ACTS & QUEBEC ACT, 1774|
|Boston Port Act||Closed the harbor of Boston to shipping until payment had been made for the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party. Brought economic hardship to merchants and all residents; colonies organized relief campaigns as Boston's provisions dwindled.|
|Placed colony under direct British rule, with officials appointed by the king and the governor. Strictly limited powers of the colonial assembly and the town meetings.|
|Administration of Justice Act||Permitted the trials of British officials accused of murdering colonists (and other capital offenses in the line of duty) to be sent to another colony or to Britain for trial in order to avoid juries of colonists.|
|Quartering Act||Permitted governors to house British soldiers in unoccupied buildings owned by private citizens, with restitution.|
|Quebec Act||Allowed the former French province to maintain French law and official religion (Roman Catholicism); extended boundaries to include the Ohio River Valley; aggravated colonists' suspicions that Britain intended to surround and subjugate them.|
As the delegates convened they were ripe to challenge not only the Coercive Acts but the very authority of Parliament to pass any laws for the colonies. They soon discovered, as historian Edmund Morgan points out, "how far they had travelled in the nine years since the Stamp Act Congress [when they] had agreed that Parliament had no right to tax Americans, but only the rashest proposed to set limits on its legislative authority. Now the question was whether Parliament had any authority in the colonies at all. Many Americans had arrived long since at the conclusion that it did not."2
In these readings we consider where the colonies stood in late 1774 along the trajectory from 1763. War was imminent. There were regular face-offs between Americans and British troops, any of which could spark violence. The year ended with the first armed conflict between Americans and British troops (with no casualties) when American militiamen held off British guards while removing their colonial store of weapons from a British fort in New Hampshire. The pace of events would not subside for years.
Colonists respond to the Coercive Acts and the First Continental Congress, 1774. This compilation, one of a series in this Theme CRISIS, includes selections from news reports of public protests against the Coercive Acts, published debates between Patriots and Loyalists, clergymen's sermons for and against the justifiability of rebellion, the views of three Founding Fathers in letters to family and friends, the proceedings of the First Continental Congress, a Loyalist satire of the Congress, the perspective of Loyalist Peter Oliver in his 1781 history, and, as always, a retrospective view from the Patriot historian David Ramsay. As there is ample material for group study and presentation, the selections are designed to be divided among students and not assigned in their entirety. See Discussion Questions below and the Suggestions for Classroom Use of the compilations. (17 pp.)
Petition to King George III. Asserting that they had "no other motive than a dread of impending destruction," the delegates to the First Continental Congress petitioned King George III to (finally) give attention to their enumerated and long ignored grievances. Likening their treatment to slavery, and implying that the king must be horrified—horrified—to learn of their base status under Parliament and his cabinet, they appeal for the return of rights guaranteed in their colonial charters. "Silence would be disloyalty," they assert, couching their petition as a sign of allegiance. Silence was the response they received. (3 pp.)
Bill of Rights: Letters to the American colonists & to the British people. In addition to their petition to King George, the delegates issued a Bill of Rights (as a set of resolutions) and published open letters "to the inhabitants of the Colonies" and "to the people of Great Britain" (note: not to the king, his cabinet ministers, or Parliament). How does the 1774 Bill of Rights compare with the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution ratified in 1791? What is the main message in each of the letters? Note how the first paragraphs of each letter are similar to those of the Declaration of Independence, issued two years later. Why do the delegates begin the letters with this statement of purpose? What consequences do they predict for Americans, and for the British, if their grievances are not addressed? (8 pp.)