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7. 1774: Colonies United



There is a great Spirit in the Congress. But our People must be peaceable. Let them exercise [train] every day in the Week, if they Will, the more the better. Let them furnish themselves with Artillery, Arms and Ammunition. Let them follow the Maxim, which you say they have adopted "In Times of Peace, prepare for War." But let them avoid War, if possible, if possible I say.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, 7 October 17741

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.

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.
Government Act
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 PDF file
  • 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 PDF file
  • 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 PDF file
  • 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.)

Discussion Questions

  1. From these documents, what impressions do you get of the temperament and goals of Americans at the end of 1774?
  2. How did colonial resistance change after the passage of the Coercive Acts? Did resistance become rebellion in 1774, as some claimed at the time?
  3. What expressions of determination and of ambivalence appear in the documents?
  4. Summarize the dominant messages of the Patriots and Loyalists in 1774. What are they saying to each other? to the king and Parliament? to the British people?
  5. How polarized are Patriots and Loyalists at this point?
  6. What moderating positions are presented? With what influence?
  7. What perspectives are added by the clergymen in their sermons? To whom are the sermons addressed?
  8. What is the central disagreement between the Congregational and Anglican ministers about the justifiability of resistance and rebellion? How does each group use scriptural evidence?
  9. Create a dialogue among two to four persons represented in the compilation. Guide your dialogue to a conclusion among the speakers (perhaps agreeing to disagree). The conclusion could be an acknowledgement of their ambivalence and anxiety in 1774.
  10. Compare the documents with those in earlier compilations in this Theme, CRISIS, by speaker, genre, tone, audience, and message. What patterns do you find? what trajectory from 1763 to 1774?
  11. What is the purpose of the Congress's petition to King George III? Compare it with the 1775 Olive Branch Petition to the king. Why are both petitions rejected by the king?
  12. Compare the Congress's Bill of Rights and list of grievances in 1774 with Jefferson's Declaration of Independence two years later, and with the 1791 Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution. What similarities and differences do you find?
  13. What is the Congress trying to achieve with the letters to the Americans and the British people? What is the rhetorical strategy in the letters? How successful is it?
  14. What consequences do the delegates predict for Americans, and for the British, if their grievances are not addressed?
  15. Conduct a debate on this proposition: If there was a "point of no return" in the prerevolutionary period (1763-1775), it occurred in 1774.

Framing Questions

  • Between 1763 and 1775, what changed many Americans from loyal British subjects to rebellious Patriots?
  • Why did many Americans remain loyal to Great Britain and oppose rebellion?
  • How did Patriots and Loyalists convey their views through the media outlets of the time?
  • Was the American Revolution inevitable? If so, was there a "point of no return"?


COMPILATION: Colonists respond to the Coercive Acts
First Continental Congress
   –Petition to King George III
   –Bill of Rights, Letters to the British and to the Americans
17 pp.

 3 pp.
 8 pp.
28 pp.

Supplemental Sites

The Coming of the American Revolution, 1764-1776 (Massachusetts Historical Society) The American Revolution, overviews and primary sources (American Memory, Library of Congress) The American Revolution: A Documentary History (Avalon Project, Yale Law Library), including:

The Coercive ("Intolerable") Acts, 1774, full text The Road to Revolution (American Revolution, Digital History, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History et al.)

The Revolutionary War, primary documents (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

1Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 18 September 1774 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.; permission pending.
2 Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (University of Chicago Press, 1957, 1977, 1992 ), 3d. ed., p. 62.

Images: details from letter of John Adams, Philadelphia (during the First Continental Congress), to Abigail Adams, Braintree, Massachusetts, 7 October 1774 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Reproduced by permission of the Massachusetts Historical Society,

Banner image: Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston, engraving (detail), in W. D. Rev. Mr. Cooper, The History of North America (London: E. Newbery, 1789). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-538 (also Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Digital ID us0012_01). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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