Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789


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To Form a More Perfect Union

Organizing a War

The huge task of organizing thirteen separate governments and militia into a united, effective fighting force was a main concern of the Continental Congress. The hastily assembled Continental Army was an army without a precedent; Congress had to create rules for organization and conduct, and invent an effective system of raising money to fund the war effort.

Congress Makes Rules for Plundering Enemy Ships

In December 1775, Great Britain passed the Prohibitory Act, removing the colonies from the protection of the crown, banning trade with them, and allowing seizure of American ships at sea. The Continental Congress responded by issuing "letters of marque and reprisal", permitting Americans to arm private ships for attacking and seizing British vessels and cargoes at sea. Intended to supplement the infant Continental Navy, recently established under the command of Esek Hopkins, privateering was a frequent practice throughout the war, with the Continental Congress commissioning more than a thousand private vessels.

The displayed document, printed in 1781 by Benjamin Franklin, American Minister to France, reproduces congressional instructions to captains of privateers issued in May 1780.


Congress Provides for Prisoners of War

The colonies' first measures of resistance to British rule were enacted before they had officially declared themselves independent, and without a formal declaration of war. As combat between British troops and American militia increased, Congress quickly saw the need for formal rules and procedures in handling prisoners. A resolution, passed on May 21, 1776 and published by order of Congress, included specific instructions for feeding, housing, and imprisoning British prisoners of war. Although most prisoners were eventually exchanged, British Major John André suffered a different fate.

Congress Reorganizes the Army

Throughout the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army suffered problems of low recruitment, supply shortages, and sinking morale. In January 1778, at General George Washington's urging, Congress sent a committee to military headquarters at Valley Forge, to confer with Washington on necessary improvements. Although the committee made proposals for reorganizing supply procedures and revising recruitment regulations, Congress's response was slow and piecemeal; other issues, such as the controversy surrounding a prisoner exchange, kept Congress distracted. Congress did not approve the plan for rearrangement of the army until May 1778, and it was November before implementation was completed.


title page of broadside
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  Instructions to the Captains and Commanders of Private Armed Vessels.
Passy, France: Printed by B. Franklin, 1781. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.