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


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To Form a More Perfect Union

Fanning the Flames of Patriotism

As the only institution encompassing all thirteen states, the Continental Congress served as a symbol of national unity, laboring to inspire patriotic spirit in support of the war, and communicating news of victories, defeats, and major political decisions.

Congress Declares Independence

On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee offered a formal resolution that the united colonies "are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." After some debate, a committee was appointed to write a formal declaration of independence; Thomas Jefferson of Virginia drafted the document. On July 2, 1776, Congress officially resolved that the united colonies should be free and independent states, and on July 4, the Declaration of Independence was formally approved by Congress. The displayed copy of the Declaration -- the first official printing with the names of the signers attached -- was printed by Baltimore printer Mary Katherine Goddard.

The new nation celebrated with prayer, speeches, fireworks, and formal readings of the Declaration. Delegate John Adams later stated that the vote for American independence was "the greatest question...which ever was debated in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men."

Congress Warns: "The British Are Coming"

On December 10, 1776, Congress warned citizens of Pennsylvania that British troops were fast approaching. It encouraged them to unite and offer strong resistance, and assured them that General Charles Lee was on his way with reinforcements. Despite its strong pleas to resist the British until Lee could arrive, Congress packed its bags and departed Philadelphia two days later, reassembling in Baltimore.

Congress Boosts Public Morale

In an effort to rally the nation in the midst of war, and attract popular support for itself, Congress addressed the inhabitants of the United States, reminding them of the cruelties they had suffered at the hands of the British, and warning them that more such treatment would result from a reunion with Britain. Because people regularly gathered at places of worship, Congress distributed the address to "churches and chapels and other places of religious worship" with the request that ministers read it aloud to their congregation immediately after divine service. Written by Congressman Gouverneur Morris, the address was sent throughout the states, and 50 copies were given to General Washington, to disperse throughout the army.

Congress Publicly Threatens the British

News of the French alliance with America in 1778 panicked the British, prompting them to send commissioners to America, with offers of peace. Congress replied that it would happily discuss peace, if Britain would accept American independence and recall its troops. The British commissioners, however, had no intention of granting American independence. They continued to press Congress to accept their proposals, even offering bribes to individual Congressmen, such as Joseph Reed, in exchange for help in re-uniting England and its colonies. Frustrated in their efforts, in October 1778, the British issued a manifesto questioning Congress's authority to make a treaty with France, and threatening dire consequences if their offer of conciliation was rejected. On October 30, 1778, Congress responded with a manifesto -- intended as a morale-boosting national statement of strength and confidence -- declaring that the American cause was just, success was assured, and if Britain carried through with its threats, "we will take such exemplary vengeance, as shall deter others from a like conduct."


A crowd in a colonial square.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  The Manner in Which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independent of the King of England [Detail]. William Hamilton (1751-1801) delin, George Noble (dates unknown) sculp. Mixed method, 1783. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-11336.