George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States in 1789, ending nearly eight years of government under the Articles of Confederation. The first government of the fledgling nation, however, was the same body that had declared the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain: the Continental Congress. Specifically, the Second Continental Congress headed the U.S. government from 1775 until the new states ratified the Articles of Confederation in 1781.

A Government by, for and of the People

According to “West’s Encyclopedia of American Law,” the Continental Congress took that name to distinguish it from the individual colonies’ congresses. It first convened in 1774 in response to Britain’s “Intolerable Acts,” intended to suppress revolt in Massachusetts. When the Congress reconvened in the spring of 1775, war had already broken out, and Congress took on the responsibility for establishing a Continental Army, with Washington as commander. The U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian explains that the Congress was only a de facto government and its actions during the war exceeded the scope of its initial authority. Nonetheless, colonial groups continued to support the Congress, which carried out such important functions as establishing formal diplomatic relations with other nations and beginning peace negotiations with Britain, although formal treaty resolution had to wait for the Confederation Congress, seated after the ratification of the Articles of Confederation.