What Legislative Body Governed the Colonies During the American Revolution?

George Washington and John Adams were members of the First Continental Congress.
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“The shot heard ‘round the world” was fired on April 19, 1775. It's unclear which side fired that bullet, but the battle at Lexington, Massachusetts, is considered the start of the American Revolutionary War. The colonists were in open conflict with the ruling British government; however, even before the start of the war the colonies gathered delegates to speak on their behalf to Great Britain. This group, the Continental Congress, led the colonies for many years.

1 Before the Congress

The Seven Years War, highlighted by conflicts among many European nations, ended in 1763. In America it was known as the French and Indian war, and colonists supported the British in their successful fight against France. After the war, Great Britain needed money, and one way of raising funds was to enforce fees on molasses and sugar imported by the colonies. British Parliament also passed the Stamp Act in 1765, which taxed documents in the colonies. Many colonists, even those who were loyal British subjects, were outraged, protesting that they had been taxed without having representatives in Parliament. This was a violation of the British Constitution. Although the act was repealed the next year, it set the stage for future laws imposed upon the colonies as Parliament attempted to bring them into line.

2 First Continental Congress

Though the colonies were under British rule, each had a local government. By 1774, Parliament had passed several laws to control taxes and trade in the New World. Tensions were especially high in Massachusetts. In reaction to these regulations, many colonists wanted to boycott British goods, and they thought that strength would come in numbers. Each colony sent delegates to a new Continental Congress in Philadelphia. During September and October, the Congress developed a document to send to King George III, listing their problems with Parliament. It included a threat to stop trading with Great Britain if the issues were not corrected. Congressional members agreed to meet again the following May.

3 Second Continental Congress

Between Fall 1774 and Spring 1775, the colonies' relations with Great Britain deteriorated. Their armies clashed for the first time at Lexington and Concord. The Second Continental Congress met in May following the battles, and in just over four weeks they created the Continental Army and elected George Washington commander-in-chief. In an attempt to settle their differences, the Continental Congress also sent the Olive Branch Petition to King George. They offered suggestions that could prevent further hostilities, but the king turned away the document.

4 During and After the War

In the spring of 1776, the colonial governments asked the Continental Congress to vote on independence. Congress created a committee to develop a document outlining this possibility. Thomas Jefferson was the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence, which was passed by Congress on July 4, 1776. Congress also sent delegates to France to ask for help. France agreed, and this assistance played a large role in winning the war. Congress recommended that each colony develop its own formal state constitution. In the meantime, Congress started drawing up a document for central government, the Articles of Confederation. This process took five years. The United States Constitution replaced the Articles in 1789.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.