US History
US History E-Text > The Revolution: Opening Causes and Events > Continental Congress; Lexington

The Continental Congress;

Introduction to the Opening Events and Causes
Otis and Henry | The Stamp Act | King George III
Continental Congress; Lexington | Notes

The events above noted gave unmistakable evidence of the unity of American sentiment against British oppression; but something more must be done to bring about united action. There must be some central authority to which all the colonies could turn for guidance. This political union came about in the formation of a Continental Congress. This Congress was the result of a spontaneous and almost simultaneous movement throughout the country. From New York came the first call. Paul Revere had been sent from Boston on a fleet horse to rouse the people of New York and Philadelphia, but ere he reached the former the Sons of Liberty had taken action for a congress. The Massachusetts legislature added its voice in June. Delegates were chosen in all the colonies except Georgia, and they met in Carpenter's Hall, Philadelphia. Among them we find such leaders as Washington, Lee, and Henry of Virginia, Dickinson of Pennsylvania, Samuel and John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut.

The Congress was not a constitutional body; many of its members had been chosen irregularly. Its authority was limited to the willingness of the people to respect and obey its suggestions and mandates. The very fact of its existence had a meaning of great significance, but it was too profound for the comprehension of George III. It was less a congress than a national committee, an advisory council of continental magnitude. It attempted no national legislation. It was controlled by conservative men who counseled moderation. They made a declaration of rights, mild but deeply sincere; they prepared an address to the king, disavowing a desire for independence, another to the people of England, and still another to the people of Canada. They also approved the policy of non-intercourse with Great Britain, and formed an association to carry it out. The forming of this association, which at first constituted the revolutionary machinery, was an act of great importance. Its object was to secure a redress of grievances by peaceful methods, by enforcing the non-importation and non-consumption agreement. To carry out this purpose committees were to be formed in every county or township in the colonies. These worked under the guidance of the Committees of Correspondence. The local committees marked out for persecution every loyalist who refused to comply with the recommendations of the Congress. The loyalists made a feeble effort at counter organization; but the patriots were so furious in their opposition that little came of it. Not until the next year, 1775, did the patriots begin to form associations pledged to oppose the aggressions of the king by force of arms.1

Among other things this Congress indorsed a set of resolutions from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, drawn up by Joseph Warren. By these it was declared that the king who violates the chartered rights of the people forfeits their allegiance, that the Regulating Act was null and void, and so on. After Congress had adopted them, Massachusetts, in accordance with their spirit, proceeded to set up a provisional government.

This Congress sat for about seven weeks and then adjourned, after appointing the 10th of the following May for a second Congress, in October 26. When the addresses issued by this Congress reached England, Chatham paid the following remarkable tribute to the men who framed them: -- "When your lordships look at the papers transmitted us from America -- when you consider their decency, firmness, and wisdom, you cannot but respect their cause. . . . For myself I must declare and avow, that in all my reading and observation . . . that for solidity of reasoning, force of sagacity, and wisdom of conclusion . . . no nation or body of men can stand in preference to the Congress at Philadelphia. I trust that it is obvious to your lordships, that all attempts to impose servitude upon such men, to establish despotism over such a mighty continental nation, must be vain, must be fatal."

In Massachusetts the summer had been one of unusual excitement. The people set the Regulation Act at defiance and banded together in thousands to prevent its operation. They surrounded the courthouses and forced the king's officers to resign; they refused to serve as jurymen; they met for military drill on the village green of every town. The leaders of the people, in the absence of Samuel Adams, were John Hancock, a man of refinement and culture and the richest merchant in New England, and Joseph Warren, a prominent physician, a man of unsullied patriotism, and the bosom friend of Adams.

General Gage had returned to Massachusetts with an army with which to awe the people, and he was made civil as well as military governor. The people answered these proceedings by organizing into bands of "minutemen," ready to move on a minute's notice. On one occasion Gage sent a party of soldiers to seize some powder at Charlestown; the rumor spread that they had fired on the citizens, and in less than two days twenty thousand farmers were under arms, marching toward Boston. But the rumor proved false, and they returned to their homes. Late in October a provincial congress met at Concord, with Hancock as president and Warren the chairman of a committee appointed to collect military stores. This congress dissolved in December, and another met at Cambridge in February and proceeded to organize the militia and to appoint officers.

During the winter and spring of 1775 the estrangement continued to increase, and every index pointed to a conflict of arms. The king and Parliament and Gage had miscalculated when they believed that the presence of an army would awe the colonists and change them from roaring lions into fawning lambs. Nor were the colonists making a leap in the dark; they were strong, and they knew that they were strong. Their bodies had been devdoped in clearing away the forest, in tilling the soil, in fishing and shipbuilding; they had become expert marksmen in fighting Indians and wild animals, and many of them had gained an excellent military training in the late war with France. Gage issued a proclamation offering full pardon to all the people, except Samuel Adams and John Hancock, if they would yield to his authority; but the people did not heed him; they only kept on organizing, drilling, and collecting military stores in the towns. Gage had been ordered to arrest Adams and Hancock, who had been elected to the Second Continental Congress, and to send them to England for trial. The two patriot leaders, fearing arrest, were at Lexington in hiding. The British general discovered their hiding place, and, on the night of the 18th of April, sent a body of eight hundred regulars to make the arrest and, at the same time, to move on a few miles farther and destroy the military stores at Concord. Silently in the darkness the troops were rowed across the Charles River, and by midnight they were well on the way to Lexington. Every precaution for secrecy had been taken, but the vigilance of the patriots was too keen to be eluded.

Paul Revere, one of the noblest of the Sons of Liberty, stood by the river, his steed by his side, waiting for a lantern signal from the belfry of the North Church, which would inform him of the direction the troops had taken. The signal appeared, and a moment later he was galloping through the night toward Lexington. At every door, as he dashed along, he shouted the thrilling news that the British were coming. Reaching Lexington, he came to the house of the Rev. Jonas Clark, where Hancock and Adams were sleeping. The door was guarded by minutemen, who warned him not to disturb the inmates with his noise. "Noise!" cried Revere, "you'll soon have noise enough; the regulars are coming!"2 Hancock, at an upper window, knew his voice and invited him in; and a few hours later, when the enemy came up, the two patriots had quietly proceeded on their way to the Congress at Philadelphia.

The news of the approaching enemy sped on to Concord, and to the surrounding towns and farmhouses; and the men arose, seized their guns, and hastened to the scene of the coming conflict. Colonel Smith, in command of the English, saw but too plainly, by the flickering lights on the hills, by the sound of bells and of signal guns, that his movements were known, and he sent back to Gage for reŽnforcements while he dispatched Major Pitcairn forward with six companies of infantry to secure the bridge at Concord. Pitcairn reached Lexington at sunrise, and found himself confronted by some forty minutemen under Captain John Parker.3 With an oath he called upon them to disperse, but they stood as motionless as a wall, and he ordered his men to fire. The soldiers hesitated, and Pitcairn discharged his own pistol, and thus fired the first shot of the war of the Revdution. Again he ordered the men to fire; they now did so, and the volley laid seven of the patriots dead and ten wounded upon the village green. Parker was greatly outnumbered, and, after making a feeble resistance, ordered his men to retire. But the day's business was only begun. The British troops hastened on to Concord and entered the town unopposed, as the minutemen, to the number of two hundred, had withdrawn to the top of the hill beyond the river, taking with them or hiding most of the cannon and stores. The regulars destroyed the little they found, cut down the liberty pole, and set fire to the courthouse. But their work came to an abrupt close. Two hundred of their number had been left to guard the North Bridge that spanned the little river near the village, and on these the patriots, now increased to four hundred, made a descent and opened fire. The firing of both sides, the river flowing between them, was brisk for some minutes and a few of each were slain. This was the first encounter after that on the greensward at Lexington some hours before.

Colonel Smith now understood the peril of his position, and determined to retire. But it was already too late. The whole surrounding country was roused; the farmers and villagers swarmed to the scene, and, without a leader, without order, from every hiding place -- trees, fences, thickets, and hillocks, in true Indian fashion -- they poured an incessant fire into the retreating British. The latter were not wanting in courage; they made a brave effort to retreat in order, but the retreat became a rout, and every attempt to halt and form into line was thwarted by the deadly hail of patriot bullets from every side. Many of them fell dead or dying on the road; the rout became a race with death. They had marched all the night before; the day was hot, and they were well-nigh exhausted. The whole force would have been killed or captured but for the coming of reenforcements. When they reached Lexington, they were met by Lord Percy with twelve hundred men coming to their rescue. Percy opened his ranks to admit the fugitive soldiers; and they ran in, as a hunted fox finds his den in the mountains, and fell to the ground, with their tongues hanging from their mouths in sheer exhaustion. Percy planted his cannon, and for a time held the Americans at bay; but as he began his march toward Boston they attacked him in ever increasing numbers, and the battle ceased only at nightfall when the British found shelter under the guns of the royal ships in the harbor. The British loss was 273 and the American loss 93.

Thus ended the first armed conflict of the Revolution.4 That night was one of intense commotion in the vicinity of Boston. The patriots did not return to their homes; they encamped on the ground, and their numbers were rapidly augmented from every hill and valley of New England. Israel Putnam of Connecticut left his plow in the furrow to lead a band of fellow-farmers to Cambridge; Benedict Arnold brought a company from New Haven; John Stark arrived from New Hampshire with twelve hundred men, and Nathanael Greene from Rhode Island with a thousand. Within a few days after the affair at Lexington and Concord, Boston was beset by an untrained army of sixteen thousand men.

The news of the battle soon spread beyond the confines of New England, and the whole country was aroused. The people rose in general rebellion against their rulers, and within a short time every royal government in America had fallen.5 In New York the patriots set the royal officials at defiance, and seized the munitions of war; New Jersey and Pennsylvania rejected all overtures of reconciliation and began to train their militia; Governor Dunmore fled from the infuriated people of Virginia; and from the far South the voice of Georgia joined in the general chorus. Exactly three weeks after the Lexington fight the fine fortress of Ticonderoga, which guarded with its two hundred cannon the watershed between the great valleys of and the Hudson, was surrendered "in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress" (which met on that day) to Ethan Allen with less than a hundred "Green Mountain Boys"; and on the same expedition the fortress of Crown Point fell into the hands of another Vermonter, Seth Warner.

Every indication now pointed to a long and bloody war. Franklin, just returned from England, declared that the colonies were lost forever to the British Crown. Yet the thought of independence had scarcely at that date entered the colonial heart; reconciliation was still possible, but only on the ground that England would yield every point at issue. This the proud, obstinate monarch could not do, and events moved rapidly on till the opportunity was lost.


1Van Tyne's "Loyalists in the Revolution," p.75. [return]

2Fiske, Vol. I, p.121. [return]

3Parker had said to his men, "Don't fire unless you are fired on; but if they want war it may as well begin here." Parker was the grandfather of the great New England preacher and abolitionist, Theodore Parker. [return]

4In the wilderness of Kentucky the pioneers were founding a town when the news of the battle reached them, and they named the town Lexington. [return]

5Governors Tryon of New York and Franklin of New Jersey maintained a semblance of power for some months longer. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

© 2001-2012