What Was the First Congress?

Christina Edwards

The first Congress of the United States is often referred to as the First Continental Congress, and it convened in 1774. Slightly before this time, American settlers were becoming increasingly angry with the laws and taxes levied on them by Britain, their mother country. Several representatives met in Philadelphia during the fall of that year to discuss their present relationship with Britain. During this meeting, these colonists drafted a list of colonial rights, and decided to limit trade with Britain, if these rights were not observed. Ultimately, these rights were ignored, but the First Congress of the United States is considered to be a major turning point in American history.

The Boston Tea Party was a catalyst for the First Congress.
The Boston Tea Party was a catalyst for the First Congress.

During the mid to late 18th century, Britain began to heavily tax the American colonists. These taxes were partly meant to help pay off England's debts accrued during the French and Indian War, which lasted from 1754 to 1763. Several of these acts are particularly notable, including the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, and the Townshend Acts of 1767.

The First Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The First Continental Congress was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Sugar Act and the Stamp Act were repealed in 1766, but they were quickly replaced with the Townshend Acts in 1767. These laws required the American colonists to pay taxes on certain imports, such and glass, paint, paper, and tea. These acts were partially repealed in 1770, but the tax on tea, which was a major colonial import, remained. The Tea Act of 1773, however, required American colonists to buy their tea only from the British East India Company.

Outraged, several colonists responded with the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773. During this monumental event, colonists unloaded hundreds of crates of tea in the Boston Harbor. The British parliament responded once again with several new laws, known as the Coercive Acts or Intolerable Acts, as a repercussion. Some of these laws stated that Boston Harbor would be closed until the British East India company was repaid for its loss and colonial citizens would be required to provide food and shelter to British soldiers.

At this point, many of the colonists were thoroughly fed up with what they believed to be unfair taxes and laws. They especially believed that they should not be required to pay heavy taxes without any representation in the British parliament. This complaint is often expressed as taxation without representation. These events were what partially spurred the First Congress into action.

In September of 1774, more than 50 representatives from all but one of the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Georgia governor was still loyal to the British throne, so this colony was not represented at the time. They met in a building owned by the Carpenter's Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, known as Carpenter's Hall.

During this convention of the First Congress, which lasted until October, the delegates created a list of colonial rights, as well as a list of grievances. They agreed that they would begin a trade embargo with Britain, if the parliament did not appeal the Intolerable Acts. They also agreed to convene in a Second Continental Congress during the spring of the following year, if Britain did not consider their rights and grievances.

Ultimately, the British king did not respond favorably to the petition of grievances, known as the Declaration of Resolves, written by the First Congress. In fact, he sent British soldiers to the colonies to enforce the laws. As an indirect result, the first shot of the American Revolutionary War was fired in Lexington, Massachusetts in April of 1775.

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