Derek Coleman: May 10 an historic anniversary for US
On this date, May 10, way back in the year 1775, what was to prove to be the most important and far reaching meeting in the history of the United States was convened in Philadelphia. That meeting was the commencement of the second Continental Congress.
The first Continental Congress, consisting of representatives of every colony except Georgia, had met in September and October of the previous year. At that time they sent a petition to Britain to protest against the so-called Intolerable Acts which were passed by the British Parliament in retaliation to the Boston Tea Party. These acts closed ports, deprived Massachusetts of self government, allowed Royal governors to send Americans back to Britain for trial and several other things that the colonies did not like.
This second congress was meant to meet to talk about Britain's response to that petition. Again it was just representatives from 12 colonies plus a man named Lyman Hall who arrived two weeks after the congress started and was included as a representative from St. John's Parish in Georgia. Many of the other delegates were the same men who had attended the first congress but there were some important changes. For the first time Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin attended together with John Hancock of Massachusetts. A little later Thomas Jefferson also arrived and, after Peyton Randolph resigned as president of the congress and Henry Middleton declined the honor, Hancock took up the post.
The Second Congress's task proved to be vastly different to that which was envisioned when the delegates were summoned. The whole political scene had changed because, three weeks earlier, on April 19, Massachusetts farmers had fired on His Majesty George III's troops at the North Bridge in Concord and again on Lexington Green.
Previously the delegates were prepared to argue the colonies' case against the British taxes as loyal subjects of the king, now they were faced with a country in rebellion and there were a myriad of tasks to be undertaken. They had to take over control of the war, to create an army out of what was little more than an armed mob surrounding the city of Boston, to supply, feed and direct that army and, initially, to seek a way to bring the fighting to a close. Their first moves were decisive.
On June 14, 1775 they voted to take control of the militia and to create the Continental Army. To command this new army they needed a man of experience, a man they looked up to, a man used to command. Only one man who attended the Congress seemed to fit the criteria. He was only one who, from the outset, dressed in military uniform and there seems to have been little doubt about his suitability. Very soon the representative for Virginia was appointed commanding General and sent north, George Washington was on his way to making history.
These initial decisions were followed by many others. The representatives of the colonies who were sent to this Congress were mandated with treating with Great Britain for relief from what were regarded as unfair acts passed by the British Parliament. Initially they seemed to be doing just this as, first, on July 6, they approved what was called a 'Declaration of Causes'. This was a paper that gave the reasons for the 13 colonies taking up arms against Britain. In it they were still seeking reconciliation and said that the fighting was "in defense of the Freedom that is our Birthright." and promised that they would "lay down their arms when Hostilities shall cease on the part of the Aggressors."
Two days later Congress voted to send a paper called the "Olive Branch Petition" to the British Government as a last ditch attempt to avoid an all out war of rebellion. The petition was received too late to do any good but this was probably no surprise, Congress was already moving towards independence and had appointed America's first ambassador when they sent Silas Deane to represent them at the court of King Louis in France. They also countermanded the Intolerable Acts, and reopened the ports.
The Congress was not formed in order to govern America but that is what they ended up doing. They negotiated treaties, appointed ambassadors and generals, raised armies and money to support them. They negotiated with foreign governments to raise loans and issued their own paper money. They guided America inexorably toward independence from Great Britain and their actions were as important as those of the armies in the field.
The men who gathered together for the Second Continental Congress were not politicians as we know them, they were representatives of the people. They gathered to protect the people's rights and ended up working together to give birth to a new nation, a great nation. They did not seek to promote themselves or their politics, they worked quickly and made good decisions. Is it too much to hope that today's representatives in Congress remember, on this day of all days, what the Second Continental Congress achieved and try in some small way to emulate it.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.