THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS
The colonies ratified their independence from Britain after a slow start
The war against Britain was not only fought by militias and armies, but also by a collection of statesmen, politicians, lawyers, thinkers, activists and writers. The Continental Congress was the colonies’ governing body, responsible for the war effort. It struggled constantly, was slow to make decisions, had no infrastructure and made mistakes – its paper money became so worthless it spawned the phrase “not worth a continental”. But the course of war changed with its greatest success: independence. The First Continental Congress had convened in September 1774, following the Intolerable Acts. In all, 56 delegates from 12 colonies (British-dependent Georgia was absent) met in Philadelphia to organise resistance, make their grievances known and declare a trade boycott. Yet they affirmed their loyalty to the Crown, too.
By the time the Second Continental Congress came together at the pre-arranged date in May 1775, fighting had broken out. Its members voted to create the Continental Army and appointed as its commander-in-chief a Virginia landowner who had been refused a commission in the British army, George Washington.
Still, it was clear the Congress was not committed to independence. The call only grew louder in the first half of 1776. The sensationally popular pamphleteer Thomas Paine had made a stirring case in a treatise called Common
Sense, and the violence meted out by the British turned more colonists against them. The Congress also knew independence would open up opportunities of foreign alliances. So, on 2 July, Congress voted in favour of the resolution for independence and two days later, on 4 July, it approved the Declaration of Independence.
Around that time, a 34,000-strong British invasion force landed south of New York, led by brothers General William Howe and Richard, Admiral Lord Howe. In 1777, they launched an operation to cut off the northern colonies of New England. The plan was for General John Burgoyne to march south from Canada to meet Howe’s force moving north up the Hudson River. But when Howe left New York, he went by sea and sailed south with the aim of capturing Philadelphia, home of the Congress. He had succeeded by 25 September, but the isolated Burgoyne had to contend with debilitating attacks, including the decisive blow by brilliant commander Benedict Arnold.
In October, Burgoyne had no choice but to surrender at Saratoga. This was a massively significant moment as it persuaded France to join the war. Britain had been fighting a civil war – now it was a global conflict.
Washington, made commander of the American forces in 1775, would lead the colonies to victory at Yorktown six years later