Papers of the Continental Congress

By: Carolyn L. Barkley

Yesterday the essence of democracy was at work in the United States. Even though the margin was slim, the people exercised their basic right and cast their ballots. While this morning at least 50 percent of Americans are perhaps unhappy with the outcome, the important point is that voting occurred, unhindered and without threat of reprisal. No purple thumbs here. Nevertheless, this past campaign (as with several preceding it) makes me wonder what the delegates to the three Continental Congresses would think of our modern political landscape.

The fifty-six individuals elected to the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia from 5 September to 26 October 1774. They represented twelve of the thirteen colonies, and met in response to a shared outrage at Great Britain’s “Coercive Acts,” passed by Parliament earlier that year. Also known as the “Intolerable Acts,” this five-part legislation sought to eliminate the growing colonial resistance to British authority that had fanned into a blaze by the Boston Tea Party on 16 December of the previous year. These acts changed colonial government positions into royal appointments, forced citizens to quarter British soldiers in their homes, and deprived colonists of their steaming cups of tea with the closure of Boston harbor until the East India Company’s demand for restitution for its lost tea might be met. Common cause was a key element in uniting both the Congress and the majority of colonists. More importantly, however, congressional delegates were able to compromise with regard to their states’ individual responses to the issue of colonial rights. They acted decisively, organizing an economic boycott in response to the loss of their civil liberties, while petitioning the king for redress of their grievances. This first assembly would ultimately lay the ground work for the Second Continental Congress, which would begin its deliberations, again in Philadelphia, in 1775.

The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on 10 May 1775 after the outbreak of hostilities. It would remain in session until 1781. Its discourse was deliberate and debate, while often acrimonious, fundamentally changed the future of the colonies. Delegates established the Continental Army, issued the Declaration of Independence, and drafted the Articles of Confederation as a basis for an independent government and crafted a common vision for a new nation. Decisive action in the name of the common good was, once again, a shared value.

Finally, the Third Continental Congress, known as the Congress of the Confederation, met from 1781 to 1789 as the first federal government. Its delegates, after seeing the war to its conclusion, found themselves with too little power to govern successfully; many of its elected delegates declined to serve. States rights and individual interests continually trumped national issues and governance. Despite the perceived weakness of the confederacy, this congress passed important acts, including the Northwest Ordinance (1787). Recognizing the need to support the efforts that had been achieved by the first two congresses and by the war efforts, the delegates drafted the United States Constitution and established the United States Congress. Again, thoughtful, decisive and timely actions characterized their efforts, without which, the United States would be a far different nation today.

Who were these men whose actions created the United States of America? Many of the delegates’ names are familiar: John Adams, Silas Deane, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Benjamin Harrison, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and George Washington. Others, however, are less well known (at least to me): Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire (sound familiar to you West Wing fans?), William Few of Georgia, Leonard Gansevoort of New York, Cyrus Griffin of Virginia, and Joseph Hewes of North Carolina. Still others were elected, but did not attend: Timothy Danielson of Massachusetts, John Evans of Delaware, William Hillhouse of Connecticut, Paul Mumford of Rhode Island, and Paul Trapier of South Carolina, among others. An extensive list of both those who served, and those who were elected but did not serve, is available on Wikipedia. Links are provided to individual Wikipedia pages for the various individuals. (Caveat: These are Wikipedia pages and as such may require additional verification and documentation).

Access to the inner workings of these assemblies exists in a variety of formats. Some of the papers of the three congresses are available in printed form. Spanning thirty-eight volumes, the Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (GPO, 1904-37), is supported by a finding aid, Index: Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (NARA, 1976). National Archives Record Group 360, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, includes papers from the various sessions, including journals, committee reports, correspondence, memorials and petitions, and my favorite, secret journals. They are arranged by type of record, and then chronologically, alphabetically, or by subject, depending on the type of record. Three microfilm publications encompass the collection: M247, Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (204 rolls), is organized into 196 separate “items;” M332, Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (10 rolls) includes those materials not included in the item categories in M247; M886, Records of the  Constitutional Convention of 1787 (one roll) contains records specific to that group. Full text online access to selected documents from the Journals is available at the Avalon Project site, and as The Journals and Papers of the Continental Congress in the JSTOR collection of articles from the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

Technological advances have made improved access. Fold3 features three separate collections: Continental Congress – Papers (with 171, 519 images) includes records found in NARA M247; Continental Congress – Misc (with 6,939 images) includes the Miscellaneous Papers found in NARA M332; and Foreign Letters of the Continental Congress (with 474 images). These collections are free and can be accessed even though you are not a personal subscriber to Fold3.

I searched in Continental Congress – Papers collection for records related to the Barclay surname. I identified 680 items, including a letter from Samuel Huntington, a delegate from Connecticut and President of the Continental Congress, in which he informed Thomas Barckley [sic], Esq. of his appointment as Vice Consul, to reside in France, at a salary of $1,000 per year. Another Thomas Barclay-related item is a letter to Thomas Jefferson, written from Madrid and dated 5 April 1786, relating the status of ongoing negotiations with the Barbary pirates. If your ancestor was this Thomas Barclay and you were trying to locate him during this time period, knowledge of his appointment and subsequent residence in Europe might assist you with a difficult research brick wall. An additional search for records pertaining to the Buffington surname identified nine items, including a letter of marque, as well as petitions to Congress and various letters; a search for records pertaining to the surname Aldrich identified seven items including memorials, grants, and an interesting record in a document about “British plundering and ravaging” naming African Americans Prince Aldrich and Betsey Aldrich.

The collected papers of the Continental Congress, documenting some of the earliest national government’s discussions and actions, may prove helpful in your genealogical research. They often reference neglected materials about individuals, both the powerful and the average citizen, and provide both specific and background information. These records remind us that government can be both visionary and decisive, and that action in support of the common good, coupled with the application of well-reasoned thought, can accomplish great things.





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