The Continental Congress was a series of legislative bodies, with some executive function, for thirteen of Britain's colonies in North America, and the newly declared United States just before, during, and after the American Revolutionary War. The term "Continental Congress" most specifically refers to the First and Second Congresses of 1774–1781 and, at the time, was also used to refer to the Congress of the Confederation of 1781–1789, which operated as the first national government of the United States until being replaced under the Constitution of the United States. Thus, the term covers the three congressional bodies of the Thirteen Colonies and the new United States that met between 1774 and 1789.
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The First Continental Congress was called in 1774 in response to growing tensions between the colonies culminating in the passage of the Intolerable Acts by the British Parliament. It met for about six weeks and sought to repair the fraying relationship between Britain and colonies, while asserting the rights of colonists, proclaiming and passing the Continental Association (a unified trade embargo against Britain), and calling for a second congress. The Second Continental Congress convened in 1775 in the wake of the breakout of hostilities in Massachusetts. Soon after meeting, this second Congress sent the Olive Branch Petition to King George III while also selecting George Washington as the head of the new Continental Army. After peace was not forthcoming, the same congress drafted and adopted the Independence resolution and the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, proclaiming that the former colonies were now independent sovereign states.
The Second Continental Congress served as the provisional government of the U.S. for most of the War of Independence. In March 1781, the nation's first Frame of Government, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, came into force, at which time the body became what later was called the Congress of the Confederation. This unicameral governing body would convene in eight sessions before adjourning in 1789, when the 1st United States Congress under the new Constitution of the United States took over the role as the nation's legislative branch of government.
Both the First and Second Continental Congresses convened in Philadelphia, though with the city's capture during the Revolutionary War, the Second Congress was forced to meet in other locations for a time. The Congress of Confederation was also established in Philadelphia and later moved to New York City which served as the U.S. capital from 1785 to 1790.
Much of what is known today about the daily activities of these congresses comes from the journals kept by the secretary for all three congresses, Charles Thomson. Printed contemporaneously, the Journals of the Continental Congress contain the official congressional papers, letters, treaties, reports and records. The delegates to the Continental and Confederation congresses had extensive experience in deliberative bodies, with "a cumulative total of nearly 500 years of experience in their Colonial assemblies, and fully a dozen of them had served as speakers of the houses of their legislatures."