Procedural Plotting Joined Paul Revere on Road to Independence

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On the eve of our nation's 230th birthday celebration, it's worth considering what role, if any, procedural politics played in the Continental Congresses that led to our independence. As it turns out, our forefathers were no strangers to parliamentary plotting.

The First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on Sept. 5, 1774. It originally was not intended to be a governing body for the colonies, but rather a forum for devising ways to persuade Great Britain to restore its policy of "salutary neglect" and respect for the colonies' rights, liberties and privileges as sovereign bodies.

A series of events had shattered that relationship, most notably the Boston Tea Party in December 1773 (precipitated by Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty). The British Parliament retaliated the following spring with a series of laws the colonies referred to as the "Coercive Acts." Under those laws, the British erected a military blockade of Boston, effectively shut down the colony's assembly and town meetings, and authorized the quartering of British soldiers in private homes.

The 55 delegates to the Continental Congress were well steeped in parliamentary procedures inherited from the British Parliament and practiced in their colonial assemblies. These were veteran politicians, not unlike their counterparts in today's Congress. As Delegate John Adams of Massachusetts described the Congress in his diary: "The deliberations of the Congress are spun out to an immeasurable length. There is so much wit, sense, learning, acuteness, subtlety, eloquence, etc. among fifty gentlemen, each of whom has been habituated to lead and guide in his own province, that an immensity of time is spent unnecessarily."

Two weeks later Adams wrote: "In Congress, nibbling and quibbling — as usual. ... These subtle critics, these refined geniuses, these learned lawyers, these wise statesmen are so fond of showing their parts and powers, as to make their consultations very tedious."

Over the first three days, the delegates debated and adopted the rules that would guide their proceedings. The most contentious debate was over how votes should be cast. Should they be based on population or should each colony have a single vote? The Congress chose the latter because it did not have "proper materials for ascertaining the importance of each Colony." Opponents of the rule insisted the Journal show this was not to be a precedent. Nevertheless, it became one for all succeeding Congresses until 1789.

Congress also adopted a rule to close its sessions to the public and direct members "under the strongest obligations of honor, to keep the proceedings secret, until the majority shall direct them to be made public." The rule apparently was not controversial. Delegates recognized that secrecy was critical to their success. Any leaks about dissent could invite pressures on the streets of Philadelphia as well as undermine overall public support for the Congress' final recommendations. For that same reason, Secretary Charles Thomson unilaterally instituted a rule to omit from the Journal any propositions that were rejected. It is only due to John Adams' diary and the correspondence of other delegates that we can piece together what transpired.

One of the first actions of the Congress was to appoint two committees — one to develop a bill of rights and grievances of the colonies, and the other to devise recommendations on trade with the Crown. Shortly after the two committees reported, Delegate Joseph Galloway, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, rose to argue that neither a petition for rights nor trade sanctions would achieve the desired reconciliation with Great Britain.

He proposed instead a "Plan of Union" based on the "Albany Plan" floated by Benjamin Franklin two decades earlier. Under the plan, America would establish a legislature parallel to the British Parliament, and each would have a veto over the other's actions affecting America. The American government would be administered by a president general, appointed by the king.

Both the British and the colonies previously had rejected Franklin's plan, but the Continental Congress initially was receptive to Galloway's resuscitation of the idea, voting 6-5 to schedule it for future consideration. Galloway's hopes subsequently were dashed when a dispatch rider named Paul Revere galloped into town on Oct. 6 with news that the military governor of Massachusetts, Gen. Thomas Gage, was fortifying British troop positions around Boston with cannons.

This was Revere's second dramatic appearance before Congress. On Sept. 16 he rode into Philadelphia with a set of resolutions in his saddlebags. The "Suffolk Resolves" had been adopted by a convention of towns around Boston. They declared the Coercive Acts unconstitutional, urged Massachusetts to form a free state, called on the people to arm themselves and recommended imposing economic sanctions on Great Britain.

The Continental Congress had endorsed the Suffolk Resolves on Sept. 17. This time, with heightened tensions and mounting public agitation in the streets, Congress responded with a letter to Gage requesting that the fortifications and "invasions of private property" by the soldiers be discontinued. This new development eclipsed Galloway's Plan of Union, and Congress voted to erase the plan from the Journal along with the earlier-adopted order for its consideration.

One account indicates the vote purposely was taken when Galloway's supporters were not present. Another resolution by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, recommending that "a militia be forthwith appointed" and armed for the defense of North America, also fell victim to procedural politics. It was so watered down by amendments that even Lee voted against it on final passage.

At least Galloway was vindicated in his prediction: Congress' petition for rights and imposition of trade sanctions did not achieve the desired response from Britain. Consequently, a Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775 — less than a month after Revere's most famous ride. When further efforts at reconciliation failed, Congress voted on July 2, 1776, to break with the motherland. The rest, as they say, is history.


Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.



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