Today in history: September 5, 1774

On September 5, 1774, the First Continental Congress convened at Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia.

It was a very stressful and dangerous time, and there was very little agreement among the colonies about what should be done. The Port Bill (closing down Boston to ships) had been passed by the British, in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party – and Boston was suffering greatly. The colonies faced the question, so monumental at the time: “Is Boston’s suffering our business?” That question, of course, had large implications – the main one being: Are we, all the separate colonies, united? Are we willing to take a stand for Boston’s survival, even though we’re from South Carolina or Connecticut? The beginning of a union. There was no unanimity. They were all still subjects of the British crown. Many remained loyal, and the thought of breaking away was unthinkable, unimaginable (also not what they wanted at all). Others were already looking ahead to the eventual cataclysm, it was seen as an inevitability.

These were revolutionaries, although very few of them saw themselves as such. They were also good citizens of their various communities – lawyers and farmers, educated men, the elite. The time had not yet come for war. But the Port Bill was a gross and unfair “punishment” of a recalcitrant colony, and it was just a warning bell of things to come. These were men who considered themselves citizens of Britain – and to be treated in such a manner was outrageous.

They came from all the colonies. Delegates, sent with instructions and also their own biases, convened on Philadelphia.

Martha Washington wrote a letter to a relative on the eve of her husband’s departure to the Convention:

I foresee consequences; dark days and darker nights; domestic happiness suspended; social enjoyments abandoned; property of every kind put in jeopardy by war, perhaps; neighbors and friends at variance, and eternal separations on earth possible. But what are all these evils when compared with the fate of which the Port Bill may be only a threat? My mind is made up; my heart is in the cause. George is right; he is always right. God has promised to protect the righteous, and I will trust him.

We have a series of letters from John Adams to his wife, describing this first Congress – they’re fabulous, because Adams was not reticent at all with his wife. He had next to no formality with Abigail, he shared everything with her: his gripes, his self-doubt, his vanity, his jokes … The letters are a rich first-person resource, one of the most amazing archives of letters we have in our national history.

Adams wrote a letter (the last paragraph of which is now rightly famous) to Abigail on his way down to Philadelphia:

We Yesterday visited Nassau Hall Colledge, and were politely treated by the Schollars, Tutors, Professors and President, whom We are, this Day to hear preach. Tomorrow We reach the Theatre of Action. God Almighty grant us Wisdom and Virtue sufficient for the high Trust that is devolved upon Us. The Spirit of the People wherever we have been seems to be very favourable. They universally consider our Cause as their own, and express the firmest Resolution, to abide the Determination of the Congress.

I am anxious for our perplexed, distressed Province [Boston] — hope they will be directed into the right Path. Let me intreat you, my Dear, to make yourself as easy and quiet as possible. Resignation to the Will of Heaven is our only Resource in such Dangerous Times. Prudence and Caution should be our Guides. I have the strongest Hopes, that We shall yet see a clearer Sky, and better Times…

Your Account of the Rain refreshed me. [In his absence, Abigail took complete charge of the farm, the finances, the help, along with raising their growing brood of children. It is speculated as well that without this “help”, John Adams might have run their finances into the ground. From his book allowance alone!] I hope our Husbandry is prudently and industriously managed. Frugality must be our Support…

The Education of our Children is never out of my Mind. Train them to Virtue, habituate them to industry, activity and Spirit. Make them consider every Vice, as shameful and unmanly: fire them Ambition to be usefull — make them disdain to be destitute of any usefull, or ornamental Knowledge or Accomplishment. Fix their Ambition upon great and solid Objects, and their Contempt upon little, frivolous, and useless ones. It is Time, my dear, for you to begin to teach them French. Every Decency, Grace, and Honesty should be inculcated upon them.

And here – finally – in a letter dated September 16, John Adams describes the first meeting of the First Continental Congress. Gives me chills, every time. I love Samuel Adams’ comment. If only other religious bigots could take his lead:

When the Congress first met, Mr. Cushing made a Motion, that it shouild be opened with Prayer. It was opposed by Mr. Jay of N. York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, because we were so divided in religious Sentiments, some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Aanabaptists, some Presbyterians and some Congregationalists, so that We could not join in the same Act of Worship. — Mr. S. Adams arose and said he was no Bigot, and could hear a Prayer from a Gentleman of Piety and Virtue, who was at the same Time a Friend to his Country. He was a Stranger in Phyladelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duche (Dushay they pronounce it) deserved that Character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an episcopal Clergyman, might be desired, to read Prayers to the Congress, tomorrow Morning. The Motion was seconded and passed in the Affirmative. Mr. Randolph our President waited on Mr. Duche, and received for Answer that if his Health would permit, he certainly would. Accordingly next Morning he appeared with his Clerk and in his Pontificallibus, and read several Prayers, in the established Form; and then read the Collect for the seventh day of September, which was the Thirty Fifth Psalm. — You must remember this was the next Morning after we heard the horrible Rumour, of the Cannonade of Boston. — I never saw a greater Effect upon an Audience. It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that Morning.

After this Mr. Duche, unexpected to every Body struck out into an extemporary Prayer, which filled the Bosom of every Man present. I must confess I never heard a better Prayer, or one so well pronounced. Episcopalian as he is, Dr. Cooper himself never prayed with such fervour, such Ardor, such Earnestness and Pathos, and in Language so elegant and sublime — for America, for the Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially the Town of Boston. It has had an excellent Effect upon every Body here.

I must beg you to read that Psalm.

Okay, John, relax, no need to beg, I’ll read that Psalm.

The 35th Psalm

Oppose, LORD, those who oppose me; war upon those who make war upon me.
Take up the shield and buckler; rise up in my defense.

Brandish lance and battle-ax against my pursuers. Say to my heart, “I am your salvation.”

Let those who seek my life be put to shame and disgrace. Let those who plot evil against me be turned back and confounded.

Make them like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the LORD driving them on.

Make their way slippery and dark, with the angel of the LORD pursuing them.

Without cause they set their snare for me; without cause they dug a pit for me.

Let ruin overtake them unawares; let the snare they have set catch them; let them fall into the pit they have dug.

Then I will rejoice in the LORD, exult in God’s salvation.

My very bones shall say, “O LORD, who is like you, Who rescue the afflicted from the powerful, the afflicted and needy from the despoiler?”

Malicious witnesses come forward, accuse me of things I do not know.

They repay me evil for good and I am all alone.

Yet I, when they were ill, put on sackcloth, afflicted myself with fasting, sobbed my prayers upon my bosom.

I went about in grief as for my brother, bent in mourning as for my mother.

Yet when I stumbled they gathered with glee, gathered against me like strangers. They slandered me without ceasing;

without respect they mocked me, gnashed their teeth against me.

Lord, how long will you look on? Save me from roaring beasts, my precious life from lions!

Then I will thank you in the great assembly; I will praise you before the mighty throng.

Do not let lying foes smirk at me, my undeserved enemies wink knowingly.

They speak no words of peace, but against the quiet in the land they fashion deceitful speech.

They open wide their mouths against me. They say, “Aha! Good! Our eyes relish the sight!”

You see this, LORD; do not be silent; Lord, do not withdraw from me.

Awake, be vigilant in my defense, in my cause, my God and my Lord.

Defend me because you are just, LORD; my God, do not let them gloat over me.

Do not let them say in their hearts, “Aha! Just what we wanted!” Do not let them say, “We have devoured that one!”

Put to shame and confound all who relish my misfortune. Clothe with shame and disgrace those who lord it over me.

But let those who favor my just cause shout for joy and be glad. May they ever say, “Exalted be the LORD who delights in the peace of his loyal servant.”

Then my tongue shall recount your justice, declare your praise, all the day long.

And finally – a funny excerpt from one of the many descriptive letters John Adams wrote to his wife during the Congress – just makes me chuckle:

This assembly is like no other that ever existed. Every man in it is a great man — an orator, a critic, a statesman, and therefore every man upon every question must show his oratory, his criticism, his political abilities. The consequence of this is that business is drawn and spun out to immeasurable length. I believe if it was moved and seconded that we should come to a resolution that three and two make five, we should be entertained with logic and rhetoric, law, history, politics, and mathematics concerning the subject for two whole days, and then we should pass the resolution unanimously in the affirmative.


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5 Responses to Today in history: September 5, 1774

  1. tracey says:

    What a great post, Sheila, and a great reminder of the men who built the foundation for us. Gives me chills.

  2. Kerry says:

    Oh, I love that man.

  3. nightfly says:

    Tremendous people – every one a great man, as Mr. Adams noted.

    Entirely tangential – September 5th was also the birthday of the famed ruffian Jesse James. (1847, I believe.)

  4. Jen W. says:

    gosh, it looks like such a little building. I had imagined something much bigger…

  5. Lou says:


    They were tiny little people. Washington and Jefferson were the exception at 6’2″ and 6’3″.

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