Sept. 5, 2022

The First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress

September 5, 1774. Amid growing tensions over taxation, delegates from the American colonies unite in Philadelphia to coordinate resistance to the British Crown.


Cold Open

A listener note: I have COVID. I might sound a little different.

It’s August 14th, 1765 in Boston, Massachusetts.

The colony’s lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson, rushes through a park, determined to quell a growing riot.

Earlier today, Thomas heard that residents were gathered to protest a recent tax imposed on the colonies by Britain, known as the Stamp Act. Now, Thomas has come to stop the demonstration before it grows too unwieldy. But he fears he might be too late.

As Thomas turns a corner, he sees thousands of residents already amassed around a tree with a strange figure dangling from its branches. As Thomas edges closer, his heart lifts in relief as he realizes the object is an effigy. 

But Thomas stops in his tracks as he notices the name of the town’s tax agent and his brother-in-law, Andrew Oliver, scrawled across the stuffed figure.

He watches in horror as one man rips down the effigy and stomps on it, before lifting it up to roaring cheers.

Then the man leads the crowd out of the park and into the streets.

Realizing they’re headed to Andrew’s home, Thomas runs to warn his brother-in-law of the approaching mob.

Soon, Thomas arrives at Andrew’s house. Relief fills him once again as the tax agent opens the door, unscathed. Quickly, Thomas rushes inside and urges Andrew to flee.

But even as he speaks, angry shouting pulls his attention to the scene unfolding outside. Thomas peers out a window and sees the mob has flooded the street outside.

Thomas watches as one man brandishes a knife and decapitates the effigy of Andrew, tossing the head into a hastily-made bonfire.

Then, Thomas hears a group of rioters begin to kick down the front door. Fearing for their lives, Thomas and Andrew run out of the back. Together, they flee into the street and out of sight.

In the spring of 1765, the British Parliament passed its first direct tax on the American colonies. The Stamp Act required all colonists to pay a tax on various types of paper documents to raise revenue for Britain. The act had angered many colonists who don’t want to pay taxes without representation in Parliament. Months after its passage, outrage boiled over in Boston, resulting in rioters ransacking and destroying the home of tax agent Andrew Oliver.

After the attack on his home, Andrew will resign as the city’s stamp distributor. But the colonists’ fury over the Stamp Act will persist. Over the next decade, anger over taxation without representation will only grow, sowing the seeds of revolution. Bonded by their shared frustration, soon the colonies will organize into a united front against the British crown, convening for the First Continental Congress on September 5th, 1774.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is September 5th, 1774:The First Continental Congress.

Act One: Taxation Without Representation

It’s the night of August 26, 1765, in Boston, Massachusetts; 12 days after rioters destroyed Andrew Oliver’s home.

Inside his three-story mansion, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson sits down at his dining table alongside his family. As his children laugh and talk with one another, Thomas and his wife eat in silence.

Ever since the attack on Andrew's home, Thomas has lived in fear. After protestors ransacked his brother-in-law’s house, they took their protest to his home. For an hour, Thomas and his family hid inside as protestors pounded on his door, demanding to hear from his own mouth that he opposed the Stamp Act.

And in truth, Thomas does oppose the Stamp Act. But as lieutenant governor, Thomas believes it’s still his obligation to enforce it, and he doesn’t want to fan the flames of rebellion.

So, that night, Thomas decided to stay silent and out of sight. Eventually, convinced the lieutenant governor wasn’t home, the rioters left. But ever since the incident, Thomas has heard rumors that Boston’s residents are planning another visit to his home, leaving him on high alert.

But, tonight, he tries to suppress his nerves. As his family eats, Thomas does his best to join in conversation with his children and enjoy his time with his family.

Gradually, Thomas begins to relax. But a sudden knock at the door rattles him. 

As he slowly sets down his silverware, Thomas gestures for his wife to hide in another room with the children. Then, Thomas walks to a window and peeks out. He relaxes as he recognizes a lone, friendly neighbor on their doorstep and opens the door.

But as Thomas smiles and greets his neighbor, he’s met with the news that an angry mob of protestors is on its way to his home. Thomas quickly thanks his neighbor for the warning, then leaps into action.

Back inside, he orders his children and wife to stay out of sight in an interior room. Then Thomas tries to board up his windows. But just as Thomas picks up his hammer, he realizes he's already too late. 

Thomas looks out the window and sees an angry crowd approaching the house. And as the mob draws closer, Thomas’s stomach drops. In several of the protestors’ hands are axes.

Immediately, Thomas runs to gather his family. Together, they flee out a side door and run toward the safety of a neighbor's home. There, Thomas stares out a window and angrily watches as the mob breaks in and tears his home apart.

The rioters flood all three levels of his house. And soon, a flurry of feathers begin to drift to the ground as they rip open pillows from every room and dump their contents out the windows. In his yard, one group of protesters hack down his trees while another knocks down his fence. Others stream out of the house, leaving the scene with stolen artwork and jewelry in their hands.

At dawn, the ransacking finally ends. And as Thomas steps back inside his house, his knees buckle at the emptiness before him. All his belongings are gone or destroyed, a bitterness bubbles inside him.

Once sympathetic to the colonists’ cause, the destruction of his home sows a new distrust within Thomas Hutchinson. After the attack on his home, the governor grows more supportive of oppressing Boston’s rebellious residents, convinced that the key to peace is even stronger British authority.

But, the colonists continue to protest this notion. And soon they make their voices heard in a way other than rioting. All across the colonies, underground resistance groups coined the Sons of Liberty, develop to protest the Stamp Act. Soon, they organize boycotts on British goods.

And six weeks after the attack on Thomas Hutchinson’s home, delegates from some of the colonies assemble in New York for what they call the "Stamp Act Congress". There, they write and issue a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. In it, they claim that the British Parliament has no right to tax the colonists because it does not include representation from the colonies.

Across the Atlantic, news of the colonists’ unsanctioned congressional meeting will alarm the British government. But the economic repercussions of the Stamp Act will concern Parliament even more. Amid loud protests from British merchants impacted by the colonists’ boycotts, the Parliament will repeal the Stamp Act a year after passing it. But, the same day, they will pass the Declaratory Act.

In it, Parliament will loudly reassert their absolute legislative authority over the colonies “in all cases whatsoever” - a sentiment that will outrage the colonists and soon set them on the path to revolution.

Act Two: Boston Tea Party

It’s November 29th, 1773 at Boston’s Old South Meeting House; seven years after Parliament repealed the Stamp Act.

Inside the packed meeting hall, the leader of Boston’s Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams, holds a town meeting for thousands of Bostonians to discuss the town’s current taxation crisis.

In the three years since the Stamp Act, tensions between the colonists and the British government have mounted. Britain has continued to tax the American colonists on various goods without giving them representation in Parliament. So the colonists have continued to fight back through boycotts on British imports. So far, this tactic has proved effective, leading to the repeal of many taxes. And now, only a tax on tea has remained stubbornly in place for the past six years.

But colonial merchants have found a silver lining to the tea tax. Many, including Sam Adams, have built lucrative businesses selling colonists smuggled Dutch tea for far cheaper than the British can sell their tea. This has allowed the colonists to boycott the taxed British tea, while also spending less.

But recently, Parliament passed a measure that threatens to put many smuggled tea sellers out of business. Earlier this year, they gave a tax break to the financially-troubled British East India Company through the Tea Act. The new legislation allows the company to sell their tea at even cheaper prices than the colonial merchants can sell smuggled tea, granting it a virtual monopoly in the American colonies. 

This has upset many colonists. Though they will now be able to buy even cheaper tea, some interpret the measure as yet another instance of taxation without representation. Many worry that if they silently accept the Tea Act, they will be confirming the authority of the British Parliament to tax the colonies and open the door to future tax abuses.

Yesterday, the first ship filled with chests of the East India Company’s tea arrived in Boston Harbor, forcing the Tea Act’s opponents to develop a plan of action. Many worry that a mere boycott will not work this time; that colonists will be unable to resist the temptation of buying tea at lower prices. So, Sam Adams has developed a new solution to the crisis: making sure the tea never makes it to shelves in the first place.

So today, in front of the crowded meeting hall, Sam prepares to put his plan into action. He clears his throat, before calling on all Bostonians to come together to stop the East India Company from unloading their ships. Sam’s words prompt immediate cheers from the townspeople who overwhelmingly endorse the proposal. And soon, 25 volunteers are sent to stand watch on the dock and prevent the British captains from offloading their cargo.

Elsewhere, across the colonies, the arrivals of the East India Company’s ships prompt a similar reaction, and the standoffs often successfully result in the ships returning the tea to England. But in Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, now the colony’s Governor, refuses to let the colonists force him into submission.

At the Bostonians’ insistence, the captains of the East India Company’s ships eventually agree to return to England. But governor Hutchinson refuses to permit the captains to leave.

On December 16th, three weeks after the arrival of the first East India Company ship, the colonists urge one of the captains to appeal to Governor Hutchinson one final time.

Inside the Old South Meeting House, Sam and thousands of Bostonians gather once again, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the ship captain with the governor’s reply.

In the evening, the captain finally arrives. Sam listens in frustration as he informs the colonists that Governor Hutchinson has once again refused to permit him to leave.

The crowd erupts in angry protestation. Sam lifts a finger to silence the agitated crowd. Then, as a hush falls, Sam issues a booming declaration: “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”

Convinced that all legal avenues have been exhausted, Sam decides it’s time for Bostonians to take a more drastic measure; if they can’t get the ships to leave, then they will simply destroy their cargo.

Quickly, Sam rallies dozens of members of the Sons of Liberty to leave the meeting hall and head to the town’s wharf. Hastily dressed up as Native Americans to disguise their identities, the men descend upon the East India Company’s ships armed with hatchets and axes. From shore, thousands of residents watch as the men hack open hundreds of chests of tea and pour their contents into the harbor.

In three hours, the Sons of Liberty will dump 92,000 pounds of tea into the water. The Boston Tea Party, as it will soon be known, will send shockwaves across the Atlantic.

In response to the raid, the British government will decide against trying to identify and prosecute the individuals involved. Instead, Parliament will elect to punish all of Massachusetts with a set of new punitive laws designed to cut off the town’s trade and criminalize organized resistance to British rule.

Formally named the Coercive Acts, the colonists will coin the legislation the Intolerable Acts. And soon, they will become a rallying call for the colonies. Determined to stand their ground, the colonies will decide to coordinate their resistance, closing ranks to defy British rule. 

Act Three: First Continental Congress

It’s September 5th, 1774 outside Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia; nine months after the Boston Tea Party.

Sam Adams walks up the steps of the two-story brick building and pushes open its double doors. Inside, Sam joins dozens of other men from all over the colonies, each here to discuss how best to organize colonial opposition to British taxation.

Four months ago, the British Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts to punish the colonists for the Boston Tea Party. Britain hoped these punitive laws would reverse the trend of colonial resistance. But they have not. Instead, they have only intensified colonial opposition to British authority. And now, united over their shared fears of tyrannical British rule, the colonies have decided to come together to coordinate their response. Today, Sam is one of 56 delegates from 12 colonies elected to assemble in Philadelphia to decide a course of action.

Inside the meeting hall, Sam absorbs the room’s somber atmosphere as he takes his seat among the other delegates. In the crowd of men, he spots many of the colonies’ leading luminaries, including his cousin and lawyer John Adams, as well as the respected military hero, George Washington.

As the full delegation arrives, the men open their congressional session and begin to debate the best way to coordinate resistance to British authority. Over the next six weeks, the delegates of the First Continental Congress slowly build a consensus. Together, they agree to boycott British goods and halt exports to Britain if the Intolerable Acts are not repealed. They also pledge to support Massachusetts in case of British attack; a promise which soon will prove fateful.

Because seven months after the First Continental Congress, the first battles of the Revolutionary War will erupt in Massachusetts, drawing the rest of the colonies into a fight for independence from Britain. The following month, delegates from all 13 colonies will meet for a Second Continental Congress and will become the colonies’ de facto national government. One year later, that congress will reconvene to adopt the Declaration of Independence, formally severing America’s ties to Britain once and for all; a milestone in American history set into motion in part by the agreements of the First Continental Congress on September 5th, 1774.


Next on History Daily. September 6th, 1901. After being elected for a second term, President William McKinley is shot at a World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.