This Day in History: The first Continental Congress convenes in Philadelphia

On this day in 1774, the first Continental Congress convenes at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia. All thirteen colonies were finally coming together in a serious way to begin their work against British tyranny.

USCapitol_-_The_First_Continental_Congress,_1774Okay, well, almost all thirteen. Georgia refused to send any delegates—at all!

What a scene that must have been! The colonies were so different from each other, perhaps even more different than we remember today. John Adams once described the striking differences among the colonies:

“The colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different; there was so great a variety of religions; they were composed of so many different nations; their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance; and their intercourse had been so rare and their knowledge of each other so imperfect that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action was certainly a very difficult enterprise.”

How would delegates from these thirteen different colonies ever manage to agree on anything, much less organize a successful resistance against the mighty British government?

The answer is surprisingly simple! Compromise. Over and over again, our Founders managed to find a middle ground among competing interests. They remembered to focus on their similarities and shared values, not on their differences.

The opening days of the first Continental Congress were a case in point.

The-first-prayer-in-congress-september-1774Almost immediately, a thorny issue confronted the delegates. Should Congress be opened with prayer?

Two delegates immediately opposed the motion, as John Adams later recounted, “because we were so divided in religious Sentiments . . . [and we] could not join in the same Act of Worship.” Fiery Patriot Samuel Adams jumped in with a solution. He arose and declared that 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.” It was agreed that the Reverend Jacob Duché, an Episcopal clergyman, should be asked to perform this service.

Duché opened Congress with prayer the next morning. He read the collect for that day, which happened to be Psalm 35. Adams later marveled to Abigail Adams that it “seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that Morning.” He begged her to read it. “I never saw a greater Effect upon an Audience,” he said. The Psalm was topped off with an “extemporary Prayer” from Duché “which filled the Bosom of every Man present.”

Our Founders weren’t perfect, of course. Certainly there were many instances of petty quarrels and silly bickering—even duels! But, by and large, our Founders were at their best when they remembered to compromise and work together, as they did so successfully at the Continental Congress and (later) the Constitutional Convention. They were most successful when they focused on their similarities and shared values, not their differences.

How unsurprising that our Constitution contains so many elements that are designed to make us work together—including our Electoral College. Perhaps the discontent surrounding this year’s election is less baffling, given this background? Does the election feel like a train wreck to so many in part because there is so little coalition-building going on these days?

What do you think?

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