THE Continental Congress, the head and front of colonial resistance to Great Britain, was composed of representatives elected by the legislatures or conventions of the thirteen revolted colonies. Summoned to deal with the crisis precipitated by the Boston Tea Party, the Continental Congress first met in Philadelphia in 1774. Upon it were centered the hopes of American freedom and American nationalism. Thanks to British "tyranny," Americans learned, albeit at first imperfectly, that only in union were to be found strength and salvation.
Despite the fact that the Continental Congress was unsanctioned by long or Parliament and therefore enjoyed no constitutional standing, Lord Chatham pronounced it to be the most distinguished assemblage of men in the English-speaking world. In this verdict, posterity has concurred; but unfortunately for the British Empire, the Englishmen who discerned elements of greatness in these transatlantic statesmen were out of power in 1776. The party in office was little disposed to attribute talents, or even probity, to the American revolutionaries: Lord North and his colleagues were fond of disparaging the "vagrant Congress" and the "demagogues" and "intriguing republicans" who presided over its councils. It is fair to say that the rulers of England were wholeheartedly committed to the proposition that no good could come out of the Continental Congress.
The age of most members of Congress was little more than forty; in 1776, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was only thirty-three. A study of vital statistics of the membership of this body might well have persuaded Englishmen that their chief enemy was the ardor of youth. In Congress, as all over America, young men were responding to the exhilarating impact of a new humane philosophy, and to