Traveling to the Second Continental Congress

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

February 2, 2016
by Will Monk Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

On April 24, 1775, Samuel Adams and John Hancock arrived in Worcester, Massachusetts, forty miles west of Boston. They hoped to find three more men – John Adams, Thomas Cushing and Robert Treat Paine – who were the other three delegates from the colony to the upcoming second Continental Congress, but they had not been seen. Hancock wrote to the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, now meeting in Watertown, for updates on the situation after Lexington and Concord. He was full of questions about prisoners, a list of the dead, and what the Provincial Congress would do next. He also offered ideas: drive the British out of Boston, take possession of Castle William, stop large ships in the harbor. From his isolated location, however, five days after the fighting, Hancock’s letter could have little effect on events.[1]

Above all, Hancock asked for confirmation that the British had fired the first shots. It was a crucial piece of propaganda, if true, and justification for armed battle against the king’s troops rested on it. Eight months earlier, John and Samuel Adams had written to friends in Massachusetts, imploring them to keep the peace back home, because delegates to the first Congress suspected New Englanders of wanting to goad the British into a fight. Now that the very act they feared had occurred, it must appear as if the colonists were acting in self-defense. The Massachusetts delegates did not know what to expect as they prepared for the journey to Philadelphia.[2]

Hancock and Adams waited a few more days, but without hearing news of further fighting, or the fate of their companions, they got into their carriages on April 27. Two days passed as they traveled by farms now ready for plowing. Families cleared the last remaining leaves and brush from their fields, and taverns welcomed the delegates with mugs of rum and plates of ham and fried oysters. On April 29 they reached Hartford, capital of Connecticut, where they met in secret with Governor Jonathan Trumbull.

Now that war had come, the colonists needed as much ammunition and artillery as they could get. The fight at Concord itself had been over possession of cannons, which they assumed could no longer be purchased from Europe. There was a supply at Fort Ticonderoga, the isolated garrison in New York where so many men had died during the French and Indian War. It was unlikely that whoever served there had heard of the fighting farther east, so the fort and cannons might be taken by surprise. The colony’s legislature had already agreed to use three hundred pounds from Connecticut’s treasury to pay for an expedition, although the details of leadership and organization were still murky. They had no legal authority to do anything, especially in New York, but the very suddenness of the Lexington fight put authority itself in question.[3]

Paine, Cushing and John Adams caught up to their colleagues somewhere on the road. In the days following Lexington, men had to find family members and get in touch with the Committee of Safety and the Provincial Congress while, at the same time, steering clear of  Tories who might turn them in. Adams had been laid up a few days with a fever, hence his delay, but was so anxious to get to Philadelphia in time he pressed on in a two wheeled carriage. The delegates lingered in Hartford until May 2, and Adams was told of the plan to attack Ticonderoga, and wrote home that “certain military matters of great importance” had been set in motion.[4]

Ahead of them on the road were the Connecticut delegates: Roger Sherman, Eliphalet Dyer and Silas Deane. A few weeks earlier Dyer had written to Deane, asking that they travel together, and promising, “We can chat, we can sing, we can dispute everything, scold and make friends again every half hour, which will make the time pass away easily.” He wrote this April 14, however, before the fighting had started, so their conversation may have been more somber. Thomas Cushing had joined them, and in Stamford, Connecticut they found a group of people who had set out a banquet. The delegates entered and went straight to the head table, then sat down and ate dinner before they realized they had crashed a wedding, and no one else knew why they had come. They were off again the next day, met by twelve men carrying bayonets who swore to accompany them forward. At Rye, New York, these guards were replaced by twelve others, led by two officers wearing scarlet and gold uniforms.[5]

John Hancock and Samuel Adams caught up to them on Saturday, May 6, at Kings Bridge, a village (now in the Bronx) just north of New York Island. The other Massachusetts and Connecticut delegates were there with a welcoming party of gentlemen from New York, and another group of guards. They all ate lunch and set out with Hancock sitting in the lead carriage, followed by the other delegates, escorts and hangers on. They went over a wooden bridge across the narrow Harlem River which separated the mainland from the island, and then went south through forest and rock-filled hills.  After two miles a group of people waited in carriages, which went ahead and kicked up a cloud of dust on the dry road. Isolated farms and cottages appeared; with each mile people stood in fields and doorways to wave. After twelve miles the procession reached New York itself. A squad of the city militia waited along with hundreds of dock workers, businessmen, housewives and children, who stood in front of Hancock’s carriage and asked him to get out while they led him through the city. He begged them off, and the parade continued through Wall Street, then Broadway, then past a fort at the island’s southern tip and back again a few blocks to Fraunces Tavern. The crowd gave three cheers and dispersed. Yet several more visitors, whom Hancock called “gentlemen of the first character,” filled the house and talked for hours. Hancock did not have dinner until 10 o’clock, then slipped away to the nearby house of Isaac Sears, so he could sleep in peace.[6]

The delegates stayed in New York over the weekend, but on Monday morning, May 8, they had to go, since Congress was scheduled to meet two days later. Another crowd waited as the delegates went to the Hudson River and boarded a packet boat, escorted by a company of grenadiers. As the delegates crossed, a band played and the crowd on shore gave three cheers. On the opposite shore the grenadiers got out first to form an honor guard, and led the delegates into Newark. Hancock was so tired of the crowds he took a side road to avoid the spectacle, but Deane and the others went on. Another militia waited and, after a brief ceremony, the delegates continued to Elizabethtown, where they met Hancock and wasted half an hour with yet another makeshift welcoming committee. They reached Brunswick by nightfall, ever more aware of the remaining distance. The next day, the parade of carriages and horsemen continued, switching escorts every few miles until they reached Princeton, where students at the college stood to greet them. Another set of speeches and cheers echoed past them as they hurried south, ten more miles to Trenton for dinner, then onto a ferry across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania as the sun went down in the west. Time was pressing, so they went ten miles more, stopping at Bristol. After a long night of sleep the delegates once again got in carriages, with fresh horses taking them through the low countryside as ships lazily went up and down the Delaware, to their left. Six miles from Philadelphia the carriages met a group of horsemen, with swords drawn, who joined the growing parade. After two more miles they were met by foot soldiers, hastily gathered from villages nearby, and then by a company of riflemen in locally designed uniforms. By now church bells began to ring, and Deane wrote that the crowds were “rolling and gathering like a snowball,” until the vast procession finally ended at City Tavern, and the crowd melted away.[7]

This greeting was not reserved for New England delegates. George Washington and Richard Henry Lee, both of Virginia, travelled together, chatting about plantation life. When they passed through Baltimore, Maryland they stopped to review a militia company in formation.  Several of the Maryland delegates made a side trip to New Castle, Delaware, in successive days. Richard Bland of Virginia also went to New Castle for lunch and took a stagecoach to Philadelphia. Some of the South Carolina delegates sailed up the Delaware River in a ship. When these southerners got closer to Philadelphia, another honor guard waited, just as it did for the New Englanders. They lined up in escort for the last few miles as crowds began to gather on the roadside. The delegates may have wondered how so many people could have known they were coming, but they did not object, either. They knew they could be committing to a course with no foreseeable end.[8]

The first Congress had met eight months earlier in Carpenter’s Hall – an adequate structure for the delegates’ limited purpose. By the time the second Congress convened, in May, 1775, troops had been dispatched and blood had been shed, and the members knew they would meet longer than a few weeks. They turned to the Pennsylvania State House, home of the colony’s assembly, which was just a block away from Carpenter’s Hall but more spacious. It was made of red brick, with a meeting room forty feet long and another room, across the center hall, for the colonial court, where the arms of George III hung above the door as a symbol of his authority. An entry hall led to a courtyard, a grassy area with trees to shade people as they walked. A staircase led to the second floor, where a long hall and smaller rooms could be used for meetings. Above it all was a brick and wood tower, poking about ten feet above the roof. Inside the tower was a bell, forged in Britain and brought to Philadelphia twenty years earlier, which chimed in time with a clock on the outside of the statehouse’s west wall.[9]

The delegates met at the state house on May 10, long enough to elect Peyton Randolph of Virginia as presiding officer and hear a report from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress on the fight at Lexington and Concord. Three days later Congress met again, but their sessions had a makeshift quality. The Rhode Island delegates had not arrived, and a single person, Lyman Hall, showed up to represent Georgia – but since its legislature had not formally elected anyone he only sat for St. John’s Parish until the rest of the colony’s delegation showed up.  Benjamin Franklin, who had spent several years in Britain and had arrived in Philadelphia that week, was elected by the Pennsylvania Assembly to join its delegation. Within ten days Randolph was summoned back to Virginia to serve as Speaker of its House of Burgesses, which was apparently more important to him than leading the Continental Congress – further showing its improvised nature.[10]

If Hancock or Adams still worried how the other delegates had taken the news of Lexington and Concord, they were soon reassured. John Dickinson wrote about the “the impious war of tyranny against innocence” which had started in Boston; Richard Henry Lee wrote to his brother about a “wanton and cruel attack on unarmed people.” Some of the delegates had already started for Philadelphia when riders intercepted them to relay the story. Those loyal to the king gave differing accounts, in which the British inflicted heavy damage, but rebel versions were detailed and accurate. Robert Livingston wrote, “I am resolved to stand and fall with my country.”[11]


[1] William V Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, 1865), 2:296 – 97 (Watertown); John Hancock to the Committee of Safety, April 24, 1775, in William Lincoln, ed., Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of Safety (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 170n (letter).

[2] Hancock letter, above (first to fire); Samuel Adams to Joseph Warren, September 25, 1774, in Samuel Adams,  The Writings of Samuel Adams, Harry Alonzo Cushing, ed., (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904 – 08), 3:158 – 59;  John Adams to William Tudor, September 29, 1774, in Paul H. Smith, et. al., eds. Letters of Delegates to the Continental Congress (Washington: Library of Congress, 1976 – 2000), 1:129 – 31 (both on fears). Hereafter cited as LDC.

[3] Wells, The Life and Public Services of Samuel Adams, 2:297 – 98 (secret meeting); Henry P. Johnston, ed. The Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service of the War of the Revolution, 1775 – 1783 (Hartford: Case, Lockwood and Brainard, 1889), 29.

[4] John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 30 – May 2, 1775, in John Adams, and Abigail Adams, et. al., The Adams Papers: Adams Family Correspondence, L. H. Butterfield and Wendell D. Garrett, et. al., eds. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963 – 2013), 1:188 – 92 (fever and sulky); John Adams to John Painter, May 2, 1775, LDC, 1:333 (“certain military matters”).

[5] Eliphalet Dyer to Silas Deane, April 14, 1775, and Silas Deane to Elizabeth Deane, May 7, 1775, both in “The Deane Papers,” New-York Historical Society Collections, XIX (1887), 42 – 43.

[6] Silas Deane to Elizabeth Deane, May 7, 1775, above; John Hancock to Dorothy Quincy, May 7, 1775, in Magazine of American History, Volume 19, Number 6 (June, 1888), 509 – 10. Hancock and Quincy were married later that year.

[7] Silas Deane to Elizabeth Deane, May 12, 1775, in LDC, I, 345 – 46; Samuel Curwen, The Journal of Samuel Curwen, Loyalist, Andrew Oliver, ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), 1:8.

[8] Caesar Rodney to Thomas Rodney, May 8, 1775, Benjamin Franklin to David Hartley, May 8, 1775, and Richard Henry Lee to William Lee, May 10, 1775, all in LDC, I, 335 – 37; Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography (New York: Scribner’s, 1948 – 57), 3:410–20.

[9] D. W. Belisle, History of Independence Hall: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time (Philadelphia: James Challen and Son, 1859), 50–52 (state house); Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, July 10, 1776 (coat of arms).

[10] Georgia Delegates to Peyton Randolph, April 6, 1775, Samuel Ward’s Diary, May 11, 13 and 15, 1775, Silas Deane’s Diary, May 11, 13 and 15, 1775, Benjamin Franklin to Edmund Burke, May 15, 1775, Benjamin Franklin to Jonathan Shipley, May 15, 1775, and Richard Henry Lee to Francis Lightfoot Lee, May 21, 1775, all in LDC, 1:326 – 28, 342 – 50, and 366.

[11] Robert R. Livingston, Jr., to John Stevens, April 23, 1775, John Dickinson to Arthur Lee, April 29, 1775, Thomas Johnson, Jr., to Horatio Gates, May 3, 1775, Richard Henry Lee to William Lee, May 10, 1775, and Richard Caswell to William Caswell, May 11, 1775, all in LDC, 1:331 – 341.

One thought on “Traveling to the Second Continental Congress

  • This is exactly the kind of history I crave. Details of the every day travel to the Congress is exactly what I had been looking to learn about. I find any long distance travel in the 18th and 19th centuries to be fascinating. The ability to brave harsh weather, keep horses well fed and cross rivers must have been so challenging, and I certainly take travel for granted today. Thank you for the article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *