Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.

INDEPENDENCE HALL, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Excellence is never an accident.  It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.   
Aristotle, Greek Philosopher 
(384 BCE – 322 BCE)

Books were rare in the early years of the colonies. The settlers crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard cramped merchant ships brought the barest of necessities and precious few books.  Beginning with the Jamestown Colony in 1607, the British government established 13 colonies in the New World.  The immigrants came mainly from England and even though they had left their mother country, they remained loyal British citizens.   

English laws and customs were instrumental in establishing the framework for colonial communities.  Education was of special interest to the colonists, whether they were home-schooled or tutored, so having access to books was a priority.  Consequently, as trade increased between the colonies and Europe, books were in high demand.  

In the fall of 1774, the delegates of the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia at Carpenters Hall, later known as Independence Hall.  They had been chosen by their peers from their respective colonies for being well-informed, educated men who had demonstrated a strong sense of duty to England and their communities.  However, it had become increasingly clear the English Parliament was treating the colonists as second-class citizens.  Most of their appeals for due process were ignored by the British Parliament.  Finally, the colonists knew they had to take action when they were subjected to Parliament’s Coercive Acts, which included increasingly heavy taxes, being forced to house and feed British troops, and being subjected to trade imbalances, all while being denied equal representation in the British-run courts.    

Delegates representing the colonies met in Philadelphia to discuss the abuses being perpetuated against their fellow colonists.  The First Continental Congress was now operating as the governing body for the 13 colonies.  The Congress bypassed Parliament when they sent their Declaration of Rights and Grievances directly to King George III.  The declaration stated that unless the onerous Coercive Acts were repealed by mid-December of 1774, the colonies would discontinue all trade with imported English goods.   

The king refused to respond to the appeal from the Colonial Congress but authorized his Proclamation of Rebellion, sending more troops to end any further colonial uprisings.  It became clear to the colonists needed to prepare for whatever their British overlords were planning next.  In fact, the city of Boston was already overrun with British troops, and its harbor was teeming with British warships.  In April of 1775, conflicts arose in Lexington and Concord when Minutemen confronted British troops as they destroyed an arsenal of colonial weapons.  Tensions were then heightened when well-placed Patriot spies revealed that there were imminent plans for the British to seize control of Boston and its harbor.  The Northern colonists hastily gathered their Minutemen forces and, on June 17, 1775, confronted the British army at the Battle of Bunker Hill.                     

The Second Continental Congress was convened on May 10, 1775.  Some of the delegates from the First Congress were not available to attend this congressional session.  However, the returning members, such as John Adams, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, were joined by Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and Roger Sherman.   

We have highlighted these and other Founders in previous essays for their prominent roles in the founding of our country.  They spent their lives studying the histories and languages of ancient cultures by reading the Bible and the works of Greco-Roman philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, and Cicero.  They were also well-versed in the writings of the Enlightened Thinkers of the 17th century, which included authors like John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Baron de Montesquieu. 

Then as now, the process of achieving leadership positions necessarily produces people with strong convictions and opinions.  In the mid-1600s, delegates of the Continental Congress knew the very future of the colonies depended on their ability to have open discussions on how best to protect the colonies from the demonstrated tyranny of the British Crown.  

Their discussions ranged from attempting to improve their status as British subjects, to entering into trade disputes with England by blocking their merchant ships from docking in colonial ports, or severing ties with England altogether which would result in an all-out war with the most powerful army in the world.    

There were many debates on the correct courses of action Congress should take. Fortunately, the presence of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin often provided decorum and civility to the proceedings as the delegates expressed their varying views.  Ultimately, it was the genius of the Founding Fathers, and their familiarity with the wisdom of the world’s great thinkers, including the rise and fall of ancient cultures, that allowed them to reach a consensus on our founding documents.  For the first time in history, a national government was founded based on the rights and protections of its citizens as opposed to the ambiguous “divine” rights of kings.