John Trumbull, General George Washington Resigning His Commission (1826). Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.
Within the Office of the Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, we examine the Confederation era as a bridge between the Revolutionary War and the early republic periods. We also seek institutional continuities between the Continental, Confederation, and federal Congresses. The Continental Congress was an extralegal assembly that became a national forum as delegates organized a response to Great Britain’s Intolerable Acts in 1774. The need for such a forum only increased as the Congress combined executive and legislative functions to manage an armed conflict during eight years of war. As an institution, the Continental Congress was formalized by the Articles of Confederation with constrained powers to preserve the sovereignty of the states. The limitations of this structure surfaced during the 1780s, but its successes and failures present useful lessons for preserving a balance of power between a central government and the states. We also see some of the institutional roles that Congress would play in sustaining a diverse and complex nation.
After working as an editor of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress for a few years, I noticed some artificial divisions in the historical literature for the Continental and Confederation Congresses. I also noticed that the Biographical Directory—originally published in 1859 and significantly revised in the 1920s—did not delineate between these two bodies. However, there is a clear line between these eras as the Journals of the Continental Congress list the establishments of the Continental Congresses (in 1774 and 1775, respectively) and the Confederation Congress on March 1, 1781. From there, questions among my colleagues emerged about bridging divides between the pre-federal and federal Congress and broadening public awareness about this era.
Constituents frequently ask how they can deepen their knowledge about this period of U.S history. Although they could choose from a variety of books, some of the published documentary collections and archival source collections were hard for the general public to access before the arrival of the Internet. Currently sources such as the Continental Congress documents on the Library of Congress’s Century of American Lawmaking database, Confederation-era newspapers via the Library’s Chronicling Americawebsite, and the National Archives’ Founders Online have placed these sources at their fingertips.
On the House’s History, Art, & Archives website, we published a selected bibliography for constituents who are interested in studying this era further. The office’s web blog series, “Whereas: Stories from the People’s House,” features Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania and Isaac Low of New York, two loyalists who served in the Continental Congress. Another blog piece highlights the Confederation Congress’s move to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1783.
We also updated some of the pre-federal Congress charts that were published in the 2005 print edition of the Biographical Directory. Those charts included the meeting places where these bodies convened and a list of their presiding officers. The “Delegates of the Continental and Confederation Congresses Who Signed the United States Constitution” page was created in response to questions that we received about these particular members and is one of the most popular sections of the website. We also seek to personalize the story of the Confederation era by selecting a cast of delegates to highlight in a blog piece or as a feature for the “Continental and Confederation Congresses” page.
One of our largest projects is a digital overhaul of the Online Biographical Directory that users have requested for years. An upcoming new search interface will allow for users to filter and sort by more variables as well as download search results in multiple electronic formats. With more than 12,000 entries—366 of whom served in the pre-federal Congresses—we rely on users of this resource to keep it as accurate as possible.
What can we learn from studying the Confederation era? One lesson is that questions about state power and the role of a strong central government would reemerge in events such as the Nullification Crisis, the Civil War, and the New Deal. The availability of primary sources such as the Founders Online and Chronicling America databases, resources on websites such as History, Art, & Archives, and the documentary collections that are maintained by my colleagues on this panel enable Americans to learn more about the Confederation Era and the challenges their predecessors faced in organizing a representative democracy.