The Continental Association, often known simply as the "Association", was a system created by the First Continental Congress in 1774 for implementing a trade boycott with Great Britain. Congress hoped that, by imposing economic sanctions, they would pressure Britain into addressing the grievances of the colonies, in particular repealing the Intolerable Acts passed by Parliament. The Association aimed to alter Britain's policies toward the colonies without severing allegiance.
The boycott began on December 1, 1774. The Association was fairly successful while it lasted. Trade with Britain fell sharply, and the British responded with the New England Restraining Act of 1775. The outbreak of the American Revolutionary War effectively superseded the need to boycott British goods.
Parliament passed the Coercive Acts in 1774 to restructure the colonial administration of the Thirteen Colonies and to punish the Province of Massachusetts for the Gaspee Affair and the Boston Tea Party. Many Americans saw the Coercive Acts as a violation of the British Constitution and a threat to the liberties of all Thirteen Colonies, not just Massachusetts, and they turned to economic boycotts to protest the oppressive legislation. The word boycott had not yet been coined, and the Americans referred to their economic protests as "non-importation", "non-exportation", or "non-consumption".
On May 13, 1774, the Boston Town Meeting passed a resolution, with Samuel Adams acting as moderator, which called for an economic boycott in response to the Boston Port Act, one of the Coercive Acts. The resolution said:
That it is the opinion of this town, that if the other, Colonies come, into a joint resolution to stop all importation from Great Britain, and exportations to Great Britain, and every part of the West Indies, till the Act for blocking up this harbour be repealed, the same will prove the salvation of North America and her liberties. On the other hand, if they continue their exports and imports, there is high reason to fear that fraud, power, and the most odious oppression, will rise triumphant over right, justice, social happiness, and freedom.
Paul Revere often served as messenger, and he carried the Boston resolutions to New York and Philadelphia. Adams also promoted the boycott through the colonial committees of correspondence, through which leaders of each colony kept in touch. The First Continental Congress was convened at Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774 to coordinate a response to the Coercive Acts. Twelve colonies were represented at the Congress.
On October 20, 1774, Congress created the Association, based on the earlier Virginia Association, which signified the increasing cooperation among the colonies. The Association opened with a profession of allegiance to the king, and they blamed Parliament and lower British officials for "a ruinous system of colony administration" rather than blaming the king directly. The Association alleged that this system was "evidently calculated for enslaving these colonies, and, with them, the British Empire."
The articles of the Continental Association imposed an immediate ban on British tea, and a ban beginning on December 1, 1774 on importing or consuming any goods from Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies. It also threatened an export ban on any products from the Thirteen Colonies to Britain, Ireland, or the West Indies, to be enacted only if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed by September 10, 1775. The Articles stated that the export ban was being suspended until this date because of the "earnest desire we have not to injure our fellow-subjects in Great-Britain, Ireland, or the West-Indies." All American merchants were to direct their agents abroad to also comply with these restrictions, as would all ship owners. Additionally, article 2 placed a ban on all ships engaged in the slave trade.
The Association set forth policies by which the colonists would endure the scarcity of goods. Merchants were restricted from price gouging. Local committees of inspection were to be established in the Thirteen Colonies which would monitor compliance. Any individual observed to violate the pledges in the Articles would be condemned in print and ostracised in society "as the enemies of American liberty." Colonies would also cease all trade and dealings with any other colony that failed to comply with the bans.
The colonies also pledged that they would "encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool; and will discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation", such as gambling, stage plays, and other frivolous entertainment. It set forth specific instructions on frugal funeral observations, pledging that no one "will go into any further mourning-dress, than a black crepe or ribbon on the arm or hat, for gentlemen, and a black ribbon and necklace for ladies, and we will discontinue the giving of gloves and scarves at funerals."
These delegates signed the Association in Congress. Many local signings also took place.
The Continental Association went into effect on December 1, 1774. The ban succeeded for the time that it was in effect, and the British retaliated by blocking American access to the North Atlantic fisheries.
Only one of the Thirteen Colonies failed to establish local enforcement committees; the restrictions were dutifully enforced in the others, and trade with Britain plummeted. Parliament responded by passing the New England Restraining Act which prohibited the northeastern colonies from trading with anyone but Britain and the British West Indies, and they barred colonial ships from the North Atlantic fishing areas. These punitive measures were later extended to most of the other colonies, as well.
The outbreak of open fighting between the Americans and British soldiers in April 1775 rendered moot any attempt to indirectly change British policies. In this regard, the Association failed to determine events in the way that it was designed. Britain did not yield to American demands but instead tried to tighten its grip, and the conflict escalated to war. However, the long-term success of the Association was in its effective direction of collective action among the colonies and expression of their common interests.
The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured… by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."
- Ammerman, Common Cause, 24; for full text of Boston resolutions, see Peter Force, American Archives, 1:331[permanent dead link].
- Ammerman, Common Cause, 24.
- The Continental Association, October 20, 1774, "2. We will neither import nor purchase, any slave imported after the first day of December next; after which time, we will wholly discontinue the slave trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it."
- Lincoln, Abraham (March 4, 1861). "Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861". AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History. Retrieved October 27, 2009.
- Ammerman, David. In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. New York: Norton, 1974.
The full text of Continental Association at Wikisource