The Period of the Continental Congress

The Department of State came into existence through a process of gradual evolution which began in 1774. Initially, the Continental Congress exercised control over American foreign relations. Under its auspices committees of Congress managed foreign affairs from November 1775 to October 1781.

The first such committee was the Committee of Secret Correspondence,1 which was appointed pursuant to a resolution of Congress of November 29, 1775, “for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, Ireland, and other parts of the world.” In the beginning, the Committee consisted of John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Harrison, John Jay, and Thomas Johnson. 2 However, there were frequent changes in the membership. On many occasions Congress in the Committee of the Whole acted on foreign affairs matters thereby limiting the power of the Committee of Secret Correspondence and its successor, the Committee for Foreign Affairs. For instance, the Congress “prepared in the minutest detail the instructions to Franklin when he was elected commissioner on September 27, 1777, to negotiate a treaty with France.”3 James Lovell, a member of the Committee for Foreign Affairs, wrote on August 6, 1779, that “there is really no Such Thing as a Comtee of foreign affairs existing, no Secretary or Clerk, further than I persevere to be one and the other. The Books and Papers of that extinguished Body lay yet on the Table of Congress or rather are locked up in the Secretary’s private Box.” 4

Thus, from 1774 to 1781, the buildings in which foreign relations were managed were the buildings occupied by the Continental Congress.5 Congress met in Carpenters’ Hall, Philadelphia, for its first session, commencing on September 5, 1774. The subsequent sessions in Philadelphia were held in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as “Independence Hall,” except for a short time in 1778, when it met in “College Hall.” During the Revolutionary War, the advance of British troops forced Congress to leave Philadelphia on two occasions. From December 20, 1776, to February 27, 1777, Congress met in Baltimore in a house owned by Henry Fite. On September 27, 1777, it met at the Court House at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and on September 30 moved to the York Court House, where it remained until June 27, 1778. It was not until 1781, when the Department of Foreign Affairs was established by the Continental Congress, that a building separate from those occupied by the Congress was used for foreign affairs.

  1. By resolution of April 17, 1777, the name of the committee was changed to the “Committee for Foreign Affairs,” Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, 1904-1937), VII, 274. [Hereafter cited as Journals.]
  2. Ibid., III, 392.
  3. Graham H. Stuart, The Department of State (New York, 1949), p. 1.
  4. Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (Washington, 1889), III, 288.
  5. The twelve buildings in which the Continental Congress met during its lifetime are identified and discussed in a work by Robert Fortenbaugh entitled The Nine Capitols of the United States (York, Pa., 1948).