In September 1774, delegates from 12 of Britain's 13 North American colonies met in congress in Philadelphia. From this First Continental Congress sprang America's organized resistance to British oppression; the Second Continental Congress, opening in April, 1775, raised an army, created a treasury, declared independence, conducted foreign policy and brought into existence the Articles of Confederation-effectively the first "constitution" of the United States.

The word "congress" referred to a meeting of independent political entities, not to a national legislature. In 1815, for example, after the Napoleonic Wars, the European nations settled the peace by the Congress of Vienna, and then tried to secure the peace by a "Congress System." The American Congress was not a parliament -- not a soverign body. Yet is was the only authority combining the colonies as a whole, and it exercised powers reaching directly into independent jurisdictions of individual colonies. In this book Jack N. Rakove begins by demonstrating how Congressional authority was built up from the local committees of correspondence all over the colonies, and how they themselves looked to the authority of the Congress to fortify their local mandates.

The central argument of this work is far more original than its seemingly conventional preoccuptation with Congressional politics might suggest at first sight. The author has a theory-very similar to that of the British historian Maurice Cowling's "autonomy of politics." Rakove's view is that the day-to-day decisions, and often the larger policies of Congress, can be understood only in the light of hard, limiting and often unpleasant immediate choices; and moreover, Congress generates its own "colligiate" atmosphere. Members are nearly always much closer to each other than to their constituents.

The stakes in this argument are high. Ever since Charles Beard launched his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, in 1913, the history of this formative period has been interpreted primarily as a series of dramatic contests between great economic interests (mercantile and landed), between great regional clusters, and over deep ideological rivalries. In these conflicts, and working recently through such methods as roll-call analyses, historians have discerned the outlines of a primitive party system.

Rakove does not deny the occasional importance of serious divisions between partisan (rather than party) alignments. The factional controversy that broke out in 1779 over charges of misconduct against Silas Deane-one of the Congressional mission in Paris-was not only very bitter, but revealed dissensions that had smoldered for years, and which temporarily rendered Congress almost impotent. In was then that New England was accused of trying to dominate the Congress. But Rakove does argue very persuasively that none of these factions or coalitions ever had the organization or the continuity of a genuine party, and he denies that any of them ever controlled Congress. His research has been facilitated by the recent appearance of a new series of volumes of delegates' letters.

In explaining how the First Continental Congress established its credentials, as elsewhere, Rakove promotes practical politics over theory. iI find him a shade less convincing when he insists on its defiant attitude towards Britain, rather minimizing most delegates' longing hopes of reconciliation. George Washington would probably have quit the Congress if he had believed that members were motivated by a desire for independence. It is surely significant that the Congress adjourned without any military precautions, and intervened to ward off a clash in Boston. The delegates' deep conservatism may also help to explain the rejection of Joseph Galloway's bold plan for conciliation through the establishment of a permanent form of continental parliament. What most delegates wanted was to go back to the old empire, not forward to new intercolonial institutions. The severe regional differences over economic policy also get very little attention.

However, Rakove proves highly convincing when he argues that the early plans looking to a strong confederation -- Franklin's and Dickinson's -- were products of the needs of Congress itself, not merchant interests planning to control American policies. This is followed by a revision of the role of Robert Morris which points out that the financier of the revolution worked openly to strengthen Congress under the Articles, not to bring about any unauthorized redistribution of power between Congress and the states. He demonstrates, moreover, that Morris never controlled Congress and frequently failed to get his own way.

The great themes that have occupied historians -- republician ideology, economic conflict, regional rivalries, political representation -- are all here subordinated fundamentally to the play of Congressional political life and Congress' needs as the only institution charged with interstate -- and thence international -- authority. These themes will remain indispensable to the wider understanding of the context of Congress' choices. They will in turn have to be reconsidered in the light of Rakove's fully researched, clearly written and invariably perceptive book, which constitutes the most convincing account of the general history of the Continental Congress yet written.