Colonial Status

The thirteen colonies of America that existed prior to the Revolutionary War, were each separately established by royal, corporate or proprietary charters from the English Crown. Each colony had its own governor, legislative assembly and courts; and each had a separate relationship with the British Crown as a dependency. However, as stated in Joseph Story's "Commentaries," Book II:

"... So far, as respects foreign states, the colonies were not, in the sense of the laws of nations, sovereign states; but mere dependencies of Great Britain. They could make no treaty, declare no war, send no ambassadors, regulate no intercourse or commerce, nor in any other shape act, as sovereigns, in the negotiations usual between independent states. In respect to each other, they stood in the common relation of British subjects; the legislation of neither could be controlled by any other; but there was a common subjection to the British crown. (1 Chalmers's Annals, 686, 678; 2 Dall. 470. Per Jay C. J.)..."

The first "Continental Congress" of   1774 was assembled at the recommendation of  Massachusetts and refered to itself as  "the delegates appointed by the good people of these colonies."   Some of the colonies appointed delegates through the representative branch of their legislature; some through popular conventions. (Journ. of Cong. 2, 3. &c. 27, 45; 9 Dane's Abridg. App. § 5, p.16, § 10, p. 21.)

The co-equal status of each colonial "state" in relation to the others was recognized in an agreement that each colony would have one vote, regardless of differences in territorial size or population and no matter how many delegates it had sent to Congress. Although the 1774 Congress issued various letters of declaration and resolutions, it never obtained recognition as a "national" sovereign entity on the International scale. Further, its acts were not binding on colonial legislatures, relying upon  the good faith of articles of association signed by its representatives agreeing to implementation of resolutions regarding non-importation, non-exportation, and non-consumption.

By May, 1775, during the Second Continental Congress, the colonies had first begun to call themselves the "United Colonies of North America" in correspondence. As previously, colonial delegates were either chosen by the legislatures or by the popular process of convention. In some cases, the selction of one was confirmed by the other. Congress resolved that the colonies be put immediately into a state of defence and published a solemn declaration of the causes of their taking up arms. It authorized the raising of continental troops, and commissioned General Washington commander in chief in the name of the delegates of the united colonies. It framed rules for the government of the army; authorized equipment of a navy and established rules for its regulation.

The Congress also organized a "general" Treasury Department and authorized the issuance of bills of credit on the good faith pledge of the colonies, apportioning to each a quota for the debt. (Journals of Congress of 1775, p. 177.)

Although, for the purposes of war, Congress had acted on the "national" scope,  its actions were authorized by delegates chosen by methods that recognized the separate political sovereignties or "body politic" of the people of the colonies. As respected these sovereignties, Congress phrased internal implementation actions on the "state" level as "recommendations." Under the recommendation of Congress, sought at the request of  Massachusetts in 1975, several colonies had began to institute separate interim governments under modified interim charters. By May of 1776, the Continental Congress recommended to the "states" who had not already done so, to call local conventions to establish new forms of government independent of the Crown. (Almost all had instituted new governments by the end of 1776.) The original "states" were New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

The armies of the "general government" were in dire need of supplies. However, under international law, the colonies were still considered parts of England, engaged in a civil war. Aid to any of them by a country, such as France, would be considered an entry into England's internal affairs. The primary issue of the time was establishing "sovereignty" on the international level. 

Stated Thomas Jefferson:

"That a declaration of independence alone could render it consistent with European delicacy for European powers to treat with us, or even to receive an Ambassador from us."

Richard Henry Lee wrote on June 2, 1776:

"It is not choice then but necessity that calls for independence as the only means by which foreign alliance can be obtained."