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Benjamin Franklin’s Grand Design

July 2024
15min read

The Albany Plan of Union might have made the Revolution unnecessary

In one of the world’s great success stories Ben Franklin adverts to a resounding failure with which his name is associated. Quoting from Dryden’s rendition of a Juvenal Satire , he counsels us:

Look round the habitable world: how few Know their own good, or, knowing it, pursue!

Franklin’s brain child, the Albany Plan of Union, failed of adoption because neither the colonists nor the mother country knew their own good. “Such mistakes are not new,” the scientist-statesman reflects in his Autobiography . “History is full of the errors of states and princes.” The best measures of statesmanship, he shrewdly remarks, are seldom “adopted from previous wisdom, but forced by the occasion.”

One of the richest opportunities the study of history affords statesmen is the chance to learn from past failures in shaping policy for present realities. From the failure to ratify the Albany Plan of Union, for which British and American statesmen must share the blame, a good deal was salvaged, perhaps more by the Americans than the British. When it came to applying the lessons learned at Albany to setting up their own federal system, the Americans showed that the experience was by no means wasted. On the other hand, the unwillingness of the British government to set up a truly federal system at a decisive period cost Britain a large slice of her old empire. Eventually Britain did apply the lessons of federalism learned at Albany, but by then America had been irretrievably lost to her.

The Albany Plan of Union was a grand design of statesmanship, the kind that is envisioned perhaps not more than once a century. It was devised to deal specifically with the first of a series of crises in the relations between Great Britain and her North American colonies.

In the summer of 1754 the shadow of France’s aggressive intentions lay darkly over the British Empire in America. Already a young lieutenant colonel of the Virginia militia had met the enemy at the forks of the Ohio, routed a French reconnaissance party, and, while the Albany Congress was still in session, had been obliged to surrender to a larger French force. The following year that young officer was to secure tragic proof of the inadequacy of Britain’s military preparations and of the formidable capacity of her enemy to wage war. The experience George Washington gained on the Monongahela served his country well at a later day.

The French and Indian War, or the Seven Years’ War as it was called when it spread from America to Europe, to Africa, to India and to the seven seas, was really a clash of two world empires. In the American colonies England’s military security rested in no small part upon her traditional alliance with the Iroquois, the Six Confederated Nations. But the bonds between England and her Indian allies had been stretched to the breaking point as the Iroquois observed with increasing alarm the rising military might of France.

The Iroquois saw the French using the interlude between Queen Anne’s and King George’s Wars to expand on the Mississippi and in the Illinois country. Their tension mounted when the French boldly established Fort Niagara on Lake Erie as a bastion against them. To the Six Nations the alliance with England seemed to have less and less military value. As the French became more aggressive the Six Nations moved toward neutrality.

The English erected Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario. They dispatched to the Six Nations their old friend William Johnson, Indian trader and honorary sachem of the Mohawks. But these measures fell short of guaranteeing continued Iroquois loyalty. Already some of the tribes had forged close French ties.

With a world war in the offing, glaring defects in the British colonial system were apparent equally to the Indians and the British government. No unified policy had been established. Each colony acted for itself. Regional and sectional differences made it virtually impossible to reach agreement with the Indians on a number of outstanding issues.

These imperial problems were uppermost in the mind of the Board of Trade when, in September, 1753, it instructed Sir Danvers Osborne, governor of New York, to summon an intercolonial conference to restore friendship with the Iroquois and to determine whether the colonies would “enter into articles of union and confederation with each other for the mutual defense of His Majesty’s subjects and interests in North America, as well in time of peace as war.” The order never reached Osborne. Suicide, brought on by private grief, ended his brief career in the province, and the letter was placed in the hands of Lieutenant Governor James De Lancey, who had assumed Osborne’s duties.

At long last, on June 19, 1754, 24 delegates from seven of the fourteen continental colonies assembled in the old city hall of the compact Dutch fortress town of Albany. Under one roof were assembled a remarkable group of colonial statesmen, a group predisposed toward a liberal solution of political problems and not given to taking orders. While there was no official presiding officer, James De Lancey chaired the sessions he attended. De Lancey had long been lending with the more liberal-minded Livingston faction, and had earned a reputation, not entirely deserved, of being the leader of the prerogative party in New York, the party which supported the Crown, the governor, and the other royal officials against the pretensions of the assembly.

Massachusetts sent a five-man delegation, including one of her most distinguished sons. He was Thomas Hutchinson, then a member of the provincial council, later chief justice and Tory lieutenant governor. Rhode Island dispatched Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins, whose election the very next year to the governorship marked a shift in power in that colony from the Newport to the Providence faction. Connecticut s Deputy Governor William Pitkin headed that delegation. He had already gained a reputation as a champion of colonial rights against the royal prerogative.

The strongest delegations came from New York and Pennsylvania. In addition to De Lancey, New York was represented by William Johnson, most deeply versed of all the delegates in Indian problems and most beloved by the Iroquois. Johnson advocated fraternization toward the red man and carried it out in his own private life. He was slated to become superintendent of Indian affairs and was to compile a formidable military record in the French and Indian War, a record which won him a knighthood. Two other prerogative men were in the New York delegation. They were the lawyers Joseph Murray and John Chambers. Another delegate was William Smith, a member of the governor s council and a leader of the liberal or anti-prerogative party.

Pennsylvania sent a formidable delegation, including John Penn, grandson of William Perm, a member of the proprietary family and later to become lieutenant governor. Accompanying him were Richard Peters, secretary of the province, Isaac Norris, speaker of the assembly, and Benjamin Franklin, then postmaster general of the colonies and a member of the legislature.

Franklin had already established his reputation. Then in his forty-ninth year, Franklin at Albany was to demonstrate his right to rank with the most constructive political thinkers of his century.

A crisis brought these minds together. A later crisis would divide them. Some, like Thomas Hutchinson and John Penn, became loyalists; others, like Hopkins and Franklin, led the rebellion against the Crown. But in the year 1754 they all considered it to be feasible for the colonies to work in cooperation with the British government. Some even went so far as to regard the interests of the empire as paramount to those of their own sections and provinces. That time never came again.

The primary business of the Albany Congress was the making of a firm treaty with the Iroquois. In all, 150 Indian chiefs attended. They spared no pains to point out to the English their defenseless condition. Most eloquent perhaps was Chief Hendricks of the Mohawks. “Look at the French,” he declared. “They are men. They are fortifying everywhere. But—we are ashamed to say it—you are like women.” Taking a stick and throwing it behind his back, he asserted: “You have thus thrown us behind your back and disregarded us.”

Soothing words, vague promises and bribes headed off what had threatened to be an explosive situation. On behalf of all the delegates De Lancey gave a chain belt to the Indians, signifying that the colonies were acting jointly with the entire body of the Six Nations. Then New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut each held separate sessions with the Indians. When the Iroquois chiefs left the conference they were in a far happier frame of mind than when they came. Thirty wagonloads of presents, including guns, may well have contributed to their more cheerful mood on departure. The English had good reason to feel that the old Indian alliance had been re-established on a firm basis.

While these talks with the Indians were in progress, the delegates debated the question “whether a Union of all the Colonies is not at present absolutely necessary for their security and defence.” They unanimously agreed that such a union was imperative, and a committee consisting of one member appointed by each delegation was set up at once to prepare and receive plans of union.

Now the idea of a union of the colonies was by no means novel. As far back as 1643 a notable step in that direction had been taken when the New England Confederation was formed. In that federation delegates from all the New England colonies except Rhode Island were empowered to decide on war and peace, to enact laws for the protection of the colonies, and to levy as well as collect taxes. The New England Confederation functioned down to the revocation of the Massachusetts charter in 1684. It had performed its greatest service in directing colonial military operations in King Philip’s Indian war.

During the early intercolonial wars various plans for troop quotas were proposed. That original imperial thinker, the humanitarian William Penn, in 1697 had advocated an intercolonial assembly under a royal commissioner, but with an extremely limited jurisdiction.

Proposals for union kept cropping up. In 1751 Archibald Kennedy, a defense-conscious official who was receiver-general (tax collector) of New York and a member of the governor’s council, proposed an intercolonial confederacy to hearten the Indians and curb the French. Meeting annually, the commissioners were to have power to supervise military affairs. Perhaps most significant, in the light of the later Albany Plan, was Kennedy’s suggestion that the confederacy be established by act of Parliament.

Kennedy sent his ideas on to Benjamin Franklin, who seized upon them with enthusiasm. It would be a very strange thing, he wrote the New Yorker, if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a union that had subsisted for ages, and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies to whom it was necessary. Going further than Kennedy, Franklin at this time proposed an intercolonial government, to be set up by voluntary action on the part of the colonies.

En route to Albany in 1754 Franklin stopped off in New York City to discuss with his friend Kennedy and with James Alexander, a noted colonial attorney and long a leader of the anti-prerogative forces, the refurbished plan of union which he had first evolved, at Kennedy’s prompting, three years earlier. As Alexander wrote Cadwallader Golden, their talk had turned on the difficulty of forming a union without “affecting our liberties on the one hand, or being ineffectual on the other.” Thus, in the late spring of 1754, these three colonial thinkers came to grips with the crucial problem raised by any design of government—that of liberty versus authority.

In addition to seeking the support of influential persons, Franklin recognized the necessity of rallying public opinion behind the plan. Before leaving Philadelphia he had prepared for his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette , an article pointing out the need for union and stressing the fact that “our enemies have the great advantage of being under one direction, with one council, and one purse.” Datelined Philadelphia, May 9, his article was illustrated by one of the very earliest cartoons in American journalistic history, a woodcut of a snake separated into parts, representing the colonies, with the motto beneath it: “JOIN OR DIE”—a device that was employed again at the start of the American Revolution.

Franklin’s plan was so much bolder in conception than various other plans which were advanced, and so much better conceived for the purposes at hand, that it caught on at once. In fact, the “Plan of Union” as it was finally adopted at the Albany Congress was essentially based upon the “Short Hints Towards a Scheme for Uniting the Northern Colonies,” which Franklin had prepared in advance of the congress and talked over with Kennedy and Alexander.

But there was one significant difference between Franklin’s first proposal of 1751 and the later one embraced in the “Short Hints.” The new plan was to be imposed by parliamentary authority. A thorough realist, Franklin by now saw no hope of achieving union through voluntary action on the part of the colonies. Perhaps no move better typifies the temper of the Albany Congress than the vote of that assembly on this particular proposal. Every delegate except three from Connecticut and two from Pennsylvania voted in favor of having Parliament legislate a federal union into existence. Twenty years later a number of these very same men, chief of them Franklin himself, were to deny Parliament’s authority either to tax or to legislate for the colonies.

In conference Franklin’s “Short Hints” underwent some minor revisions. His original plan provided for a governor-general, appointed and paid by the Crown, who was to have a veto over all acts of the grand council, in addition to executive powers. Except for changing the name from governor-general to presidentgeneral and adding to his authority the power to make Indian treaties and to declare war and peace with the advice and consent of the grand council, the executive in the final plan remained substantially as Franklin had proposed it. The legislature was to consist of a grand council to be chosen triennially by the assemblies of the colonies in numbers proportionate to the taxes paid into the general treasury.

Although the proportions of the first grand council were fixed in the final plan, provision was made that in later elections representation was to be based upon taxation rather than population. However, the fact that Franklin had conferred the power of election upon the assemblies rather than the more aristocratic and prerogative-minded governors’ councils constituted a notable democratic innovation. Franklin’s plan set up a general treasury for the united colonies. So did the final plan, which also provided for a union treasurer in each colony.

One of the most important areas reserved for the proposed continental government was the West. The Albany Plan would have given the federal government the power to deal with the problems of defense, to raise arms, build forts, equip vessels of war, regulate the Indians, and administer territorial expansion. The final plan authorized the president-general and council to make laws for regulating the new settlements until they were formed into particular governments.

That these proposals were meant to curb the power of the original colonies over the western lands is perfectly clear from a representation to the King in Council, drawn up by Thomas Hutchinson and adopted at the congress. This imperialistic document urged that “the bounds of these Colonies which extend to the South Sea, be contracted and limited by the Alleghenny or Apalachian mountains.” The Albany Plan, combined with the representation of that congress, would in effect have written off the trans-Appalachian claims of colonies like Virginia, and in fact was embodied in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

Perhaps equally significant is the authority which the plan conferred upon the continental government to levy taxes. Finally, the continental government was empowered to make laws concerning matters within its jurisdiction, but such laws were to be submitted to the King in Council for approval or disallowance. If not disallowed within three years after submission, they were to remain in force.

At the Albany Congress the only real opposition to the Plan of Union seems to have been offered by the Connecticut delegates. They made various objections. They felt that the territory was too large to administer and that it would be dangerous to unite under one head a population so rapidly growing. They objected to the president-general’s veto and found that the power of levying taxes was “a very extraordinary thing” and ran counter to the rights of Englishmen. Some slight opposition was also made by De Lancey, who would have preferred to lodge with the colonial governors a veto on the election of representatives to the grand council.

But both Franklin and Pownall assert that the plan was unanimously adopted at the conference, and Thomas Hutchinson on his return to Massachusetts so informed the press. Hence, the Connecticut delegates must have abstained from casting a negative vote.

In America public opinion was never sufficiently aroused to put the plan across. The Connecticut assembly went on record opposing its adoption. New Jersey, which did not attend the congress, held that the plan adversely affected its constitution. The Pennsylvania assembly, despite Franklin’s own prestige, voted it down without discussion. The Massachusetts assembly debated the plan at length and then defeated it. In short, with the exception of New York, whose legislature went on record favoring the proposal, every assembly which considered the plan turned it down.

In England the Albany Plan received as frigid a reception as in America. The Board of Trade submitted the plan to George II without comment, but the Privy Council took no action. Lord Halifax, head of the Board of Trade, urged instead a thoroughly undemocratic scheme of union, with a permanent revenue as its paramount objective. Other plans, like Cadwallader Gulden’s hereditary council of landholders in America in imitation of the House of Lords, contemplated sweeping revisions in the colonial charters, even the setting up of three regional unions. Such plans would not have enlarged colonial self-government, but delimited it.

Many years later Franklin pithily summed up the rejection of his plan on both sides of the water.

“The crown disapproved it,” he pointed out, “as having too much weight in the democratic part of the constitution, and every assembly as having allowed too much to prerogative; so it was totally rejected.” In short, the thinking of the men who met at Albany in 1754 was too bold for that day. In evolving the Plan of Union Franklin had shown himself to be an imperial-minded thinker who placed the empire above individual states’ rights.

During the discussion over the ratification of the Albany Plan Franklin’s own pen was not idle. Governor Shirley of Massachusetts proposed a drastic re- vision of the Albany Plan. He would have permitted Parliament to tax the colonies directly and have excluded the colonists from all share in the choice of the grand councilors.

In a stinging rebuttal Franklin pointed out that “compelling the colonies to pay money without their consent would be rather like raising contributions in an enemy’s country than taxing of Englishmen for their own public benefit. It would be treating them as conquered people, and not as true British subjects.”

These words of Franklin penned in 1754 forecast the constitutional arguments of the American colonists when, in 1765, Parliament for the first time instituted direct taxation of the colonies. The Stamp Act, which provoked the calling of another congress in New York —this one without permission of the Crown—touched off the great controversy which was fated to end in war. Had it been put in operation the Albany Plan would very likely have obviated the necessity for Parliament to levy taxes for the military defense and administration of the colonies.

Perhaps the British government recognized its mistake in failing to adopt the plan, but not until long after the Revolution had broken out and military currents were running adverse to the mother country. Following Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga the British government instructed the Carlisle Peace Commission to concede to the colonies, if necessary, “Congress as a permanent institution so long as it did not infringe the sovereignty of Parliament.” But America was by then irrevocably committed to independence and the offer was flatly rejected. In fact, the federal principle embodied in the Albany Plan would not be accepted by Great Britain for another half century, and then it was still another colonial revolt, this time in Canada, which converted the government to federalism.

For Americans the failure of statesmanship in 1754 was a lesson that was not soon forgotten. The Albany Plan constituted the basic core of that federal system that came into effect with the First Continental Congress. Even the notion that such a plan might keep the colonies in the empire was not lightly abandoned. At the First Congress the conservative Pennsylvanian and later loyalist, Joseph Galloway, proposed a watered-down version of the Albany Plan of Union, virtually identical with Franklin’s plan except in one respect. He proposed that both Parliament and the intercolonial council should be empowered to legislate for the colonies, each to have a negative on the other. Again, it is significant of the temper of the year 1774 that this proposal was narrowly defeated by a vote of six states to five.

Despite the defeat of Galloway’s proposal the old Albany Plan was not allowed to die. In June, 1775, as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Franklin proposed a plan of confederation substantially based on the Albany Plan. This plan substituted for the strong provision granting the powers of taxation to the grand council a proposal to allow Congress the right to make requisitions. But the new plan pointed toward national sovereignty in the large powers it conferred on Congress in other respects, powers extending to all matters “necessary to the general welfare.” The proposal was shelved. After independence was declared the government was administered by congressional committees, and their meddlesome incompetence severely taxed the patience of the commander in chief.

A finally adopted, the Articles of Confederation incorporated a number of the ideas of the Albany Plan, including the control of the West by the federal government. Nevertheless, it continued the voting equality of the states which had been established by the First Congress. Again Franklin tried to introduce the idea of representation in proportion to population, but again he lost. The Articles set up a union of limited powers between equal sovereign states. By failing to go as far as the Albany Plan in limiting state sovereignty, the Articles of Confederation fell far short of what the delegates at Albany had proposed 24 years earlier.

But at least in one respect, the Congress of the Confederation did achieve one of the principal objectives of the Albany Plan—federal control of the western territories. The Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, in which Congress set up a government for the territories and laid down principles for the admission of new states, was a triumph for the federal dreamers at Albany.

Ultimate recognition of the practicality of the Albany Plan was attained at the Constitutional Convention. If you substitute a president for a president-general and add a second house you will find that in substance the Albany Plan was embodied in the federal Constitution.

Consider some of the basic concepts of the Albany Plan. The members of the council were to have been elected by the legislatures of the various colonies in the same manner in which United States senators were provided for in the Constitution. The colonies were represented as colonies, as in the Senate, yet a proportionate and varying representation was adopted, as we find in the House of Representatives. True, the system of proportionate representation which was finally adopted was based more appropriately on the democratic principle of population. Each of the powers granted the council were specifically given to Congress by the Constitution, except the power to purchase Indian lands and make new colonies of the land so acquired. Had these powers been spelled out in the Constitution, Jefferson might have been spared some anxious moments at the time of the Louisiana Purchase.

Writing in 1789, when the new federal government had become effective, Franklin indulged some speculations about the significance of the great failure of 1754. In a magazine article in which he analyzed his old Plan of Union, he made these observations:

On reflection, it now seems probable, that, if the foregoing plan, or something like it, had been adopted and carried into execution, the subsequent separation of the colonies from the mother country might not so soon have happened, nor the mischiefs suffered on both sides have occurred, perhaps, during another century. For the colonies, if so united, would have really been, as they then thought themselves, sufficient to their own defense; and, being trusted with it, as by the plan, an army from Britain, for that purpose, would have been unnecessary. The pretences for framing the Stamp Act would then not have existed, nor the other projects for drawing a revenue from America to Britain by acts of parliament, which were the cause of the breach, and attended with such terrible expense of blood and treasure; so that the different parts of the empire might still have remained in peace and union.

Of all the failures of British-American statesmanship, this first major failure may well have had the most momentous consequences for the world.


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