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Benjamin Franklin’s Grand Design
The Albany Plan of Union might have made the Revolution unnecessary
February 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 2
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.