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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
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.