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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
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.