Benjamin Franklin’s Grand Design


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.