Benjamin Franklin’s Grand Design

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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.