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The Spirit Of ’54
More than two decades before the Revolution broke out, a group of Americans voted on a scheme to unite the colonies. For the rest of his life, Benjamin Franklin thought it could have prevented the war. It didn’t—but it did give us our Constitution.
August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
Further instructions stipulated that delegates to the congress must be scrupulous in examining the Indians’ complaints of having been defrauded of their lands, take legal steps to redress their grievances, and make reasonable reimbursement for lands “unwarrantably taken from them.” In the future any land the natives decided to sell was to be bought from them in the name of the King and with public funds. This was a tall order, and whether De Lancey could bring it off would depend on the diplomatic skills he and the other men brought to the table.
As it happened, several of those invited to the conference had an idea in mind that went well beyond holding yet another powwow with Indians. It was apparent to them that the overriding problem of the colonies—a problem that militated against successfully combating the French and Indian menace to the frontiers, as well as forming a common front in pressing their case in London—was a lack of unity.
Benjamin Franklin, who was one of the Pennsylvania delegates, had been thinking about a union of the colonies since 1751, and before leaving Philadelphia he published in his Pennsylvania Gazette of May 9 what may be the first American cartoon—which he probably drew—showing a snake in eight pieces. One piece was “NE” to represent the New England colonies. The others bore the initials of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, and it ran with the caption JOIN, OR DIE . En route to Albany he stopped off in New York to visit Archibald Kennedy and James Alexander, two members of the governor’s council, and he wrote out for them what he called “Short Hints Towards a Scheme for Uniting the Northern Colonies.”
Getting to Albany was easier said than done. Although winter and the mud season were only memories now, the journey was long and arduous for almost all the envoys, and it was a wonder that so many completed the trip. The Boston contingent, for instance, took 12 days to get there, while the delegates from Maryland and Pennsylvania spent three days on the road from Philadelphia to New York, where they boarded schooners for the trip up the Hudson knowing that depending on the winds and tides, anywhere from three days to two weeks might pass before they reached Albany. For that upriver community the opportunity to play host to a congress ordered by the Lords of Trade was of course a major event, and the local militia company turned out to give De Lancey and the New York delegation a proper salute. To those from the other colonies their first encounter with the little Dutch town must have seemed like a visit to a foreign land.
The commissioners, as the delegates were called, discovered that they were in for several disappointments. First they were told that New Jersey’s assembly had refused to authorize the appointment of commissioners on the grounds that the province had never negotiated treaties with the Six Nations or traded with them and had no wish to do so now. Virginia, which probably had the most to gain from a united front among the colonies, turned down the invitation because its lieutenant governor had scheduled a meeting with several Southern Indian tribes, and the House of Burgesses rebelled at the prospect of paying to send delegates to two conferences. Worse, it turned out that the Indians, who were, after all, the reason everyone had traveled so far, were very poorly represented. The Mohawks, the most influential nation, had not shown up at all, and no one knew if they would.
All the delegates except those from New York were officially commissioned. The reason New York’s had no such authorization may have been De Lancey’s hope of keeping control of them in his hands. He had no enthusiasm for the idea of union, and it seems significant that three New York councilors who did not attend (all of them political foes of De Lancey) —James Alexander, Cadwallader Golden, and Archibald Kennedy—were known to support Franklin’s Plan of Union.
After Thomas Hutchinson arrived from Massachusetts, he surveyed his colleagues and observed rather immodestly, considering he was one of them, that the assembly “was the most deserving of respect of any which had ever been convened in America, whether we consider the Colonies which were represented, the rank and characters of the delegates, or the purposes for which it was convened.” Boastful or not, he was quite right. In fact, as Hutchinson appreciated, the meeting was going to be one of the true landmarks of America’s colonial era, attended by a group of unparalleled distinction.
Hutchinson, one of five Massachusetts representatives, was the former speaker of his colony’s House of Representatives and later would be its chief justice and governor. Meshech Weare was a justice of New Hampshire’s superior court and later president of the state. Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, former speaker of that province’s assembly, went on to become presiding judge of its Superior Court, governor, and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Connecticut sent William Pitkin, its deputy governor, the former governor Roger Wolcott, and the president of Yale, Elisha Williams. Pennsylvania’s delegation included Benjamin Franklin, John Penn—a grandson of William and later the lieutenant governor of the colony—and Richard Peters, the provincial secretary. From Maryland came Benjamin Tasker, a member of the provincial council.