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.
Improbable it may seem, but an industrious, aquatic, fur-bearing rodent deserves a share of the credit for the first real effort at unifying Britain’s American colonies. Just as we tend to forget that the Americas were discovered as a byproduct of the search for pepper, the reason the beaver’s contribution has gone unsung all these years is, in the words of the journalist Henry Hobhouse, “Men have always liked to believe in their own influence.”
Almost from the beginning, the colonials engaged in the fur trade, which was centered in Albany, New York, and managed by Dutch traders, who relied for their supply of pelts on the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and, later, Tuscarora Indians: the League, or Six Nations, of the Iroquois. Those Native Americans occupied an enormous area south and east of Lake Ontario, but the insatiable demand for furs so reduced the population of fur-bearing animals that a Canadian governor wrote as early as 1671 that “they experience the greatest difficulty in finding a single beaver there.” Responding to this challenge, the Iroquois expanded their hunting grounds into lands across Lake Ontario and began to function as middlemen for the transfer of furs from Western tribes to Albany.
At the same time, hundreds of Pennsylvania and Virginia traders and land speculators were pushing deeper into the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley. Naturally, that alarmed the French in Canada, whose ties to the Western Indians were as strong as those of the English with the Iroquois. They reacted by building forts on the Niagara River and on Lake Champlain and by sending some 200 troops into the Ohio Valley to warn potential trespassers that the land on both sides of the river and all streams flowing into it belonged to France. To further thwart British actions, the French began cutting a trail to the headwaters of the Ohio and constructed Forts Presque Isle, Le Boeuf, and Venango to cover the approaches to the Allegheny River.
Now it was the Iroquois’ turn to worry, and in the spring of 1753 the Mohawk sachem Theyanoguin, or Tiyanoga—known to the Dutch as Hendrick—led a tribal delegation to Manhattan to voice their concerns. Hendrick was a commanding figure, revered for his wisdom and courage in battle, from which he bore a hideous tomahawk scar running from his mouth to near his left ear. He informed the Governor’s Council that had the British not reneged on their commitments in the last war the Mohawks would have “torn the Frenchman’s heart out.” Now that the English were doing nothing to halt the theft of his nation’s lands, the colonials had left the Indians defenseless against French attack, and his patience and respect for them were exhausted.
“So, brother,” he said, “you are not to expect to hear of me any more, and, brother, we desire to hear no more of you!” With that he stalked out, followed by his angry braves, effectively dissolving the century-old covenant between the English and the Iroquois League.
When that shocking news reached London weeks later, the Board of Trade and Plantations, the effective governing body of the colonies, wrote the governor of New York, directing him to summon representatives of the other colonies to a meeting. They were to negotiate a treaty with the Indians, improve the handling of Indian affairs, and see to it that all lands purchased thenceforth from the Indians be bought in the King’s name.
Lt. Gov. James De Lancey, acting governor when the letter arrived, soon dispatched invitations to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, requesting that they send delegates to discuss the crisis in Indian affairs and, above all, repair the vital Iroquois alliance.
The Board of Trade and Plantations, in London, despite its distance from the scene, its customary focus on the bottom line, and the fact that they had neither spoken with nor laid eyes on the Native Americans, proved to have a remarkably accurate and sensitive perception of how the Iroquois alliance had gone wrong. In their letter to the governor, the Lords laid the blame squarely on officials of the province of New York for being “so inattentive to the general interest of his Majesty’s subjects in America, as well as to their own particular security” in ignoring complaints made by the Indians. Then, referring to the angry departure of Chief Hendrick and the Mohawks from their meeting with the governor, they condemned “the dissatisfactory answers given to the Indians” and the inexcusable failure to redress their grievances.
The instructions from the Lords of Trade made it clear to De Lancey that it was up to him to restore the alliance with the Six Nations, which was crucial to “all his Majesty’s Colonies and Plantations in America in general, as well as to New York in particular.” He was told to select delegates well acquainted with the Indians and their customs and interpreters who were men of ability and integrity, versed in the Indian language. Since it was customary to give the Indians “presents” at these affairs, he was to be generous, affording them every reason for “burying the hatchet and renewing the covenant chain.”
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.
Twenty-four envoys were present when the first session convened in the courthouse at 10:00 A.M. on June 19, 1754, and for the first few days they sat wherever there was an empty chair until someone complained about this haphazard arrangement. Then the New York councilors, as hosts, sat at the head of the table and the others took positions according to the location of their province from north to south, starting with Massachusetts (whose District of Maine was the northernmost of all the colonies) and ending with Maryland. That, he declared, would “avoid all disputes about the precedency of the Colonies.”
It was probably fortunate that so few of the Iroquois put in an early appearance, because not until June 27 was the draft of a welcoming speech to them finally agreed on. In the meantime, however, the delegates voted on a most significant and unusual subject: “whether a Union of all the Colonies is not at present absolutely necessary for their security and defence.” When the question passed unanimously, a committee consisting of one representative from each colony was appointed to receive and study various schemes and settle on a single plan.
The appointed business was with the Indians, of course, and such periodic conferences with the Iroquois Nations had already evolved into highly ritualistic affairs. The meetings were calm and at the same time prolix—calm because the very idea behind them was to achieve the unanimity demanded by the Iroquois for a binding solution, prolix because eloquent oratory was the equivalent of Iroquois literature. Because Iroquois society had no written language, ornate figures of speech and cadences, repeated again and again, were essential elements of what became an oral history to be remembered and handed down. In lieu of pieces of paper, belts, or woven strings of elongated beads made from seashells, constituted the records of what transpired.
It was June 28 before Hendrick and his tribesmen arrived, and on June 29 De Lancey delivered his opening address to the assembled natives. That was followed by nine days of speeches and exchanges of belts, which were mostly fashioned of dark purple wampum. On them the Indians’ castles, or lodges, were represented by square figures made of white beads. Alliances were symbolized by “human figures holding a chain of friendship, each figure representing a nation.” The belts varied in size according to the importance of the subject under discussion. A belt was “thrown” by a speaker before a new topic was introduced and was kept on display while that subject was under consideration. Once a decision had been reached, the belt was stored away, to be retrieved if the subject came up again at a future meeting.
After the torrent of words and the throwing of hundreds of belts, it was time for the presentation of traditional gifts—400 firearms, bars of lead, 50 barrels of powder, and 10,000 flints from the King, plus a contribution from each colony, altogether enough to fill 30 wagons. As the last native disappeared from view, the commissioners congratulated themselves on a job well done. The Indians, they felt, had had plenty of opportunity to air their complaints, and despite their manifold grievances, they had departed in fairly good spirits. And at that the conferees turned to the question of colonial union.
Although most of the delegates lacked instructions concerning a plan of union and exceeded their powers by undertaking to establish one, several schemes were broached and discussed both in committees and in plenary sessions, and it was evident that Franklin’s proposal was the one preferred by all. Wisely, the delegates recognized that what lay at the heart of the problem with the French was the disunity of the colonies and their failure to act together. The congress noted bitterly that France’s affairs on the North American continent, by contrast with those of England, “are under one direction,” emanating from the court at Versailles.
Against the ever-growing menace to the colonies’ frontiers, a system based on voluntary contribution of men and money had not worked in the past, nor was it likely to in the future. As Franklin was to write: “the colonies cost England nothing in forts, citadels, garrisons, or armies to keep them in subjugation. They were governed at the expense of a little pen, ink, and paper.” Given the likelihood that this predicament would continue, what was essential for the colonies’ mutual defense was confederation, and the question before the representatives was how best to bring this about.
It was a tricky business, and as Franklin and James Alexander had already concluded in New York, its ultimate success would hinge on whether a union could be structured without “affecting our liberties on the one hand, or being ineffectual on the other.” On the basis of what he had heard over the years, Franklin greatly admired the Iroquois League and believed that the system of government they had devised could serve as a model. He wrote to Archibald Kennedy, “It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as … has subsisted [for] ages and appears indissoluble; and yet … a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interests.”
It may be hoped that the Philadelphian revised his opinion of the Six Nations as “ignorant savages” after seeing them and hearing their eloquent speeches in Albany. In any event, he was asked on July 9 to prepare a draft of the plan “as now concluded upon,” and the next day his draft was adopted by the assembly and ordered transmitted to the seven colonies represented at the congress, plus New Jersey, Virginia, and the Carolinas.
In the give-and-take of debate, Franklin’s “Short Hints” underwent changes, but he accepted them in order to carry his main point. It was essential, he successfully insisted, that the proposed government be established by act of Parliament, not by Americans. (Franklin was a realist and saw no hope of achieving union through some sort of voluntary association.) According to his scheme, the government was to have an executive and legislative branch. The chief executive, to be appointed and paid by the Crown and known as the president-general, was to have the power to make treaties with the Indians and declare war and peace, with the advice and consent of the legislative body. The legislature, to be known as the grand council, would consist of members chosen every three years by the assemblies of the colonies in numbers proportional to the taxes they paid into the union treasury. Placing power in the hands of provincial assemblies rather than the more aristocratic and conservative governor’s councils was a decidedly democratic innovation.
All in all it was a bold, novel proposal that would create a central government with the power to levy taxes and make laws concerning matters within its jurisdiction, even though these would have to be submitted to the King in Council for approval. The new government would also deal with the many problems of defense, raising and supporting armies, building forts and ships, and regulating the Indians. Significantly, the delegates resolved to limit the power of the colonies over Western lands, stipulating that all land purchases from the Indians be made in the name of the Crown and that the boundaries of some colonies be “reduced to more convenient dimensions.” (Virginia, for instance, claimed a swath of land as deep as the colony’s north to south borders, extending across the continent to the Pacific.)
Because of its central location, Philadelphia was chosen as the place where the union was to be organized. The Plan would permit members to select a different meeting place every year, but Franklin predicted that Philadelphia would remain their choice except in time of war, when they would gather in the colony nearest to the hostilities.
The records aren’t wholly clear, but the only delegates who seem to have objected to the Plan were those from Connecticut, mostly on the grounds that the land area involved was too large to administer and the population growing too fast to be governed under a single executive. They also quarreled with giving the president-general the right to veto measures of the grand council, and they opposed the taxing power as contrary to the rights of Englishmen. Yet Franklin and Thomas Hutchinson stated that the Plan was adopted unanimously, although with “a great deal of Disputation about it, almost every article being contested,” according to the former. This suggests that the Connecticut delegation, despite its reservations, may have refrained from casting a negative vote. Two other delegates recalled that every member of the congress approved the Plan except James De Lancey.
The delegates’ enthusiasm and support reveal a great deal about the mind-set of the group. Franklin and the others were American colonials, but they thought of themselves as Englishmen. That attitude was at the heart of the “Short Hints” Franklin took to Albany in 1754, which he and his colleagues refined until they had a highly original conception of the American colonies’ place within the British Empire. They understood that the colonies must think of themselves not individually but as a whole, a whole that was an integral part of the empire and whose only separation from the mother country happened to be the ocean between them.
Although no one at the congress could have known it, on the same day that James De Lancey delivered his speech to the Indians, fate took a hand some 350 miles to the southwest, where George Washington and a party of Virginians were overwhelmingly defeated by a French and Indian force at Fort Necessity. That event prompted James Alexander to write to Cadwallader Golden saying that he hoped the recommendations of the Albany Congress would “prevail on King & Parliament…to unite the force of the Colonies, and [do so] at the first meeting of parliament, for a Delay of it may be fatal, as there’s nothing to hinder the french at this very time to make a Conquest of the Colonies, and put it then out of our power to hurt them by our intended union.”
Despite Fort Necessity’s dramatic warning of the colonies’ urgent need to unite, the Plan of Union was opposed or ignored by every provincial assembly that considered it except New York. In fact, the efforts of the commissioners, prominent as they were, were received with outright scorn by the very provincial governments that had deputized them. However surprising that seemed, what it came down to was that in 1754 no colonial legislature was willing to yield any of its powers to a grand council and an executive appointed and paid by the Crown.
The delegates had assumed that the provincial assemblies would comment on the Plan of Union and then it would be sent to London. But De Lancey ignored their wishes and sent a copy of the proceedings straight to the Lords of Trade, who passed it on to George II without comment. When nothing favorable was heard from the colonies, no action was taken in England, and the ambitious project died.
In December of that year, Franklin, in Boston, spoke at length with Gov. William Shirley, who had his own ideas about how a colonial union should function. Shirley believed that the colonies should have little power and should get the money they needed for defense from taxes levied on them by Parliament. Franklin disagreed, and he expanded on his views in three letters to Shirley that contained all the ingredients of the arguments the colonies would make two decades later.
He maintained that it was patently unfair to tax the colonists unless they were represented in Parliament and had a say in the matter. People in the colonies, not members of Parliament, were the proper judges of how much money was needed for defense and how it should be spent. He hammered the point home, insisting that it is “an undoubted right of Englishmen not to be taxed but by their own consent given through their representatives.” Forcing them to do so without their agreement “would be rather like raising contributions in an enemy’s country than taxing of Englishmen for their own public benefit.”
Think of the situation this way, he said. An empire’s frontiers must be defended at public expense. The American colonies bordering on Canada were Britain’s frontiers and were already contributing to the cost of their defense through the indirect taxes they paid to England. Not only did Britain restrain their trade with other countries, it forbade most manufacturing in the colonies. These restrictions not only amounted to secondary taxes on colonials, they also enabled British merchants and manufacturers to pay their own taxes out of the pockets of Americans.
In Franklin’s opinion it was in England’s self-interest to promote colonial manufacturing, and he explained it this way: Since there were already about a million people in North America (“though ‘tis thought scarce 80,000 have been brought over seas”), and since that population could be expected to double every 20 years (marriages being more frequent in America than in Europe), he foresaw the day, a century thence, when the people of the colonies would outnumber those in England. “The greatest number of Englishmen will be on this side of the water.”
In fact, Franklin took insufficient account of the thousands of English, Scots, Welsh, Swiss, Germans, French Huguenots, and Ulster Presbyterians who were pouring into the colonies, in addition to involuntary black slave and indentured white immigration. He knew, of course, that although these new arrivals would concentrate initially in coastal areas, they would soon move into the vast interior, which would take ages to fill. As they struck out for new land, they would set up their own trades, so labor would never be cheap in the colonies. A growing America was a growing market for manufactures, whether British or American, and Britain should not restrain these enterprises. “A wise and good mother will not do it. To distress is to weaken, and weakening the children weakens the whole family.”
At the end of December 1754 Franklin wrote his friend Peter Collinson in England: “Every Body cries, a Union is absolutely necessary; but when they come to the Manner and Form of the Union, their weak Noodles are presently distracted.”
Some 30 years later Franklin offered an explanation of why his scheme had been rejected on both sides of the Atlantic. The colonial assemblies, he asserted, turned it down fearing that there was too much “prerogative” in it—that it would benefit a privileged few. And England, he said, failed to adopt it because it was too democratic. All of which led him to suspect that his plan “was really the true medium; and I am still of [the] opinion that it would have been happy for both sides of the water if it had been adopted.” But, he added, “such mistakes are not new; history is full of the errors of states and princes. … Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects.”
By then he could be philosophical about this major failure of British-American statesmanship, one of the great might-have-beens of American history. The Albany Plan of Union, which was his more than any other man’s, had been rejected, but it was far from forgotten. It became the basis of the form of governance that initially took effect with the First Continental Congress in 1774. The Articles of Confederation embodied a number of ideas included in the Plan, notably federal control of Western lands, which was established by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
The ultimate recognition of Franklin’s vision came in 1787, when the Constitutional Convention adopted the essence of the Plan of Union, merely substituting a president for the president-general and adding a second house to the legislature. The Constitution granted Congress all the same powers as were to be given the grand council, except for the power to purchase Indian lands and make new colonies of them.
Writing in 1789, when the new federal government of the United States of America was functioning, Franklin indulged in speculation about what might have been had the Plan of Union been adopted: “On reflection, it now seems possible, 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.”