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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
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.”