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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
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.
IF THE IROQUOIS COULD form a union, said Franklin, “IT WOULD BE A STRANGE THING IF… A LIKE UNION SHOULD BE IMPRACTICABLE” FOR THE COLONIES.
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.