The Spirit Of ’54

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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.

THE REVOLUTION WON, Franklin could be philosophical ABOUT THIS GRAVE FAILURE, ONE OF THE GREAT MIGHT-HAVE-BEENS OF AMERICAN HISTORY.

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.