Twenty years before the United States declared its independence from Great Britain, a group of colonial representatives from nine colonies met in Albany, New York during the onset of the French and Indian War. The Albany Congress of 1754 brought together colonial and Indigenous leaders in an attempt to strengthen relations while defending the northern border from the French threat in Canada. Representing Pennsylvania was Benjamin Franklin, who used the gathering as a chance to make a proposal that would end up dominating the entirety of the conference. For the first time in early American history, the idea of unification among the British colonies was openly debated among a body of colonial representatives.
Franklin first expressed his thoughts on unification in 1752, writing to printer James Parker that unity would allow for stronger defense against English enemies and a stronger economy. Independence was not on the minds of Franklin and his friends as they began to discuss the possibility of a centralized government, but rather a way to strengthen the Crown’s hold of her colonies as war with France became more evident. Between 1752 and 1754, the plan began to take shape among Franklin’s close circle of friends.
That plan that Franklin proposed was rather straightforward. Representatives would be chosen from each of the thirteen colonies to make up a Grand Council and serve under a General Governor handpicked by the Crown of England. Essentially, the council would hold meetings throughout the colonies to gain an understanding of the wants and needs of the people in order to form a stronger judgement towards policy making. This government would have control over the army and take over Indigenous relations, making it a grand solution by 1754 when war was officially declared.
On June 8, Franklin sent his “Short hints towards a scheme for uniting the North Colonies” to James Alexander and Cadwallader Colden to “make such remarks in correcting or Improving the Scheme […]” The conception was much the same as the plan he proposed in 1752, but included further details to the overall structure of the council. A Governor General was “To be appointed by the King. To be a Military man; To have a Salary from the Crown; To have a negation on all acts of the Grand Council, and carry into execution whatever is agreed on by him and that Council.” The Grand Council was as follows: “One member to be chosen by the Assembly of each of the smaller Colonies and two or more by each of the larger, in proportion to the Sums they pay Yearly into the General Treasury. Members Pay – – Shillings sterling per Diem during their sitting and mileage for Travelling Expenses.”
Colden praised the plan, telling Franklin that he was “adding this to many other well received schemes which you have formed for the benefit of your country.” It was a complicated plan that would add new structure to the colonial government and have impact on existing legislative law. “Is the Grand Council with the General Governor to have a Legislative Authority? If only an executive power objections may be made to their being elective. It would be in a great measure a change of the constitution to which I suspect the Crown will not consent.” Colden was weary how this would impact the English Constitution, but it was certainly a debate he felt was worth having, as he did point out that the King’s own ministers had at one point considered a General Governor to rule the colonies as one body. In Colden’s opinion, the colonies were to be ruled by the King for a long time forthcoming.
The debate for unification ended up being the dominant topic of the Albany Congress. While not completely against it, there were a clear number of problems the representatives saw as being problematic to the current system in place. Revisions were made and even Franklin later admitted the plan wasn’t entirely conceivable with most of the issues being in line with Colden’s opinions. However, a full plan of unification was written with a full set of powers to be held by the Grand Council and General Governor.
That the President General with the Advice of the Grand Council, hold or Direct all Indian Treaties in which the General Interest or Welfare of the Colony’s may be Concerned; And make Peace or Declare War with the Indian Nations [. . . ] That they raise and pay Soldiers, and build Forts for the Defence of any of the Colonies, and equip Vessels of Force to Guard the Coasts and Protect the Trade on the Ocean, Lake, or Great Rivers; But they shall not Impress Men in any Colonies, without the Consent of its Legislature [. . .] That a Quorum of the Grand Council impower’d to Act with the President General, do consist of Twenty-five Members, among whome there shall be one, or more from a Majority of the Colonies. That the Laws made by them for the Purposes[. . .]”
A final plan was formatted and submitted for a vote after all of the delegates had a chance to weigh in. The plan was passed unanimously and was sent along to the colonies’ legislatures. Ultimately, the plan did not make it through the legislatures. While several of the representatives saw the benefit of having a unified government, the colonies remained far too independent to give up on the power they were guaranteed through legislative law. While most of the members of the Albany Congress took contrasting positions by the time of the American Revolution, the Albany Plan was not fruitless for the young republic. It would become a framework to the first documents of law including the Galloway Plan and Articles of Confederation. Independence was certainly not one of the goals in mind during the meeting held in June of 1754, but it became part of a longer narrative that led to the creation of the United States of America.
This post is by Erin Weinman, Manuscript Reference Librarian.