|This Week in History
July 5 11, 1754
The Albany Plan of Union
An Attempt To Unite the American Colonies Around a Plan for Westward Development
On July 10, 1754, delegates from the New England colonies, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, who had convened in Albany to finalize a treaty with the Iroquois Indians, also approved a "Plan of Union" presented and largely written by Benjamin Franklin. This early attempt at uniting the American colonies was aimed against the British colonial policy which prevented the Americans from crossing the eastern mountain chain and developing the Ohio Valley.
The mechanism used for this containment was the French Army, posted in Canada, and its Indian allies. It was a money-saving method, too: Whenever war erupted between England and France on the European continent, the British saw to it that any expedition to defeat the French in Canada always turned back or failed due to lack of supplies. When the French-allied Indians ravaged the American frontier settlements between wars, the British did absolutely nothing, for their policy of containing the American colonists was being carried out by the French for free. The Americans soon caught on to this trick, and in 1745, New England's militia captured the supposedly impregnable French fortress of Louisburg on Cape Breton Island.
When Britain gave the fortress back to France, the Americans knew they had to act, and act quickly. The Washington family and its circles in Virginia set up the Ohio Company to settle the land around the forks of the Ohio River, which was to become Pittsburgh. While preliminary plans were being carried out, the British Parliament passed the Iron Act, which forbade the American colonists to produce anything but raw bar iron in their foundries, and these, of course, would be sent back to England for British ironworkers to fashion into finished items such as guns, horseshoes, and nails. The iron implements which the Americans would need to cross the mountains and equip frontier settlements, therefore, could not be made in America.
While the British were tightening the screws on their American colonies, the French, who had previously only occupied a thin line of forts from Quebec and Montreal through the Great Lakes to the Illinois Country, now began burying metal plates in the Ohio Valley, claiming it for France. Virginia, whose original charter covered the land all the way to the Mississippi, decided to act. Governor Dinwiddie sent the young George Washington on a mission to the French forts on the Allegheny River. Although he almost lost his life, Washington succeeded in returning to Williamsburg and reporting that the French were planning to establish even more forts down the Allegheny and then west along the Ohio River.
Plans for the new Ohio settlement were stepped up, and colonists journeyed out to a new town built near the Monongahela. Construction of a fort began at the site of Pittsburgh, and George Washington was dispatched with a small force to protect the fort and settlement. In this context, Benjamin Franklin drew up a plan for a union of the colonies which would create a united defense against France's Indian allies and have the power to establish new settlements beyond the mountains. He planned to present it at the meeting of colony delegates which would take place in Albany during the coming summer.
The French, hearing from their scouts that the Ohio Company was building a fort and settlement, gathered their forces and moved down the Allegheny River. What happened next was reported by Franklin in the Pennsylvania Gazette of May 9, 1754: "Friday last an Express arrived here from Major Washington, with Advice, that Mr. Ward, Ensign of Capt. Trent's company, was compelled to surrender his small Fort in the Forks of Monongahela to the French, on the 17th past; who fell down from Venango with a Fleet of 360 batteaux and canoes, upwards of 1000 Men, and 18 pieces of Artillery, which they planted against the Fort; and Mr. Ward having but 44 Men, and no Cannon to make a proper Defence, was obliged to surrender on Summons.
"'Tis farther said, that besides the French that came down from Venango, another Body of near 400, is coming up the Ohio; and that 600 French Indians, of the Chippaways and Ottaways, are coming down Siota River, from the Lake, to join them; and many more French are expected from Canada; the design being to establish themselves, settle their Indians, and build Forts just on the Back of our Settlements in all our Colonies; from which Forts, as they did from Crown-Point, they may send out their Parties to kill and scalp the Inhabitants, and ruin the Frontier Counties.
"The Confidence of the French in this Undertaking seems well-grounded on the present disunited State of the British Colonies, and the extreme Difficulty of bringing so many different Governments and Assemblies to agree in any speedy and effectual Measures for our common Defence and Security; while our Enemies have the very great Advantage of being under one Direction, with one Council, and one Purse." Added to this news item was the drawing of a dismembered snake, with each part labelled for a colony, with the motto, "Join, or Die."
As the delegates met in Albany and successfully concluded a treaty of peace with the Iroquois, news came of more fearful developments on the frontier. George Washington's small force had successfully fought a small French reconnaissance group, but just as they had partially completed a small fort at the Great Meadows, the major body of French and Indian troops bore down upon them. The small arms of the colonists were no match for the French cannon, and Washington had to sign a capitulation on the night of July 3, in order to save the rest of his men. On the morning of the fourth, Washington and his militia marched out of the rude fort and were allowed to make their way back to Virginia, for France and Britain were still ostensibly at peace.
This intelligence hit the Albany delegates like a bombshell, and they set to work in earnest on the plan of union. Franklin wrote a paper titled "The Reasons and Motives for the Albany Plan of Union," in which he stated that "the assemblies of six (out of seven) colonies applied to, had granted no assistance to Virginia, when lately invaded by the French, though purposely convened, and the importance of the occasion earnestly urged upon them." Therefore, "the said Commissioners came to an unanimous resolution,That an union of the colonies is absolutely necessary for their preservation." The Commissioners also concluded, "That it was necessary the union should be established by act of Parliament."
The plan which was passed by the delegates proposed a union of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, "for their mutual Defence and Security, and for extending the British Settlements in North America." The general government was to be administered by a President General, to be appointed and supported by the British Crown, and "a Grand Council to be chosen by the representatives of the people of the several colonies met in their respective assemblies." The colonies would have proportional representation in the Grand Council, but the greatest colony would not have more than seven members, and the least would not have less than two members.
The Council would meet in Philadelphia, because it was near the center of the colonies, and the Council members would be elected every three years. The President General, "with the advice of the Grand Council," would hold or direct all Indian treaties and make peace or declare war with Indian nations. The President and Grand Council would also make land purchases from the Indians and make new settlements on such purchases. The Union Government would also make laws for governing such settlements until the Crown saw fit to form them into particular governments.
Now followed provisions which challenged British rule to the core: "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, lakes, or great rivers; but they shall not impress men in any colony without the consent of the legislature. That for these purposes they have power to make laws, and lay and levy such general duties, imports, or taxes, as to them shall appear most equal and just, (considering the ability and other circumstances of the inhabitants in the several colonies,) and such as may be collected with the least inconvenience to the people; rather discouraging luxury, than loading industry with unnecessary burthens."
The Plan of Union also stated that the laws passed would be "as near as may be," agreeable to the laws of England, and would be transmitted to the King in council. If not disapproved within three years, they would remain in force. In the case of the death of the President General, the speaker of the Grand Council would succeed for the time being, until "the King's pleasure be known." It was also suggested that the King appoint a Vice President to function as President General in case of the death or absence of the chief executive.
Although Franklin and his allies organized for the adoption of the plan both in America and Great Britain, it was not adopted. Said Franklin: "But the Fate of this Plan was singular. For tho' after many Days thorough Discussion of all its Parts in Congress it was unanimously agreed to, and Copies ordered to be sent to the Assembly of each Province for Concurrence, and one to the Ministry in England for the Approbation of the Crown. The Crown disapprov'd it, as having plac'd too much Weight in the democratic Part of the Constitution; and every Assembly as having allow'd too much to prerogative. So it was totally rejected."
But not completely. When it came time to write the Articles of Confederation, and again before the debates in the Constitutional Convention, the Albany Plan of Union was carefully studied.