|This Week in American History
July 18 24, 1775
Benjamin Franklin Submits His Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union
On July 21, 1775, Benjamin Franklin began circulating a document in the Second Continental Congress which he hoped would start the delegates thinking about the present and future needs of America. He stated that it was only a draft, and that Congress could probably come up with a more perfect instrument. This proposal for an American republic was partially based on the Albany Plan of Union which Franklin had developed in June of 1754.
At that time, French troops and their Indian allies were moving from Canada to claim the Ohio Valley, and had defeated a small colonial force under George Washington at the Great Meadows. Franklin and his allies were eager to forge a union of the colonies to provide for self-defense and some form of representative body for the Americans, but the plan was rejected.
Now, in 1775, a much larger threat to America came from the British Empire, which was controlled by the rapacious East India Company. The Company was dead set on trampling American liberties in order to loot the continent dry, and didn't appreciate the fact that the freedoms enjoyed by the colonial Americans encouraged population growth and the beginnings of industrial development. Franklin had been doing battle in London against this anti-development policy since he arrived in Britain in 1757 as the agent of several of the Colonies.
Benjamin Franklin had followed a dual policy in trying to develop an American republic. On the one hand, America and Britain could remain one country if Britain itself followed a development policy for both. Toward that end, Franklin had worked with Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, and other English inventors and mechanics to spark an industrial revolution in Britain itself. On the other hand, if Britain ultimately failed to allow technological progress in America, Franklin would back independence for America, based on the depth of republican citizenry and institutions which he himself had played the crucial role in developing.
As 1774 approached, East India Company control over the British government became so complete that a new set of laws for America explicitly took away the colonies' republican institutions and made all royal appointees and colonists alike legally responsible to the East India Company. The result was the Boston Tea Party, and when news of the protest reached London on January 20, 1774, the Empire wreaked its revenge on Benjamin Franklin, who was then residing in that city.
On January 29, he was summoned to appear before the privy council at the Cockpit, where Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn railed at him for an hour with scurrilous accusations of thievery in the case of the Hutchinson letters. The letters, which were reports to Britain's Foreign Secretary from royal governors in America, put the Empire in a very bad light indeed, and had been given to Franklin by a member of Parliament who favored the American cause.
Despite the horrendous attack by Wedderburn, delivered before an aristocratic audience that hooted and laughed, Franklin refused to bend. Two days later, he was dismissed from his post as Deputy Postmaster General for America, but he stayed in London to try to defeat or modify the Boston Port Bill, which closed Boston to ships and put the city under martial law. To stop the bill, which would cause starvation and disease in Boston, Franklin even personally guaranteed the payment, from his own funds. for the tea dumped into Boston Harbor, for the tea dumped into Boston Harbor, but British Empire revenge carried the day.
During this period Franklin published biting satires on British policy, but he still tried to effect a reconciliation which would give America representation in Parliament. Although he could have been arrested and jailed at any time, Franklin continued to work for the colonies, and he was approached by Admiral Richard Howe and William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, who were trying to work out a compromise. However, Howe and Pitt's idea of a compromise was the status quo before the Tea Party, not a development policy.
Franklin spent his last day in London with his good friend, the scientist Joseph Priestley, and then left for America on March 20, 1775. While he was at sea, the Americans drubbed the British Army at the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Franklin reached Philadelphia on May 5, while back in London, the British government had filed a court suit against him. On May 13, the court ordered the Sheriff of Middlesex to arrest him.
Franklin had not been back in Philadelphia for even twenty-four hours before the Pennsylvania Assembly unanimously elected him as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, which opened in Philadelphia on May 10. A few days after he landed, Franklin wrote to his friend Joseph Priestley: "You will have heard, before this reaches you, of a march stolen by the regulars into the country by night, and of their expedition back again. They retreated twenty miles in six hours. The governor had called the Assembly to propose Lord North's pacific plan, but, before the time of their meeting, began cutting of throats.
"You know it was said he carried the sword in one hand, and the olive branch in the other; and it seems he chose to give them a taste of the sword first. He is doubling his fortifications at Boston, and hopes to secure his troops till succour arrives. The place indeed is naturally so defensible, that I think them in no danger. All America is exasperated by his conduct, and more firmly united than ever. The breach between the two countries is grown wider, and in danger of becoming irreparable."
The Continental Congress resolved that the colonies should immediately be put in a state of defense, and thus Congress adopted as an army the New England militias which were laying siege to the British Army in Boston. It was obvious to Franklin, therefore, that America also needed a new form of government, and he drafted a proposal called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.
Thomas Jefferson and others were enthusiastic, but the group of delegates centered around John Dickinson saw the proposal as proof that Franklin had closed his mind to any possible reconciliation with Britain. Therefore, Franklin added a paragraph which stated that, "the Union thereby establish'd is to continue firm till the Terms of Reconciliation proposed in the Petition of the last Congress to the King are agreed to; till the Acts since made restraining the American Commerce and Fisheries are repeal'd; till Reparation is made for the Injury done to Boston by shutting up its Port; for the Burning of Charlestown; and for the Expence of this unjust War; and till all the British Troops are withdrawn from America." There was very little probability, in fact none at all, that the British Empire would ever admit to having injured America.
Although he spoke very little at first in the Continental Congress sessions, Franklin took his Confederation proposal to all the delegates and also presented it orally to a committee of the full Congress. The plan gave broad powers to an elected assembly from all the colonies, with the delegates based on their colony's population of male citizens between 16 and 60. The assembly could declare war and set the terms for peace, conduct foreign affairs, and operate a postal system. The expenses for the central government would be apportioned among the states according to their population.
Franklin was always concerned that the American Indians be treated fairly and he inserted two paragraphs which forbade any colony to engage in an offensive war against the Indians without the consent of Congress, which was to "consider the Justice and Necessity of such War." The boundaries of Indian lands were to be mapped, and no private or colony purchases made hereafter were valid. Trade with the Indians was to be regulated in order to prevent injustices, and the general government was to provide them with supplies if they were in want.
Then came a paragraph which must have sent off alarm bells in London: "Any and every Colony from Great Britain upon the Continent of North America not at present engag'd in our Association, may upon Application and joining the said Association, be receiv'd into this Confederation, viz. Ireland, the West India Islands, Quebec, St. Johns, Nova Scotia, Bermudas, and the East and West Floridas; and shall thereupon be entitled to all the Advantages of our Union, mutual Assistance and Commerce."
On July 23, John Adams wrote in his diary that Franklin "does not hesitate at our boldest Measures, but rather seems to think us, too irresolute, and backward." Franklin did not formally submit his Articles of Confederation as legislation, but by the spring of 1776, Congress was ready to declare independence, and they turned to Franklin's draft as the basis for the new government.
In the interval, Franklin, now turning 70, was incredibly busy. He was appointed Postmaster General of America, and served on the Secret Committee which was to obtain arms and ammunition for the Continental Army. He was also sent as part of a delegation to Canada to try to convince that British colony to join America's struggle. And on September 11, 1776, Franklin and John Adams, at the behest of Congress, met on Staten Island with Lord Howe, who was now the commander of all British forces in America. Howe had been sent to offer a worthless plan for reconciliation, which Franklin suspected provided time for the British Army to complete its plans and positions.
John Adams wrote in his diary that at the end of the meeting, Howe said that he "felt for America and would lament her fall as a brother would." With a smile and a bow, Ben Franklin answered, "My Lord, We will do our Utmost Endeavours, to save your Lordship that mortification."