Albany Plan of Union
Albany Plan of Union
ALBANY PLAN OF UNION
In June 1754 delegates from seven colonies—Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland—met in Albany, New York, to hold a treaty conference with the six Iroquois nations. A year earlier, a party of Mohawk Indians in New York City had declared the alliance between the Iroquois and the northern British colonies broken because of land frauds and trading abuses perpetrated by the colonists. With the Anglo-French contest for control of North America heating up along the Ohio frontier, the British crown could not afford to lose its Indian allies, and so it ordered the colonies to mend the rift by making "one general treaty" with the Iroquois.
Similar intercolonial treaty conferences had met in Albany before, but none had included delegations from so many colonies nor been convened with such a sense of urgency. As news of the crown's order for the treaty conference circulated, a handful of royal officials and colonists in America thought the moment should be seized to coordinate intercolonial Indian relations and military affairs. The royal governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, made certain that his colony's delegation to Albany was empowered to enter into a plan of union with the other delegations present; Connecticut's delegation carried authority to consult on such a plan. The other colonial delegations carried instructions that either did not address the subject of colonial union or specifically proscribed the delegates' powers to discuss it. Nevertheless, shortly after opening their proceedings, the delegates formed a committee to draft a plan of colonial union.
In addition to the New England delegates, the chief force behind this push for colonial union at the Albany Congress was Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin. In 1751 Franklin had published a plan for creating an intercolonial legislature presided over by a royally appointed governor general. On the eve of the Albany Congress, he published in the Pennsylvania Gazette the famous "Join, or Die" cartoon of a snake cut into several pieces to encourage a united colonial resistance to French expansion in the Ohio country. While en route to the Congress, Franklin drafted "Short Hints towards a Scheme for Uniting the Northern Colonies," which he circulated among some acquaintances. This document provided the starting point for the committee on colonial union that Franklin joined in Albany.
After taking care of their negotiations with the Iroquois, the delegates turned their attention to the committee's work. After some debate, they accepted a final version of the committee's plan on 10 July 1754 and ordered copies for each colonial assembly and the crown. The Albany Plan of Union offered a novel approach to strengthening both intercolonial and Anglo-American union. The center of the plan was the creation of a Grand Council consisting of representatives from each colony, in proportion to the amount of money it contributed to a common treasury. The crown would appoint a president-general, who would work with the Grand Council in directing Indian affairs, coordinating colonial military operations, and forming new colonies in western territories. The Albany Plan called for implementation of this new general government for America by an act of Parliament, but it also specifically recognized each colony's right to retain its "present constitution," except where altered by the Albany Plan.
The Albany Plan of Union failed to attract much support in either Britain or the colonies. The king's ministers expressed some confusion over the plan, which they had not called for in their original instructions for the treaty conference, and failed to forward it to Parliament. The colonial assemblies ignored it, rejected it as antithetical to colonial liberties, or drafted alternative plans designed to do less damage to the autonomy of colonial governments. Even in New England, where the sentiment for colonial union was strongest, the Albany Plan was regarded as a dangerous intrusion on the sanctity of colonial charters, and it slipped into oblivion as the outbreak of war in the Ohio country diverted political energies elsewhere. The plan's most significant impact was felt in Indian affairs. While the crown was not sympathetic to creating an intercolonial legislature, it did like the idea of centralizing Indian affairs under royal management. In 1756 the ministry created two Indian superintendencies for North America, one for the northern colonies and one for the southern colonies.
While some historians have considered the Albany Congress as a precedent for the intercolonial congresses of the Revolutionary era, its influence on the American union forged between 1765 and 1776 is questionable. Franklin's role in drafting the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution has likewise encouraged some historians to see in the Albany Plan of Union a harbinger of American federalism, but there is little evidence that the founders cited the Albany Plan as a precedent when they drafted those later documents. More recently, Native Americans and sympathetic scholars have argued that the Albany Plan of Union, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution bear resemblance to the Grand League of the Iroquois, but there is no historical evidence from the Albany Congress, Second Continental Congress, or Constitutional Convention that confirms a purposeful effort by Franklin or others to model their ideas for American union after Native American principles.
Alden, John R. "The Albany Congress and the Creation of the Indian Superintendencies." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 27 (1940): 193–210.
Levy, Philip A. "Exemplars of Taking Liberties: The Iroquois Influence Thesis and the Problem of Evidence." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 53, no. 3 (1996): 588–604.
Olson, Alison Gilbert. "The British Government and Colonial Union, 1754." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 17, no. 1 (1960): 22–34.
Shannon, Timothy J. Indians and Colonists at the Crossroads of Empire: The Albany Congress of 1754. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000.
Timothy J. Shannon