The Albany Conference
The Albany Conference
Concerns of the Crown. In 1754 the British Board of Trade worried that disputes between Pennsylvania, New York, and Virginia over the Ohio River valley had nearly destroyed the British relationship with the Iroquois and that these disputes were allowing the French to move into the Ohio country. The Board of Trade encouraged colonists to meet at Albany, New York, to resolve their differences. In June and July 1754 delegates from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland arrived in Albany, sent by their colonial assemblies. The Albany Conference, the Board of Trade hoped, would foster colonial unity and restore the “Covenant Chain,” the relationship between the British colonial government and the Iroquois.
Covenant Chain. By the beginning of the century the Iroquois, the powerful confederation of Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, and Cayuga tribes, had established the Covenant Chain with the New York colony. This agreement technically recognized English sovereignty over settled areas and Iroquois domination over all Indians between the Hudson and Mississippi Rivers. Though the Shawnees, Miamis, Wabashs, Delawares, Wyandots, and other native people of the Ohio River valley disputed Iroquois domination, they were not strong enough to resist the Iroquois confederation. New York’s alliance gave the Iroquois even more power over their neighbors and diverted the fur trade, which the Ohio valley people had carried on with the French at Montreal, into Albany.
Iroquois Confederation. The Iroquois had formed their confederation in the fifteenth century under the leadership of the legendary Deganawida and Hiawatha. Under the Iroquois system the five different nations of the Iroquois agreed not to fight with one another and to hold an annual council to resolve differences and form policy. This policy gave the Iroquois considerably more power than their neighbors, and when the Europeans had arrived in New England and in Canada, they found the Iroquois united and often at war with other native people.
The English and the Ohio. The Virginians, Pennsylvanians, and New Yorkers all greedily eyed the Ohio River valley, and each had a different agenda for it. Virginians, including George Mason and Lawrence and Augustine Washington, had formed the Ohio Company, which claimed title to five hundred thousand acres along the Ohio River. The Virginians hoped to sell this land to investors and to settlers, creating a new agricultural colony in the rich Ohio soil. Pennsylvania traders, meanwhile, had pushed across the mountains to the Ohio country and had begun a lucrative trade with the native people in the area. The furs that the Pennsylvanians bought, and the trade goods they sold, took business away from the New York traders and their Iroquois allies. These disputes permitted the French, who had easier access than the English to the Ohio by way of the Great Lakes, to move into the area and divert trade from both New York and Pennsylvania.
Franklin and Union. Benjamin Franklin saw the Iroquois confederation as a model for colonial unity. “It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous, and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interests.” By uniting and putting aside narrow differences, the Iroquois had come to dominate eastern North America. Their Algonquian neighbors had not united and now were either at the point of extinction or under Iroquois or European control. The lesson was plain for Franklin, who printed the first political cartoon in the American colonies: a snake cut into eight pieces, representing the colonies, with the caption “Join or Die.”
The French Connection. The French had begun moving into the Ohio country, which formed a natural connection between the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes of French Canada and France’s colonies on the Mississippi River. The Ohio River valley was more easily entered from the Great Lakes than it was from the eastern seaboard since the Appalachian Mountains formed a natural barrier between the ocean and the interior. The French established trading posts and forts in the territory, using these posts to secure trade with the Algonquian people, who resented Iroquoian domination. Detroit, Fort Duquesne, Terre Haute, and other posts connected Canada with the French trading posts at St. Louis and New Orleans. The English colonists disagreed too much among themselves about control of the Ohio country to make a common policy against the French.
Iroquois and English. The Iroquois noticed the English colonists’ failure. Mohawk chief Hendrick told the commissioners at Albany, “Look at the French; they are men; they are fortifying everywhere. But, we are ashamed to say it, you are all like women, bare and open, without any fortifications.” The British colonists, on the other hand, had grown complacent about their Iroquois allies, he told them, “You have ... thrown us behind your backs and disregarded us; whereas the French are a subtile and ever vigilant people, ever using their utmost endeavors to seduce and bring our people over to them.”
Restoring the Chain. The delegates did restore the Covenant Chain, but they could not resolve their own differences. In some ways the conference exacerbated the differences. Pennsylvania’s delegation bought a huge tract of land from the Iroquois in an area also claimed by Virginia. Land disputes such as this would fester for a generation. As the delegates made their separate peaces with the Iroquois, they also discussed a plan for colonial unity presented by Franklin.
Franklin’s Plan. Franklin’s plan would unite the colonies for defensive purposes under a Grand Council chosen by the colonial assemblies and a governor general chosen by the king. Each colony would choose a number of delegates to the council based on the colony’s contributions to the general treasury. The council would meet every year, and its meeting place would rotate among the colonial capitals. The governor and council would have power to make treaties and regulate trade with the Indians; to encourage new settlements; build forts and coast guard vessels; and to encourage new settlements. Money to do these things would come from taxes on liquor, on taverns, or on “superfluities, as tea, &c. &c.” In an emergency, the council and governor could draw money from the colonial treasuries. The king and the Board of Trade could veto acts of the council, but the council for the most part would govern the American colonies in all internal matters.
The Fate of the Plan. The delegates to the Albany conference adopted Franklin’s plan and submitted it to the colonial assemblies. Once the assemblies had approved it, the plan would be sent to the British government for approval; but each assembly rejected the plan, feeling it gave too much power to the other colonies, and all resented the power given the council and governor general. Many years later Franklin wrote that the colonies had rejected the plan because it gave too much power to the king’s agent, the governor general; the British, he said, did not like the plan because it was too democratic. He speculated about what would have happened if the colonies had adopted his plan for union: they would have raised revenue for their own defence and would have united more effectively to fight the French in the Seven Years’ War; Parliament would not have been forced to tax the colonists with the Stamp Act and Townshend duties; the colonists would not have united in protest against British policy; and the Americans would not have had a revolution. But in 1754, when the colonies rejected his plan, Franklin could not see all these future consequences. Franklin said in 1754 that the colonies would only unite if the British government forced them to do so.
William N. Fenton, The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998);
Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York: Viking, 1938).
"The Albany Conference." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/albany-conference
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