Written by: Timothy J. Shannon, Gettysburg College
By the end of this section, you will:
- Explain how and why the different goals and interests of European leaders and colonists affected how they viewed themselves and their relationship with Britain
Prior to reading this Narrative, students should be familiar with the ongoing tensions between English settlers and American Indians shown in The Anglo-Powhatan War of 1622 Narrative, the Bacon’s Rebellion Narrative, and the Bacon vs. Berkeley on Bacon’s Rebellion, 1676 Primary Source. This Narrative should be followed by the A Clash of Empires: The French and Indian War Narrative and the Wolfe at Quebec and the Peace of 1763 Narrative.
In 1753, tensions on the American frontier were high because European rivals France and Great Britain were nearly at war over their competing imperial claims in North America. Meanwhile, a group of Mohawk Indians traveled to New York City, where they declared an end to the alliance between the British colonies and Iroquois nations. The Mohawks were the easternmost nation in the Iroquois Confederacy (the other five nations in the confederacy were the Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas). They were also key players in the Covenant Chain, the alliance that kept the peace between the Iroquois and the northern British colonies. When the British crown learned of the Mohawks’ complaints about land frauds and diplomatic neglect, it ordered the colonial governments to convene a meeting in Albany to address these grievances and restore the alliance.
Seven colonies (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland) sent delegations to Albany in June 1754, where they negotiated with approximately 150 Iroquois. Albany had long served as the geographic center of the Covenant Chain, and it had hosted many previous intercolonial treaty conferences. This one, which eventually became known as the Albany Congress, was different because of the unprecedented number of colonies represented and because of the urgency of the situation. Britain could not afford to go to war against France if the Iroquois were not willing at least to remain neutral.
The colonial delegates turned their attention first to renewing the Covenant Chain, which involved exchanging speeches with the Iroquois and providing them with presents. The Crown and colonial governments donated trade goods as material evidence of British regard for their Indian allies. In addition to conducting their business with the Iroquois, the delegates addressed the issue of intercolonial union. Unity among the colonies was an elusive goal because of their many political, economic, religious, and cultural differences.
Benjamin Franklin had first proposed the idea of an intercolonial government in 1751, and a month before the Albany Congress convened, he had published his famous “Join, or Die” cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The political cartoon showed a snake cut into several pieces, which Franklin used to warn his readers about the dangers of division in the face of French encroachments on British claims to the Ohio Valley.
As a member of the Pennsylvania delegation in 1754, Franklin drafted “Short hints towards a scheme for uniting the Northern Colonies” before arriving in Albany and circulated it among some friends. Other delegates also arrived in Albany ready to discuss forging such a union to counter the growing threat on the frontier. Massachusetts and Connecticut authorized their delegations to address the matter, reflecting the New England colonies’ long experience of cooperating in their Indian relations and military affairs. Other colonial governments were more suspicious of any plans that might limit their autonomy, however, so most of the delegates arrived in Albany either without authorization to discuss union or with express instructions not to do so.
Despite this lack of a mandate, the delegates in Albany formed a committee to draft a plan of union, taking Franklin’s “Short Hints” as their starting point. Delegations from each colony were to form an intercolonial legislature called the Grand Council, with representation apportioned according to each colony’s contribution to a common treasury. A royally appointed President General was to work with the Grand Council in the same manner that a royal governor worked with a colonial assembly, having the power to command troops, to negotiate treaties and land purchases with Indians, and to oversee the formation of new colonies in the continent’s interior.
The Albany Plan of Union was a creative response to the problems facing the colonies on the eve of the French and Indian War, but it failed to impress the colonial governments or policymakers in Britain. When the delegates carried the plan back to their home governments, they found their efforts greeted mostly by indifference or hostility. None of the colonial assemblies endorsed it. The king’s ministers dismissed it as a threat to royal powers in colonial affairs and only appointed two royal superintendents who would oversee the fur trade, land purchases, and diplomacy with Indian nations.
During the Revolutionary era, creating an American political union again became important, but patriots did not cite the Albany Plan as an influence when they attended the Stamp Act Congress (1765), adopted the Articles of Confederation (1777), or ratified the Constitution (1788). Despite his presence in the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, Franklin never explicitly linked the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution to the Albany Plan either. Rather, in his Autobiography, he postulated that had the Albany Plan been adopted in 1754, it might have very well prevented the crisis that drove the colonies and Britain apart a generation later.
Some historians have argued that the Albany Plan is evidence of American Indian influence on the ideas that have shaped U.S. democracy and federalism. Proponents of the “Iroquois Influence Thesis” claim that Franklin and several other founders were keen observers of American Indian government, and that, in particular, they were impressed with the way the Iroquois nations used their confederation to preserve their security and power. In a letter he wrote in 1751, Franklin cited the Iroquois as an example of successful political union, stating, “It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages, should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted 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.” Franklin never expressed curiosity about how “ignorant Savages” formed or operated the Iroquois Confederacy, however. The other founders of the American nation, when they exhibited any familiarity with the Iroquois, shared similar sentiments, praising the Iroquois for their military power and political unity but generally dismissing them and other American Indians as savages who possessed no government worthy of study or imitation.
1. Benjamin Franklin’s Plan of Union faced all the following obstacles except
- colonial leaders’ distrust and fear of losing power
- failure of the Iroquois to provide a working example of the benefits of confederation
- British concerns about ceding too much authority to colonial governments
- British endorsement of the recommendations cited in the Albany Plan
2. What was the intended purpose of the Albany Congress in 1754?
- Complete plans for a North American confederation
- Address concerns of the Mohawk regarding their alliance with the British colonies
- Strengthen unity in the event of war with France in the west
- Draft proposals for colonial independence from Britain
3. Why did the British fear a failure of their alliance with the Iroquois?
- Iroquois military strength was powerful enough to expel the British from their colonies.
- The British feared the Iroquois would enter into agreement with Spain.
- Britain could not afford to go to war with France without the assistance and/or neutrality of the Iroquois.
- Colonial government would be encouraged to rebel against British rule.
4. Why was unity among the colonies an elusive goal in the 1750s?
- The lack of funding for a confederation made the plan impossible to carry out.
- Political and cultural differences among the colonies made union difficult.
- A pre-existing confederation among several of the states prohibited any further union.
- The colonists feared the British were encouraging unity to limit colonial power.
5. What did Benjamin Franklin and the Albany Congress suggest on the topic of colonial confederation?
- The colonies would elect a single President who would be independent from the British government.
- A legislature would be formed with representation determined by each colony’s contribution to the common treasury.
- Each colony would receive equal representation in the confederation.
- Individual colonies would retain the independent power to negotiate treaties and land purchases with American Indian groups.
6. Which of the following statements is true regarding the Albany Plan of Union?
- It was used as a template for the new government created at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
- It established an early colonial confederation that was key to the British victory during the French and Indian War.
- It was generally ignored by colonial government and the British.
- It was drafted and supported by royal officials.
Free Response Questions
- Explain how reaction to Benjamin Franklin’s idea for the Albany Plan of Union reflected prevailing political thought at the mid-point of the eighteenth century in British North America.
AP Practice Questions
1. The political cartoon published by Benjamin Franklin suggests
- colonial governments must focus on their own self-interest
- British colonies must work in cooperation with the British government
- separatist movements dissenting against the Church of England were dangerous to the success of the colonies
- colonial governments needed to form a confederation to successfully protect their interests against threats by the French and by American Indians
2. In his cartoon, Benjamin Franklin combined the New England colonies into one group and listed the other colonies individually. What does this say about the New England colonies?
- The individual New England colonies were viewed as illegitimate by the other colonies.
- The New England colonies had a practice of cooperating on issues that were shared concerns.
- The southern colonies were expressing their desire to join the New England confederacy.
- The British government had already established a confederation in some of its colonies but not others.
3. Benjamin Franklin created the image in response to
- British concerns that the colonies were not providing a unified front against French opposition
- advocates for the independence of each colony
- concerns that the colonies were facing threats of attack by the French and by American Indians
- support for strengthening the alliance between the British colonies and the Iroquois Confederation
Albany Plan of Union: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/albany.asp
Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Vintage, 2001.
Brands, H.W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Anchor, 2002.
Shannon, Timothy J. Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Shannon, Timothy J. The Seven Years’ War in North America: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford, 2013.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
In our resource history is presented through a series of narratives, primary sources, and point-counterpoint debates that invites students to participate in the ongoing conversation about the American experiment.