The Reading Room
Benjamin Franklin and American Union
Under the dateline Philadelphia, May 9 , Franklin’s The Pennsylvania Gazette printed an item based on dispatches from Major George Washington which detailed French advances and British losses along the Monongahela River. The item also noted that “the Indian Chiefs” from that region had requested British assistance because the French were moving their Indian allies from the north closer to British settlements so that they could join in attacks on settlers. This brief report closed with an editorial comment.
The Confidence of the French in this Undertaking seems well-grounded on the present disunited State of the British Colonies, and the extreme Difficulty in of bring so many different Governments and Assemblies to agree in any speedy and effectual Measures for our common Defense and Security; while our enemies have the very great Advantage of being under one Direction, with one Council, and one Purse.
Immediately under this report was the first editorial cartoon in an American newspaper bearing the caption, “JOIN, or DIE.”
A month after this report, a conference called by the British Board of Trade was held in Albany, New York, to discuss the very question of colonial defense. Franklin attended as Pennsylvania’s delegate and had prepared a draft of “The Albany Plan of Union” for the meeting. Franklin outlined the offices of this union—a “President General” appointed by the Crown and a “Grand Council” with proportional representation to be elected by representatives of the people in each of the colonies. The powers to be exercised by this Union included making treaties and regulating trade with Indian tribes, establishing new settlements, and passing laws to govern those settlements, raising and regulating a military force, and collecting taxes. Any laws passed “shall not be repugnant but as near as may be agreeable to the Laws of England.”
In a note, Franklin added to his materials from the Albany Convention forty-five years later. He reported that after much debate it was unanimously agreed to and copies were sent for approval to each colonial assembly and to London for the King. It received no approval from any source. Franklin concluded, “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.”
Once Franklin had thought of union among the colonies, the idea never died. From December 1764 until March 1775, he was in London as an agent for American interests. On returning to Philadelphia in 1775, he was immediately appointed as one of Pennsylvania’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress. By July, he had drafted “Proposed Articles of Confederation.”
With one exception, Franklin’s “proposed articles” is a forward-looking document. The exception involved the possibility of reconciliation with Great Britain. In that event, the confederation would be terminated, but if the colonies and mother country remain at odds, “this Confederation is to be perpetual.”
In a preface to his notes on the debates at the Constitutional Convention, a preface that he never polished or published, James Madison suggests that Franklin's plan, though never acted upon, became the basis for the Articles of Confederation that were adopted. This can be seen in some of the stylistic features of each. The opening article in Franklin’s draft: “The Name of the Confederacy shall henceforth be The United Colonies of North America.” Article I of the Articles: “The Stile of this confederacy shall be ‘The United States of America’.” Franklin’s second article calls for a “firm League of Friendship . . . for their common Defense . . . the Security of their Liberties and Propertys, the Safety of their Persons and Families, and their mutual and general welfare.” The Articles' third provision parallels this.
Franklin’s radically democratic and national sympathies, however, are highlighted by a comparison of the operational and organizational details of his draft document with the Articles of Confederation adopted in 1781. The Articles’ Article II announces the “sovereignty, freedom, and independence” of each state, while among the powers given to the confederation in Franklin’s draft, Congress is authorized to “make such general Ordinances as tho’ necessary to the General Welfare, particular Assemblies cannot be competent to; viz., those that may relate to our general Commerce or general Currency . . . “
Franklin’s plan calls for the election of Delegates, and representation in Congress that would be proportional based on population (Franklin suggested one delegate for every 5,000 males between the ages of 16 and 60), while the Articles provide for one vote per state. Franklin’s plan allows for majority rule in both passing legislation and in amending the basic document (a majority of colonial assemblies was necessary), while the Articles required nine states to pass legislation, and amendment of the Articles required a unanimous vote on the part of all state legislatures.
When, after a few years of operation, many concerned citizens concluded that the Articles of Confederation should be radically revised or scrapped entirely, Franklin was selected to be part of Pennsylvania’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention. At the Convention, he was most effective as a conciliator and diplomat, cooling tempers and offering compromises that kept the delegates talking and moving toward a workable new government.