The Albany Congress

It isn’t always easy to tell success from failure, even long after the fact.

The Albany Congress made specific proposals. The British Colonial Office turned them down.

So did every one of the legislatures from the seven colonies that had sent representatives.

Nothing proposed was ever implemented. And yet Benjamin Franklin much later said that had its proposal been implemented, the Revolutionary War probably wouldn’t have happened.

Pretty extravagant language for a conference of only 21 delegates, representing only the northern seven of the 13 colonies, meeting for only three weeks. Justified? Well, consider. That conference was the colonists’ first attempt at continental unity, and many elements of the plan it proposed were implemented in the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution.

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The summer of 1754 was the beginning of the French and Indian War as it would be fought in North America. It was clear enough that war with France was likely. Even if it didn’t come to that, there were other matters of common concern, most particularly how to achieve better relations with the Indian nations on the frontiers of the colonies.

The legislatures of the (then) four New England states, plus those of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, sent representatives to the meeting in Albany, which convened June 19 and continued to July 11, 1754. The Carolinas, Georgia, Delaware and New Jersey did not participate, presumably because they were not on the front line of any potential conflict. But (for some reason not at all clear to me), neither did Virginia, which had the largest territory to defend against the French and Indians.

“The Conference of Albany” was supposed to be talking about coordinated actions and attitudes toward French and Indians. Perhaps it was natural for the conference to be hijacked by Benjamin Franklin’s Albany Plan. As it turned out, they spent most of their time considering it.

Franklin, ever the combination of practical man of affairs and visionary thinker, proposed that the colonists create a “grand council” that would have jurisdiction over Indian affairs. As matters stood, each colony dealt with various tribes, and so the Mohawks, say, might sign a treaty with New York that ignored or contradicted a treaty signed with Pennsylvania. The jumble of competing jurisdictions made everyone’s life complicated. Franklin proposed that the various legislatures create the council and cede it sole power to deal with the Indians. He wasn’t thinking of a federal government (as far as anybody knows), but of a sort of specialized supra-colonial legislative agency confined to one set of problems.

The King would appoint an executive, who together with a Grand Council selected by the colonial legislatures would be responsible for Indian affairs, military preparedness, and enforcement of laws regulating trade and finance. An equivalent today might be one of those compacts of states that deal with the problems of a multi-state river system, like the Colorado or the headwaters of Chesapeake Bay. A different analogy might be the Coal and Steel Community that was set up in Europe after World War II, that grew to become the Common Market and eventually the European Community.

In any case, it never got off the ground. The colonies’ legislatures rejected the plan, since it would encroach upon their powers. The Colonial Office rejected the plan, perhaps because it had been hoping for some kind of unified military command. The British Board of Trade turned it down, too, and that was the end of the matter.

Or – was it?

The Albany Congress marked the first time that various colonies had met to discuss a common concern. Even though the Southern colonies were absent, it would become the precedent for the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and, much more importantly, the First Continental Congress in 1774, which led directly if not immediately first to the Articles of Confederation and then to the Constitution.

Franklin, in 1789:

“On reflection it now seems probable, that if the foregoing plan or some thing like it, had been adopted and carried into execution, the subsequent separation of the colonies from the mother country might not so soon have happened, nor the mischiefs suffered on both sides have occurred, perhaps during another century. For the colonies, if so united, would have really been, as they then thought themselves, sufficient to their own defense, and being trusted with it, as by the plan, an army from Britain, for that purpose would have been unnecessary: The pretences for framing the Stamp Act would not then have existed, nor the other projects for drawing a revenue from America to Britain by Acts of Parliament, which were the cause of the breach, and attended with such terrible expense of blood and treasure: so that the different parts of the Empire might still have remained in peace and union.”

Maybe so, maybe no. In any case, that isn’t the way it happened.

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