June 1, 2023


Ben Franklin, The Albany Plan, and the Heart of American Consensus  (Guy Chet, 5/09/23, Starting Points)

Other historians - a minority opinion - argue that this was not a war of national liberation. They hold that Americans were not and did not see themselves as distinct from other Englishmen, and that they did not see themselves as connected to one another by a bond of nationhood before 1776. These historians hold that the American Revolution was a conservative revolution, a revolution designed not to change the status quo and create a new social and political arrangement, but to preserve the status quo. Americans were conventional and backward-looking Englishmen who wanted to resist changes that the British government was introducing to the Empire's system of government, such as new trade restrictions and tax measures, strong enforcement of imperial regulations, undercutting the jurisdiction of local courts, and otherwise expanding the reach of the central government at the expense of local autonomy.

The Albany Congress and Ben Franklin's Plan of Union play an important role in both interpretations of the American Revolution. Both groups of historians claim Franklin and the Albany Plan as evidence that supports their own understanding of the Revolution and its purpose. The Albany Congress convened (in Albany) in the summer of 1754, as the western and northern frontiers were warming up before the official outbreak of the French and Indian War (1755-63). It seated delegates from the middle and northern colonies and from as far south as Maryland to discuss matters of common concern - primarily Indian relations and frontier defense. Ben Franklin, who represented Pennsylvania, proposed his famous Albany Plan (supported by this popular propaganda cartoon: see below) which called for the formation of a supreme governing body over the American colonies. This government would be headed by a "President-General of the United Colonies" and a deliberative representative council composed of delegates from the different colonies. This continental government would deal with matters of common concern, like inter-colonial commerce, Indian relations, common defense, westward expansion and the like. Moreover, this government would have the right to tax the colonies to finance its operations.

Historians who argue that English settlers in America were being transformed into Americans during the colonial era see in the Albany Congress evidence that the colonists were already thinking of, and tinkering with, plans for union 20 years before the Revolution. These historians point to the Albany Congress as proof that these colonists were thinking of what connected them with one another - what common interests, concerns, and values they shared. They see in the Ben Franklin's Plan of Union evidence that American settlers were looking beyond their own colonial borders and seeking support from their fellow Americans, seeing their security and prosperity tied to some sort of continental union between their different colonies. To these historians, the Albany Congress was an important middle stage that arose from colonies that were disparate and atomized, and from colonists who were English in their frame of reference, to the Stamp Act Congress and the Continental Congress, and to settlers who saw themselves as Americans.

What is lost in this temptation to see the Albany Plan of Union as a precursor to the United States - specifically, to the US Constitution - is that the Albany Congress was convened not by any of the colonies, but by the Board of Trade in London. It was a British initiative, rather than an American one. Ben Franklin saw his plan as a way to strengthen colonial ties to Britain, and to integrate the colonies into the fabric of the British Empire. Moreover, not one single colony approved Franklin's Plan of Union. The colonies rejected the Albany Plan because they were not interested in an American government coordinating the policies of the different colonies and having jurisdiction over and within these colonies.

This is why that second (and smaller) group of historians sees the Albany Plan as evidence for its alternate understanding of the American Revolution: as an effort to preserve the status quo. Instead of highlighting the settlers' transformation into Americans during the colonial era, the story of the Albany Plan points to continuity - the colonists rejected Franklin's Plan of Union because they remained traditionalist and conventional Englishmen, whose frame of reference and allegiance was provincial, not national. And they remained so during the American Revolution - the colonists who rejected the Albany Plan in 1754 to preserve colonial autonomy, rejected Britain's imperial reforms for the very same purpose in 1776. They therefore enacted a constitution (the Articles of Confederation, the first US constitution) that enshrined the sovereignty of the individual states and denied the sovereignty of the United States of America. And they later strongly opposed the more nationalist Federal Constitution of 1787 on the same grounds, demanding assurances - in writing - about preserving state sovereignty and autonomy.

An American parliament with the British sovereign would have been the ideal solution to our demand for representation and our rights as Englishmen. 

Posted by at June 1, 2023 12:00 AM