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A Constitutional History of the United States
Chapter III - The Problem of Imperial Organization. The Albany Plan
by McLaughlin, Andrew C.


By the middle of the eighteenth century Britain was faced with the problem of imperial organization. We cannot say that her leaders were fully conscious of the fact; but looking back upon those years it is plain to us that, if her empire was to survive undamaged, a problem of great difficulty presented itself. And this problem, as we now view the facts, was central and insistent in its demands. Even if the blind could not see it, the question was there. Could the empire be so organized and arranged that it could find adequate means of preserving and using its strength? Could actual conditions be so envisaged that colonial valor and colonial enterprise would, without diminution of colonial self-government, contribute their vigor to the essential unity and development of the empire? The pressing and immediate question appeared to be means of securing men and money for imperial defense;' but the necessity of the case demanded the establishment of a system which would not only recognize imperial unity but conserve local rights and local self-respect. Principles of self-government, consonant with the actual competence and experience of the colonies, must find their place in the system; principles of individual liberty, the outgrowth of English constitutionalism — and deeply cherished by the colonists — must be watchfully guarded; and all arrangements and plans must be adjusted to the needs of a powerful and developing general system of empire.

That Britain failed to find a solution of the problem the reader need not be told. The story of conflict and failure is of immense consequence in the history of British imperial growth; but we are entering upon the study of events which produced the United States; and our attention is called to the fact that essentially the problem was passed on to the American states when they became free to organize their own empire. To solve the problem of imperial organization, therefore, grounded as it was in the history of the old empire, was the central, dominating, irrepressible task of a generation (1750-1788).

If there had been no danger to Britain because of the menace of France and her Indian allies, events might have moved on quietly for a time; the old easy-going system of imperial management might have continued undisturbed, save by the recurring evidence of unrest characteristic of a people on this side of the water who were not easily content. And if in any crisis the colonists had freely, generously, and thoughtlessly turned over their funds to be spent in defense, the problem of imperial order, we may well imagine, would not have been pressing. But this is only saying that if responsibility, expense, and co÷peration had been assumed voluntarily, there would have been no need of law or compulsion. The cold fact was, however, that the colonies would not work together, and if there was one thing they disliked more than granting money — a dislike common to humanity in general — it was the pain of being deprived of the right to argue about the matter and of spending the money themselves, if spend they must.[1] Hesitation, debate, and delay are among the pains and penalties of popular government.

So varied were the colonies, so different in their social and industrial life, so far-removed one from the other, that any scheme of voluntary co÷peration or systematic union presented enormous difficulty. Each colony had a fixed sense of its own importance and not much interest in its neighbors or sympathy with its neighbors' needs. In one view of the case, this readiness of each colony to look out for itself, this sentiment of local allegiance, this sense of self stands forth as the salient feature in the picture of the mid-century. So evident were the conditions that it appears to-day as a remarkable fact that the colonies were later, under pressure of common danger, brought to co÷peration and union. And still, underlying all this reality of variation and of local loyalty, political institutions were strikingly similar; grumble as the colonists might over navigation acts or disallowance, they had worked out their system of self-government on the basis of a common tendency and desire; they all cherished the principles of English liberty, as they conceived it. From one end of the land to the other they spoke the same political language, cherished the same ideas, believed in the same fundamental doctrines; in these respects — omitting differences in religion and in habits of life and industry which militated against a feeling of common interest — there existed a real unity, a unity which was based on possession of certain principles and aspirations. Contradictions often appear to be the core of life; and so we find the principles of self-government and of self-control making for segregation, and yet the very desire for political self-determination constituted a common quality and made for co÷peration when political interests and economic needs were at stake. In the long run, co÷peration and ultimate union were found to be necessary for the preservation of the separate colonies and states.

Long before the mid-eighteenth century, various suggestions or plans of union had been put forth as well as attempts on the part of the royal authority to simplify the colonial system. But it is difficult to trace with assurance the influence of these proposals upon later movements. The New England Confederation which was established in 1643 and lasted for fifty years, most of the time in a state of desuetude, had some effect in suggesting a general scheme of union when that problem in the eighteenth century demanded an answer.

After the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, which was in reality only a truce, it was apparent that a new struggle with France was likely to come, a contest for dominion in the great valley beyond the mountains and also, it might well be, for the very existence of the coast colonies. What part were the colonies prepared to play in this encounter? Would they freely enlist their men and open wide their purses, or would they hesitate and talk and insist upon their privileges when danger was at their very doors? Their general attitude furnished little hope or consolation. It was especially necessary to hold the Iroquois Indians and in general to handle the Indian question with discretion. Recognizing the need of effective co÷peration, the Board of Trade planned a conference of colonial governors, and in 1753 instructions were sent to the governors of royal and proprietary colonies [2] north of the Carolinas directing them to see that commissioners were sent to treat with the Six Nations and to renew the "Covenant Chain" with them. The formation of some kind of union appears to have had the sanction of the British authorities.

The outcome was the Albany Congress of 1754. After the Indian matters were disposed of, the commissioners entered upon consideration of the need for union and co÷peration. They unanimously decided that a union was absolutely necessary for security and defense, and they drew up a plan of union which appears to have been based on "Hints" furnished by Franklin and, though seemingly the product of considerable discussion, was probably largely his own handiwork. The plan deserves careful examination for various reasons, but especially because it points unerringly to certain distinct elements in the general problem of union; and those matters came to the fore and pressed for consideration not only then but in later years; it plainly discloses the nature of the task of imperial organization and it points to certain definite powers which were of common interest and needed to be confided to some central authority. It marks the beginning of an effort to single out the things that should be turned over to a central government or an agency of central administration. Any effort to formulate a basis of classification and distribution of powers is of commanding interest to the student of the American political system as it came to be. By the terms of the plan, a Grand Council was provided for, the members to be chosen by the representative assemblies in the colonies.[3] The general executive authority was given to a President General who was to be appointed and supported by the Crown, and who had the right to negative all acts of the Council; with the advice of the Council, he was to make all Indian treaties which concerned the colonies generally, and he was to make peace or declare war with the Indians. The President and the Council were authorized to regulate Indian trade, and to "make all purchases from Indians for the Crown, of lands [now] not within the bounds of particular Colonies, or that shall not be within their bounds when some of them are reduced to more convenient dimensions." They were to have charge of founding new settlements on such purchases and of providing laws for them, until the Crown should "think fit to form them into particular Governts ." To this central authority also was confided the right to raise armies and pay them, to equip vessels of war, and "for these purposes" to levy "duties, imposts or taxes...." A General Treasurer was to be appointed and also a particular treasurer in each colony when necessary; and the President General and the Council were to have the extraordinary power of ordering the sums in the treasuries of each government into the General Treasury, or of drawing on them "for special payments...." All laws were to be, as near as might be, agreeable to the laws of England and should be transmitted to the king for approbation. The President General could nominate for the approval of the Council all military officers, while all civil officers could be nominated by the Council for approval by the executive.

The plan, therefore, granted to the proposed central government a method and the power of raising money; it marked out a fairly definite sphere of action; and it bestowed ample authority over four subjects of supreme importance — Indian affairs, war, purchase of wild lands, and control, for a time at least, of western settlement. The commissioners even ventured to provide for proportional rather than equal representation of the several colonies in the Grand Council and to suggest quite plainly the desirability of limiting the extent of the larger colonies, some of which had claims to a vast territory beyond the mountains. Both of these latter proposals were sure to arouse opposition and in later years proved to be especially perplexing obstacles in the way of forming a federal union.

The document, as we read it to-day, appears remarkably precocious. It foreshadowed the anxieties, aspirations, disputes, and achievements of the years ahead. We need not be astonished that thirty-five years later, after the debates, trials, and tribulations of a generation, Franklin declared that in his judgment, if this plan or something like it had been adopted and carried out, "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." [4] But the significance of these proposals lies not so much in their suggestions for a method of saving the old empire as in their indication of the route that was to be followed in later years.

There was small ground for hope that the plan would be favorably received on either side of the ocean. It received short shrift in England. The Board of Trade had its own ideas and drafted a plan, but it need not detain us; it is significant, however, as proof of the fact that the home authorities were seriously considering the problem of empire and chiefly the need of acquiring and controlling means of defense. No colony accepted the Albany proposals.[5] Franklin said the plan was not favored in the colonies because it allowed too much to prerogative and the Crown disapproved it because it "placed too much Weight in the Democratic Part of the Constitution...." [6]

The plan indeed was ahead of the time; though measures for defense were imperative, any general plan of union, in which the colonies would have a large share, and which would be political in character and not calculated for defense alone, was objectionable to Britain, and on the other hand, colonial self-esteem and caution looked askance at intrusion upon hard-won preserves. How disconcerting to the average colonist was the proposal to establish a central government — even a central government in which the colonies would be represented — which could put its hand into the colonial treasury and draw forth funds even for war against a common enemy! "Every Body," said Franklin, "cries, a Union is absolutely necessary; but when they come to the Manner and Form of the Union, their weak Noddles are perfectly distracted." [7] The task was to distract weak and strong noddles alike for several decades to come. This was no job for puny minds. Something, the shrewdest heads on both sides of the water believed, had to be done. The Board of Trade declared that if the colonies would not acquiesce in some such arrangement as the one proposed by the Board, there was no alternative but an act of Parliament.

Eager and anxious for imperial stability and for success in the war with France, Franklin wrote the next year (1755) that a plan of union ought to "take Place" and be established by king and Parliament. " 'Till it is done never expect to see an American War carried on as it ought to be, nor Indian Affairs properly managed." [8] Colonial governors were beginning to think that the only way to get money for defense was parliamentary taxation and some of them advised it. Governor Shirley of Massachusetts declared the behavior of the colonies showed the necessity not only of "a Parliamentary Union, but taxation...." [9] The ministry during these years must have received ample assurance [10] that the colonies would not act of themselves and that some sort of compulsion was necessary.[11] The course of the war probably hardened this belief, and yet some of the colonies participated with a good deal of vigor, especially under the inspiring leadership of Pitt. And it is an interesting example of the apparent perversity of human nature that the freer colonies, those most fully in command of themselves, were the readiest to do their part. In the royal colonies, where affairs were most directly under royal control, bickerings and disputes with the governor were prominent and almost continuous. The proprietary colonies indulged in enjoyable disputes with the representative of the proprietary authority and yielded with ill grace to any demands for effective co÷peration. The spirit of individual right and an insistence on colonial privileges were marked features of the situation. Despite all of the difficulties, Britain triumphed in the war, but the embarrassment resulting from incoherence and from the absence of a thoroughly articulated empire was apparent In some respects the war probably brought forth a certain sense of imperial unity, and it may have developed a recognition of identity of interests between one colony and another. But we must not speak with too much assurance. Each colony was quite conscious of itself and of its own right to guard what it deemed to be its privileges. The war gave special opportunity for the exercise of political craftsmanship. At the end, if the need of co÷peration was more evident than it had been at an earlier time, and if there was glorification of British prowess and exultation over the victory, nevertheless imperial unity, organization on any viable basis suitable to the conditions, and the establishment of any effective system were even more remote, to all appearances than before hostilities began.[12] If one is inclined to blame the British statesmen for not working out a scheme of imperial order then or at a later time, he must surely also perceive the herculean nature of the task; and, moreover, the background of colonial incoherence and of colonial self-sufficiency must be taken into account in any attempt to appreciate the job which the Americans faced, not only in 1754 but in later years, when, for their own well-being, there was imperative need of co÷peration and continental organization. The casual reader is probably inclined to overemphasize the single feature of the individual's belief in his personal liberties and his readiness to defend them, and is likely to underestimate the sense of self which was cherished by each colony as a constituent part of an empire. And we must remember that the empire had grown up without any consistent and adequate political system, the eyes of the British administration being fixed largely on trade, while Britain watched her enemies and her commercial rivals in Europe. A commercial rather than a well-articulated political empire had received the weight of attention.


[1] Franklin writing in 1754 portrayed the situation: "... some Assemblies being before at variance with their governors or councils, and the several branches of the government not on terms of doing business with each other; others taking the opportunity, when their concurrence is wanted, to push for favourite laws, powers, or points, that they think could not at other times be obtained, and so creating disputes and quarrels; one Assembly waiting to see what another will do, being afraid of doing more than its share, or desirous of doing less, or refusing to do any thing because its country is not at present so much exposed as others, or because another will reap more immediate advantage; from one or other of which causes, the Assemblies of six out of seven colonies applied to, had granted no assistance to Virginia, when lately invaded by the French, though purposely convened, and the importance of the occasion earnestly urged upon them...." Franklin, Writings (A. H. Smyth, ed.), III, p. 203.

[2] Virginia and New Jersey did not send representatives. The Lieutenant-Governor of New York seems to have represented Virginia. Representatives from Rhode Island and Connecticut attended.

[3] No representation from Georgia was provided for. There were to be not less than two nor more than seven representatives from any one colony. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York, VI, p. 889.

[4] Franklin, Writings (A. H. Smyth, ed.), III, p. 226, note 1.

[5] Nothing could more amply bring before us the watchful regard for colonial pence than the instructions of Connecticut to her commissioners at the Albany Congress. She desired the commissioners to join with others in representing to the king the defenseless state of his governments in America, to make evident the great expense Connecticut had assumed in comparison with southern colonies in former wars, and to be sure that the obligation on Connecticut was "no greater than of necessity." The commissioners were to "agree to no proportion of expence save for the present occasion," to make no presents to the Indians unless necessary, and to oppose as far as possible everything of that nature. They were to see to it that Connecticut troops served with eastern and not western troops, if there were any such distinction, and they must be careful not to bind the colony in any way before ratification by "this Hon. Assembly." Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut. X, p. 268 note.

[6] Franklin, Writings (A. H. Smyth, ed.), III, p. 227 note.

[7] Ibid., III, p. 242.

[8] Ibid., III, p. 267.

[9] Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New-York, VI, p. 940.

[10] See the "Sharpe Correspondence," I, Archives of Maryland, VI, pp. 96, 99, 203. "This perverseness of the Virginia Assembly has induced the Gover[r] to apply home as I am told some other Governors have also done for an Act of the British Legislature to be obligatory upon all the Govern[ts] equally, & compel them to contribute their Quotas for the Defence & Protection of their Properties & His Majesty's American Dominions...." Sharpe to Calvert, September 15, 1754, in Ibid., p. 99. Sharpe made his own proposals — a poll tax, or a duty on wines and liquors, or a stamp duty. "... or can I now think we can have any Dependence on the Assemblies of the different Colonies with't a B. Act of Parliam't to raise a gen'l Tax on all his M'y's Subjects on this Cont't.... I much want to know if any Thing is done in regard to the Union of the Colonies. The Scheme from Albany on y't head is by no means agreeable to our people, and I dare not give my Opinion thereon, as I hear it lies with his M'y in Council; but it will be very agreeable if any Thing can be done to bring the wrong-headed People in this Part of the World to a proper Understand'g of their pres't Danger, and to rouse an Emulat'n among them for their Safety in rais'g proper Supplies for defeat's the Designs of the Com'n Enemy." Governor Dinwiddie to the Earl of Halifax, February 12, 1755, in "Dinwiddie Papers," I, Va. Hist. Soc. Collections, new series, III, pp. 496-497. See also Governor Dinwiddie to the Lords of Trade, February 23, 1756, in "Dinwiddie Papers," II, Va. Hist. Soc. Collections, new series, IV, p. 340.

[11] For references, see G. L. Beer, British Colonial Policy 1754-1765, pp. 44-46 note. For an account of conditions, see E. I. McCormac, "Colonial Opposition to Imperial Authority During the French and Indian War," University of California Publications in History, I, no. 1, pp. 1-98.

[12] "Despite the co÷peration of many colonies in a common military undertaking, which, it may be, smoothed the way to an eventual understanding, the dislike and even the enmity of colony for colony were as great in 1763 as in 1750, while the absorption of each in its own affairs was as profound as at any time in its history." C. M. Andrews, The Colonial Period, pp. 232-233.

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