The Albany Plan of Union

First Proposal for a Centralized American Government

The Join or Die cartoon depicting the colonies as a snake broken up into segments
The Join or Die Cartoon.

Library of Congress / Getty Images

The Albany Plan of Union was an early proposal to organize the British-held American colonies under a single central government. While independence from Great Britain was not its intent, the Albany Plan represented the first officially-endorsed proposal to organize the American colonies under a single, centralized government.

Benjamin Franklin’s Early Plan of Union

Long before the Albany Convention, plans to centralize the American colonies into a “union” had been circulating. The most vocal proponent of such a union of colonial governments was Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, who had shared his ideas for a union with several of his colleagues. When he learned of the coming Albany Congress convention, Franklin published the famous “Join, or Die” political cartoon in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette. The cartoon illustrates the need for a union by comparing the colonies to separated pieces of a snake’s body. As soon as he was selected as Pennsylvania’s delegate to the Congress, Franklin published copies of what he called his “short hints towards a scheme for uniting the Northern Colonies” with the support of the British Parliament.

Indeed, the British government at the time did consider that placing the colonies under closer, centralized supervision would be advantageous to the Crown by making it easier to control them from afar. In addition, a growing number of colonists agreed with the need to organize in order to better defend their common interests.

Rejection of the Albany Plan

After convening on June 19, 1754, the delegates to the Albany Convention voted to discuss the Albany Plan for Union on June 24. By June 28, a union subcommittee presented a draft plan to the full Convention. After extensive debate and amendment, a final version was adopted by the Albany Congress on July 10.

Under the Albany Plan, the combined colonial governments, except for those of Georgia and Delaware, would appoint members of a “Grand Council” to be overseen by a “president General” appointed by the British Parliament. Delaware was excluded from the Albany Plan because it and Pennsylvania shared the same governor at the time. Historians have speculated that Georgia was excluded because, being considered a sparsely-populated “frontier” colony, it would have been unable to contribute equally to the common defense and support of the union.

While the convention delegates unanimously approved the Albany Plan, the legislatures of all seven colonies rejected it because it would have taken away some of their existing powers. Due to the colonial legislatures’ rejection, the Albany Plan was never submitted to the British Crown for approval. However, the British Board of Trade considered and also rejected it.

Having already sent General Edward Braddock along with two commissioners to take care of Native American relations, the British government believed it could continue to manage the colonies from London even without a centralized government.

Britain’s Reaction to the Albany Plan of Union

Fearing that if the Albany Plan was accepted, His Majesty’s Government might have a hard time continuing to control its now far more powerful American colonies, the British Crown hesitated to push the plan through Parliament.

However, the Crown’s fears were misplaced. The individual American colonists were still far from being prepared to handle the self-government responsibilities that being part of a union would demand. In addition, the existing colonial assemblies were not yet ready to surrender their recently hard-won control of local affairs to a single central government—that would not happen until well after the submission of the Declaration of Independence. 

The Albany Congress

The Albany Congress was a convention attended by representatives of seven of the thirteen American colonies. The colonies of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire sent colonial commissioners to the Congress.

The British government itself ordered the Albany Congress to meet in response to a failed series of negotiations between New York’s colonial government and the Mohawk Native American nation, then a part of the larger Iroquois Confederation. The British Crown hoped the Albany Congress would result in a treaty between the colonial governments and the Iroquois, clearly spelling out a policy of colonial-Native American cooperation.

Sensing the looming French and Indian War, the British saw a partnership with the Iroquois as essential should the colonies be threatened by the conflict. But while a treaty with the Iroquois may have been their primary assignment, the colonial delegates also discussed other matters such as forming a union.

How the Albany Plan Government Would Have Worked

Had the Albany Plan been adopted, the two branches of government, the Grand Council and the President General, would have worked as a unified government charged with managing disputes and agreements between the colonies as well as regulating colonial relations and treaties with the Native American tribes.

In response to the tendency at the time of colonial governors appointed by the British Parliament to override the colonial legislators chosen by the people, the Albany Plan would have given the Grand Council more relative power than the President General. The plan would have also allowed the new unified government to impose and collect taxes to support its operations and provide for the defense of the union.

While the Albany Plan didn't pass, many of its elements formed the basis of the American government as embodied in the Articles of Confederation and, eventually, the U.S. Constitution.

Why the Albany Plan Might Have Positively Impacted British-Colonial Relations

In 1789, one year after the final ratification of the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the adoption of the Albany Plan might have greatly delayed the colonial separation from England and the ​American Revolution.

“On Reflection it now seems probable, that if the foregoing Plan [the Albany Plan] or something 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 Defence, 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,” wrote Franklin, (Scott 1920).

The Legacy of the Albany Plan of Union

While his Albany Plan of Union had not proposed separation from Britain, Benjamin Franklin had accounted for many of the challenges the new American government would face after independence. Franklin knew that once independent of the Crown, America would be solely responsible for maintaining its financial stability, providing a viable economy, establishing a system of justice, and defending the people from attacks by Native Americans and foreign enemies. 

In the final analysis, the Albany Plan of Union created the elements of a true union, many of which would be adopted in September 1774, when the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to set America on the road to revolution.

Source

Scott, James Brown. The United States of America: A Study in International Organization. Oxford University Press, 1920.