The Motivations of Benjamin Franklin and His Albany Plan of Union
Looking back in his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin evaluated the events of the Albany Congress against the backdrop of an inevitable conflict between the mother country and its colonies. “I am still of Opinion it would have been happy for both Sides the Water if it had been adopted. The Colonies so united would have been sufficiently strong to have defended themselves; there would then have been no need of Troops from England; of course the subsequent Pretence for Taxing America, and the bloody Contest it occasioned, would have been avoided. But such Mistakes are not new; History is full of the Errors of States & Princes.”1
Although the Albany Plan of Union and Franklin’s role are often thought of as mere footnotes on the inexorable march towards an American identity and ensuing independence, the man and the event itself must be viewed in a much more complex framework. It must be noted that Franklin was 70 years old at the time of the Declaration of Independence and had lived a public life that had included many titles other than “Patriot”. It is my contention that Franklin’s participation at the Albany Congress of 1754 should be evaluated from a broader perspective – which does not rely on a revisionist storyline ending in independence. Instead, proper attention should be given to Franklin’s particular belief systems, his conflicts with Pennsylvania’s proprietor, his faith in the possibilities of the British Imperial System, and his personal ambition.
First, it is prudent to begin with the context and details of the Albany Congress. Franklin’s autobiography describes the situation very well: “In 1754, War with France being again apprehended, a Congress of Commissioners from the different Colonies, was by an Order of the Lords of Trade, to be assembled at Albany, there to confer with the Chiefs of the Six Nations, concerning the Means of defending both their Country and ours…..”2 It is important to note that the focus intended by the Lords of Trade was the appeasement of the Iroquois Confederation. This was important in order to prevent such a powerful ally from aligning themselves with the French or just as bad – to take no side at all.
Franklin continues: “In our Way thither, I projected and drew up a Plan for the Union of All the Colonies, under one Government so far as might be necessary for Defence, and other important general Purposes.”2 Additionally, Franklin’s proposed government “Was to be administered by a President General appointed and supported by the Crown, and a Grand Council to be chosen by the Representatives of the People of the several Colonies met in their respective Assemblies.”3
Even though Virginia—arguably the most important/prosperous colony—did not send representatives to Albany, the final committee version of Franklin’s Albany Plan was to include every British colony in North American (excluding only Georgia and Nova Scotia).4
Franklin’s plan created a legislative body and an executive branch, which would both theoretically work in accordance with the interests of the colonies and crown, respectively. The number of representatives, or delegates, would be determined according to how much tax revenue they contributed to the common fund. The more invested (literally) a colony was in the government, the more power was apportioned to it. And as a concession to colonial assemblies as well as democracy, delegates to the Grand Council would be elected by their colony’s legislative body.
The Crown’s interests, on the other hand, would be embodied in the executive position of president-general. This position was similar to a royal governorship in that both had the Crown appoint the office holder. An important difference between the two, however, was that, in light of past conflicts of interests, the president-general would have his salary paid by the Crown as well.5
At first blush these institutions might have seemed both reasonable and practical to those who had it in their power to adopt the plan. But as the eminent Franklin biographer Carl Van Doren described it, “Not one of them [colonial assemblies] approved, because none of them, in the current state of colonial jealousy and separatism, was willing to yield so much power to a general council. Even the Pennsylvania Assembly, which managed to take it up when Franklin was not present, paid no attention to the plan. Without the agreement of the colonies, the matter never came before the royal government, which probably would have not approved it either.”6
Even though the plan failed to be adopted, Franklin still believed that his proposal was truly meritorious: “The different & contrary Reasons of dislike to my Plan, makes me suspect that it was really the true Medium.”8 Apparently colonial assemblies balked at the idea of so much Royal “Prerogative”9 with the president-general. Conversely, those across the sea found the amount of “Democratic”10 elements to be unacceptable.
It is difficult to ascertain how members of the colonies defined themselves, since we know how the story of North America led to the creation of the United States. Regardless, we can assume that members of a colony defined themselves in terms of the colony to which they belonged. This meant that the interests of Pennsylvania were paramount to those of New York and vice-versa. America had yet to go through the galvanization process of the Revolution. Another factor to examine is the fact that colonial governments loathed the prospect of ceding power. Whatever guarantee of limits placed on the Albany Plan’s government, the plan still would be viewed with suspicion.
But in the end, Franklin failed to get the Albany Plan adopted. In light of his public career’s meteoric rise, it appears that the whole Albany episode was a sort of aberration in Franklin’s judgment about the world and mankind. But in fact, the very same principles which Franklin had always subscribed to were present both during and after the Albany Congress.
Franklin’s dogged belief in the universality of reason is the first principle to examine. Though he once ridiculed the concept of how “Convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do,”11 Franklin was still very much a product of the Enlightenment (as the biographer Robert Middlekauff contends).12
Looking at accomplishments in Philadelphia such as “Getting a fire department organized, the streets paved, a library established, schools for the poor supported,”13 it is not much of a leap to imagine Franklin approaching the issues of colonial defense and Indian affairs with the same vigorous urge for rational improvement.
The moral necessity of reason is another important principle of Franklin’s belief system. In a series of essays comparing Cotton Mather and Franklin, the author Phyllis Franklin points out the great similarities between their belief in the moral necessity of good men to improve themselves and the public. 14 Both Franklin and Mather shared the “Belief that man, a reasonable creature, could act in his own behalf, improving himself and then acting for the good of others.”15
Previous to the Albany Congress, Franklin exercised his reason and rationality for the state of Pennsylvania. In this case, it was an appeal for a common defense that actually did succeed. The conflict known as King George’s War, or the War of Jenkin’s Ear, was endangering the inhabitants of Pennsylvania (among other colonies). Due to the dominance of pacifist Quakers in the colonial assembly, Pennsylvania had remained without a militia or any sort of defense.
In response to the inaction of elected officials, Franklin wrote that he “Was determined to try what might be done by a voluntary Association of the People. To promote this I first wrote & published a Pamphlet, intitled, Plain Truth, in which I stated our defenseless Situation in strong Lights, with the Necessity of Union & Discipline for our Defence, and promis’d to propose in a few Days an Association to be generally signed for that purpose. The Pamphlet had a sudden & surprising Effect.”16
A selection from the 1744 pamphlet “Plain Truth” makes it quite clear how Franklin felt about those supporting pacifism to the detriment of the public good: “But to refuse defending one's self, or one's country, is so unusual a thing among mankind, that possibly they may not believe it, till, by experience, they [the Spanish] find they can come higher and higher up our river, seize our vessels, land and plunder our plantations and villages, and retire with their booty unmolested.”17
“Plain Truth” and Franklin’s other efforts in organizing Pennsylvania’s militia and defenses were incredibly successful. Unfortunately for Franklin, his leadership and initiative that protected Pennsylvania permanently soured his relationship with the threatened proprietor Thomas Penn.18
Conflict between the proprietor of Pennsylvania and his colony’s assembly had been an issue since the beginning. And parts of the Albany Plan add to a story of thrust and counter-thrust between Thomas Penn and the troublesome printer from Philadelphia. At the root of the conflict was the issue of taxing the vast estates owned by the Penn family. Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “These public Quarrels [disagreements in the Pennsylvania Assembly] were all at bottom owing to the Proprietaries, our hereditary Governors; who when any Expence was to be incurr’d for the Defence of their Province, with incredible Meanness instructed their Deputies to pass no Act for levying the necessary Taxes, unless their vast Estates were in the same Act expressly excused; and they had even taken Bonds of those Deputies to observe such Instructions.”19 Eventually Franklin became the leader of the anti-proprietorial faction in the colonial assembly.20
Further friction occurred when Franklin caused scandal due to an improper military parade. Franklin had been given the honor of a military parade which had marched with unsheathed swords. This was a viewed as a serious breach of proper etiquette, for only nobility can be allowed to enjoy such honors. Of course descriptions of this incident reached Thomas Penn, who then accused Franklin of treason, as he viewed Franklin to “Hav[e] an Intention to take the Government of the Province out of his Hands by Force.”21
In 1757 Franklin was tasked by the Pennsylvania assembly to lobby the British Parliament and King in order to finally check the power of Thomas Penn. On the issues of taxation and later Indian affairs, the atmosphere between the two men was so poisonous that Franklin went to the point of personal insult, referring to Penn as a “low jockey”22 and having “a Contempt [for Penn] that I cannot express in Words.” 23
The efforts by Franklin in lobbying and influencing the Court and Parliament did not end in success. Franklin decided to then pursue his objectives back in the colony. The next skirmish with Penn highlighted Franklin’s sometimes erroneous political weathervane that had been showcased previously when the Albany Plan of Union had failed to be adopted.
Once back in Pennsylvania, Franklin organized his next tactic, a petition among the people to demonstrate their support of an immediate royalization of the government. The biographer Gordon Wood describes the results: “Franklin was stunned by his defeat. He had completely misjudged the sentiment of his fellow colonists…”24 which could very well have stemmed from his “excessive faith in the British Crown.”25
Thus were Thomas Penn and Benjamin Franklin always at odds. And this problem with Penn (and his fellow proprietors) manifests itself on multiple occasions. It is easy to discern Franklin’s view of the Crown as evident in his proposed Albany Plan. By leaving the executive branch’s appointment and salary completely up to the Crown, the King would be able to exert much more direct influence over North America. In Pennsylvania’s case, this would have also meant reducing the power of the proprietor.
It is profitable to understand the Albany Plan’s context in a the saga of proprietary conflict, but the Plan can also be used as a lens to further examine sentiments behind another important aspect of Benjamin Franklin – his admiration and commitment to the Crown and empire.
In 1756 Franklin wrote to George Whitefield where he concretely espoused the opportunities presented by the British Empire:
You mention your frequent wish that you were a Chaplain to an American Army. I sometimes wish, that you and I were jointly employ’d by the Crown to settle a Colony on the Ohio. I imagine we could do it effectually, and without putting the Nation to much Expence. But I fear we shall never be cal’d upon for such a Service... What a Security to the other Colonies; and Advantage to Britain by increasing her People, Territory, Strength and Commerce… In such an Enterprize I could spend the Remainder of Life with Pleasure and I firmly believe God would bless us with Success, if we Undertake it with a sincere regard to his Honour, the Service of our gracious King, and, which is the same thing, the Publick good. 26
This letter to Whitefield would seem incredible to reconcile with the image of Franklin in later years. We conjure images of Franklin as the elder American statesman and associate him as the purely American archetype. But just as easily as the Albany Plan can be viewed in the framework of dissention from proprietary government, so can the Plan’s implications and motivations be grounded in the Franklin’s role as a supporter of the British imperial system.
On this subject, the biographer Gordon Wood also notes how “remarkable how many of his American friends in the early 1760s were future Tories and loyalists.”27 Franklin’s identification of service to the King being equivalent to the “Publick good”28 makes sense from his own perspective. Going back to the pamphlet “Plain Truth”, Franklin’s first point was to reiterate the interest that was common to all: “But whatever different opinions we have of our security in other respects, our TRADE, all seem to agree, is in danger of being ruined in another year.” 29 An appeal to the common interest in prosperity was certainly not only applicable to the colony of Pennsylvania; it was beneficial to the empire in its entirety. This mindset of Franklin’s, of symbiotic relationships and mutually profitable arrangements, is obviously present in the text of the Albany Plan. Furthering this philosophy is the concept of enlightened self interest. The British Empire, if pursuing the general interest of all, would best pursue this by pursuing the interests of its very constituent parts.
Franklin, soon after the Albany congress, articulated this sentiment clearly in a letter to William Shirley. “Since they [the colonies] are all included in the British Empire, which has only extended itself by their means; and the strength and wealth of the parts is the strength and wealth of the whole…”30 furthermore it is “Agreed to be in the general interest of any state, that it’s people be numerous and rich; men enow to fight in its defence, and enow to pay sufficient taxes to defray the charge; for these circumstances tend to the security of the state….”31
Franklin’s views on how interest should work in a society is important, since in such examples as the Albany Plan and “Plain Truth” he attempted to broaden and mold the conception of what it meant to be acting in the best interests of all. At the same time, though, Franklin still characterized this concept with the same ironic tone used to ridicule “reasonableness” when he qualified his “Regard to the Publick Good.” by the statement “I may be mistaken in what is that Publick Good; but at least I mean well.”32
But it is that belief—where seemingly different interests can and do converge on a common point—that may be the facet of Franklin most vital to a thorough understanding of this extraordinary man. At its core, this conceptual underpinning explained the assumptions that Franklin held when he drafted the Albany Plan. Or it can assist in the examination of how Franklin reconciled his views on his own interests with his sometimes deprecating views on the public good.
It would have been very convenient for the Albany plan to be adopted, for reasons pointed out by Franklin himself, since the revolution would have thus been unnecessary; but another reason for Franklin’s fervent championing, as some experts point out, is that it would have lead to personal advancement as well. Franklin, as the architect of its design, would have probably been destined to play an important role in it. Additionally, his desire to make Pennsylvania into a royal colony was considered by some to be a desire to be its first royal governor.33 But instead of viewing any accompanying personal gain to public good as negative, Franklin’s belief system may be a testament to the confluence between the interests of the self and the interests of the whole:
Interest and honor are likely to be linked in all public service. In seeking honor a man seeks the respect of others, of his family, of his social class, of his friends, his town, neighborhood, province, country. And people, however grouped, generally accord respect to someone who serves their interests. A man seldom looks for honor in promoting the interests of a group to which he does not belong. Consequently, in serving the interests of others he may well be serving his own, especially if he takes a large enough, long –range view. 34
Edmund Morgan, although writing on Washington, describes him in a manner that is appropriate for Franklin as well. Franklin’s appointments to such positions as postmaster or clerk for the Assembly certainly allowed a great degree of personal gain while simultaneously providing better service for all. Franklin as postmaster had better access to news and distribution networks – which benefited his own newspaper’s fortunes – so stood personal interest. But at the same time, according to the common interest, Franklin improved the efficiency of the mail – in which the public had everything to gain.35
Referring back to the correspondence between Whitefield and Franklin is also illustrative of how permeable the division between ambition and common interest can be. Franklin sketches the virtues of imperial expansion in glowing terms. He dwells on the positive consequences for the group and how things could be markedly improved. But there also is an element of overt ambition, which only seems barely clothed by Franklin’s method of weaving a scenario of mutual benefit for all the empire.
If the Albany Congress would have been adopted, the results would have been similar. Franklin would have reaped the benefits of producing the plan, and probably made part of the new government he had devised. What is important to know about Franklin is that through his attainment of personal gain, he often benefited the society around him. A man’s understanding of what enlightened self-interest entails is thus an important consideration when approaching a historical issue such as the Albany Plan.
Benjamin Franklin and his Albany Plan can occupy many different places in a historical narrative. Franklin’s life and achievements can be perceived through a multi-faceted lens, but is usually only viewed through a certain template (as many of the Founding Fathers are). Few men can come even close to claiming but half the accolades that Franklin earned through his life, and far fewer approach his complexity.
Franklin’s capacity for rational thought, combined with the need to continually apply his reasoning mind to the problems of the day is an enviable trait to posses. The Albany Plan of Union, though unimplemented, is an example of reason being applied to an interesting set of circumstances. Although Thomas Penn caused Franklin to often miscalculate, and to sometimes look very foolish, his role in the Plan of Union and Franklin’s life seemed to be a catalyst for Franklin to rethink or abandon certain positions.
At first a foreign concept, the imperial side of Franklin must be contended with. Franklin was an individual that got to interact with many different levels and machines. His ambition, or enlightened “self-interest,” is important because his ambition usually ends up with Franklin serving the public good.
Though sometimes presented as caricature by voices such as Mark Twain or Max Weber, the analysis of Franklin’s motivations for and understanding of the natural and political world around him will always be a fruitful venue to study.
1: Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Louis P. Masur. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993. pg 127.
2: Ibid pg 126.
3: Ibid pg 127.
4: Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1986. pgs 90-91.
5: Franklin, Benjamin. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Leonard Woods Labaree, Whitfield J. Bell, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman. Vol. 5. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962. pgs 399-417.
6: Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. 3rd ed. New York: The Viking Press, 1964. pg 223.
7: Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Louis P. Masur. pg 127.
14: Franklin, Phyllis. Show Theyself a Man: a Comparison of Benjamin Franklin and Cotton Mather. Paris: Mouton, 1969. pg 57.
15: Ibid. pgs 39-41.
16: Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Louis P. Masur pg 111.
17: Franklin, Benjamin. The Works of Benjamin Franklin Containing Several Political and Historical Tracts Not Included in Any Former Edition and Many Letters Official and Private, Not Hitherto Published : with Notes and a Life of the Author. Ed. Jared Sparks. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1840. pgs 10-12.
18: Middlekauff, Robert. Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies. pgs 38-39
19: Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Louis P. Masur. pg 129.
20. Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1986. pgs 102.
21: Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Louis P. Masur. pg 144
22: Middlekauff, Robert. Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies. pg 66.
23: Ibid pg 66.
24: Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin P, 2004. pg 101
27: Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. pg 103.
28: Franklin, Benjamin. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Albert Henry Smyth. Vol. 3. pgs. 339-340.
29: Franklin, Benjamin. The Works of Benjamin Franklin Containing Several Political and Historical Tracts Not Included in Any Former Edition and Many Letters Official and Private, Not Hitherto Published : with Notes and a Life of the Author. Ed. Jared Sparks. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1840. pg 10.
30: Franklin, Benjamin. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Leonard Woods Labaree, Whitfield J. Bell, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman. Vol. 5. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962. pg 450.
31: Ibid pg. 450.
32: Ibid pg. 14
33: Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. pg 95.
34: Morgan, Edmund Sears. The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia P, 2004. 39.
35: Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Louis P. Masur. pgs 78, 126
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Louis P. Masur. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1993. pgs 53, 78, 111, 126, 127, 129
Franklin, Benjamin. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Leonard Woods Labaree, Whitfield J. Bell, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman. Vol. 5. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962. pgs 14, 399-417, 450
Franklin, Benjamin. The Works of Benjamin Franklin Containing Several Political and Historical Tracts Not Included in Any Former Edition and Many Letters Official and Private, Not Hitherto Published : with Notes and a Life of the Author. Ed. Jared Sparks. Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1840. pgs 10-12.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Albert Henry Smyth. Vol. 3. London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1905. 339-340.
Franklin, Phyllis. Show Theyself a Man: a Comparison of Benjamin Franklin and Cotton Mather. Paris: Mouton, 1969. pgs 39-41, 57.
Middlekauff, Robert. Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. pgs 38-39,56-57, 66.
Morgan, Edmund Sears. The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004. pg 39.
Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. 3rd ed. New York: The Viking Press, 1964. pg 223.
Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1986. pgs 90, 91, 102
Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin P, 2004. pg 95, 101, 103