The Albany Congress was held in 1754 to bring the colonies together to coordinate with one another and with Britain and Indian allies in the impending French and Indian War. Its major initiative was a Plan of Union of the Colonies, prepared primarily by Benjamin Franklin and adopted by the Congress. While the plan was never ratified by a single colony, nor by Britain, its elaboration and adoption by the Congress were remarkable feats, and gave the colonies the first serious introduction to the idea of their Union. During debates over the federal Constitution of 1787, Franklin republished it as a proof that the goal of a strong union was no hasty idea.
The Albany Plan’s text is brief, fitting on three pages. It provides for a “general government” of the colonies, to be “administered by a President-General, to be 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.” The executive and legislature were given means of balancing each other in the appointment and legislative processes. Each colony got a specified number of votes in the Council, with two for the smallest and seven for the largest colonies. Individual colonies would retain their existing governments and military forces. The union would have authority over all Indian affairs, including war and treaties; over new territories; over a joint army and navy; and to make laws and taxes needed for these purposes, using duties and imposts as well as requisitions on colonial governments.
Franklin in his autobiography remarked that the plan was not ratified because to the Crown it seemed too democratic and to the colonies it seemed too much flavored with the king’s prerogative. More prosaically, colonial legislatures feared giving up part of their autonomy; England feared any union of the colonies, lest they become collectively separatist. In later years Franklin proposed to solve the latter danger through representation of Americans in the British Parliament, to enable joint management of the decisions and burdens of the empire.
With neither form of union—Albany or Imperial—adopted, the issue of American payments for the French and Indian War was left unresolved. Individual colonial legislatures procrastinated; Parliament eventually imposed taxes unilaterally on the colonies. This led to resistance and new congresses of the colonies; a union gradually developed de facto against the Crown. As Revolution neared under the slogan “No taxation without representation,” Britain began to think about giving representation in Parliament, but Americans were unwilling: they had grown sensitive to Britain’s intention of extracting taxes, and to the inferiority of numbers they would suffer in a pan-Britannic Parliament, a status they felt unbearable in light of their growing sense of a divergence of interests.
There remained the issue of uniting the emerging states. The Articles of Confederation did this in a weak fashion, with “one state, one vote” and no coherent executive. The 1787 Constitution did it on a par of strength with the Albany Plan, but in far more sophisticated form.
The Albany Plan was later remembered as a precursor of the Constitution, and also as a lost opportunity for the British Empire. In the 1800’s, faced with rebellion in Canada, the British pursued two tracks of reform: greater autonomy for colonial governments, and federations of neighboring groups of colonies (to form Canada, Australia, and South Africa) along with an attempt at federation of the empire as a whole. The first responded to the lessons of 1776; the second, to the lessons of the Albany Plan and the Constitution.
The Albany Plan and Franklin’s Imperial Parliament idea were idealized in the late 1800’s by the Imperial Federation League and the movement for English-Speaking Union; it was said that Franklin lived to see the continental part of his plan realized in the Constitution, and bequeathed the transatlantic half to posterity. Neither movement succeeded in its goal of an intercontinental federation, but both fostered confederal growth, the former in the Imperial Conference and Commonwealth, the latter in the Atlantic Alliance. The subsequent fostering of a European Union within the Atlantic Alliance paralleled in practice Franklin’s duality of conception, a continental Union embedded within a looser transatlantic one.