The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America - Walter R. Borneman (2006)

BOOK ONE. Colliding Empires (1748–1756)

3. ALBANY, 1754

As Virginia pondered the ramifications of George Washington’s initial reception on the Ohio, Great Britain’s northern colonies were also growing increasingly uneasy with their French neighbors. Nowhere was this more a topic of conversation than in the frontier metropolis of Albany, New York. For almost a century, Albany had been the Gibraltar of the English colonial frontier. The explorer Henry Hudson first proposed its location just south of the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers in 1609. Begun by the Dutch as Fort Orange in 1624, the outpost and subsequent settlement of Beverwyck passed to the English along with New Amsterdam in 1664. Albany quickly became the linchpin that anchored New England’s frontier running eastward to the Atlantic and the fulcrum that leveraged New York’s expansion westward toward the Great Lakes.

In the other directions, Albany sat squarely on the north-south water corridor between New York City and Quebec via Lake Champlain and the Hudson and Saint Lawrence rivers. During all the French and Indian conflicts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Albany was frequently the only secure position on the English colonies’ northern frontier. Later, during the American Revolution, Albany was still a pivot point, and three British armies—one of which was compelled to surrender at Saratoga—sought to converge on it.

In addition to its strategic military position, Albany in the spring of 1754 was well established as the commercial hub of the upper Hudson River valley and the center of the English fur trade. The small, wooden structure of Fort Orange had been abandoned long ago to the annual floods of the Hudson, and the English had built a more substantial fort of thick stone walls on higher ground above the western end of State Street.

English rule, however, had done little to change Dutch custom or lineage. Albany’s houses were “very neat, and partly built of stones covered with shingles of white pine.” Most inhabitants were of Dutch descent, still spoke Dutch, listened to sermons preached in Dutch, and possessed impeccable Dutch manners. “In the evening the verandas are full of people of both sexes;” observed one traveler, “but this is rather troublesome because a gentleman has to keep his hat in constant motion…[as] it is considered very impolite, not to lift your hat and greet everyone.” Recorded populations of 714 in 1697 and 1,128 in 1714 had grown to “more than three thousand inhabitants” by 1754.

Two imposing churches occupied opposite ends of a wide marketplace through which State Street ran between the fort and the Hudson River. The Dutch Reformed Church sat near the river at the eastern end of the marketplace and was built of stone capped by a small steeple with a bell. “The English church,” Saint Peter’s Episcopal, sat directly below the fort at the western end of the marketplace. It, too, was built of stone, but it lacked a steeple.

The other grand structure in Albany was the city hall, located near the river just south of the Dutch church. The hall was “a fine building of stone, three stories high” with a steep-pitched roof and “a small tower or steeple, with a bell, and a gilt ball and vane at the top of it.” The bell dutifully tolled the hours of noon and 8:00 p.m. each day. After the fort and the Dutch church, the city hall was the town’s largest structure, plainly visible on the Albany skyline to arriving visitors.1

Now, in June 1754, there were important visitors arriving in town. Albany had long been the scene of conclaves between the English and representatives of the Six Nations, and with the French once again striving to win the latter’s allegiance, it was high time for another such gathering. The previous September, Great Britain’s Board of Trade—essentially the governing body for his majesty’s colonies and by virtue of its very name an indication of how closely commercial and imperial interests were tied—had announced an appropriation for “presents” for the Six Nations. It also directed the governor of New York to convene a conference with their representatives “for delivering those presents, for burying the hatchet, and for renewing the Covenant Chain.”2

The concept of “presents” was a cornerstone of eighteenth-century diplomacy between all Native American nations and both the French and the English. These outright gifts included “fabrics, hardware, munitions, food, toys, jewelry, clothing, wampum, and liquors.” Regarded most cynically, they were outright bribes. Viewed differently, “presents” were the most aggressive marketing inducements of the age, designed to win and keep commercial and political relationships.

Both France and England expended large sums to provide these gifts; but just as English goods were cheaper in trade, English presents were more abundant and of higher quality because of the proximity of the commercial hubs of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. In the struggle for a continent, the Native American tradition of giving and receiving gifts as part of any negotiation had been taken to its extreme and “presents” were essential to any relationship.3

But there was also another issue on the table for delegates arriving in Albany that summer. The earl of Holderness, the British secretary of state charged with North America, had written to colonial governors late in the summer of 1753, urging them to be “in a condition to resist any hostile attempts that may be made upon any parts of His Majesty’s dominions within your government.” It was also the king’s directive that “his provinces in America should be aiding and assisting each other, in case of any invasion.”4

Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, who had already proved adept in colonial military matters by orchestrating the capture of Louisbourg during King George’s War, enthusiastically took up this charge. Shirley assured his fellow governors that “in case any hostile attempts shall be committed upon His Majesty’s territories,” Massachusetts would respond. But Shirley went much farther. Nothing would be more effective in countering French movements and bringing the Indians to dependence on the English, Shirley told the Board of Trade in January 1754, “than a well concerted scheme for uniting all His Majesty’s colonies upon it in a mutual defense of each other.”5

By the time Governor Shirley addressed the Massachusetts general assembly on April 2, 1754, and asked it to appoint commissioners to the conference in Albany, he was even more emphatic. Citing frequent French attempts to “draw off the Six Nations from the English interest into their own,” Shirley argued that nothing would be a more effective counter in maintaining Indian alliances than “one general league of friendship, comprising all His Majesty’s colonies.” Such a coalition of colonies might also “lay a foundation for a general one among all His Majesty’s colonies for the mutual support and defense against the present dangerous enterprises of the French on every side of them.”

Indeed, this was not just a problem for Massachusetts, Shirley continued: “Close on the back of the settlements of His Majesty’s southern colonies, they [the French] are joining Canada to the Mississippi by a line of forts and settlements along the great lakes and rivers, and cutting off all commerce and intercourse between the English and the numerous powerful tribes of Indians inhabiting that country,” all the while stirring up their resentment.6

There was, of course, another side to the matter. The French were equally convinced that it was the English who were plotting to seize the continent solely for their own purposes. As long ago as Céloron’s visit, the French commandant at Fort Miami had bitterly noted that “the English spare nothing to keep [the Indians] and to draw away the remainder of those who are here. The excessive price of French goods in this post, the great bargains which the English give, as well as the large presents which they make to the tribes, have entirely disposed those tribes in their favor…. We have made peace with the English, but in this country they do not cease working to make war on us by means of the Indians.”7

But whether against the French, the Indians, or both, some Englishmen clearly thought that some form of confederation was at hand. “For forming this general Union, gentlemen,” Shirley told the Massachusetts assembly in his concluding remarks, “there is no time to be lost. The French seem to have advanced further toward making themselves masters of this continent within these last five or six years, than they have done ever since the first beginning of their settlements upon it.”8

An English colonial confederation—particularly in the cause of common defense—was hardly a new idea. As early as 1643, the fledgling colonies of Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven formed the New England Confederation to settle boundary disputes and provide for mutual defense. (Subsequent charters merged New Haven with Connecticut in 1665 and Plymouth with Massachusetts in 1691.) Each colony appointed two commissioners who met annually and even held the power to declare war, provided that three out of four colonies agreed.

The New England Confederation avoided war with the Dutch in the Hudson Valley by negotiating a treaty with Peter Stuyvesant in 1650, but almost fell apart three years later when Massachusetts Bay resolutely refused to join a subsequent military action against the valley. In 1675, the confederation unanimously declared war against the Wampanoag in King Philip’s War. The formal New England Confederation ended a few years later—in part because of Massachusetts Bay’s emerging dominance—but that did not stop informal cooperation. In April 1690, a conference in New York attracted representatives from New York, Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, and Connecticut to rally troops for King William’s War. Even Maryland sent a letter offering 100 men, while Rhode Island pledged money in lieu of troops.

During Queen Anne’s War, delegates of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island met to bemoan the crown’s lack of support for a plan to attack Montreal with a colonial force that had assembled at Albany. New York was too frustrated by the delay to participate, but the delegates drafted a petition to Queen Anne urging that a similar effort be mounted the following year. By the time of King George’s War, Governor George Clinton of New York routinely summoned Iroquois chiefs to meet with colonial agents at Albany to distribute presents and maintain the Covenant Chain. Aware of those ritual gatherings, a businessman in Pennsylvania named Benjamin Franklin mused in 1751 that “were there a general council formed by all the colonies,…everything relating to Indian affairs and the defense of the colonies, might be properly put under their management.”9

Born in Boston in 1706, Benjamin Franklin was the tenth son of a soap maker. He learned early that if greater opportunity was ever to knock, he had best be at the door waiting. Accordingly, he left Boston for Philadelphia at the age of seventeen and was soon apprenticed as a printer. Five years later, he was the proprietor of the Pennsylvania Gazette. By 1734, not only had the Gazette become “extremely profitable,” but Franklin had secured the printing contracts for the colonial governments of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey and launched Poor Richard’s Almanack, a perennial best-seller.

This business success gave Franklin time to promote community causes that came to include Philadelphia’s first subscription library, its first fire company, the Pennsylvania Hospital, and the University of Pennsylvania. Appointed his majesty’s deputy postmaster general for North America in 1753, Franklin reorganized the colonial postal system and in doing so perhaps did more than any individual to tie together the distances and diversities of the English colonies.10

In May 1754, Franklin received word that gave increased urgency to his previous musings about mutual defense. Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie of Virginia had dispatched Major George Washington back to the forks of the Ohio with about 150 men to support an expedition of the Ohio Company charged with finally constructing an English stronghold at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers. It had been too late. A much larger French force had already descended the Allegheny from Venango, captured the initial workings, and sent the Ohio Company’s men packing.

Franklin reported this confrontation on May 9, 1754, in the Pennsylvania Gazette and used the occasion to publish on the same page what has frequently been called America’s first political cartoon. The woodcut drawing showed a writhing snake severed into pieces labeled with the names of the individual English colonies. The admonishment in the caption was “Join, or Die.”11

Franklin’s cartoon was quickly republished in other papers, and many of them voiced similar concerns. “The making of an establishment on the River Ohio, is no new or partial scheme of the French, merely for the sake of trade, or a settlement on the lands,” editorialized a New York newspaper, “but a thing long ago concerted, and but part of a grand plan for rendering themselves masters of North America.”12 And a newspaper as far away as Charleston, South Carolina, asserted that it was “greatly to be wished that the British provinces would unite in some system or scheme for the public peace and safety. Such an union would render us respected by the French, for they are not strangers to our power … and they will hardly make any experiment of our strength.”13

So the distinguished visitors arrived in Albany and convened at city hall on June 19, 1754. There were twenty-three men sent by seven colonies: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York. Two others—Virginia and New Jersey—were invited but did not send delegates, the former judging itself too preoccupied with events on its western border and the latter too insulated from them. Rhode Island and Connecticut were not invited—perhaps because of their known aloofness from matters of the interior—but sent delegates anyway, apparently at the urging of William Shirley. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia (Georgia was then only barely under way as a royal colony) were not invited, notwithstanding some strong sentiments on the subjects to be discussed.

Among the delegates were Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, later to be its governor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Meshech Weare of New Hampshire, speaker of its assembly and later governor; Oliver Partridge of Massachusetts, later a member of the Stamp Act Congress; William Johnson of New York, already the leading expert in the colonies on Indian affairs and soon to play an even larger role; Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, longtime speaker of its general assembly; and, of course, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. Colonial America would not see the like of such an assemblage again until the First Continental Congress convened some twenty years later.14

The negotiations at Albany with the Six Nations, whose representatives arrived shortly, proved to be typically labored and rife with ritual gifts. Finally, speaking for the Iroquois, Chief Hendrick asked for the reappointment of William Johnson as Indian commissioner to facilitate a clearer chain of communication and then turned to the matter of encroachments on Indian lands. It wasn’t just the French who were encroaching, Hendrick complained, but men from Pennsylvania and Virginia as well. What was worse, the chief said, non-Iroquois Indians from Canada came to trade at Albany and other frontier posts and then left with “powder, lead, and guns” that circled back so that “the French now make use of [them] at the Ohio.” Whose side were the English on? Hendrick demanded.

The delegates proceeded to assure the Iroquois that despite whatever recent neglect they might feel, the English valued the Covenant Chain and wanted the Iroquois tightly bound to his majesty’s realm. In retrospect, what happened next appears somewhat incongruous with those assertions, although it was intended to appease the Indians regarding at least some of the encroachments. For a trifling 400 pounds, delegates from Pennsylvania purchased from the Iroquois a huge tract of land extending westward from the Susquehanna River in a great V.

A few days later, delegates from Connecticut working surreptitiously made their own deal for Connecticut’s Susquehanna Company. For 2,000 pounds they purchased 5 million acres from the Iroquois between the Susquehanna’s upper reaches and its western branch—some of which were also claimed by Pennsylvania. The delegates from Pennsylvania were furious; the delegates from Connecticut were smug. Only the Iroquois were momentarily satisfied, and they left Albany loaded down with thirty wagons of presents. Needless to say, these land transactions did nothing to promote a spirit of cooperation among the colonies.15

Meanwhile, during the long breaks in negotiations with the Six Nations, the other topic of the assemblage was roundly debated. Back in 1751, Benjamin Franklin had commented on the effectiveness of the Iroquois Confederacy to a friend. “It would be a very strange thing,” Franklin had then remarked, “if six nations of ignorant savages could be capable of forming a scheme of such an union … and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary.”16 Now, it was up to the colonies to decide if that was true. By no small coincidence, Franklin arrived in Albany with notes in his pocket entitled “Short Hints towards a Scheme for Uniting the Northern Colonies.”

Franklin’s ideas, however, were not the only ones. His colleague from Pennsylvania, Richard Peters, proposed grouping the colonies into four geographic divisions that would hold annual meetings of various committees. Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, with whom Franklin seems to have had detailed discussions on the subject, suggested forming the colonies into two unions, one north and one south, with the seat of government in the north being in Massachusetts. Thomas Pownall, who was not a delegate but was an ad hoc member of the Pennsylvania delegation, had its ear enough to advocate a strong anti-French plan that called for the construction of fleets and forts to gain control of lakes Erie, Ontario, and Champlain. But it was Franklin’s ideas that bubbled to the top. “For though I projected the plan and drew it,” Franklin later confided, “I was obliged to alter some things contrary to my judgment, or should never have been able to carry it through.”17

When the delegates finally voted to “form a plan of Union of the Colonies by Act of Parliament,” Franklin’s fundamental concepts had survived, as well as his conviction that only an act of Parliament could meld the divergent interests and compel such a union. In hindsight, this vote looms as particularly significant. It specifically called for “an Act of Parliament.” Clearly, this was no rogue assemblage rebelling against the British crown, but rather loyal subjects convinced that only Parliament “possessed the authority to alter the basic constitutional arrangements within the Empire”—something that would be sweepingly denied by many of the same men two decades later. The men at Albany were not seeking independence from England—far from it. Rather they were seeking royal protection from the French and some measure of assurance that the crown would pay for it.18

Franklin was slightly more practical and less constitutional in advocating action by Parliament. “Everybody cries, a union is absolutely necessary,” Franklin wrote, “but when they come to the manner and form of the Union, their weak noodles are perfectly distracted. So if ever there be an Union, it must be formed at home [in England] by the ministry and Parliament.”19

The delegates at Albany adjourned on July 11, 1754. They carried home to their respective colonial assemblies for ratification copies of what came to be called the Albany Plan of Union. In many respects, it was a most prophetic and prescient document. No one—save perhaps the shrewd Franklin—knew it, but in 1,169 words debated for just three weeks, the delegates had crafted the broad framework for what would become the Constitution of the United States of America about thirty years later. At the time, however, if the Albany Plan had been acted on by Parliament, it might just as easily have become the model for British colonial government.

Fully recognizing the sovereignty of King George II—and indeed desiring to maintain it—the delegates sought an act of Parliament “by virtue of which one general government may be formed in America, including all the said colonies.” This general government was to be administered by a president-general appointed and funded by the crown. The president-general’s legislative counterpart was to be a grand council elected by the assemblies of the individual colonies, not in proportion to population but rather in proportion to tax revenues actually paid to the general government. The result was similar to population-based representation in that it was weighted in favor of the more populous colonies—more people meant more taxes—but such an apportionment system was seen as an incentive for all but the smallest colonies to pay their tax share.

Of a total of forty-eight representatives, Massachusetts and Virginia were initially assigned seven each, while New Hampshire and Rhode Island were given two each. Representatives were to be elected for three-year terms with reapportionment based on tax revenues calculated once each cycle. No colony could ever have more than seven or less than two representatives.*

The grand council was to meet the first time in Philadelphia at the call of the president-general and then convene annually or more frequently if required by the representatives or summoned in emergencies by the president-general. The grand council was empowered to choose its own speaker, who was to serve as the president-general in the event of a vacancy in that office until the crown appointed a replacement. Members of the grand council were to be paid ten shillings per diem while in session or traveling to and from the council, with twenty miles judged to be a day’s travel.

All legislative acts of the grand council required the consent of the president-general, who was charged with carrying them out. The president-general alone was to have the power to declare war on Indian nations and make treaties with them, the latter subject to the advice, but not the consent, of the grand council. For its part, the grand council was given the power to regulate Indian trade, purchase Indian lands beyond the current colonial boundaries, grant new settlements on such purchases, and govern those new settlements until “the crown shall think fit to form them into particular governments.”

The grand council was also to have the power to “raise and pay soldiers and build forts for the defense of any of the colonies, and equip vessels of force to guard the coasts and protect the trade on the ocean, lakes, or great rivers.” In doing so, however, the delegates recognized a strident political issue, over which a fledgling United States would fight a second war for independence half a century hence. They expressly prohibited the impressment of men into military service in any colony without the consent of that colony’s legislature.

The grand council was given the power to “lay and levy such general duties, imposts, or taxes, as to them shall appear most equal” and—here one definitely feels Franklin’s presence—collect such taxes “with the least inconvenience to the people; rather discouraging luxury, than loading industry with unnecessary burdens.” No appropriations could be made from these funds, however, except by the joint orders of the president-general and the grand council.

The delegates further resolved that laws enacted by the grand council should be “as near as may be, agreeable to the laws of England.” These were to be transmitted to the king in council for approval and be deemed accepted if not disapproved within three years after presentation. Perhaps most important to the looming crisis with France, the Albany Plan assured the individual colonies that their existing military and civil establishments remained intact and that in the event of attack, any colony might defend itself and have the expenses of such defense reimbursed by the general government.20

Charged with renewing the Covenant Chain with the Iroquois, the delegates to Albany had done that and much, much more; but how Parliament and their individual state assemblies would view the results of their labors was an entirely different matter. New Jersey and Connecticut were immediately jealous because the plan diluted their individual authority, particularly by the crown’s appointment of a president-general. Rhode Island, despite Stephen Hopkins’s assertion that such a union was an “absolute necessity,” was also opposed. Maryland’s governor, Horatio Sharpe, expressed displeasure that the plan of union had been forwarded to the Board of Trade before any colonial assemblies had had an opportunity to debate it. Maryland’s general assembly consequently chose to ignore it, as did New Hampshire’s and South Carolina’s. North Carolina’s governor promoted the plan largely as a revenue measure, but his assembly, too, was not persuaded.

That left the big four: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New York. After Franklin, Governor Shirley of Massachusetts was perhaps the most vocal advocate of the union—in part because he truly believed in it, but also because he may have seen himself as the logical crown appointee to be president-general. Still, Shirley was forced to confess to newly appointed governor of Pennsylvania, Robert Hunter Morris, that “I have no leaf in my book for managing a Quaker Assembly.”

The best advice that Shirley could give Morris was to “lose no time for promoting the Plan of Union … as soon as possible.” But in the Pennsylvania assembly with its majority of Quakers, it was hard to be in favor of common defense, when one was religiously opposed to the force that made that defense necessary in the first place. Pennsylvania waited until Franklin was absent from a session and quietly buried the plan.

In Virginia, where Governor Dinwiddie and the assembly had been too preoccupied with Virginia’s western frontier to send representatives to Albany, neither governor nor assembly was in any rush to endorse a plan that promoted centralized control of the western lands that they were trying their utmost to grab. New York seemed inclined to support the plan, but never voted on it. Only in Massachusetts, the one colony that had given—at Governor Shirley’s strong urging—full powers to its delegates at Albany to enter such a union, was the issue vigorously debated. Despite Governor Shirley’s pleas to the contrary, the Massachusetts general assembly finally rejected the measure in January 1755.

Parliament, which might have avoided such colonial reactions by itself enacting some form of mutual defense measure—no matter how watered down—chose not to address the entire issue. As usual, it was Ben Franklin who cut to the chase and summed up the entire situation with just one sentence. “The assemblies did not adopt it,” Franklin wrote some years later of the Albany Plan, “as they all thought there was too much [royal] prerogative in it; and in England it was judged too much of the democratic.”21

Just how far apart the colonies were among themselves—even without the issue of a chief executive appointed by the crown—is evidenced by the fact that when they finally approved a confederation a generation later, it granted the central government much weaker powers than the plan championed by Franklin at Albany.

First submitted to the states by the Continental Congress in 1777, the Articles of Confederation held each state resolutely sovereign except for certain limited powers expressly delegated to Congress. Significantly, these did not include the power of taxation. But even then, there was not to be any quick ratification. New Jersey and Delaware withheld ratification until 1779 over objections to the vast western land claims of other states. Particularly jealous of Virginia’s land claims, Maryland held out two years longer and ratified the Articles of Confederation only in 1781 after all the states ceded their western lands to the central government. That government evolved into its current federal form when the Constitution was finally ratified seven years later.

There is an often-told story of Benjamin Franklin, by then the undisputed elder statesman of the age, rising before the closing session of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and pointing to the sun that was carved on the chair of the presiding officer, George Washington. He had often wondered during the rancor of the preceding debates, Franklin remarked, whether it was a rising or setting sun. Now, he was certain, he said, that the orb was rising.

But if one looks at the scene more closely and contemplates the many trials and tribulations that led from Albany in 1754 to Philadelphia in 1787, one can almost hear Franklin chortling to himself: “Apportioned representation, separation of powers, legislative advice on treaties. What good ideas! I’m glad I thought of them once before!” But for the present, in Albany in the summer of 1754, that day was far, far away, and the immediate road ahead lay filled with tremendous uncertainty.