Today in History: Benjamin Franklin Introduces Plan for American Confederation
On this date in 1775, Benjamin Franklin introduced in the Second Continental Congress a formal plan for a confederation of the American colonies.
Franklin introduced his plan, “The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union,” nearly a year before Congress began formally working on the Articles of Confederation. Although Congress tabled Franklin’s plan, it influenced the development of the Articles, as well as the Constitution.
After drafting articles, Franklin showed them to several members of Congress, including Thomas Jefferson. The reaction was mixed. The timing was the biggest issue. In the summer of 1775, many people still hoped for reconciliation with Great Britain. Voting on, or even debating, articles of confederation would take a definitive step toward independence and ratchet up an ongoing debate a lot of members weren’t ready to have publicly.
On July 21, 1775, Franklin read the proposed articles and “left them on the table.” Using this parliamentary maneuver, he was able to present his plan for future consideration while keeping the article off the official record. Nevertheless, the Franklin plan was widely disseminated throughout the colonies.
Franklin was advocating for a unification of the colonies long before 1775, as noted by the Bill of Rights Institute:
He first proposed the idea of an intercolonial government in 1751, and a month before the Albany Congress convened, he had published his famous “Join, or Die” cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The political cartoon showed a snake cut into several pieces, which Franklin used to warn his readers about the dangers of division in the face of French encroachments on British claims to the Ohio Valley.
In 1754, Franklin was a delegate to the Albany Congress that drafted the Albany Plan for uniting the colonies. Before the conference, he wrote “Short hints towards a scheme for uniting the Northern Colonies. ” These notes served as a starting point for the Albany Plan. Although the Albany Plan wasn’t endorsed by any of the colonial assemblies, some of those ideas ultimately found their way into Franklin’s proposed articles. It appears Franklin was also influenced by the New England confederation of 1643.
Although they used the term “colony” in the plan, in practice, each colony would operate as an independent state. Significantly, the proposed confederation maintained the sovereignty of each colony.
The plan empowered each of the united colonies to amend their individual constitutions as they saw fit. It created a common treasury to administer funds raised by proportional taxation.
Under the plan, the federal Congress was authorized to settle intercolonial disputes, create new colonies, and admit other established colonies into the union. The general government would also be empowered to negotiate with native tribes, make war and peace, and form alliances.
Some of Franklin’s proposals were adopted into the first draft of the Articles of Confederation, including a common treasury and an executive council. Other ideas were not included, such as a formal amendment process and proportional representation in Congress.
Congress began formally considering a plan for a new government on June 7, 1776, when Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress to declare independence, along with a call to form foreign alliances and develop a “plan for confederation.”
On June 12, 1776, Congress formed a committee made up of one representative from each colony and chaired by John Dickinson to discuss this confederation. Exactly one month later, the committee introduced the initial draft of the Articles of Confederation penned by Dickinson.
Dickinson’s draft is generally considered the starting point for the Articles, but Franklin’s proposal almost a year earlier was an important stepping stone. According to legal scholar Robert Natelson, Dickinson’s draft “contemplated a looser union than Franklin’s, but a tighter one than that created by the finished Articles.”
The Articles weren’t presented to the states until November 1777, and they weren’t finally ratified until Feb. 2, 1781.