Most people recognize that the Constitution evolved out of the Articles of Confederation. But the Articles were also part of a long evolution in political thought and constitutionalism that started long before the colonies’ quest for independence. An important touchstone in that evolution was a draft for a confederation proposed by Benjamin Franklin nearly a year before the Declaration of Independence.
Franklin introduced his proposed Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union to the Second Continental Congress on July 21, 1775. Although Congress tabled Franklin’s plan, it influenced the development of the Articles of Confederation the following year, as well as the Constitution.
After drafting his proposed plan, Franklin showed the articles to several members of the Continental Congress, including Thomas Jefferson. The reaction was mixed. Timing was the biggest issue. In the summer of 1775, many people still hoped for reconciliation with Great Britain. Voting on, or even debating, a plan to unify the colonies politically would take a definitive step toward independence and ratchet up an ongoing debate many colonial leaders 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 itoff the official record. Nevertheless, the Franklin plan was widely disseminated.
Under Franklin’s plan, “The said United Colonies hereby severally enter into a firm League of Friendship with each other, binding themselves and their Posterity, for their common Defence against their Enemies, for the Security of their Liberties and Propertys, the Safety of their Persons and Families, and their mutual and general welfare.”
Note the parallels with the preamble of the Constitution.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” [Emphasis added]
There were other principles and structural proposals in Franklin’s plan that eventually found their way into the Articles of Confederation and later the Constitution. Significantly, Franklin’s proposal featured a strict division of powers.
Although they used the term “colony” in the plan, in practice, each colony would operate as an independent state. The proposed confederation maintained the sovereignty of each colony and empowered each of the united colonies to amend their individual constitutions as they saw fit.
“Each Colony shall enjoy and retain as much as it may think fit of its own present Laws, Customs, Rights, Privileges, and peculiar Jurisdictions within its own Limits; and may amend its own Constitution as shall seem best to its own Assembly or Convention.”
The Franklin plan created a common treasury to administer funds raised by proportional taxation and included a “general welfare” clause.
“The Congress shall also make such general Ordinances as tho’ necessary to the General Welfare.”
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.
The executive duties of the confederated government would be performed by a 12-person executive council.
“This Council (of whom two thirds shall be a Quorum) in the Recess of the Congress is to execute what shall have been enjoin’d thereby; to manage the general Business and Interests to receive Applications from foreign Countries; to prepare Matters for the Consideration of the Congress; to fill up (pro tempore) continental Offices that fall vacant; and to draw on the General Treasurer for [such] Monies as may be necessary for general Services, and appropriated by the Congress to such Services.”
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.
Franklin didn’t come up with this plan out of thin air. He began advocating for colonial unification two decades earlier. Franklin first expressed his thoughts on unification as a means of “securing the Friendship of the Indians” in a 1751 letter to printer James Parker.
Over the next three years, Franklin continued to advocate for unification. At that point, colonial independence wasn’t a consideration. Franklin argued that colonial unity would facilitate a stronger defense against the French and would also improve the colonial economy. 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 June 1754, representatives from various colonies convened in Albany, New York, to discuss rising tensions with the French and their Indian allies. Franklin was an influential delegate. Before the conference he wrote “Short hints towards a scheme for uniting the Northern Colonies.” These notes served as a starting point for what became the Albany Plan of Union.
The colonial representatives in Albany voted to recommend the plan, but it subsequently failed to win support from the colonial legislatures or from the British Parliament. Nevertheless, the plan served as a foundation upon which future confederation proposals would build – including his 1775 Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.
Even though the Albany Plan was never officially adopted, Franklin continued to advocate for union. In December 1754, he wrote a letter to Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor William Shirley pushing for a political union in the colonies with representation in Parliament.
“Since the conversation your Excellency was pleased to honor me with, on the subject of uniting the colonies more intimately with Great Britain, by allowing them representatives in Parliament, I have something further considered that matter, and am of opinion that such a union would be very acceptable to the colones, provided they had a reasonable number of representatives allowed them; and that all the old acts of Parliament restraining the trade or cramping the manufactures of the colonies be at the same time repealed…?”
The Albany Plan was influenced by an even earlier confederation. A little-known agreement drafted just 23 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock could be considered the great great great grandfather to the Constitution.
In the spring of 1643, delegates from the Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Haven, and Plymouth colonies met with the intention of forming a confederation. The threat of attacks by the French, Dutch and Indians motivated these four Puritan colonies to consider forming an alliance. They also hoped to better regulate trade between the colonies and develop a mechanism to settle religious disputes.
On May 19, 1643, the delegates agreed to what became known as “The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England.”
While the confederacy only lasted a little over four decades, it left a legacy that influenced Franklin, and more broadly, the development of the American constitutional system a century later. Each subsequent unification proposal built on the former, and became part of the Constitution’s genealogy.
We find shades of the New England Confederation in Benjamin Franklin’s “Short hints towards a scheme for uniting the Northern Colonies,” which was used as a starting point for the Albany Plan in 1754. This in turn carried over to Franklin’s 1775 Articles of Confederation draft. A year later, ideas in Franklin’s plan found their way into the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. And of course, the Articles created the foundation for the U.S. Constitution.