Sunday, September 21, 2014

Scorpions in a Bottle: The Albany Congress

One of the major themes of Canadian history is the transfer of sovereignty from the British Parliament to the Canadian state, and the same would be even more true in Canada's Sobellian counterpart, the Confederation of North America. As it happens, though, Sobel rarely brought North American sovereignty to the forefront of his narrative, mostly allowing it to serve as a subtext to discussions of the C.N.A.'s growing financial and economic power. The reason for this is obvious: as an American, the issue of sovereignty is one that Sobel doesn't give much thought to, since that issue was, in our history, settled by the treaty recognizing American independence.

The Australian business historian who is the nominal author of For Want of a Nail ought to have paid more attention to the matter, though. In Scorpions in a Bottle, the issue will serve as a recurring theme of North American history. In fact, the book will start with the very first proposal to devolve sovereign powers on the North American colonies: Benjamin Franklin's Plan of Union at the 1754 Albany Congress.

In our history, the Albany Plan is recognized as an inspiration for the 1777 Articles of Confederation and the 1787 Federal Constitution. In the Sobel Timeline, it is more than that -- it is a direct ancestor of the Britannic Design of 1781, and any proper history of the C.N.A. will begin with it.

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     Prologue: The Albany Congress

The Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763 is now seen as one of the pivotal events in the history of the world.

The war’s contribution to history is twofold: first, the British were able to capture Canada, the heart of French North America. During the peace negotiations in Paris, the British negotiators had offered to restore to the French either Canada or the island of Guadeloupe, which had also been captured during the war. The French chose the island, with its lucrative sugar plantations; and so the British, more by accident than design, were able to end the century-long French presence in North America.

A second, even more significant event, occurred in 1754, two years before the official start of the war, as the British colonists sought for ways to counter the growing power of the French. In that year, at the suggestion of the Board of Trade in London, delegates from seven colonies met in Albany, New York with representatives from the Iroquois Confederacy. The purpose of the congress was to coordinate their responses to a French expansion into the country south of Lake Erie, and to persuade the Iroquois to continue their alliance with the British.

The delegation from Pennsylvania was headed by Benjamin Franklin, at the time the most notable British subject in North America: publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanack, discoverer of the electrical nature of lightning, and inventor of the Franklin stove and the lightning rod. Franklin presented the other delegates with what has come to be known as the Albany Plan of Union, a plan to create a unified government for Britain’s North American colonies.

The colonies of British North America had been settled at various times, for various reasons, by various groups. They had little in common apart from their English origins, and disputes among them were common. Nevertheless, the common threat posed by the French led the delegates to the Albany Congress to endorse Franklin’s Plan of Union, and copies were sent to the seven participating colonial assemblies, as well as to the Board of Trade.

As it turned out, even the coming of war with the French was insufficient motivation for the colonies to adopt Franklin’s plan, which was voted down in those assemblies that elected to consider it. It was universally felt among them that the loss of sovereignty to a prospective Union government was too great. Meanwhile, when the Board of Trade received its copy of the plan, it declined even to pass it along to the Cabinet, since the Board felt that the creation of a Union government would be ceding too much power to the colonies.

Over twenty years would pass before the British colonies would finally agree to the establishment of a unitary body to represent their interests, and it was not war with the French that finally moved the colonists to action, but war with the British.

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