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Albany Congress, Native Precedents

On the eve of the 1754 Albany Conference, Benjamin Franklin was already persuaded that the Haudenosaunee leader Canassatego's advice advocating colonial unity was good counsel, and he was not alone in these sentiments. James DeLancey, acting governor of New York, sent a special invitation to Hendrick (Tiyanoga) to attend the Albany Conference, where the Mohawk sachem provided insights into the structure of the League of the Iroquois for the assembled colonial delegates. In letters convening the conference from the various colonies, instructions of the delegates were phrased in Iroquois diplomatic idiom. From colonist to colonist, the letters spoke of "burying the hatchet," a phrase that entered idiomatic English from the Iroquois Great Law. DeLancey also spoke of "renewing the covenant chain," another Haudenosaunee diplomatic idiom.

The Albany Congress convened June 19, 1754, five days after its scheduled opening, because many of the Iroquois and some of the colonial commissioners arrived late. Roughly 150 to 200 Iroquois and about twenty-five colonists attended the meeting, according to official accounts. Most of the sessions of the congress took place at the Albany Courthouse; many of the speeches to the Indians (and their replies) occurred in front of the governor's residence. Albany at the time straddled the border between colonial settlement and Iroquois country at the "eastern door" of the Six Nations' symbolic long-house. The town was still dominated by the architecture of the Dutch, who had founded the town before the English replaced them in 1675.

On June 28, 1754, the day after Hendrick arrived with the Mohawks, James DeLancey met with him. The two hundred Indians in attendance sat on ten rows of benches in front of the governor's residence, with colonial delegates facing them in a row of chairs, their backs to the building. According to Theodore Atkinson's account of the conference, this gathering was held on a warm day, after a morning rain. Governor Delancey read a speech approved by the delegates paragraph by paragraph, as New York's interpreter relayed his words to the Indians. The speechmaking also stopped briefly for the presentation of belts to the Indians, following Iroquois diplomatic custom.

DeLancey's speech began with a condolence using Iroquois diplomatic language. ("I wipe away your tears, and take sorrow from your hearts, that you may open your minds and speak freely.") Then the governor gave "A String of Wampum" in a fashion similar to what Franklin had observed a year earlier at the Carlisle Treaty Council. As the governor proceeded, the assembled Indians "Signifyed [sic] their understanding of each paragraph by a kind of Universal Huzzah" (O'Callaghan, 1853, 6: 567). And "When the great Chain belt was Dil[i]vered [sic] on this occasion, they Signifyed [sic] their understanding or Consent by Such a Huzzah repeated Seven Times over for every Tribe" (McAnear, 1953, 736). Holding the chain belt given him by the colonial delegates, Hendrick made the belt a metaphor of political union, as he advised DeLancey that the colonists should strengthen themselves and "In the mean time we desire, that you will strengthen yourselves, and bring as many into this Covenant Chain as you possibly can" (O'Callaghan, 1849, 869). It is likely that Hendrick remarked on this subject several days later, when the Indians and delegates assembled again in front of the governor's residence.

Hendrick was openly critical of the British at the Albany Congress. He hinted that the Iroquois would not ally with the English colonies unless a suitable form of unity was established among them. In talking of the proposed union of the colonies and the Six Nations on July 9, 1754, Hendrick stated, "We wish this Tree of Friendship may grow up to a great height and then we shall be a powerful people" (Colonial Records, 1851, 6: 98). In effect, Hendrick was repeating the advice Canassatego had given colonial delegates at Lancaster a decade earlier, this time at a conference devoted not only to diplomacy, but also to drawing up a plan for the type of colonial union the Iroquois had been requesting. The same day, at the Courthouse, the colonial delegates were in the early stages of debate over the plan of union.

Hendrick followed that admonition with an analysis of Iroquois and colonial unity, when he said, "We the United Nations shall rejoice of our strength" as we will "have now made so strong a Confederacy." In reply to Hendrick's speech on Native American and colonial unity, DeLancey said: "I hope that by this present Union, we shall grow up to a great height and be as powerful and famous as you were of old" (Colonial Records, 1851, 6: 98). These words of Hendrick and DeLancey are significant in that they go beyond Covenant Chain rhetoric and talk of the symbol of the Great Law (the Great Tree). Franklin was commissioned to draw up the final draft of the Albany Plan the same day, two months to the day after his Pennsylvania Gazette had published the "Join or Die" cartoon.

On July 10, 1754, Franklin formally proposed his Plan of Union before the congress. Franklin wrote that the debates on the Albany Plan "went on daily, hand in hand with the Indian business" (Bigelow, 1868, 295). In drawing up his final draft, Franklin was meeting several diplomatic demands: the Crown's for control; the colonies' desires for autonomy in a loose confederation; and the Iroquois' stated advocacy for a colonial union similar (but not identical) to their own in form and function. For the Crown, the plan provided administration by a president-general, to be appointed by England. The individual colonies were to be allowed to retain their own constitutions, except as the plan circumscribed them. The retention of internal sovereignty within the individual colonies closely resembled the Iroquois system and had no existing precedent in Europe.

Franklin chose the name "Grand Council" for the plan's deliberative body, the same name generally applied to the Iroquois central council. The number of delegates, forty-eight, was close to the Iroquois council's fifty, and each colony had a different number of delegates, just as each Haudenosaunee nation sent a different number of sachems to Onondaga. The Albany Plan was based in rough proportion to tax revenues, however, while the Iroquois system was based on tradition.

The Albany Plan of Union called for a government under which each colony could retain its present constitution (Bigelow, 1868). Basically, the plan provided that Parliament was to establish a general government in America, including all the thirteen colonies, each of which was to retain its present constitution except for certain powers (mainly mutual defense) that were to be given to the general government. The king was to appoint a president-general for the government. Each colonial assembly would elect representatives to the Grand Council.

The president-general would exercise certain powers with the advice of the Grand Council, such as handling Indian relations, making treaties, deciding upon peace or war, raising troops, building forts, providing warships, and finally to make such laws and levy such taxes as would be needed for its purposes. Through this plan colonial leaders embraced a plan for union that Indian leaders such as Canassatego and Hendrick had urged upon them for a decade or more. Thus, the roots of intercolonial unity are in the Indian-white relations of the early eighteenth century. During this time, men such as Benjamin Franklin saw in the Iroquois Confederacy a model on which to build.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
Colonial Records of Pennsylvania. 1851. Volume 6. Harrisburg, PA: Theo Fenn & Co.; Bigelow, John, ed. 1868. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Co.; Colden, Cadwallader. 1902. History of the Five Nations. New York: New Amsterdam Book Company.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1991. Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.; Jacobs, Wilbur R. 1966. Wilderness Politics and Indian Gifts. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Johansen, Bruce E. 1982. The Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois and the Rationale for the American Revolution. Ipswich, MA: Gambit.; McAnear, Beverly. 1953. "Personal Accounts of the Albany Congress of 1754." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 39, no. 4: 736–737.; O'Callaghan, E. B., ed. 1849–1851. The Documentary History of the State of New York. Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company.; O'Callaghan, E.B., ed. 1853–1887. Documents Relative to the Colonial History of New York. Vol. 6. Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons and Company.; Van Doren, Carl, and Julian P. Boyd, eds. 1938. Indian Treaties Printed by Benjamin Franklin 1736–1762. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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