On the eve of war, the British colonies prove less interested in uniting than in jockeying for advantage. The British impose cooperation by assigning a commander in chief to the colonies. Edward Braddock arrives, assumes command, and awakens—too late—to the nature of colonial warfare. William Shirley succeeds him, with equivocal results: the deportation of the Acadians, the Battle of Lake George, and the fortification of the New York frontier. Political paralysis in Britain accompanies a Diplomatic Revolution in Europe. William Shirley falls, the victim of an adversary’s ambition and a patron’s weakness.
THE MASSACRE at Jumonville’s Glen and the Battle of Fort Necessity precipitated a stronger reaction at Whitehall than in any government in the colonies, whose legislatures showed a marked indifference toward matters of mutual defense. Even though French and English soldiers had spilled each other’s blood in May, June, and July, and even though a French garrison had occupied the Forks of the Ohio, colonial politicians showed little sense of urgency in complying with the Board of Trade’s order to send representatives to Albany for a conference intended to improve Indian relations and promote frontier defense. The Albany Congress’s limited and ultimately ineffectual efforts to repair relations with the Iroquois and failure to create a colonial union seemed to prove that Halifax and the militants in the cabinet were right: the colonies could be made to cooperate only by the appointment of a commander in chief who would act as the Crown’s direct representative. But the colonial response to Edward Braddock’s efforts to coordinate colonial defense, and the even more vexed relations of the colony legislatures with his successor, the earl of Loudoun, would more nearly paralyze than promote colonial defense. The first phase of the conflict that became the Seven Years’ War would thus prove a period of such consistent defeat for British arms and such strain in the relations between the colonies and the mother country that Britons on both sides of the Atlantic had cause to tremble for the empire’s future.
THE DELEGATES who met in congress at Albany between June 19 and July 11, 1754, knew of Washington’s encounter with Jumonville; before they adjourned, they even knew of his defeat at Fort Necessity. Such news was obviously of the greatest consequence to their deliberations, since it was anxiety at the prospect of war that had moved the Board of Trade to order the conference in the first place. But to judge from the actions of the colonial commissioners and hangers-on at Albany, the concerns that drove events there had more to do with the usual business of colonial self-aggrandizement than with the creation of the Plan of Union for which the congress is usually remembered. 1
Despite the outward decorum of its proceedings, the congress fairly seethed with intrigue, and the most important developments took place outside the formal sessions altogether. Out “in the bushes” (as the saying went), a fierce contest raged between representatives of a Connecticut land-speculating syndicate and the agent of Pennsylvania’s proprietary family, who were vying for a huge Iroquois cession of land in Pennsylvania. A Congregationalist Indian missionary, the Reverend Timothy Woodbridge, worked hand in glove with a shadowy one-eyed New Yorker named John Henry Lydius—an Indian trader as short on scruples as he was long in experience as a smuggler between Albany and Montréal—in a scheme to buy five million acres in the Wyoming Valley on the upper Susquehanna River. Woodbridge provided the respectability while Lydius did the dirty work, waylaying chiefs at every turn and plying them with liquor until they sold whatever title they said they had to the valley. In addition to a considerable amount for rum, the Susquehannah Company laid out two thousand pounds in New York currency for their signatures. Because all three of the Connecticut commissioners were stockholders in the company, it seems likely that they were not averse to Lydius’s methods; indeed, they evidently regarded the deal for the Wyoming lands as their one real achievement at Albany.2
The Pennsylvania authorities, meanwhile, had no intention of letting Connecticut speculators acquire title to millions of acres of proprietary lands and dispatched their own Indian diplomat, Conrad Weiser, to negotiate a cession of all remaining Iroquois claims within Pennsylvania. Like Lydius and Woodbridge, Weiser also succeeded in obtaining a deed to hitherto unceded Iroquois lands—in this case everything west of the Susquehanna between 41°31’ north latitude and the Maryland boundary—in return for a nominal sum (four hundred pounds New York currency) and the promise of further payments to follow. Unlike the indiscriminate Lydius, Weiser took care to deal only with Onondaga’s official spokesman at the congress, Chief Hendrick, and thus acquired a deed that reeked somewhat less strongly of fraud. Yet it was really only in the degree of dishonesty that the two land deals differed, and the conflict between these tainted claims would poison relations between Connecticut, Pennsylvania, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the Delaware Indian inhabitants of the Wyoming Valley for years to come. Much more than its visionary, fizzled Plan of Union, the most enduring legacy of the Albany Congress would be a deadly struggle between Yankees, Pennsylvanians, and Indians over the lands of the Wyoming Valley.3
The competition for political power and economic leverage was more subdued but no less rife among the delegates themselves. The New York delegation, for example, wanted the delegates of other colonies to commit their governments to help New York build forts along its exposed northern frontier. The New England delegates, fearful of exposing their provinces to expense in constructing forts that would do nothing to protect their own people, blocked the suggestion. In the meantime New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians competed for trade advantages with the Iroquois while positioning themselves to take advantage of Onondaga’s waning influence over the Mohawks and the Ohio tribes.
Yet it was not all, or even mostly, economic and provincial interests that were at stake in the jockeying that went on at Albany: private ambitions and factional plotting were everywhere rife. The leading members of the New York delegation, for example, availed themselves of every opportunity to steal a march on those other New Yorkers who happened to be their political opponents. The Congress’s presiding officer, Acting Governor James De Lancey, was not only New York’s preeminent politician but one of New York City’s leading merchants. Through his alliance with another of the colony’s delegates, the powerful Mohawk Valley Indian trader William Johnson, De Lancey hoped to expand his own business relations with the Mohawks and thus to weaken the hold on the Indian trade that the Albany merchants had enjoyed for more than a century. In keeping with their general disposition to expand their political and economic interests, De Lancey and Johnson took great care to cultivate friendly relations with Thomas Pownall, an ambitious and exceptionally well connected young Englishman who had lately come to New York to seek his fortune. Pownall was not a delegate but an informal observer whom De Lancey had invited along as a member of his entourage; he merited more than the usual consideration because he happened to be the younger brother of the secretary of the Board of Trade, a relationship that gave him access to the earl of Halifax’s highly significant ear. Not surprisingly, when Pownall sent his account of the congress to Halifax, he stressed the contributions of De Lancey and Johnson and suggested that the board would be well served by placing the conduct of Indian affairs in the hands of a single, experienced individual—William Johnson, perhaps.4
De Lancey and Johnson were not the only delegates to the congress to recognize Pownall as a man worth cultivating: Benjamin Franklin did, too. Franklin, arguably the smartest man in colonial America and beyond any doubt the most ambitious, represented Pennsylvania and advocated intercolonial cooperation—his “Short Hints toward a Scheme for Uniting the Northern Colonies” became the basis for the Plan of Union that the congress ultimately approved. But Franklin the representative of Pennsylvania at Albany occupied a position inferior to Franklin as representative of the interests of Benjamin Franklin. The runaway apprentice who had risen to become Philadelphia’s leading printer and one of its richest men had retired from business in 1748, intending to devote his energies to public service and the gentlemanly pursuit of science. Within six years he had become deputy postmaster general for the colonies, an inventor and scientist of international repute, and one of the most influential private men in America. By 1754 he foresaw a vastly expansive empire for Great Britain in America—and not coincidentally envisioned a prominent role in it for himself. He was particularly interested in the strategic (and speculative) potential of the Ohio Valley, where he believed the Crown should create two new colonies as a bulwark against French domination of the interior. For these reasons Franklin procured himself a position on the Pennsylvania delegation, and once in place at Albany he indefatigably promoted his plan of colonial union, both with the other delegates and with Thomas Pownall, who was much taken by the energetic Philadelphian and his views.5
Of all those present at the congress, perhaps the least self-interested delegate was the leading commissioner from Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. Hutchinson was, in his way, as remarkable as Franklin: a gifted historian, Hutchinson was also rich, talented, and as clearly marked for advancement in the administration of the empire as any American provincial could be. He had been only slightly less precocious in politics than in trade, a calling at which he had made a small fortune even before he graduated from Harvard at age sixteen. He had first been elected one of Boston’s representatives in the general court in 1737, when he was only twenty-six; had arranged the financing of the Louisbourg expedition in 1745; had engineered his province’s transition from its depreciated fiat currency to hard money in 1749; and had become Massachusetts’s most trusted diplomat in intercolonial gatherings like the Albany Congress. These qualifications partly explained his presence, but most of all Hutchinson’s close relationship as an advisor to his province’s governor, William Shirley, brought him to Albany. Shirley, the most consistently successful royal governor in America, deeply believed in bringing the colonies more closely under London’s control, and to that end favored the idea of colonial union. Moreover he, like Franklin, was hardly indifferent to the prospect of taking a leading role in such a union himself. Thus Hutchinson worked closely with Franklin in creating the Albany Plan, but less to promote his own immediate interests than to forward those of his governor and his province. For Hutchinson also knew that the Bay Colony had borne the brunt of the fighting and the expense of King George’s War, and he wished to see the obligations of any future conflict shared more equitably among the provinces.
William Johnson (1715–74). Shown here much as he would have looked in 1754, Johnson was already well on his way to transmuting excellent English political connections and influential positions on the New York frontier (Mohawk Valley merchant, colonel of militia, army contractor, great land speculator, and diplomat representing New York’s interests to the Six Nations) into one of the largest fortunes in colonial America. From 1755 through the end of his life he would represent British interests generally as the Superintendent of Northern Indian affairs—the most powerful man in North American Indian diplomacy. Courtesy of the Albany Institute of History and Art.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–90). This engraving of Franklin in his mid-fifties is perhaps the best visual representation we have of the man as he looked around the time of the Albany Congress: mature, self-confident, and vigorous. He appears here in his public persona as the famed electrical experimenter who had been named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1756 and a Doctor of Laws at the University of St. Andrews in 1759. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.
Only Hutchinson, among all the major actors at the congress, made no effort to ingratiate himself with Thomas Pownall. Temperamental factors helped account for his indifference to Pownall’s connections— Hutchinson hated playing the courtier and was a notably cold fish in personal relations—for although he and Pownall respected one another’s abilities, they simply never liked each other very much. Principally, however, it was Hutchinson’s keen sense of the politic that kept him at arm’s length. Hutchinson well understood that his patron Governor Shirley and Pownall’s friend Lieutenant Governor De Lancey were allied with rival factions within the British government—Shirley owed his job to the duke of Newcastle, while De Lancey was a political dependent of the duke of Bedford. He also knew, as most of the men at Albany did, that Shirley and De Lancey had developed a deep mutual antipathy during the previous war.6
Thomas Hutchinson (1711–80). Shown here in an American copy of a portrait painted in England in 1741, Hutchinson appeared at the Albany Congress as both an older and a sadder man, having been a widower for about a year. He was still, however, one of the most successful merchants in Boston, and Governor William Shirley’s right-hand man in the Massachusetts Council: an indispensable member of the Massachusetts delegation and his province’s most capable representative in intercolonial relations. Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
As all this suggests, the proceedings of the congress were anything but straightforward. Wheels turned within wheels at Albany: colonies, business interests, political factions, and individuals sought to realize some advantage in trade or land or influence or power. At one level, such activities as these were so commonplace that one might almost dismiss them as the background noise of colonial politics. But the clash of Britain and France in America and the crises that lay beyond the war’s conclusion would in large measure be shaped by the enmities and ambitions of De Lancey, Johnson, Franklin, Hutchinson, Shirley, and others like them. All of these men would ordinarily have been too small and too far removed from the center of power to figure in the determination of policy and grand strategy; but now their positions on the periphery of an empire tipping into a great war gave their actions uncommon weight and consequence. The congress’s adoption of a Plan of Union unprecedented in its potential for creating colonial cooperation suggests that, for all their reflexive self-interest, the delegates may have sensed the uniqueness of their position, or at least that they understood how extreme the risk of war had grown. No matter what they thought or glimpsed, however, the reception that awaited the plan in the colonial assemblies would remove any doubts about the ability of Americans to make common cause, whether for the empire, their mutual defense, or any other purpose.
Most of the legislatures to which the plan was submitted rejected it with little or no discussion. In Pennsylvania and Virginia, the two colonies most at risk in case of war and therefore presumably the ones with the most to gain from the proposed confederation, nothing happened. The Pennsylvania Assembly, dominated by Quakers, had no use for a union whose main purpose was military defense; the Friends in the legislature took care to schedule debate on the plan when Franklin could not attend and summarily buried it.
The Virginia House of Burgesses never even considered the plan. The feature that doomed it in the Old Dominion was its provision for curtailing the western land claims of provinces with sea-to-sea grants; Governor Dinwiddie, who was as interested as anyone in protecting Virginia’s rights to western lands, did not bother to submit it to the Burgesses for debate. The legislatures of North and South Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York all gave the plan short shrift, while Connecticut emphatically rejected it as inimical both to its privileges as a charter colony and to its ability to take advantage of the Susquehannah Company’s newly acquired claim to the Wyoming Valley. Rhode Island’s legislature was hostile to the plan but with typical disorganization neglected to take the definitive step of voting a rejection. New Hampshire ignored it; Delaware and Georgia probably never heard of it.
Only in Massachusetts, where William Shirley urged serious consideration and where the memories of the province’s nearly solitary stand in the previous war remained strong, did the idea of union receive much support. Yet even there the House of Representatives rejected the Albany Plan as a measure too corrosive of local autonomy. In its place, a legislative committee suggested a weaker confederation that would be limited to six years’ duration. Such ferocious opposition to this weakened plan arose in the Boston town meeting, however, that the legislature refused even to consider it in formal session. Thus by the beginning of 1755 not only the Albany Plan, but the very idea of union, was a dead letter everywhere—even in the colony most disposed to favor intercolonial cooperation and imperial designs. Franklin, losing hope that the colonies would ever unite voluntarily, wrote to an English correspondent that confederation would never occur unless Parliament imposed one—and he hoped it would.7
Even had the Plan of Union received a warmer welcome in the provincial legislatures, of course, it would have been doomed in England, for by the time it arrived Newcastle had already decided to appoint a commander in chief as the most direct means of promoting colonial unity in matters of defense. From the perspective of the empire, the only significant result of the Albany Congress’s deliberations was that Pownall’s reports to Halifax prompted the creation of two new posts, the Indian superintendents for the northern and the southern colonies, as a component of the larger plan to unify and rationalize military operations in North America. Thus when General Braddock received his instructions as commander in chief, they included the order to appoint Colonel William Johnson as the Crown’s direct representative to the Iroquois and other northern Indians, an office that conferred sole authority to negotiate military alliances—and, for that matter, land cessions—everywhere north of Virginia.
As usual, then, the colonies had shown themselves incapable of taking common action on their own initiative and unwilling to take any step toward cooperation without direction from London. Whatever union they would know and whatever coherence their efforts at defense would have, would rest in the hands of the bluff, profane major general whose ship entered Hampton Roads, Virginia, on February 19, 1755.