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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersBecoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Theme: GrowthTheme: PeoplesTheme: EconomiesTheme: IdeasTheme: American
Theme: American

Join, of Die, Benjamin Franklin, 1754
- "Not merely improbable, it is impossible": On the unlikely union of the colonies, 1722-1764 (PDF)
- "Join, or Die." Illustration and editorial by Benjamin Franklin, 1754
The Confidence of the French in this Undertaking seems well-grounded on the present disunited State of the British Colonies, and the extreme Difficulty of bringing so many different Governments and Assemblies to agree in any speedy and effectual Measures for our common Defence and Security; while our Enemies have the very great Advantage of being under one Direction, with one Council, and one Purse.

Benjamin Franklin, 17541  

One downside of the thirteen colonies' relative autonomy within the empire was just that: there were thirteen of them. Thirteen different charters, histories, identities, and decades-long habits of dealing with each other and with Great Britain. If threatened by a common enemy, would they unite? No.

The issue became critical with the fourth imperial war in North America—the French and Indian War. The British, penned in along the Atlantic seacoast by the French and Spanish, eyed western expansion more than ever. The French, committed to protecting its commercial dominance in fish and furs (especially in the Mississippi River valley), had no intention of losing land to the British. Each bolstered its defenses by building new forts and strengthening Indian alliances along their mutual boundaries—the "dotted lines" of territory, as they referred to their mapmakers' demarcations of claims (see the two North America maps in AMERICAN #1). War came in 1754 with early victories by the French, including the defeat of George Washington's troops at Fort Necessity in Pennsylvania (near present-day Pittsburgh). With the urging of the British to form a general colonial defense, Benjamin Franklin formulated the Albany Plan of Union (see Supplemental Sites below), which was ratified at a colonial assembly in July but died a quick death as the colonies refused to ratify it (and as the British troops arrived to man the frontier).
  • "Not merely improbable, it is impossible." The prospect of colonial unity had been considered before the 1754 crisis, especially as a vehicle to present proposals or grievances to Britain, with little success. Here we look at the certainty, held by colonists and Europeans alike, that the colonies would not ever unite: no, never. "Nothing can exceed the jealousy and emulation which they possess in regard to each other," noted Andrew Burnaby, an English clergyman travelling in the colonies. "Were they left to themselves," he adds, "there would soon be a civil war from one end of the continent to the other."
    • - Statements by Daniel Coxe, Peter Kalm, Benjamin Franklin, William Clarke, Andrew Burnaby, and Thomas Pownall, 1722-1764.

  • "Join, or Die." One of the most famous images from colonial America is Benjamin Franklin's illustration, "Join, or Die," often called the first political cartoon in American history. Published in his Pennsylvania Gazette on 9 May 1754, a month before the Albany Congress convened to devise a plan of union for the defense of the colonies, it rapidly appeared in other colonial newspapers, north to south. It is often presented without Franklin's accompanying remarks (including the statement that introduces this section). Why did Franklin choose the image of a snake? Why did he adopt such an insistent tone in his remarks?
    • - Benjamin Franklin, "Join, or Die," illustration with editorial in The Pennsylvania Gazette, 9 May 1754.

Pair these readings with those in the next section, Independence?, especially as you enter the pre-revolutionary period of 1763 to 1776, a revolutionary period in itself. (9 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What are the major reasons given to argue that a union of the colonies is "not merely improbable, it is impossible"?
  2. What do you see as the core issue blocking a union of the colonies (not just in 1754)? power? economic interests? territory? festering discord? influence with Britain?
  3. Are there any opposing arguments? Where might you find statements before 1763 that the colonies could form a union?
  4. Contrast the American and European perspectives on the "impossibility" of a union of the colonies. How do they perceive the colonies' situation differently?
  5. Trace the change in Franklin's views about colonial unity from the 1740s to the 1760s, including the years after the 1763 British victory in the French and Indian War. How does he balance idealistic and pragmatic aspects of his vision?
  6. What are Franklin's reasons against "partial unions," i.e., forming several groups of two to three colonies each instead of a single union of all the colonies?
  7. The document (in #2) was left unfinished, or the rest of the pages have been lost. The last truncated sentence is "To which may be added, this: that as the union of the . . ." How would you finish this sentence and conclude the discussion?
  8. For the cartoon illustration, why did Franklin choose the image of a snake? What other animals, or objects, could he have chosen that would provide suitable metaphors?
  9. Why did he adopt such an insistent tone in his remarks accompanying the "Join, or Die" cartoon?
  10. What, if any, evidence exists in these selections of the colonies "becoming American"? How are you defining "American" in order to reply to the question?

Framing Questions
  •  How did the political relationship between the colonies and Great Britain change in this period?
  •  How did individual colonies and colonists influence and respond to these changes?
  •  To what extent were the colonies and colonists "becoming American"?

Commentary on the colonies' disunity:  7
Franklin, "Join, or Die," cartoon/editorial:  2
TOTAL  9 pages
Supplemental Sites

1 Benjamin Franklin, The Pennsylvania Gazette, 9 May 1754 (emboldening added).

- "Join, or Die," woodcut illustration in The Pennsylvania Gazette, 9 May 1754; published by Benjamin Franklin. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, #LC-USZC4-5315.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Empire   2. Power   3. Rights
4. Union?   5. Independence?

TOOLBOX: Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763
Growth | Peoples | Economies | Ideas | American

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