Founders and the Constitution
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of Benjamin Franklin. Students will learn about Franklin’s contributions to his community and country, evaluate the Albany plan, analyze Franklin’s efforts oppose slavery, and much more.
A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.
Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
Representative / Republican Government
Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately. - Benjamin Franklin, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1776)
Although he was the old sage of the American Revolution and the Founding generation, Benjamin Franklin’s considerable work in the areas of journalism, science, and invention often obscure his many contributions to the creation of the Constitution and protection of American freedoms. His stature was second only to George Washington in lending credibility to the new federal government, and his wisdom helped ensure the structural stability of what is now the oldest written constitution still in force in the world.
Franklin’s Albany Plan of 1754 was the first formal proposal for a union of the English colonies. Though it failed to gain the requisite support, it signaled the colonies’ desire to be more independent of the mother country. Also, the Albany Plan’s federal system of government in some ways foreshadowed the political system created by the Constitution three decades later.
Franklin was also an early opponent of slavery who feared that the institution would corrode the cords of friendship among the new American states. Despite his abhorrence of the slave system, however, Franklin was willing to compromise on the issue at the Constitutional Convention, and he remained optimistic about the young nation’s prospects.
In this lesson, students will learn about Benjamin Franklin. They should first read as homework Handout A—Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Benjamin Franklin and the Albany Plan of Union, in which sections of Franklin’s Albany Plan are compared to similar sections of the Constitution. As a preface, there is Handout B— Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.
The students will be divided into five groups, each of which will analyze one set of comparisons. The students will then come together as a large group and discuss their answers. There are Follow-Up Homework Options, which ask the students to create a British official’s report on the Albany Plan or to create a debate between pro- and anti-Albany Plan delegates. Extensions asks students to consider Franklin’s claim that the passage of the Albany Plan would have averted the American Revolution.
- appreciate Franklin’s contributions to his community and country
- understand the purpose of the Albany Congress
- analyze the basic components of the Albany Plan
- understand Franklin’s views on the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution
- explain Franklin’s role in the Constitutional Convention
- explain Franklin’s efforts to oppose slavery
- Handout A—Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: Benjamin Franklin and the Albany Plan of Union
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IC2, IIB1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standard 3A; Era IV, Standard 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) and answer Reading Comprehension Questions 1–3.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer Reading Comprehension Question 3 and the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Benjamin Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the most famous Americans of his era. He was a businessman, inventor, philanthropist, and statesman. His Albany Plan was the first formal proposal for a union of the colonies. Franklin became a champion of American rights during the crisis with England, and after independence, he joined the call for revising the Articles of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention, Franklin took a moderate position on most issues. Though he favored a stronger central government, he also insisted on safeguards against tyranny. Franklin was also an early opponent of slavery. His last public act was to recommend that Congress adopt a plan to extinguish slavery.
Context 10 min.
- Review the challenges that faced the American colonists in the 1750s. Point out that the colonies were facing trouble with Indian tribes as well as with the French, who were seeking to strengthen and expand their North American empire. Emphasize that the colonies lacked any formal system for cooperation and usually dealt independently with Indian attacks, French encroachments, and British meddling.
- Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union called for the creation of a colonial assembly, a “Grand Council,” and an executive, named the “President-General.” In several ways this form of government was similar to the Congress and the office of president later created by the United States Constitution.
In His Own Words 15 min.
- Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions.
- Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: Benjamin Franklin and the Albany Plan of Union. Be sure that the students understand the vocabulary and the “who, what, where, and when” of the document.
- Divide the class into five groups, assigning to each group one of the sets of comparisons in Handout C. Have each group list the similarities and differences between the relevant sections of the Albany Plan and the Constitution.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Have the students come together as a large group and share their answers to Handout C.
Follow-Up Homework Options
- Have the students assume the role of a British official who has the duty of supervising the American colonies in 1754. Then have them compose this official’s report on the Albany Plan to the king. The report should be in the form of a two to three-paragraph essay, and it should explain why the official thinks the Albany Plan is either a good or a bad idea.
- Have the students create a debate between two delegates at the Albany Congress, one who supports Franklin’s plan and another who opposes it. The debate should be no longer than one page in length and should be in the form of a script or dialogue.
Franklin reflected many years later on the consequences of the rejection of the Albany Plan:
Remark, February 9, 1789.
On Reflection, it now seems probable, that if the foregoing Plan or some thing like it, had been adopted and carried into Execution, the subsequent Separation of the Colonies from the Mother Country might not so soon have happened, nor the Mischiefs suffered on both sides have occurred, perhaps during another Century. For the Colonies, if so united, would have really been, as they then thought themselves, sufficient to their own Defence, and being trusted with it, as by the Plan, an Army from Britain, for that purpose would have been unnesessary: The Pretences for framing the Stamp-Act would not then have existed, nor the other Projects for drawing a Revenue from America to Britain by Acts of Parliament, which were the Cause of the Breach, and attended with such terrible Expence of Blood and Treasure: so that the different Parts of the Empire might still have remained in Peace and Union. But the Fate of the Plan was singular. For tho’ after many Days thorough Discussion of all its Parts in Congress it was unanimously agreed to, and Copies ordered to be sent to the Assembly of each Province for Concurrence, and one to the Ministry in England for the Approbation of the Crown. The Crown disapprov’d it, as having plac’d too much Weight in the democratic Part of the Constitution; and every Assembly as having allow’d too much to Prerogative. So it was totally rejected.
Source: The U.S. Constitution Online. http://www.usconstitution.net/albany.html
- Ask the students to decide if they agree or disagree with Franklin’s idea that “the subsequent Separation of the Colonies from the Mother Country might not so soon have happened” if the Albany Plan had passed.
- Ask the students to discuss how the Albany Plan could have been modified in order for it to pass.
Brands, H.W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002.
Shaw, Peter, ed. The Autobiography and Other Writings by Benjamin Franklin. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.
Srodes, James. Franklin: The Essential Founding Father. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2002.
Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 2001.
“The Albany Plan of Union, 1754.” The Avalon Project at Yale University Law School. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/amerdoc/albany.htm
“Benjamin Franklin, Queries and Remarks respecting Alterations in the Constitution of Pennsylvania.” The Founders’ Constitution. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch12s25.html
“Benjamin Franklin, 1706–1790.” Colonial Hall. http://www.colonialhall.com/franklin/franklin.asp
“Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania.” University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/primdocs/1749proposals.html
By Benjamin Franklin
- Poor Richard’s Almanack (1733–1758)
- Autobiography (1771–1788)
- Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One (1773)
- Handout A: Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
- Handout B: Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: Benjamin Franklin and the Albany Plan of Union
- Thematic Essays