The French and Indian War (1754-1763) was fought in the modern-day USA between British America, France, and their Native American allies. It was truly a war for control of what was to become America, but its effects were longer lasting. Here, Ian Craig explains the importance of the war for the birth of the American nation.
It is hard to overlook how one war essentially led to the birth of a new nation. However, the French and Indian War did just that. Since the founding of the first permanent settlement of Jamestown in 1607, the British colonies in America were left to govern themselves with little interference from the British crown. This continued even as the Pilgrims landed in New England in 1620. The Mayflower Compact then symbolized America’s earliest form of democracy. As more came to America to pursue a new life, the original thirteen colonies began to form stretching along the entire east coast of North America except for Florida and Canada. For their part, the British government demanded very little from the American Colonies. They wished only for the resources that America had to offer and spent little time in directly governing the colonies. This concept has come to be known as salutary neglect. Because of this, the American Colonies were left to create governments of their own which seemingly allowed for more participation and rights for their citizens.
Then in 1651, Britain passed the Navigation Acts that forbade the American Colonies from trading with other nations besides Britain. Goods exported from America were to be on British ships only. However, the earliest versions of the Acts were not heavily enforced allowing trade to continue as it had for decades. Representing early attempts of Britain to exert its rule over the American Colonies, the Navigation Acts would not be fully enforced until 1750 when it became clear that large-scale smuggling had occurred. In 1764, the year after the French and Indian War ended, the Navigation Acts were enforced even further. Revisions of these acts represented early examples of how the British would impose their will on their colonies but demonstrates how this was not enforced until after the French and Indian War came to an end. What would follow would be a series of tax acts designed to pay off the debt from the war at the expense of the American Colonies.
The French in America
In 1754, when the war began, colonists in America demanded that the British government send troops to protect them. For years, their growth west had interfered with not just the Native Americans, but also the French who had laid claim to most of the interior. The constant clash between these groups along the frontier led to war, one that would determine control of most of North America. That same year, the colonial governor of Virginia sent a young George Washington to secure an area on land at the junction of the Ohio River. His orders were to build a fort that could serve as a deterrent to the French. However, when Washington arrived, he realized that the French had beat him to it and that he was vastly outnumbered. Washington then took a calculated risk - although small in number, he attacked the French fort and retreated to build a makeshift fort called Fort Necessity. When the French counterattacked, Washington was forced to surrender but was later released as a warning to the British. This small skirmish made the British government realize the full threat of the French in America.
In 1755, the British sent Major General Edward Braddock to America in an effort to put a stop to French expansion. Braddock was appointed as commander-in-chief of all British forces in America with the sole mission of securing British dominance. Although supported by the colonists, this action brought a considerable number of British soldiers to America. This was only the beginning of British military expansion in the American Colonies. Braddock and the British government led by Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle, believed that a quick and swift attack on the French holdings along the Ohio Valley would prevent French reinforcements and end any future skirmishes. But, this would not be the case. Braddock arrived in Virginia determined to take direct control of operations with the cooperation of the colonial governors. He called for a meeting of the governors of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. This was a point in which British dominance began to reign over the American Colonies. Instead of asking for the governors’ cooperation he demanded their assistance and did not take their consul. Instead, Braddock was infuriated with their continuing to trade with French Canada and their lack of true in interest in the military campaign. He also opposed a plan by Massachusetts’ governor William Shirley that would have helped his cause greatly.
When Braddock left Virginia in the summer that same year, he had some 2,000 British regulars along with provincials from the colonies. His direct mission was to capture Fort Duquesne which was built on the same spot that George Washington had been the previous year, at the junction of the Ohio and Monongahela Rivers. In addition, Braddock was to use the same path that Washington used along with Washington himself as his aide-de-camp. Washington was there to provide guidance, as he knew the land and what to expect from the French and their Native allies. However, Braddock ignored most of the advice that Washington gave and proceeded through the route cautiously, but also made too much noise. The falling of trees for bridges and the clearing of forest gave notice to the French. On the afternoon of July 9, 1755, Braddock’s army fell into an ambush of a combined French, Canadian, and Indian force. The battle that ensued was almost complete chaos. Braddock’s troops were not prepared for the guerilla tactics of the French and her native allies. Troops fired in all directions in an effort to gain control, Braddock himself tried in vain to control the situation, but was fatally shot. Despite trying to hold their ground, the British troops, although greater in number, were forced to retreat. General Braddock was buried in an unmarked grave in the mists of the retreat as to not allow the Natives to rob his grave. The survivors of the battle hurried back towards Fort Cumberland. Some 500 British soldiers were killed while only a small number of the French force was. Braddock’s defeat left a large stain on Britain’s attempt to eliminate French control in the American frontier. It also led to a new British policy which would bring further government control to America.
Realizing that Britain had fallen into an all-out war with France over control of North America, the Duke of Newcastle’s government along with King George II needed time to build up their forces. Britain underestimated the French resolve and the type of warfare demanded in North America. It wasn’t until 1757 under the direction of a new Prime Minister, William Pitt, did Britain’s strategy in America change. All the while, under the direction of Lord Loudoun, the new commander in America, troops and supplies were steadily increasing in America.This led to further tensions between the colonies and the British. For his part, Loudoun established an embargo in trade between the individual colonies. His reasons were to prevent trade with Canada, however it backfired, and he was forced to lift the embargo. But the damage had already been done as it hurt American commerce.
As the war continued despite several setbacks in the British strategy, America felt the power of the British government. In 1761, the Writs of Assistance case was presented to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. During the 17thcentury, Britain had allowed its courts to issue writs in order to search merchant vessels. During the height of the war, British officials began to suspect smuggling from many colonial merchants. With that, under the law, Writs of Assistance could be issued to search a ship’s cargo. This only angered the colonists further as many believed that once the war was over, the British would leave and everything would return to normal.When the war came to an end in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, Britain was proclaimed the victor gaining much of the land once controlled by the French. Britain was also the dominant power in all of North America. Despite the colonists’ wish that the British would leave, troops remained in the major cities and along the frontier.
After winning such a costly war, Britain wanted to capitalize on its newfound conquest. It had no intention of letting the colonies be alone again. Later in 1763, after Pontiac’s War (a skirmish with the Ottawa chief Pontiac which left the British surprised again) King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763. It barred colonists from moving west across the Appalachian Mountains to end confrontations with the Native Americans.This single act was one of the causes of the American Revolution. This was because many colonists were upset that they had fought for the right to colonize that land only be told that they could not by their own government. At the same time, the British government had assumed a considerable debt in protecting the American colonies. It was decided that the American colonies should help pay for the debt and in 1764, the first tax was passed. The Sugar Act essentially took away the right of trial by jury if a merchant failed to pay the tax.In addition, the government prevented the colonies from printing or coining their own money. This was done to standardize the system, but in reality it led to colonial trade becoming stagnant as money was taken out of circulation. These efforts were opposed by the colonies because they believed that the British government did not have the right to tax them without their consent. Due to the fact that they did not vote for Members of Parliament, it did not have the right to tax them. This became the standard defense as many saw themselves slaves to the taxes of Parliament.
In 1765, when the Stamp Act was passed, the colonists began to see the true intentions of the British government. After protesting the Act which led to riots in August of that year, the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766. However, in the years that would follow, several other Acts were passed and impressed upon the American Colonies including the Townshend Acts. By 1776, the American Colonies had had enough of British control and declared independence. Despite this, without the French and Indian War and its outcome, American independence might not have come. The increased number of troops and supplies sent to America, along with British generals who refused to collaborate with the colonial assemblies, helped to spark an American hatred for its own government. When the war ended, Britain severely underestimated America in thinking that it could tax them as it did the other colonies without conflict. Its policy was no different than what it had done throughout the empire; however, its long absence in American affairs weakened its ability to truly govern the colonies. So when the war came and ended, America was given a dose of reality to the true nature of the British Crown allowing it to seek independence and to be born as a new nation.
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The American Revolution, “The Navigation Acts.” Our American Revolution, http://www.ouramericanrevolution.org/index.cfm/page/view/p0096(accessed Sept. 29, 2019).
Walter R. Borneman, The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 40-41.
Robert J. Allison, The American Revolution: A Concise History(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).