As the seventeenth century neared its sunset, a titanic struggle
was shaping up
for mastery of the North American continent. It involved three civilizations:
English, French, and Spanish. From 1688 to 1763, four bitter wars convulsed
Europe. All four of these conflicts were world wars.
They amounted to a death struggle for domination in Europe
as well as in the
New World and were fought on the waters and on the soil of two hemispheres.
Counting these first four clashes, there have been nine world wars since 1688.
The American people, whether as British subjects or as American citizens, were
unable to stay out of a single one of them. Isolation from the broils of Europe
was all too often a hope rather than a reality.
The first two wars, known in America as King William's War and Queen Anne's
War, pitted British colonials against the French coureurs de bois and their Indian
allies. Both France and England at this stage did not consider America worth the
commitment of regular troops, so a kind of primitive guerrilla warfare prevailed.
French-inspired Indians ravaged with torch and tomahawk the
frontiers, visiting especially horrible violence on the villages of Schenectady,
New York, and Deerfield, Massachusetts. Spain, eventually allied with France,
probed from its Florida base at outlying South Carolina settlements.
For their part the English colonials failed miserably in attempts
Quebec and Montreal but did temporarily seize the stronghold of Port Royal in
Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia).
Peace terms, signed at Utrecht in 1713, revealed how badly France and its
Spanish ally had been beaten. England was rewarded with French-populated
Acadia (which the English renamed Nova Scotia, or New Scotland) and the
wintry wastes of Newfoundland and Hudson Bay. These immense tracts pinched
the St. Lawrence settlements of France, foreshadowing their ultimate doom. A
generation of peace ensued, during which Britain provided its American colonies
with decades of "salutary neglect"--fertile soil for the roots of independence.
By the treaty of 1713 the British had won limited trading rights in Spanish
America, but these later involved much friction over smuggling. Ill feeling flared
up when the English Captain Jenkins, encountering Spanish revenue authorities,
had one ear sliced off by a sword. The Spanish commander reportedly sneered,
"Carry this home to the King, your master, whom, if he were present, I would
serve in like fashion." The victim, with a tale of woe on his tongue and a
shriveled ear in his hand, aroused furious resentment when he returned home
The War of Jenkins's Ear, curiously but aptly named, broke out in 1739 between
the English and the Spaniards. It was confined to the Caribbean Sea and to the
much-buffeted buffer colony of Georgia, where philanthropist-soldier James
Oglethorpe fought his Spanish foe to a standstill.
This small-scale scuffle with Spain in America soon merged with the large-scale
War of Austrian Succession in Europe. Once again, France allied itself with
Spain. Once again, a rustic force of New Englanders invaded New France. With
help from a British fleet and with much good luck, the raw and sometimes
drunken recruits captured a reputedly impregnable French fortress, Louisbourg,
on Cape Breton Island, commanding the approaches to the St. Lawrence River.
When the peace treaty of 1748 handed Louisbourg back to their French foe, the
victorious New Englanders were outraged. The glory of their arms--never terribly
lustrous in any event--seemed tarnished by the wiles of Old World diplomats.
Worse, Louisbourg was still a cocked pistol pointed at the heart of the American
continent. France, powerful and unappeased, still clung to its vast holdings in
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The Clash of Empires
As the drama unfolded in the New World, the Ohio Valley became
the chief bone
of contention between the French and British. The Ohio country was the critical
area into which the westward-pushing English would inevitably penetrate. It was
the key to the continent that the French had to retain, particularly if they were
going to link their Canadian holdings with those of the lower Mississippi Valley.
By the mid-1700s the English colonials, painfully aware of
these basic truths,
were no longer so reluctant to bear the burdens of empire. Alarmed by French
land-grabbing and cutthroat fur-trade competition in the Ohio Valley, they were
determined to fight for their economic security and for the supremacy of their
way of life in North America.
Rivalry for the lush lands of the upper Ohio Valley brought tensions to the
snapping point. In 1749 a group of English colonial speculators, chiefly
influential Virginians, including the Washington family, had secured rights to
some 500,000 acres in this region. In the same disputed wilderness, the French
were in the process of erecting a chain of forts commanding the strategic Ohio
Especially formidable was Fort Duquesne at the strategic point
Monongahela and Allegheny rivers join to form the Ohio--the later site of
In 1754 the governor of Virginia ushered George Washington, a twenty-one-
year-old surveyor and fellow Virginian, onto the stage of history. Washington
was sent to the Ohio country as a lieutenant colonel in command of about 150
Encountering a small detachment of French troops in the forest
about forty miles
from Fort Duquesne, the Virginians fired the first shots of the globe-girdling new
war. The French leader was killed, and his men retreated. An exultant
Washington wrote, "I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is
something charming in the sound." It soon lost its charm.
The French promptly returned with reinforcements, which surrounded
Washington in back of his hastily constructed breastworks, Fort Necessity. After
a ten-hour siege he was forced to surrender his entire command in July 1754--
ironically the fourth of July. But he was permitted to march his men away with
the full honors of war.
With the shooting already started and in danger of spreading, the British
authorities in Nova Scotia took vigorous action. Understandably fearing a stab in
the back from the French Acadians, whom England had acquired in 1713, the
British brutally uprooted some four thousand of them in 1755. These unhappy
French deportees were scattered as far south as Louisiana, where the
descendants of the French-speaking Acadians are now called "Cajuns" and
number nearly a million."
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George Washington Inaugurates War with France
The first three Anglo-French colonial wars had all started
in Europe, but the
tables were now reversed. A fourth struggle, known as the French and Indian
War, began in America. Touched off by George Washington in the wilds of the
Ohio Valley in 1754, it rocked along on an undeclared basis for two years and
then widened into the most far-flung conflict the world had yet seen--the Seven
Years' War. It was fought not only in America but in Europe, in the West Indies,
in the Philippines, in Africa, and on the ocean. The Seven Years' War was a
In Europe the principal adversaries were England and Prussia on one side,
arrayed against France, Spain, Austria, and Russia on the other. The bloodiest
theater was in Germany, where Frederick the Great deservedly won the title of
"Great" by repelling French, Austrian, and Russian armies, often with the
opposing forces outnumbering his three to one.
The London government, unable to send him effective troop reinforcements,
liberally subsidized him with gold. Luckily for the English colonials, the French
wasted so much strength in this European bloodbath that they were unable to
throw an adequate force into the New World. "America was conquered in
Germany," declared Britain's great statesman William Pitt.
In previous colonial clashes, the Americans had revealed an astonishing lack of
unity. Colonists who were nearest the shooting had responded much more
generously with volunteers and money than those enjoying the safety of
remoteness. Even the Indians had laughed at the inability of the colonials to pull
together. Now, with musketballs already whining in the Ohio country, the crisis
demanded concerted action.
In 1754 the British government summoned an intercolonial congress to Albany,
New York, near the Iroquois Indian country. Travel-weary delegates from only
seven of the thirteen colonies showed up. The immediate purpose was to keep
the scalping knives of the Iroquois tribes loyal to the British in the spreading
war. The chiefs were harangued at length and then presented with thirty
wagonloads of gifts, including guns.
The longer-range purpose at Albany was to achieve greater colonial unity and
thus bolster the common defense against France. A month before the congress
assembled, ingenious Benjamin Franklin published in his Pennsylvania Gazette
the most famous cartoon of the colonial era. Showing the separate colonies as
parts of a disjointed snake, it broadcast the slogan "Join, or Die."
Franklin himself, a wise and witty counselor, was the leading spirit of the Albany
Congress. His outstanding contribution was a well-devised scheme for colonial
home rule. It was unanimously adopted by the Albany delegates but was
spurned by the individual colonies and by the London regime. To the colonials,
it did not seem to give enough independence; to the British officials, it seemed to
give too much.
The disappointing result confirmed one of Franklin's sage observations:
people agreed on the need for union, but their "weak noddles" were "perfectly
distracted" when they attempted to agree on details."
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Global War and Colonial Disunity
In the hour of crisis Britain brought forth, as it repeatedly
has, a superlative
leader--William Pitt. A tall and imposing figure, whose flashing eyes were set in
a hawklike face, he was popularly known as the "Great Commoner." Pitt drew
much of his strength from the common people, who admired him so greatly that
on occasion they kissed his horses. A splendid orator endowed with a majestic
voice, he believed passionately in his cause, in his country, and in himself.
In 1757 Pitt became a foremost leader in the London government. Throwing
himself headlong into his task, he soon earned the title "Organizer of Victory."
He wisely decided to soft-pedal assaults on the French West Indies, which had
been bleeding away much British strength, and to concentrate on the vitals of
Canada--the Quebec-Montreal area. He also picked young and energetic
leaders, thus bypassing incompetent and cautious old generals.
Pitt first dispatched a powerful expedition in 1758 against Louisbourg. The
frowning fortress, though it had been greatly strengthened, fell after a blistering
siege. Wild rejoicing swept England, for this was the first significant British
victory of the entire war.
Quebec was next on Pitt's list. For this crucial expedition he chose the thirty-two-
year-old James Wolfe, who had been an officer since the age of fourteen.
Though slight and sickly, Wolfe combined a mixture of dash with painstaking
attention to detail. The British attackers were making scant progress when
Wolfe, in a daring move, sent a detachment up a poorly guarded part of the
rocky eminence protecting Quebec.
This vanguard scaled the cliff, pulling itself upward by the
bushes and showing
the way for the others. In the morning the two armies faced each other on the
Plains of Abraham on the outskirts of Quebec, the British under Wolfe and the
French under the Marquis de Montcalm. Both commanders fell fatally wounded,
but the French were defeated and the city surrendered.
The battle of Quebec ranks as one of the most significant engagements in British
and American history. When Montreal fell in 1760, the French flag waved in
Canada for the last time. By the peace settlement at Paris (1763), French power
was thrown completely off the continent of North America, leaving behind a
fertile French population that is to this day a strong minority in Canada.
This bitter pill was sweetened somewhat when the French were
allowed to retain
several small but valuable sugar islands in the West Indies, and two never-to-
be-fortified islets in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for fishing stations. A final blow
came when the French, to compensate their luckless Spanish ally for its losses,
ceded to Spain all trans-Mississippi Louisiana, plus the outlet of New Orleans.
Spain, for its part, turned Florida over to England in return for Cuba, where
Havana had fallen to British arms.
Great Britain thus emerged as the dominant power in North America, while
taking its place as the leading naval power of the world."
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Pitt's Palms of Victory
England's colonials, baptized by fire, emerged with increased
confidence in their
military strength. They had borne the brunt of battle at first; they had fought
bravely beside the crack British regulars; and they had gained valuable
experience, officers and men alike. In the closing days of the conflict some
twenty thousand American recruits were under arms.
The French and Indian War, while bolstering colonial self-esteem,
simultaneously shattered the myth of British invincibility. On Braddock's bloody
field the "buckskin" militia had seen the demoralized regulars huddling
helplessly together or fleeing their unseen enemy.
Ominously, friction had developed during the war between arrogant English
officers and the raw colonial "boors." Displaying the contempt of the professional
soldier for amateurs, the British refused to recognize any American militia
commission above the rank of captain--a demotion humiliating to "Colonel"
George Washington. They also showed the usual condescension of snobs from
the civilized Old Country toward the "scum" who had confessed failure by fleeing
to the "outhouses of civilization."
General Wolfe referred to the colonial militia, with exaggeration,
as "in general
the dirtiest, most contemptible, cowardly dogs that you can conceive." Energetic
and hardworking American settlers, on the other hand, sensed that they were
the cutting edge of British civilization. They believed that they deserved credit
rather than contempt for risking their lives to erect a New World empire.
British officials were further distressed by the reluctance of the colonials to
support the common cause wholeheartedly. American shippers, using fraudulent
papers, developed a golden traffic with the enemy ports of the Spanish and
French West Indies. This treasonable trade in foodstuffs actually kept some of
the hostile islands from starving at the very time when the British navy was trying
to subdue them. In the final year of the war the British authorities, forced to
resort to drastic measures, forbade the export of all supplies from New England
and the middle colonies.
Other colonials, self-centered and regarding the war as remote, refused to
provide troops and money for the conflict. They demanded the rights and
privileges of Englishmen, without the duties and responsibilities of Englishmen.
Not until Pitt had offered to reimburse the colonies for a substantial part of their
expenditures--some £900,000--did they move with some enthusiasm. If the
Americans had to be bribed to defend themselves against a relentless and
savage foe, would they ever unite to strike the mother country?
The curse of intercolonial disunity, present from early days, had continued
throughout the recent hostilities. It had been caused mainly by enormous
distances; by geographical barriers like rivers; by conflicting religions, from
Catholic to Quaker; by varied nationalities, from German to Irish; by differing
types of colonial governments; by many boundary disputes; and by the
resentment of the crude backcountry settlers against the aristocratic bigwigs.
Yet unity received some encouragement during the French and Indian War.
When soldiers and statesmen from widely separated colonies met around
common campfires and council tables, they were often agreeably surprised by
what they found. Despite deep-seated jealousy and suspicion, they discovered
that they were all fellow Americans who generally spoke the same language and
shared common ideals. Barriers of disunity began to melt, although a long and
rugged road lay ahead before a nation could emerge."
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Britain's empire was acquired in a "fit of absent-mindedness,"
as the old saying
goes, and there is much truth in it. Not one of the original thirteen colonies,
except Georgia, was formally planted by the British government. The actual
founding was done haphazardly by trading companies, religious groups, land
speculators, and others. Ignoring the high-minded and far-visioned aspirations of
pioneering Puritans, Quakers, and other colonizers, authorities in London
scarcely dreamed that a new nation was being born.
Machinery in England for controlling the colonies was relatively simple. As it
had evolved by 1696, the principal agency was the Board of Trade, joined in an
advisory capacity by certain other prominent officials. With the passage of time,
interest in the board flagged, and membership on it became something of a joke.
Yet the recommendations of the board regarding the colonies were often made
into law, either by act of Parliament or in regulations adopted by the Privy
Council (the king's advisers).
The theory that shaped and justified English exploitation of the American
colonies was called mercantilism. Mercantilist ideas lay behind the policies of all
the major trading nations of Europe from the sixteenth to the eighteenth
centuries. The leading powers relied on strong central governments to direct
their economies. They all sought to achieve economic (and military) self-
sufficiency by exporting more than they imported and thereby amassing huge
reserves of precious metals. According to mercantile doctrine, colonies existed
only to help the mother country meet those goals. Colonists were regarded more
or less as tenants. They were expected to produce tobacco and other products
needed in England and not to bother their heads with dangerous dreams of
economic independence or self-government.
Specifically, how were the American colonies to benefit England? First of all,
they were to ensure Britain's naval supremacy by furnishing ships, ships' stores,
sailors, and trade. In addition, they were to provide a profitable consumers'
market for the English manufacturers and were discouraged from buying the
products of other countries. Finally, they were to keep gold and silver money
within the empire by growing products, such as sugar, that otherwise would have
to be bought from foreigners. The ideal of "buy British" would thus be promoted
in a manner that foreshadowed later protective tariffs."
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The Mercantile Theory
Parliament passed numerous measures to enforce the mercantile
famous were the Navigation Laws. The first of these, enacted in 1650, was
aimed at rival Dutch shippers who were elbowing their way into the American
carrying trade. The Navigation Laws restricted commerce to and from the
colonies to English vessels. Such regulation not only kept money within the
empire but bolstered the British--and colonial--merchant marine, which in turn
was an indispensable auxiliary to the Royal Navy.
An alert Parliament from time to time enacted additional laws that were
favorable to England. European goods consigned to America had to be landed
first in England, where customs duties could be collected and where the British
middleman would get his cut of the profit. Still other curbs required certain
"enumerated" products, notably tobacco, to be shipped to England and not to a
foreign market, even though prices in Europe might be higher.
In the interests of the empire, settlers were even restricted in what they might
produce at home. They were forbidden to manufacture for export certain
products, such as woolen cloth and beaver hats, because the colonies were
supposed to complement and not compete with English industry.
Americans also felt the pinch in the area of currency. No banks existed in the
colonies, and the money problem on the eve of the Revolution was acute.
Industrious colonials were now busily buying more goods from England than
they were selling there, so the difference had to be made up in hard cash.
Every year gold and silver money, much of it in Spanish coins
from the West
Indies, was drained out of the colonies. The colonials simply did not have
enough left for the convenience of everyday purchases. Barter became
necessary, and even butter, nails, pitch, and feathers were used for purposes of
Currency problems came to a boil when dire need finally forced many of the
colonies to issue paper money, which unfortunately depreciated. British
merchants and creditors, understandably worried, squawked so loudly that
Parliament was compelled to act. It restrained the colonial legislatures from
printing paper currency and from passing lax bankruptcy laws--practices that
might result in defrauding British merchants. The Americans, who felt that their
welfare was again being sacrificed, reacted angrily. Another burning grievance
was thus heaped upon the pile of combustibles already smoldering.
London officialdom naturally kept a watchful eye on the legislation passed by the
colonial assemblies. If such laws conflicted with British regulations or policy,
they might be summarily declared null and void by the Privy Council.
This "royal veto" was in fact used rather sparingly--469 times in connection with
8,563 laws. But the colonists nevertheless fiercely resented it. They felt
aggrieved when, in the interests of England, they were forbidden to make
reforms that they deemed desirable, such as curbing the degrading trade in
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Mercantilist Trammels on Trade
But even when painted in its rosiest colors, the mercantile
system burdened the
colonials with annoying liabilities. Economic initiative was stifled because
Americans were not at complete liberty to buy, sell, ship, or manufacture under
conditions that they found most profitable.
The southern colonies, as "pets," were generally
favored over the northern ones,
chiefly because they grew non-English products like tobacco, sugar, and rice.
Revolution was one seed that sprouted vigorously from the stony soil of New
England, for the proud descendants of the Puritans greatly resented being
treated like unwanted relatives.
One-crop Virginians, despite London's preference for the southern colonies, also
nursed rankling grievances. Forced to sell their tobacco in England, they were at
the mercy of British merchants, who often gouged them. Many of the fashionable
Virginia planters were plunged into debt by the falling price of tobacco and were
forced to buy their necessities in England by mortgaging future crops. Some
debts, becoming hereditary, were bequeathed from one generation to the next.
Impoverished Virginia thus joined restless Massachusetts in agitating for revolt
against England. Unfriendly critics sneered that the Virginians' cry, "Liberty or
Death," might better have been "Liberty or Debt." Although this charge was
unfair in many cases, countless Virginians welcomed the opportunity to end
their economic bondage to the mother country.
Finally--and of supreme importance--mercantilism was debasing to the
Americans. Many felt that the colonies were being used, or milked, as cows are
milked. The colonies were to be kept in a state of perpetual economic
adolescence and never allowed to come of age. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in
We have an old mother that peevish is grown;
She snubs us like children that scarce walk alone;
She forgets we're grown up and have sense of our own.
Revolution broke out, as Theodore Roosevelt later remarked,
failed to recognize an emerging nation when it saw one."
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The Menace of Mercantilism
The costly Seven Years' War, which ended in 1763, marked a
between Britain and its transatlantic colonies. A revolution in British colonial
policy precipitated the American Revolution.
Victory-flushed Britain emerged from the conflict possessing one of the biggest
empires in the world--and also, less happily, the biggest debt. It amounted to
£140 million, about half of which had been incurred in defending the American
colonies. British officials wisely had no intention of asking the colonials to help
pay off this crushing burden. But London felt that the Americans should be asked
to defray one-third the cost of maintaining a garrison of some ten thousand
redcoats, presumably for the colonies' own protection.
Prime Minister George Grenville, an honest and able financier not noted for tact,
moved vigorously. Dedicated to efficiency, he aroused the resentment of the
colonials in 1763 by ordering the British navy to enforce the Navigation Laws.
He also secured from Parliament the so-called Sugar Act of
1764, the first law
ever passed by that body for raising revenue in the colonies for the crown.
Among various provisions, it increased the duty on foreign sugar imported from
the West Indies. After bitter protests from the colonials, the duties were lowered
substantially, and the agitation died down. But resentment was kept burning by
the Quartering Act of 1765. It required certain colonies to provide food and
quarters for British troops.
Then in the same year, 1765, Grenville imposed the most odious measure of all:
a stamp tax, to raise revenues to support the new military force. The Stamp Act
required the use of stamped paper or the affixing of stamps, certifying payment
of tax. Involved were about fifty trade items and certain types of commercial and
legal documents, including playing cards, pamphlets, newspapers, diplomas,
bills of lading, and marriage licenses.
Grenville regarded all these measures as reasonable and just. He was simply
asking the Americans to pay their fair share for colonial defense, through taxes
that were already familiar in England. In fact, Englishmen for two generations
had endured a stamp tax far heavier than that passed for the colonies.
Yet the Americans were angrily aroused at what they regarded as Grenville's
fiscal aggression. The new laws pinched their pocketbooks, and, even more
ominously, menaced the local liberties they had come to assume as a matter of
right. Thus some colonial assemblies defiantly refused to comply with the
Quartering Act or voted only a fraction of the supplies that it called for.
Worse still, Grenville's noxious legislation seemed to jeopardize the basic rights
of the colonists as Englishmen. Both the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act provided
for trying offenders in the hated admiralty courts, where juries were not allowed.
The burden of proof was on the defendants, who were assumed to be guilty
unless they could prove themselves innocent. Trial by jury and the doctrine of
"innocent until proved guilty" were ancient privileges that the English people
everywhere, including the American colonials, held most dear.
And why was a British army needed at all in the colonies, now that the French
were expelled from the continent and Pontiac's warriors crushed? Could its real
purpose be to whip rebellious colonials into line? Many Americans began to sniff
the strong scent of a conspiracy to strip them of their historic liberties. They
lashed back violently, and the Stamp Act became the target that drew their most
Angry throats raised the cry, "No taxation without representation." There was
some irony in the slogan, because the seaports and tidewater towns that were
most wrathful against the Stamp Act had long denied full representation to their
own backcountry pioneers. But now the agitated colonials took the high ground
of principle. They vividly recollected the theories of popular government
developed during England's own Puritan revolution a century earlier. American
firebrands hurled these doctrines back at their English masters, who were
stunned at the keenness of the colonials' historical memory.
The Americans made a distinction between "legislation" and "taxation." They
conceded the right of Parliament to legislate about matters that affected the
entire empire, including the regulation of trade. But they steadfastly denied the
right of Parliament, in which no Americans were seated, to impose taxes on
Americans. Only their own elected colonial legislatures, the Americans insisted,
could legally tax them. Taxes levied by the distant English Parliament amounted
to robbery, a piratical assault on the sacred rights of property.
Grenville dismissed these American protests as hairsplitting absurdities. The
power of Parliament was supreme and undivided, he asserted, and in any case
the Americans were represented in Parliament. Elaborating the theory of "virtual
representation," Grenville claimed that every member of Parliament represented
all British subjects, even those Americans in Boston or Charleston who had
never voted for a member of the London Parliament.
The Americans scoffed at the notion of virtual representation. And truthfully, they
did not really want direct representation in Parliament, which might have seemed
like a sensible compromise. If they had obtained it, any gouty member of the
House of Commons could have proposed an oppressive tax bill for the colonies,
and the American representatives, few in numbers, would have stood bereft of a
principle with which to resist.
Thus the principle of no taxation without representation was
important, and the colonials clung to it with tenacious consistency. When the
English replied that the sovereign power of government could not be divided
between "legislative" authority in London and "taxing" authority in the colonies,
they forced the Americans to deny the authority of Parliament altogether and to
begin to consider their own political independence. This chain of logic eventually
led to revolutionary consequences."
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The Stamp Tax Uproar