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The Real First World War and the Making of America
It has taken us two and a half centuries to realize just how important this conflict was
November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
The Seven Years’ War brought about that shift and, in doing so, opened a third American epoch, which lasted from the mid-eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. The shift was not immediately perceptible, for from beginning to end the war reflected the importance of Indian power. The fortunes of war in North America ebbed and flowed according to when the Indian allies of the Europeans decided to engage or withdraw. When, in 1758, the French-allied Indians on the Ohio chose to make a separate peace, Anglo-American forces could at last seize the Forks of the Ohio, the site of modern Pittsburgh and the strategic key to the transappalachian West, bringing peace to the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier. The following year the Iroquois League shifted from neutrality to alliance with the British, permitting the Anglo-Americans to take Fort Niagara and with it crucial control of the Great Lakes. In 1760 Iroquois diplomats preceding Gen. Jeffery Amherst’s invading army persuaded the last Indian allies of New France to make peace, facilitating the bloodless surrender of French forces at Montreal.
The war was a momentous American turning point.
Recognizing the central role of Indians in the war certainly should not deny the importance of French and British operations in America or diminish the critical part played by the large-scale mobilization of the colonists. Those too were decisive and were part of the worldwide extension of the fighting. Britain’s war leader, William Pitt, knew that the British army was too small to confront the forces of Europe on their home ground. He therefore used the navy and army together to attack France’s most vulnerable colonies, while subsidizing Prussia and smaller German states to do most of the fighting in Europe. Similarly, from late 1757 Pitt promised to reimburse North America’s colonial governments for raising troops to help attack Canada and the French West Indies, treating the colonies not as subordinates but as allies. This policy precipitated a surge of patriotism among the colonists. Between 1758 and 1760 the number of Anglo-Americans voluntarily participating in the war effort grew to equal the population of all New France.
Britain’s colonists continued to enlist in numbers that suggest they had come to believe they were full partners in the creation of a new British empire that would be the greatest since Rome. Their extraordinary exertions made for a decisive victory, but one that came at a fearful cost. And that in turn had an impact that extended far beyond the Peace of Paris, which put an end to the hostilities in 1763.
Paradoxically, the war had seemed to damage the vanquished less than it did the victor. Despite the loss of its North American possessions and the destruction of its navy, France recovered with remarkable speed. Because the British chose to return the profitable West Indian sugar islands to France and to retain Canada, always a sinkhole for public funds, French economic growth resumed at pre-war rates. Because France funded its re-armament program by borrowing, there was no taxpayers’ revolt. The navy rebuilt its ravaged fleet using state-of-the-art designs. The army, re-equipped with the most advanced artillery of the day, underwent reforms in recruitment, training, discipline, and administration. These measures were intended to turn the tables on Britain in the next war, which was precisely what happened when France intervened in the American struggle for independence. (The expense of that revenge tempered its sweetness somewhat, but it was only in 1789 that King Louis and his ministers, facing a revolution of their own, learned how severe the reckoning would be.)
For Britain and its American colonies the war had complex, equivocal legacies. Pitt’s prodigal expenditures and the expansion of the empire to take in half of North America created immense problems of public finance and territorial control. The virtual doubling of the national debt between 1756 and 1763 produced demands for retrenchment even as administrators tried to impose economy, coherence, and efficiency on a haphazard imperial administration. Their goal was both to control the 300,000 or so Canadians and Indians whom the war had ushered into the empire and to make the North American colonies cooperate with one another, take direction from London, and pay the costs of imperial defense.
The war’s most pernicious effect, however, was to persuade the Crown that Britain was unbeatable. The extraordinary battlefield triumphs of the previous years made this inference seem reasonable, and the perilous conviction that Britannia had grown too mighty to fail contributed to the highhanded tone imperial officials now used to address the colonists and thus helped sow the seeds of revolution.
Britain’s American colonists had come to believe they were members of a transatlantic community bound together by common allegiance, interests, laws, and rights. Imperial administrators found this absurd. Even before the war they had been proposing reforms that would have made it clear the colonists were anything but legal and constitutional equals of subjects who lived in Britain. The outbreak of the fighting had suspended those reforms, and then Pitt’s policies had encouraged the colonists to see the empire as a voluntary union of British patriots on both sides of the ocean.
So when the empire’s administrators moved to reassert the pre-war hierarchy, the colonists reacted first with shock, then with fury. What happened, they wanted to know, to the patriotic partnership that had won the war? Why are we suddenly being treated as if we were the conquered, instead of fellow conquerors?