The Real First World War and the Making of America


During the 12 years between the Peace of Paris in 1763 and the battles of Lexington and Concord the colonists clarified their beliefs, using language echoing the broad, inclusive spirit of equality that had rallied them during the late war. In time those ideas became the basis of all our politics, but between 1763 and 1775 they were not yet founding principles. Rather, what took place in the postwar years was a long, increasingly acrimonious debate about the character of the empire, a wrangle over who belonged to it and on what terms and about how it should function. The dispute became so bitter precisely because the colonists believed they were British patriots who had proved their loyalty by taking part in a vast struggle for an empire they loved.

The irony here is intense and bears examining. The most complete victory in a European conflict since the Hundred Years War quickly became a terrible thing for the victor, whereas the defeated powers soon recovered purpose and momentum. Even a decisive victory can carry great dangers for the winner. Britain emerged from the war as the most powerful nation of its day, only to find that the rest of Europe feared it enough to join ranks against it; it confidently undertook to reassert itself in America only to unite its colonists in opposition to imperial authority. Finally, when Britain used its military might to compel the fractious colonists to submit, it turned resistance into insurrection—and revolution.

And what of the indians? For them, the war’s effects were transforming, and tragic. By eliminating the French Empire from North America and dividing the continent down its center between Britain and Spain, the Peace of Paris made it impossible for the Iroquois and other native groups to preserve their autonomy by playing empires off against one another. The former Indian allies of New France came to understand the tenuousness of their position soon after the war, when the British high command began to treat them as if they, not the French, had been conquered. They reacted with violence to Britain’s abrupt changes in the terms of trade and suspension of diplomatic gift giving, launching an insurrection to teach the British a lesson in the proper relationship of ally to ally. By driving British troops from their interior forts and sending raids that once again embroiled the frontier in a huge refugee crisis, the Indians forced the British to rescind the offending policies. Yet by 1764, when various groups began to make peace, native leaders understood that their ability to carry on a war had become limited indeed. Without a competing empire to arm and supply them, they simply could not keep fighting once they ran out of gunpowder.

The war’s effects were tragic for the Indians.

Meanwhile, the bloodshed and captive-taking of the war and the postwar insurrection deranged relations between Indians and Anglo-American colonists. Even in Pennsylvania, a colony that had never known an Indian war before 1755, indiscriminate hatred of Indians became something like a majority sentiment by 1764. When most native groups sided with the British in the Revolution, the animosity only grew. By 1783 Americans were willing to allow neither Indians nor the ex-Loyalists with whom they had cooperated any place in the new Republic, except on terms dictated by the victor.

In the traditional narrative mentioned earlier, the fate of native peoples is a melancholy historical inevitability; Indians are acted upon far more than they are actors. To include the Seven Years’ War in the story of the founding of the United States, however, makes it easier to understand Indians as neither a doomed remnant nor as noble savages, but as human beings who behaved with a canniness and a fallibility equal to those of Europeans and acted with just as much courage, brutality, and calculated self-interest as the colonists. In seeking security and hoping to profit from the competition between empires, they did things that led to a world-altering war, which in turn produced the revolutionary changes that moved them from the center of the American story to its margins. No irony could be more complete, no outcome more tragic.

Finally, treating the Revolution as an unintended consequence of the Anglo-American quest for empire offers a way to understand the persistence of imperialism in American history. We like to read the rhetoric of the Revolution in such a way as to convince ourselves that the United States has always been a fundamentally anti -imperial nation. What the story of the Seven Years’ War encourages us to do is to imagine that empire has been as central to our national self-definition and behavior over time as liberty itself has been—that empire and liberty indeed can be seen as complementary elements, related in as intimate and necessary a way as the two faces of a single coin.

Changing our thinking about the founding period of the United States by including the Seven Years’ War can enable us to see the significance not only of America’s great wars of liberation—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II—but of the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, and all of the country’s other wars for empire as well. Those conflicts are not exceptions to some imagined antimilitarist rule of American historical development; they too have made us who we are. To understand this may help us avoid the dangerous fantasy that the United States differs so substantially from other historical empires, that it is somehow immune to the fate they have all, ultimately, shared.

The Seven Years’ Movie: A spectacular and painstaking PBS series brings the war to the screen The Clash of Empires: The most ambitious exhibit ever on the war has just opened