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The Real First World War and the Making of America

May 2024
9min read

It has taken us two and a half centuries to realize just how important this conflict was

Two hundred and fifty years ago this winter, European courts and diplomats were moving ever closer to war. It would prove larger, more brutal, and costlier than anyone anticipated, and it would have an outcome more decisive than any war in the previous three centuries.

Historians usually call it the Seven Years’ War. Modern Americans, recalling a few disconnected episodes—Braddock’s defeat, the Fort William Henry “massacre,” the Battle of Quebec—know it as the French and Indian War. Neither name communicates the conflict’s immensity and importance. Winston Churchill came closer in The History of the English-Speaking Peoples when he called it “a world war—the first in history,” noting that unlike the previous Anglo-French wars, this time “the prize would be something more than a rearrangement of frontiers and a redistribution of fortresses and sugar islands.”

That prize was the eastern half of North America, and the war in which Britain won it raised, with seismic force, a mountain range at the midpoint of the last half-millennium in American history. On the far side of that range lay a world where native peoples controlled the continent. On the other side we find a different world, in which Indian power waned as the United States grew into the largest republic and the most powerful empire on earth. In that sense it may not be too much to give the conflict yet another name: the War That Made America.

Seeing what north america looked like on the far side of the Seven Years’ War illuminates the changes the war wrought and its lingering influences. The traditional narrative of American history treats the “colonial period” as a tale of maturation that begins with the founding of Virginia and Massachusetts and culminates in the Revolution. It implies that the demographic momentum of the British colonies and the emergence of a new “American character” made independence and the expansion of Anglo-American settlement across the continent inevitable. Events like the destruction of New France, while interesting, were hardly central to a history driven by population expansion, economic growth, and the flowering of democracy. Indians, regrettably, were fated to vanish beneath the Anglo-American tide.

But if we regard the Seven Years’ War as an event central to American history, a very different understanding emerges—one that turns the familiar story upside down. Seen this way, the “colonial period” had two phases. During the first, which lasted the whole of the sixteenth century, Indian nations controlled everything from the Atlantic to the Pacific, north of the Rio Grande, setting the terms of interaction between Europeans and Indians and determining every significant outcome. The second phase began when the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English established settlements in North America around the beginning of the seventeenth century, inaugurating a 150-year period of colonization and conflict by changing the conditions of American life in two critical ways. First, permanent colonies spread disease in their immediate vicinities; second, they radically increased the volume of trade goods that flowed into Indian communities. The results of this transformation were many, powerful, and enduring.

Epidemic diseases—smallpox, diphtheria, measles, plague—dealt a series of deadly blows to native populations. Ironically, the Indians nearest the European settlements, and who sustained the earliest and worst losses, also had the closest access to trade goods and weapons that gave them unprecedented advantages over more distant groups. As warriors raided for captives to prop up their dwindling populations and pelts to exchange for European weapons, wars among native peoples became ever more deadly. The Five Nations of the Iroquois, in what is now upstate New York, grew powerful in the mid-seventeenth century by trading with the Dutch at Fort Orange (Albany) and seizing captives from Canada to the Ohio Valley to the Carolinas. Iroquois power, of course, had its limits. Tribes driven west and north by their attacks forged alliances with the French, who supplied them with arms, and encouraged them to strike back.

The Iroquois were already under pressure when England seized New Netherland from the Dutch in 1664. This deprived the tribes of an essential ally when they could least afford it. Iroquois fortunes spiraled downward until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the battered Five Nations finally adopted a position of neutrality toward the French and British empires.

The Iroquois soon found that this neutrality gave them a new form of power. They could play Britain and France off against each other in the wars that the contending empires fought during the first half of the eighteenth century. By the 1730s a half-dozen Indian groups—Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Abenakis, and various Algonquians, as well as the Iroquois—were engaging in balance-of-power politics that made any maneuverings of the French, the British—and the Spanish too—indecisive. While it lasted, this balance permitted Indian and European groups to develop along parallel paths. When it ended, however, the whole edifice of native power came crashing down.

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?

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

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