Issue E994 of 1 November 1999

The Anglo-French Struggle for the American Continent. (1750s - 1770s)

Rozalia Katerelou
B.A. (Hist)

Before the fifteenth century the Europeans were almost entirely unaware of the existence of the American continent. Gradually, however, conditions in Europe changed -significant growth in Europe's population, rise of commerce, advances in navigation etc.- and by the end of the fifteenth century the countdown for the discovery of the new lands of the west was already reaching its final stage. Within the centuries that followed, the new continent of America was not only discovered, but rapidly colonized to the point that by the beginning of the eighteenth century most of European countries had acquired and colonized at least some part of these new lands. Yet, in the process of the expansion of Europe over the world, predatory or otherwise, the old mercantilist imperialism had already passed its peak. Soon the old colonial powers, like Spain, Portugal and to some extend Holland, had given way to others, since they had failed to meet the needs of successful colonial powers, which required not just the development and defense of their colonies, but also the creation at home of strong foundations for effective commercial and naval relationships with these colonies. Soon it became obvious that only Great Britain and France could satisfy these conditions, and thus it was no surprise that by the beginning of the eighteenth century these two powers alone had colonized for their own interests the greatest part of North America.

So, when the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, was signed in 1713, it also aimed to settle in a way the issue concerning the boundaries of Britain and France in North America, but by now the British colonies there were expanding so rapidly that another contest, this time on a front away from Europe, was almost inevitable. This was especially apparent by the fact the Treaty was regarded unsatisfactory by the French who pointed out that with the new boundaries of Nova Scotia, or Acadia, almost five thousand French people were left under British control. (Middleton, 1993:p.362) Soon, and by the middle of the eighteenth century, the colonies had become an important and integral part of the national economy both of Great Britain and France. Particularly in France this was most conspicuous in the rapid growth of the great Atlantic seaports like Nantes, Bordeux etc., but also in the development of the French merchant marine. Yet, colonial commerce held proportionally an even larger place in the British national economy, to the extend that many claim that by 1750 overseas expansion was already conditioning the entire life and character of the English people [J. B. Botsford's "English Society in the Eighteenth Century as Influenced from Oversea" (New York, 1924)]. .At a first glance, it would seem that the French and British colonial empires, both in their economic structure but also in their geographic distribution, were to a large extend similar in character. Still, a contrast did exist between them, since the expansion of England was rather the expansion of the English society, which emigrated in order to escape from the problems and the pressure of the state back home, while the French imperialism was much more an affair of the state and its mercantilist character. But, no matter what the reasons behind the colonialism of America by Britain and France were, the two countries had a common target: to use the colonies so as to expand their economies as much as possible, and so the clash between their interests could be considered as unavoidable. (Dorn, 1940:pp.257-258)

Until about the 1750s, only few Americans could think of reasons to object to their membership in the British Empire. Afterall, the imperial system that existed actually provided them with many benefits such as trading opportunities, military protection and political stability, while at the same time , up to a great extend, the English government left the colonies alone. Although, there were some cases when Britain tried to regulate the external trade of the colonists, still these regulations were usually very loosely administered and the local people could easily deal with them. So it wasn't surprising that, at this point in time, only a very small number of Americans actually spoke about the colonies ultimately developing to a point that greater autonomy would be needed, and even these people didn't actually expect such a change to occur very soon.

H However, by the middle of 1770s, this whole situation changed and the relationship between the American colonies and their British rulers had become so tensed and full of suspicion, that a dissolution of the bonds of the empire seemed to be inevitable. The passing of the American colonies from mere members of an empire to independent states was the result of many factors, but among them one could probably distinguish the change of attitude of the British government towards its colonists in America, and also the way that the various conflicts, which Britain initiated in the area, especially with the French colonies affected the lives of the Americans and their attitude towards the British crown.

In reality, after the end of England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, the British government (as it was created by the union of England and Scotland in 1707) made no serious efforts to enforce its control over its colonies in America. This revolution, though it didn't establish democracy in the country, changed the political scene in Britain since it resulted to the permanent limiting of the English monarchy, it guaranteed all important legal rights, and finally it helped into making the ideal of the sovereignty of the people more popular. Still, during this period, an increasing number of colonies were actually added to those controlled by the British crown, like New Jersey in 1702, North and South Carolina in 1729 and Georgia in 1754, and in all of them the king reserved the power to appoint the governors and other colonial officials. Furthermore, during the same period, the British parliament also passed several new laws which were to supplement the previous Navigation Acts and strengthen the mercantilist program, but on the whole, the British remained somehow uncertain as to what extend they ought to interfere in the colonial affairs, so the colonies were left, in a way, to go their separate ways. (Webb,1980;pp.85-89)

Nevertheless, despite of the fact that many colonies in North America were under the same ruler, it would be in a way misleading if one was to speak of all these colonies as being in any sense a single unit. In fact, neither in their forms of government, nor in their social structure and their economic interests were these colonies alike in any way. Furthermore, by the middle of the 18th century, one could also distinguish at least three types of colonies that existed under the authority of the British crown. So Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia were regarded as "royal" colonies, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland were "proprietary" colonies, Rhode Island and Connecticut were "corporate" colonies, and finally Massachusetts was a mixture of corporate and royal. This was a distinction that was mainly based on the form of government that existed in each of these colonies, which also had an effect on the degree of influence exercised by the crown since this was greatest in the "royal" and least in the "corporate" colonies. Within this concept the colonists regarded themselves as Englishmen, with all the rights and liberties, which the constitutionally-minded Englishman claimed at home, and they were electing local colonial assemblies mainly to make sure these rights would be maintained. (Marshall, 1964;pp.251-254)

Gradually, despite their many differences, the colonies started creating connections with one another. Afterall, the growth of the colonial population, which by the mid 18th century had formed an almost continuous line of settlement along the seacoast, added to the gradual construction of roads and the development of intercolonial trade brought the people of the various colonies closer together. Even so, the colonists were not yet ready to start cooperating for their common good, and this became more apparent in 1754 when they faced a common threat from their old rivals the French and their Indian allies. Thus, when Benjamin Franklin proposed that year to set up in America "one general government" for all the colonies, each of which would retain its own constitution with the exception of certain powers that would be given to the general government, none approved it. (Middleton,1993;p.367)

From one point of view, the war that troubled North America during the late 1750s and early 1760s -also known as "The Great French and Indian War- was nothing else but just a part of a larger struggle between England and France for their dominance in world trade and naval power, a struggle that has remained known as "The Seven Years War", which in the end confirmed England's supremacy. Such a struggle for dominance and power is a phenomenon that often appears in human history, even in more recent times, but one could understand its extent even better if he was to try and analyze the actual relation of countries like Britain or France with their colonies, which, that time, were probably the most essential part of these nation's economies.

The colonies were one of the major factors that contributed to the recovery of the French naval and commercial power after the War of the Spanish Succession that resulted to the Treaty of Utrecht, and this recovery was felt not only along the coastline of France, but almost in every region of that country. Today it may be difficult to understand completely the great position which the colonies occupied in the total of French foreign commerce, but, in reality, during the 18th century, colonial trade constituted almost one third of the entire amount of French Foreign commerce. Furthermore, this increased movement of merchants, artisans, sailors and goods between France and her colonies also assisted in the extension of business interest in the colonies to ever larger elements of society -many families of the nobility and of the middle class had their members in important positions in the colonies-. (Dorn,1940; pp.252-253)

Even though, however, colonial trade occupied such an important position in France at the time, in Britain things were even more serious. In fact, by 1750 overseas expansion had turned into an essential part of the life of almost every Englishman, whether he was coming from a lower social class and was seeking for a better life outside its homecountry, or whether he was a member of the middle or higher social classes and was seeking for new territories to expand his businesses so as to increase his profits. The importance of colonial trade for the British can also be observed in the fact that according to estimations almost 3.000 ships were required to carry out the trade of the British colonies alone. In addition to that, records show that between 1698 and 1774 the colonial trade of England increased almost five times, and while previously it comprised about 15% of the overseas trade, it gradually reached the point of being 33% of the total trade of the country. (Dorn,1940;pp.254-255)

Yet, apart from a struggle between Britain and France for dominance in world trade and naval power, The Great French and Indian War in America could also be seen as a kind of final stage in the struggle among the three principle powers of Northern America -the English, the French, and the Iroquois- for dominance over the continent. For more than a century before this point, these three groups had managed to maintain a kind of balance of power in the area, but the events of the 1750s came to disrupt this balance and initiated a conflict that was to end with the dominance of the British colonists all over the region. Still, as it proved later on, this whole period of struggle in Northern America, though it was victorious for the British, in the long run it brought the dissolution of the British Empire in this continent since the bringing of the colonies in closer contact with the British government during the war, made it possible for the Americans to distinguish the various problems that they had with this authority over them, and brought them closer to a point that they would demand independence. But how did the French and the British, who had co-existed relatively peacefully in North America for almost a century, came to the point of fighting a war for dominance over the region? It would seem that the origins of the crisis lay in part in the expansion of the French presense in America in the late 17th century. During this period, mainly due to Colbert's (the French minister of Finance) proposals to Louis XIV for an increase in French territories in America that would then lead to an increase in France's world power, France began to devote more attention to the development of its North American territories and so French settlement rapidly expanded. By the middle of the 17th century, the French empire in America comprised a vast territory and to secure their hold on these lands the French began founding a chain of widely separated communities, strategically located fortresses and important trading posts. During this period of expansion, the French also came to contact with a large and powerful population, the relations with whom would prove crucial for the future of the European settlers in the area. Both the French and the British knew that the battle for dominance over North America would be determined up to a great extend by the way they would deal with these native populations, who were mainly concerned with protecting their independence, and then deal with the Europeans and maybe form alliances with them according to what served their interests best. Within these conditions the British failed to make the best decisions, and so instead of offering the Indians better and more plentiful goods - as the British economy afforded-, they chosen aggressive policy and tried to impose their own social customs and ideas on the Indian tribes they encountered. Unlike the British, the French managed to avoid turning the Indians against them by offering something that proved to be much more important: tolerance. So, by the middle of the 18th century the French had succeeded in establishing far better and closer relations with most of the Indians than did the British. (Balldwin & Kelley,1965;pp.62-67)

As long as England and France remained at peace in Europe, and as long as the balance of power in the North American interior survived, the English and French colonists coexisted without any serious problems or difficulties. However, after the Glorious Revolution in England the throne passed to the hands of one of the greatest enemies of Louis XIV, William III, who had long opposed the French expansionism. The fact that William's policies were also followed by his successors later on, made things even worse for the relationships between France and England, and gradually resulted in a series of Anglo-French wars that continued for almost eight years. As it would be expected, these wars in Europe almost immediately expanded to the American continent with important consequences. The first of these wars, the War of the English Succession (1689-1697), or King William's War as it was known in America, produced only a few and indecisive conflicts between the English and French settlers in northern New England. Then the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), or Queen Anne's War, generated more important clashes both during its twelve year duration -when the British were fighting for borders both with the Spaniards in the south and with the Indians and the French in the north-, but also after its end with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, which transferred substantial areas of the previously French territories to the English in North America. Finally, two decades later, the various European rivalries led to more conflicts in America, and as the War of the Austrian Succession (1739-1748) was troubling Europe, the corresponding King George's War in America brought up again issues concerning the borders of the colonies there. (Baldwin & Kelley,1965;pp.65-67)

By the time King George's War had ended, relations among the English, the French and the Iroquois in North America had already deteriorated. At this point, and for the first time, the Iroquois started granting some trading concessions to the British merchants in the interior of North America, something that brought new tensions to the already wounded Anglo-French relations. Gradually the French, afraid that the English would try to expand into French lands, begun by 1749 to construct some new fortresses in the Ohio Valley, trying at the same time to confine the British colonies to a narrow strip along the coast east of the Allegheny mountains. The main characteristic of the French moves this period had to do with informing the American Indians of France's title to their territory, with extending the chain of forts between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, and with strengthening the Niagara by increasing the number of trade posts on its shores. (Middleton,1993;p.366) As it could be expected, this French attempt to exclude the British from the Westward expansion wouldn't be tolerated by the government in London. So the British government reacted accordingly and instituted a number of measures of its own, starting by instructing all colonial governments to meet force with force, in any case that they found the French trespassing on the king's territory. (Middleton, 1993;pp.366-367)

During the five years that followed, all these tensions between the British and the French increased even more making another war more than probable. Finally, in the summer of 1754 George Washington, an inexperienced young colonel at the time, was sent by the governor of Virginia into the Ohio Valley to deal with the French expansion. In order to deal with the French, Washington built a crude fortress close to Fort Duquesne, which was the larger French outpost in the area (near modern Pittsburgh), and then attacked the French with his militia. Unfortunately for the Virginians, the French managed to trap Washington and his men inside their own fort and after one third of his men were dead, Washington was forced to surrender. This was the beginning of the Great French and Indian War. (Baldwin & Kelley,1965; pp.67-68)

This new war was to last nearly nine years and it was divided in three characteristic phases. During the first of those phases, from the events of 1754 and until the expansion of the war to Europe in 1756, the war was kept at a local level and the colonists managed to deal with the war largely on their own. Of course, some kind of assistance was provided by the British but this was not significant for the outcome of the conflicts in North America, especially since the British fleet failed to prevent the landing of French reinforcements in Canada. Meanwhile, the French side was fortunate to watch almost all Indian nations (tribes) siding with them and this was mainly a result of the defeat of the Virginians in Fort Duquesne, which was interpreted as some kind of evidence of the British weakness. Even the Iroquois, who were regarded at the time to be allies of the British, were afraid of the French power and avoided attacking them in Canada, even though they had declared war against them after the extensive pressure on the matter by the British. So by late 1755, a great number of English settlers along the frontier line were forced to withdrawn back to the east of the Allegheny Mountains in order to get away from the hostilities. (Middleton,1993; pp.370-373)

The British Occupy Quebec in 1759
Despite all these setbacks of 1755, however, the British government persistently stood by its objectives, even though France was threatening to invade Britain itself early in 1756. For once, after so many conflicts, it was America which was engulfing Europe in this new war. The formal opening of hostilities between the governments of France and Britain marked the beginning of a new international conflict, The Seven Years War, which was also passing the war in North America into its second phase. Until 1757 the British were defeated everywhere they fought whether this was in Europe or America, but then William Pitt the Elder, the British war minister decided to take things into his hands more decisively claiming that: "I am sure that I can save this country" (Baldwin & Kelley,1965;p.68). Pitt begun to transform the war effort in America by bringing it for the first time fully under British control, by replacing all incompetent generals and admirals and by sending all kind of supplies to America to equip the old but also the new colonial armies. As it would be expected, the Americans who had been accustomed for so many years to running their own affairs and who had been fighting for so long without the British assistance and direction, resented these new impositions and firmly opposed them. So by early 1758 it almost seemed as if these problems between the British authorities and the colonists were going to have negative effects on the war effort. But, by the beginning of 1758 Pitt avoided the worse for England by initiating the third phase of this war and by relaxing, somehow, many of the policies that the Americans were rejecting. Thus he continued to supply the colonists with whatever they asked, he return control over recruitment and some military decisions to the local assemblies, and he send large numbers of troops to America. Finally, things begun to change for Britain, and by the middle of 1758 the British troops and the colonial militias were capturing one French fortress after another. Then the year 1759, known as "the wonderful year", brought with it a series of amazing British victories -like the dramatic fall of Quebec in September 13, which marked the beginning of the end for the American phase of the war- and resulted in the following year in the surrendering of the French to Amherst in Montreal. (Baldwin & Kelley,1965;pp.67-69)

William Pitt 1708-1778
The signing of the Peace of Paris in February 1763 seemed to be marking the beginning of a new era for Britain as a world power with possessions in every corner of the globe. Equally promising were the prospects of the colonists who had the chance to become the centre of the British Empire. Of course, least positive was the situation for the American Indians, who so far had participated in the "games" of the Europeans, but now that everything had ended they were more than ever seriously threatened by the flood of settlers moving in the area. The Peace of Paris thus marked the end of one momentous chapter and the beginning of another for all three groups. The British now had to consider how to manage their own empire, the colonists had to find ways to exploit it, and the Indians had to try and survive in it.

After 1763 peace had come to the world once again, yet, like all wars, the French and Indian War had profound effects both on the British Empire and the American colonies. Undoubtedly it had expanded England's territorial claims in the New World, but simultaneously it had increased substantially its debt, since financing this war had been a process that had drained England's treasury. Furthermore, the gap that had been created between the British authorities and the Americans during the war was now gradually getting worse instead of disappearing, especially since now London was thinking of applying an increased authority over the colonies. On the other side, for the American colonists, the war had been an event that made them for the first time to think and act in a kind of unified way, and this not only wasn't forgotten after the end of the war, but it actually marked the beginning for a change in the attitude of the colonists, who gradually started thinking in the terms that Benjamin Franklin had been thinking back in 1754.

Despite however all these, the colonial period continued for some more years to be terminated with the American Revolution in 1775, an event that was in a way the result of the previous war, but which couldn't be predicted back in 1760. Indeed, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, no one could foresee that within the next twenty years the map of North America would be redrawn and based on the existence of independent states. Afterall, in the beginning even the Americans themselves thought of their future as being in the centre of the British world, and the idea that the empire would disintegrate or that the colonies in the New World would soon become independent republics was by far remote. Yet, the war had changed things considerably. In reality, the whole mentality in the colonies was different now, especially since the French danger was gone and now protection from the British was no longer necessary. Finally, both sides had developed sharply differing perceptions of their relationship and so the conflict was gradually becoming more and more certain.

Through the years many opinions have been formed concerning the character and the results of the French and Indian War in America Some say this was a result of the struggle between England and France for world power, while others see it as the expected outcome in the tensions troubling an area where three major groups -the French, the British, and the Iroquois- were trying to survive and push forward their interests through maintaining a simple but essential kind of balance of power. No matter what the beliefs about this war are, however, the reality remains one; This was a war that initiated a new era for all sides involved in it, but above all, it was a war that was to push North America forward into a completely different direction; a direction towards independence!

Baldwin, L.D. & R. Kelley. "The Stream of American History". American Book Company; New York, 1965.

Brinton, Crane. "The United States and Britain" . Greenwood Press Publishers; Westport, 1970.

Butterfield, H., D.W.Brogan, H.C.Darby & J. Hampden. "A Short History of France From Early Times to 1958" . Cambridge University Press; London, 1961

Dorn, Walter L. "Competition For Empire" . Harper & Row Publishers; New York, 1940

Marshall, Dorothy. "Eighteenth Century England" . Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd; London, 1964.

Middleton, Richard. "Colonial America 1607-1760" . Blackwell Publishers; Oxford, 1993.

Pagden, Anthony. "Lords of All the World" . Yale University Press; London, 1995.

Sellers, C., H. May & N. Mcmillen. "A Synopsis of American History" . Houghton Mifflin Comp.; Boston, 1985.

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