The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America - Walter R. Borneman (2006)

BOOK THREE. Prelude to Revolution (1760–1763)


The triumphs of one global war—no matter how satisfying to some—had nonetheless sown seeds of discontent that would soon lead to a bitter quarrel within the British Empire. While there were to be many reasons for it, high on the list was a lack of any forceful, informed leadership in the highest echelons of George III’s government. Barely was the ink dry on the Treaty of Paris when Lord Bute resigned, in part because he quickly realized that it was one thing to be the power behind the throne and quite another to suffer the criticism that came with being its public face. George Grenville, another of William Pitt’s brothers-in-law, succeeded Bute in April 1763. But Grenville was hardly Pitt’s ally, and events during Grenville’s short ministry only served to alienate the two men further.

Great Britain was short of cash. There was no denying that. Expenses had burgeoned during Pitt’s wartime tenure, and with the new demands of administering a global empire, they were unlikely to shrink. In order to raise revenues to meet these outlays, Grenville championed the passage through Parliament of what has traditionally been called the Sugar Act.

Technically, this legislation was the American Duties Act of 1764, and it not only placed tariffs on sugar, coffee, wine, and many other imports into Britain’s North American colonies, but also imposed increased enforcement measures to end smuggling and collect all taxes due. Such taxes were certainly not new—a tax of sixpence per gallon had been imposed on foreign molasses as early as 1733—but the announced resolve to enforce them firmly was an entirely different matter. “The publication of orders for the strict execution of the customs laws,” observed the governor of Massachusetts, “caused a greater alarm in this country than the taking of Fort William Henry in 1757.”1

Then, Grenville dropped the other shoe. The Stamp Act of 1765 was another measure designed to raise revenue. Essentially, it was a tax on paper. Any paper, including newspapers, licenses, playing cards, legal documents such as wills and powers of attorney, and a host of other printed matter, was to have a revenue stamp affixed to it certifying that the appropriate tax had been paid. Passed by Parliament in April 1765 with assurances that the revenue derived would be used to defray the expenses of defending and administering the colonies, the new measure was supposed to go into effect November 1. Unlike the Sugar Act, which flowed from Parliament’s uncontested power to regulate commerce, the Stamp Act was a direct tax on individuals—without representation—and colonials howled in indignation.

Among the colonial firebrands was a young lawyer named Patrick Henry, who went so far as to suggest to the Virginia House of Burgesses that Parliament “had no legal authority to tax the colonies at all.” Warned that his words bordered on treason, Henry made his famous reply that if “this be treason,” the delegates should make the most of it.

Assemblymen in Massachusetts were only slightly more restrained and called for an intercolonial convention, the like of which had not been seen since the Albany Congress eleven years before. Twenty-seven delegates from nine colonies met in New York City in October for the Stamp Act Congress. But the pronouncements of Patrick Henry and this assemblage paled compared with the outpouring of protest from the broad spectrum of the colonial population. They not only refused to buy stamps but also boycotted British imports. This boycott did nothing, of course, to stimulate a prosperous postwar trade.

“What used to be the pride of the Americans?” Benjamin Franklin was asked when called before the House of Commons to testify on the Stamp Act and the resulting boycott. “To indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great Britain,” the best-known colonial in London replied. “And what is now their pride?” he was asked. “To wear their old clothes over again, till they can make new ones.”2

By the end of the year, a lawyer in Braintree, Massachusetts, named John Adams confided to his diary that “the great men [in London] are exceedingly irritated at the tumults in America, and are determined to enforce the act. This irritable race, however, will have good luck to enforce it. They will find it a more obstinate war, than the conquest of Canada and Louisiana.”3

At least some members of Parliament agreed. “I rejoice that America has resisted,” proclaimed a battered and infirm William Pitt in the House of Commons. “In a good cause, on a sound bottom,” he continued, “the force of this country can crush America to atoms…. But on this ground, on the Stamp Act, when so many here will think it a crying injustice, I am one who will lift up my hands against it.”4 Repeal the Stamp Act, Pitt urged, and on March 4, 1766, Parliament did just that.

But important lessons had been learned by the colonials in North America, who had seen the power of concerted action. Equally important lessons had not been learned by Parliament. On the same day that it voted the repeal of the Stamp Act, Parliament overwhelmingly passed the Declaratory Act. Having just recognized certain limits to empire and yielded to colonial pressure to repeal the Stamp Act, Parliament nonetheless sought to reassert itself. It declared Parliament’s full right and authority to make any and all laws and statutes governing those same colonies. The law would have little impact because colonial assemblies would soon choose to ignore other laws and taxes, but the mind-set of those passing the Declaratory Act would prove an increasing impediment to mutually beneficial relations within the empire.

Finally, there was one other pressing issue of colonial concern. Parliament had long routinely passed an annual multifaceted bill governing the administration of Great Britain’s army. Called the Mutiny Act, it nonetheless covered all topics from recruitment to discharge. It also provided rules by which troops might be housed—quartered—in private dwellings. (The requirement to reauthorize the Mutiny Act annually stemmed from England’s long-held bias against maintaining a standing army.)

Generally, the Mutiny Act applied only to the British Isles, and commanders in chief in North America from Braddock onward had been compelled to appeal to individual colonial legislatures to pass their own local versions. This they did with little complaint during the war. After the war, there were still reasons for the British government to maintain a standing army in North America—Pontiac had proved that. But when Major General Thomas Gage wanted to withdraw regular troops from far-flung frontier posts and garrison them in major cities in response to civilian unrest over the various tax acts, that was an entirely different matter. After the mayor of New York refused to provide firewood for regulars quartered in that city, Gage appealed to Parliament to extend the Mutiny Act to North America.

Interestingly enough, the Quartering Act of 1765, that was passed as a result, applied only to vacant private buildings and arguably exempted occupied private dwellings. But the act also authorized the impressment of wagons at the going rate; required men billeted in public houses to pay only for food, not lodging; and allowed troops to use river ferries at half fare. It didn’t take long for colonials to argue—particularly in New York, where Gage had his headquarters—that such perquisites were really hidden taxes on teamsters, innkeepers, and ferrymen. New York took the lead in nullifying the Quartering Act and refused to obey it. Many in Great Britain were aghast. If a colony could nullify one act of Parliament, what was to stop it from nullifying others? Indeed, how did such action square with the very term “colony” and the supposed sovereignty of the British crown?5

George Grenville survived two uneasy years at the helm amid this sort of turmoil and then was succeeded for a year by the marquis of Rockingham. Finally, recognizing that his ship of state was largely rudderless, George III swallowed his pride in the summer of 1766 and asked William Pitt to form a government once more. The choice of Pitt was immensely popular in North America, where his opposition to the Stamp Act had made him a hero. At home, the British people waited for the “great commoner” to work his old magic.

But Pitt was well past his prime, worn out by illness and able to rise to only occasional flashes of his previous brilliance. Then, in order to support the king’s initiatives in the House of Lords, Pitt accepted a peerage and became the earl of Chatham. Many judged that this was not his finest hour. The British middle class, who had long supported him, felt betrayed. Pitt himself descended into a dark depression that left him absent from the cabinet more than he was present.

Since George III’s government was still faced with a void in leadership, it is small wonder that the solutions subsequently applied to North America were ill-advisedly conceived and brashly executed. Urging them on was Pitt’s chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend, the nephew of the duke of Newcastle who had embarked for Quebec as one of Wolfe’s brigadiers in 1759 to add a little military luster to his political record.

Townshend used Pitt’s infirmity to rush to the forefront as his possible successor, but what came to be called the Townshend Acts—new taxes on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea imported into the colonies along with additional enforcement measures—showed that he had learned nothing from Pitt. “Champagne Charlie,” as Townshend was called because of his high living and snobbery, viewed the Americans as “ungrateful brats” to be chastised. This attitude was a far cry from Pitt’s assertion during the crisis over the Stamp Act that “the Americans are the sons, not the bastards of England.” By the end of 1767, Townshend was unexpectedly dead, but the animosity that his acts caused would live on.6

Pitt’s ill-fated second ministry was followed in 1768 by that of Lord Grafton, who lasted little more than a year; and then by that of Lord North, who proved as intensely loyal to George III as he was contemptuous of colonials in North America. North would remain as prime minister until the seeds of discord in the colonies had sprouted into full-grown trees of revolution. Taxes on tea, customs restrictions, and the quartering of troops would all continue to rankle, but it was the Quebec Act of 1774 that convinced colonials that their fear of encirclement by the French had been replaced by fear of an even more oppressive force.

Enacted as one of the Intolerable Acts, the Quebec Act expanded the boundaries of the colony of Quebec to include all lands north of the Ohio River. These were the very lands to which young George Washington had advocated Virginia’s claims on the cold December day in 1753, and which the subsequent Proclamation of 1763 had supposedly set aside as an Indian reserve. The proclamation had never been rescinded, but even Washington observed that the line “seems to have been considered by government as a temporary expedient … and no further regard has been paid to it.”

In other words, with a wink and a nod, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York had quietly continued their claims to these lands. But while the Proclamation of 1763 ostensibly prohibited westward expansion even as it overlooked continued settlement schemes, “the Quebec Act destroyed such schemes permanently” and made these lands part of the colony of Quebec.7

The Quebec Act also mandated a governor and council appointed by the crown for Quebec, denied an elected assembly, and permitted the dominance of the Roman Catholic church. The last of these provisions was meant to appease French Canadians, but was seen by many colonial Protestants as a popish plot. The other Intolerable Acts included a far more onerous Quartering Act and the full commercial closure of the port of Boston until payment was made for a certain quantity of tea that some of its citizens had dumped into Boston Harbor one night. All this came to a head on April 18, in 1775, when two lanterns were hung in the steeple of Boston’s old North Church and their beams sent messengers riding toward Lexington and Concord.

By then, where were those who had played leading roles in what William Pitt had once hoped would be Great Britain’s great war for lasting empire? The former governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, had retired as governor of the Bahamas and died in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1771. He was spared the coming violence that seemed so counter to his congenial relations with the Massachusetts Assembly, but before his death he had professed bewilderment with the many new faces. When asked about certain young troublemakers in Massachusetts, Shirley burst out: “Mr. Cushing I knew, and Mr. Hancock I knew; but where the devil this brace of Adamses came from, I know not.”8

Lord Howe’s youngest brother, William, arrived back in Massachusetts in 1772 as a major general. He was sent there to reinforce Thomas Gage’s efforts to suppress the unruly populace of Boston. Howe found the task embarrassing if not actually distasteful, because these same citizens had recently commissioned a monument to his late brother for Westminster Abbey. When Gage became the scapegoat for the British blunder at Bunker Hill, William Howe succeeded him as commander in chief of British forces in North America.

William Howe’s opposite number, of course, was George Washington, who, despite a record of defeat and some surliness if not outright insubordination, had emerged from the French and Indian War as Virginia’s favorite military son. Howe would spend the next two and a half years sparring with Washington around New York and Philadelphia, but after a victory at Brandywine, he failed to stamp out the flame left to burn at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777–1778. Howe was recalled to England thereafter, and history would be left to ponder whether his inactivity was born of mere incompetence or a measure of colonial affection shared with his late brother.

The object of the first Lord Howe’s admiration, Robert Rogers of the rangers, did not live up to his legend. In 1766, Rogers received the command of Fort Michilimackinac, from where he hoped to profit from the fur trade and search for the Northwest Passage. Rogers sent out two exploring parties, but neither got very far. The real problem, however, was that Rogers was still not getting along well with regular officers. Charges of his favoring certain Montreal merchants for commercial gain accumulated until Rogers was accused of treason in planning to establish his own country west of the Great Lakes. Ignominiously, Rogers spent a winter in irons and then was hauled east. He was eventually acquitted but never returned west

By 1775, Rogers was in considerable debt and was more concerned with seeking land grants in compensation for his earlier services than with aiding colonial efforts. Neither the colonials nor the British were quite sure which side he was on. Quite possibly, Rogers wasn’t sure himself. Finally, he agreed to recruit British loyalists for the Queen’s American Rangers. His service was sporadic and gained him little but two heartbreaks. His wife, Elizabeth, who had stood beside him through poverty and the humiliation of the winter at Fort Michilimackinac, finally divorced him on charges of desertion and cruelty. Then, the New Hampshire legislature—wanting no Tories on its soil—banned him from New Hampshire. Major Robert Rogers, the dashing hero of one era, died broke and alone in another era, on May 18, 1795, in England. By one account, his shouts of names and places long since past punctuated his final fits of drunkenness.9

The Ottawa chief Pontiac fared little better. Pontiac avoided the punitive campaigns of Bouquet and Bradstreet in 1764 by hiding out in the Illinois country. When Bradstreet arrived in Detroit, he considered demanding that the Ottawa hand Pontiac over as a condition of peace, but then thought better of it. For his part, Pontiac seems never to have reconciled himself to Great Britain’s new dominance, and rumors circulated for several years that he was plotting more warfare. In the summer of 1766, Pontiac traveled east with a delegation representing many Indian nations and met with Sir William Johnson at Oswego. In the negotiations that followed, Johnson seems to have overplayed Pontiac’s importance among the assembled delegates. Their jealousy was further fueled by rumors that Pontiac was to have a pension for his role in pledging “peace and friendship with Great Britain.”

But the British view of his importance was not what Pontiac found when he returned to the west. In some ways, trouble seems to have dogged him as it did Robert Rogers. No one was sure whether Pontiac was plotting with Spain and France or was truly a new ally of Great Britain. Within two years, Pontiac was in fact reduced to wandering the Illinois country with little influence, but Peoria Indians living near Cahokia were taking no chances. On April 20, 1769, as Pontiac left a trading post in Cahokia, a Peoria murdered him. The very fact that this act caused no retaliation suggests that this warrior, too, had outlived his time.10

Governor General Vaudreuil was sent to France to account for his role in the fall of New France. It soon became clear that his dissension with Montcalm had extended beyond military matters. Montcalm had gathered considerable evidence of the governor’s involvement in a ring of corruption that had bled what little resources the colony possessed into private pockets. Montcalm appears to have entrusted much of this evidence to the care of Father Roubaud at the mission of Saint Francis. Roubaud was absent on the day that Rogers’ Rangers set the village ablaze, and the Vaudreuil papers were evidently destroyed. Without hard evidence against him, Vaudreuil was eventually exonerated, but several of his chief conspirators were not so lucky and ended up in the Bastille. Vaudreuil never returned to Canada; he spent a peaceful retirement in Paris until his death in 1778.11

Montcalm’s trusted aide-de-camp Louis-Antoine de Bougainville rose above the muddle of New France and, interestingly, left France’s army to join its navy. Bougainville conceived a plan to settle displaced French Canadians on the Falkland Islands, then not claimed by any European power. After Spain protested, however, Bougainville sailed from France first to surrender the Falklands to Spain and then to continue on an epic three-year voyage around the world in 1766–1769. He became the first French naval officer to do so, but his lasting fame may come from the multiblossomed plants that he discovered, Bougainvillea. Later, when French and British fleets clashed off Yorktown in 1781, Bougainville was there in command of a French ship of the line.

And what of William Pitt? Though a shadow of his former self, the “great commoner,” now ensconced in the House of Lords, continued to lift his weakened voice in support of America. He urged the removal of troops from Boston, abhorred the policies of Lord North, and confessed that were he but ten years younger, he would “spend the remainder of my days in America, which has already given the most brilliant proofs of its independent spirit.” On May 11, 1778, William Pitt breathed his last. George III professed surprise at the vote for his public funeral and continued to carry on the war that Pitt had opposed.12

All this raises some interesting “what ifs.” History is filled with such questions, and that is particularly true of the period which decided the fate of a continent and set up the American struggle for independence. What if Lord Howe had not been killed at Fort Carillon? Might his survival have led to a far gentler and more understanding administration of Massachusetts than the one Thomas Gage dictated? And would Lord Howe have been a more competent military leader against Washington than his brother, William, if it had come to that?

What if the marquise de Pompadour had been more interested in North America and a global vision for France than she was in being flattered by Maria Theresa? Indeed, what if anyone in France had been more interested in a global vision and had nurtured it with naval resources? What if there had been a counselor for Louis XV of the stature of his ancestors’ Richelieu or Mazarin? By the time Choiseul consolidated power, it was too late, and his sole interest was in saving France—with or without Canada.

What if Spain had entered the war much earlier and thrown its naval weight against Great Britain in the critical early years, uniting the Bourbon thrones despite the dictate of the Treaty of Utrecht? Might a combined Spanish and French fleet have been able to control the English Channel long enough to support an invasion of England? True, this had not been accomplished since 1066, and a Spanish armada had failed once before; but even Pitt worried about the possibility.

What if Pontiac had been possessed of the full command and control capabilities that Parkman imputed to him? Might a Native American alliance from the Iroquois across the Great Lakes to beyond the Mississippi have stopped British expansion cold and forced on the thirteen colonies the same measure of dependence on Great Britain for protection from their encirclement that they had required for a century against New France?

What if a few key military matters had been reversed? Might the British have prevailed in North America much sooner if Abercromby had brought up his artillery instead of rushing the barricades at Fort Carillon? And might the British not have prevailed at all if Wolfe’s wave of a hat in the surf of Gabarus Bay had indeed signaled retreat or if Montcalm’s patience had given Bougainville an hour to close a trap on the Plains of Abraham? Lacking that, what if the ships arriving off Quebec in the spring of 1760 had been flying the fleur-de-lis? And on it goes.

But these “what ifs” belong to conjecture. What is fact is the far-ranging historical significance of the French and Indian War and the greater Seven Years’ War of which it was a part.

The French and Indian War created the British Empire. Admiral Mahan was indeed correct. After the war, the kingdom of Great Britain became the British Empire. Neither the repudiation in the Treaty of Paris of many of Pitt’s territorial conquests nor the subsequent fiasco of Britain’s colonial administration in North America could change that. The empire that Pitt won from Quebec to India would dominate world affairs for the next two centuries.

The French and Indian War decided the fate of the North American continent among Great Britain, France, Spain, and Native Americans. The war decisively expelled France from North America, although descendants of the French and French culture flourish to this day in the province of Quebec, in part because of the Quebec Act of 1774 that so outraged English colonists. By giving Quebec’s residents—both British settlers who had arrived in the aftermath of the war and French Canadians who had stayed—room to expand and freedom of religion, Great Britain ensured their loyalty. Quebec remained firmly in the British Empire, not only against the political and military entreaties of the thirteen colonies during the American Revolution, but also later during the War of 1812.

Spain’s late allegiance to France in the French and Indian War cost it Florida. Although Spain would briefly recover Florida after the American Revolution, its quest for a North American empire reached a zenith in 1763. Had Spain belatedly prevailed against Portugal and acquired Brazil, it might have emerged from the war invigorated rather than commercially and economically drained. By 1810, Spain’s colony of Mexico would follow the example of the thirteen colonies and begin its own campaign for independence from a European throne.

And what of the Native Americans? They, too, lost what had been their continent to Great Britain. Another century and a quarter of warfare would ensue between the conquerors and the vanquished from the swamps of Florida to the plains of Saskatchewan. But after the French and Indian War, never again would Native Americans in North America present so concerted and influential a force as the Iroquois Confederacy had done before 1763. Had Pontiac truly lived up to his legend and been able to combine the energies of the upper Mississippi Indians with the Six Nations and their vassals, the westward march of Europeans might have at least been delayed.

Finally, the French and Indian War—and Great Britain’s need to pay for it—precipitated the issues that led to the American Revolution: taxation without representation; trade and customs regulations; quartering troops in private homes; and restrictions on westward expansion. The war also proved that however disjointed and premature the discussions of colonial union had been at Albany in 1754, it had—western land rivalries aside—slowly fostered some measure of intercolonial cooperation. In doing so, it also trained a cadre of young provincial officers from George Washington to Francis Marion, who, having learned to fight for one sovereign, would continue to fight for the sovereignty of all. Great Britain indeed won a continent, but in doing so, it lit the spark of revolution.

If there is an epilogue to France’s loss of North America in the French and Indian War, perhaps it came on a spring day in 1778 at a small place just northwest of Philadelphia called Valley Forge. On that day, George Washington’s tiny colonial army was drawn up on the parade ground under the watchful eye of an expatriate Prussian drillmaster. Three cheers were given. The occasion was the announcement that the fledgling union of the thirteen colonies had an international ally. Thanks in no small measure to the entreaties of Benjamin Franklin, France had formally recognized their sovereignty and pledged to support them in a war against Great Britain. Ironically, three and a half years later, it was French naval power that sealed the fate of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown by defeating British naval forces off the Virginia capes. In the end, the French navy that had lost a continent helped to win one for the young American nation.