French and Indian War, Legacy of

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The French and Indian War, or Seven Years' War as it is termed in Europe, began in North America in 1754 when George Washington's forces clashed with the French in western Pennsylvania (war was not formally declared between Britain and France until May 1756), and ended in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris, although major hostilities in North America ceased with the British capture of Canada in 1760.

causes and course of the war

The causes of the war lay in both global and regional issues. Britain and France had conflicting colonial claims, particularly in North America, and especially in the upper Ohio Valley. When Pennsylvania traders and Virginia land-speculators began to take an interest in the region in the late 1740s, the French began construction of a series of forts from which they could exclude British influence. Virginia responded by dispatching an expedition commanded by the inexperienced George Washington. However, the French surrounded and captured Washington's expedition at Fort Necessity. London now dispatched an entire army commanded by Major General Edward Braddock. When this force was routed at the Battle of the Monongahela in July 1755, a full-scale war began.

The early years of the war saw the British colonies suffering a series of defeats. The important forts of Oswego and Fort William Henry surrendered to the French in August 1756 and August 1757 respectively, while Indian raiders devastated the frontier from New England to the Carolinas, killing or capturing several thousand colonists. However, in 1758 the fortunes of war began to change. In London, a new administration headed by William Pitt determined to use Britain's financial power to destroy the French Empire. Pitt was prepared to fund a massive war effort and to reimburse the colonies for any expenses incurred. He committed over 20,000 regular troops to North America while over 14,000 seamen were engaged in American waters. Britain's power soon began to tell. In 1758 British troops, assisted by colonial forces, captured Fort Duquesne on the Ohio and the strategic French fortress of Louisbourg in Acadia. Then in 1759 the British seized Quebec, the capital of French Canada. In 1760 the remaining French forces in Canada surrendered and the war in North America was essentially concluded.

economic impact of the war

In the early stages of the war, the effects of frontier raids and the thousands of refugees disrupted the colonial economies. Fierce fighting also left a legacy of widows and orphans, particularly in New England, who were forced to seek poor relief. Trade was badly depressed as the British imposed a series of embargoes on traffic to enemy and neutral ports. Once out of port, merchant vessels fell prey to French warships and privateers. Insurance rates increased while trade slumped. By 1757 the legacy of refugees, widows and disrupted trade fuelled widespread discontent with the progress of the war.

However, from 1757 onwards, the increased demands of the British and provincial armies for provisions, demands from the Royal Navy for supplies, and the increased flow of funds from Britain to pay American soldiers more than compensated the negative economic effects. The provincial economies went into a boom. In addition, as the Royal Navy swept French ships from the seas, trade resumed and soon many colonial merchants were able to make illegal, but lucrative, profits by shipping grain and other foodstuffs to the all but starving French colonies in the West Indies. New economic opportunities also opened up for provincial merchants, particularly in New York, to build and fund their own privateers to plunder French commerce and over 200 privateers took to the seas during the war.

territorial and strategic legacy of the war

At the conclusion of the war at the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the most obvious legacy was the removal of the French presence in North America. For 150 years the French had threatened the security, indeed the very existence, of the British North American colonies. Now the French were gone and the colonies had a degree of security that had been unthinkable previously. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that the colonists would have felt secure enough to challenge the British Empire in the 1770s had the French threat remained. In addition, the British gained a vast swathe of territory from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. The future of this territory was to pose a major problem for British policy makers.

The frontier raids had also demonstrated the ability of the Indians to devastate the colonial frontier at will. For British policy-makers prevention of any future war, and its associated costs, was a central theme of western policy after the war. Consequently, the British sought to separate colonists and Indians by defining a clear boundary to the colonies. This policy was formally recognized in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which forbade all settlement across the Appalachians. However, colonists felt that much of their blood had been shed in an attempt to protect their homes from Indian raiders and that western lands were their deserved reward. From 1763 onwards, colonists viewed both British and Indians with increasing anger which sometimes boiled over into violence, as in December 1763 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, when a band of frontiersmen calling themselves the Paxton Boys massacred a band of Conestoga Indians.

relations with great britain

For the British, another legacy of the war was a debt of 137 million pounds. Following the peace, the British sought every means possible to reduce the debt by reducing government expenditures and increasing income. Since a principal item of expenditure was the cost of garrisoning the newly conquered territories in North America, London did not see why the American colonists should object to paying a share of these costs. Such a policy led directly to the revenue acts of the 1760s, most infamously the Stamp Act of 1765, and the resulting political crisis.

The political legacy of the war extended far beyond the simple issue of taxation. The failure of the provincial governments during the war to halt smuggling, to raise troops, to provide quarters for British troops or to provide adequate funds or supplies, all suggested that government of the colonies, which had previously been all but neglected by London, needed much closer supervision. Colonial affairs now received more attention in London and the British began to strengthen colonial administration, such as giving governors greater powers and removing some trials from civil courts. All these reforms generated substantial resentment in the colonies. The presence of British troops also became a major political issue, particularly as the British began to abandon western posts, because of their high costs, and instead garrison troops in port towns such as Boston. Finally, the war also strengthened the powers of the colonial assemblies who found themselves responsible for raising armies and supplying provisions to British and provincial armies. These wartime responsibilities greatly expanded the scope and activity of the colonial assemblies.

impact on colonial identity

The war had seemingly conflicting effects on colonists' perception of their identity. Colonists took great pride in the British victory, and as the war closed, viewed themselves more than ever as Britons. As such they demanded the full political rights of Englishmen, and these demands would provide the fuel for the coming Revolutionary conflict. But the war had also highlighted differences between the colonies and Britain. The presence of British troops in the colonies, and the service of many thousands of colonists alongside them, had highlighted the differences between the profanity and debauchery of the British rank and file and the morality and sobriety of the American troops. British officers had demonstrated their disdain not only for the rank and file, but also for members of the American elite and for the colonial assemblies. The experience of war thus created a clear sense of the differences between colonists and Britons.

The war also helped colonists to define American identity in other ways. The struggle with the Catholic French and "heathen" Indians was often viewed with strong religious overtones. The colonies had suffered terrible defeats and hardship; they had been brought to the

edge of defeat, but they had emerged victorious. Many colonists, particularly in New England, perceived in this rescue from disaster the hand of God. This led to the rise of "civil millennialism" that increasingly stressed America's unique position in the world. The war also led to a new perception of America's role in the world and a confidence in America's future as colonists noted the implications of America's expansion into the west. Benjamin Franklin, in particular, noted how the acquisition of western territory would ensure that America would soon become greater in power and population than Britain.

The French and Indian War succeeded in providing security for the American colonies. More importantly, it contributed to the identity of the American colonists, especially the view that they had a unique and divine role to play in the world. Between 1763 and 1776, the difference between the American and British cultures contributed to the conflict between colonists and British authorities over the imperial policies, and to the decision in 1776 to seek independence rather than reconciliation with England.


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Leach, Douglas Edward. Arms for Empire: A Military History of the British Colonies in North America, 1607–1763. New York: MacMillan, 1973.

Lenman, Bruce. Britain's Colonial Wars, 1688–1783. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2001.

Middleton, Richard. The Bells of Victory: The Pitt-Newcastle Ministry and the Conduct of the Seven Years' War, 1757–1762. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

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Steele, Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Trask, Kerry. In the Pursuit of Shadows: Massachusetts Millennialism and the Seven Years War. New York: Garland, 1989.

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Matthew C. Ward

See also:Fort William Henry Massacre, Cultural Legacy; Mobilization: French and Indian War; Peace of Paris, 1763; Stamp Act Congress; Washington, George.

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French and Indian War, Legacy of

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