“ “
The Seven Years War and the Coming of Revolution

The Seven Years' War, a global war fought between 1756 and 1763, was the last of a series of imperial wars that were known collectively as the Second Hundred Years War. It was truly a world war that centered on the great European powers, but was also fought in their colonies around the world; battles occurred on five continents. Known in Britain's North American colonies as the French and Indian War, it pitted the British army, reinforced by colonial militia, Iroquois armsagainst the French and their Indian allies, chiefly the Hurons. Members of the Iroquois Confederacy, especially the Mohawks, sided with the British. The impact of the war on the balance of power in Europe once peace was concluded in 1763 was significant. In North America, it left the British dominant on most of the territory that is now the United States east of the Mississippi.

The war was fought all over the world—from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to India. The British, under the leadership of William Pitt, concentrated on the American colonies, which Pitt realized were the key to British power. Pitt dispatched two fine generals to America, James Wolfe and Lord Jeffrey Amherst. With the help of the American colonial militias, the British captured Quebec, defeated the French and Indians in other battles, and emerged victorious. By the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Great Britain gained all of North America east of the Mississippi, including French Canada and Spanish Florida. Great Britain now stands “astride the world like a colossus,” but is deeply in debt—the stage is now set for the coming of the American Revolution.

It is important to note that for most of colonial history, the American colonists valued their connection with the mother country and considered themselves loyal subjects of the Crown. Many of the colonies were named for members of the British aristocracy, and towns and villages were named after places in England. Colonial merchants were able to trade safely in much of the world, free from Spanish marauders and North African pirates, protected as they were by the Royal Navy. True, they were required to pay duties on products they imported into the colonies, but the American coastline had many accessible ports from Maine to Georgia, and British revenue cutters couldn't patrol them all. Over time as the colonies developed and prospered, the physical difference between the Americans and the mother country contributed to a sense of differentness, if not alienation. That process was enhanced by the colonists’ participation in the French and Indian War.

In the opening passages of the movie The Last of the Mohicans, a scene set in 1757 depicts what was happening in the American colonies during the war that would eventually contribute to the revolution. A British officer, a major, recently arrived in America reports to a British general in Albany, close to the scene of much of the fighting. As he arrives, a group of colonial militiamen are arguing with the general about whether or not the Americans would be allowed to leave the Army and defend their homes in case of Indian attack. At last the general relents, and the leader of the American soldiers says, “You've got yourself a colonial militia, general." The major is astounded that he finds the British Empire “negotiating the terms of service” with its subjects. The general replies, “Yes, one has to reason with these colonials. Tiresome, isn’t it, but that's the lay of the land.”

The point of that exchange has several meanings. First, the Americans were well aware that they were contributing both blood and treasure to support the British Empire, and they expected fair treatment in return. Second, British officers in North America had begun to observe how prosperous the colonists seem to be: no great wealth, but very little poverty. The Americans were well-to-do, and the series of wars the British had fought had run up huge debts. In addition, the fact that at the end of the war the French had been driven out of North America left the British colonies free from danger except for that given by the Indian tribes on their western boundaries. All of those factors were backdrops for the crisis that began to emerge between the British Empire and her American colonies starting around 1763. The Era of the American Revolution was about to begin.

Second, at the end of the war, which the British won handily thanks to the superb generalship of James Wolfe and Lord Jeffrey Amherst in America, the French gave up all their domains in North America, leaving the British in control of everything east of the Mississippi River, including Florida, which remained British until 1783. The war was, however, expensive for the British, as previous wars had also been. At the end of the war the British treasury was exhausted and the nation was deeply in debt, which caused the British to look for new ways to raise revenue. Many British officers who had been in America during the French and Indian War had observed that American cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York had become quite prosperous, and the colonists obviously had resources that could go to direct support of the British Empire.

ft william henryThus, in the years following the French and Indian War, the British began to tax America more heavily than it had done in the past. One historian, in fact, has made a strong case that the French and Indian War was so significant in affecting relations between the American colonists and the mother country that the American Revolution was all but inevitable. That does not necessarily mean that there had to be a Revolutionary War, but it did mean that substantial grievances that arose between the colonists and the mother country would have to be settled in order for the relationship between the Empire and its American colonies to continue. As we know, the result of that conflict was indeed the American Revolution, and we shall proceed to that war in due course.

One event in the movie that took place in 1757 and is historically accurate is the Battle of Fort William Henry (shown at left as it is today) which lies on Lake George in the province of New York. Colonial militia were sent to help defend the fort, and were present when Lieutenant Colonel Monro, the fort’s commander, surrendered to French General Montcalm. As the British soldiers and colonial militia were marching away from the fort, they were attacked by Indian allies of the French, and many were massacred or captured. Historians estimate that upwards of 200 soldiers and civilians were massacred by the Hurons, who also took women and children as slaves. Relations between the colonists and Indians were often tense, and the stories of the Fort William Henry massacre were told throughout the northern colonies.

See Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766.

anderswowsnAs Anderson points out in his enlightening work, the seeds of the American Revolution were sowed at least a decade earlier than is generally assumed. The ongoing struggle between Great Britain and the other European powers, primarily France, had various dimensions. On one hand was the Catholic-Protestant divide, a factor that had entered international war and politics almost as soon as the Protestant Reformation was fomented by Martin Luther early in the 1500s. Because the French had colonized the northern part of North America in the region that is now Canada, a feeling persisted among the mostly Protestant English colonists that a Catholic polity to the North was a threat. Later, during the events leading up to the real revolution, it was feared that English overtures to France might lead to domination of the northern colonies by "papists."

Because the French colony of Canada was structured differently from the English colonies, that threat was less formidable than the colonists tended to believe. The French had focused their attention on trading with Indians and establishing outposts to maximize the opportunities for trade with the various Indian nations. Cities like Montréal and Québec did of course arise, but the explorations of the French into what was perceived as British territory had more of a flavor of exploitation than outright conquest.

At the center of the difficulties between the British and the French were, of course, the Indian tribes. The relations between the Indians and both sides varied from time to time. Clashes between the outlying colonial settlements and Indians who felt their lands were being encroached were common and violent. Because French trading practices tended to be more favorable to the Indians than those of the English or Dutch, many Indian tribes pursued friendly relations with the French. On the other hand, some of the Indian tribes were well aware that the English had come to stay, and reaching peaceful accommodations with them was in their long-term best interest. In any case, the French and Indian War tapped into many complicated emotions among the English colonists, some of which were directed at the French and Indians, while others were directed at the British authorities. When at the end of the war the French threat was removed, it opened the door for the American colonists to explore new paths to their future, a future which was not yet clearly defined, but which was sure to assume new and revolutionary dimensions.

Another important factor about the French and Indian War is that it provided early military experience for young George Washington, who at the outbreak of the war was a 22-year-old major in the Virginia militia. For two years he was involved in the fighting in Western Pennsylvania, sometimes as an aid to British General Edward Braddock. None of the operations conducted by the Virginians in that area were successful, but Washington learned from his own battlefield scrapes and from the mistakes committed by General Braddock. He also became aware of British contempt for colonial officers; on one expedition when he was then a Lt. Col., he had to take orders from a British regular officer who was only a lieutenant or captain. All those lessons learned would later serve him well and strengthen his determination to defeat the British when the revolution actually started 20 years later.

The stage was then sent for the next phase of relations between the American colonies and the British Empire. Historians generally assume that sooner or later, America would become independent from Great Britain, perhaps like Canada and Australia, a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations. In other words, was the revolution really necessary? In general terms that has to be said that both sides handled it badly. The colonists were notorious for evading duties on their imports, and for assuming that everything the British did was directed at them, which was not always the case. The British in turn treated the colonies like dependent children who are misbehaving, and Parliament felt that they deserved punishment. Partly because of the distance between the colonies and the mother country, differences were difficult to resolve, and eventually the war came. But the revolution itself started much earlier.

Sage American History Home | Revolution Home | Updated May 16, 2020