Some time ago I posted a short post on the historiographic essay and an annotated bibliography I was working on for the essay. This was a project I was working on for class and now the class is over and a few weeks have gone by, I thought I’d post the final paper. What you see below is an historiographic essay looking at the Seven Years’ War in America. (Minus footnotes because they didn’t transfer – WordPress as good as it is frustrates me sometimes.)
Great War for Empire, The Seven Years’ War in America, or The French and Indian War, whatever one calls the conflict between Great Britain and France that began in 1754 and ended in 1763 there is no doubt that the war played a major role in the development of the North American continent. Just as historians have defined the beginning and the end differently and have chosen to call it by different names, the meaning of the war has been interpreted differently depending upon the historians’ point of view. This paper seeks to examine how the war has been studied and interpreted and how its meaning has changed as the study of American history has evolved through the years.
George Bancroft is an early historian to recognize the connection of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. In his History of the United States, written in twelve volumes between 1834 and 1882, the war was seen in terms of Protestant England versus Catholic France. Bancroft was from New England and in the true Romantic spirit saw the development of the United States as part of an overall plan originated by Divine Providence (God). His writings have strong nationalistic overtones painting a picture of American’s “intense love of liberty”.
As a counter balance, historian Richard Hildreth wrote a more analytical or “scientific” interpretation of American history. His History of the United States of America (1849) had no reference to “divinely ordained progress” but saw the United States as a collection of groups all following their own interests. At the time of Hildreth’s writings the study of American History had yet to enter into the “age of realism” so his interpretation was not well received.
Other narrative historians from the period engaged in what some have called, “history as drama”. Francis Parkman’s, Montcalm and Wolf: The French and Indian War (1884) depicts the war with Catholic France representing absolutism and Protestant England standing for liberty. Parkman (so C. Vann Woodward tells us in his introduction), “sought by creative imagination to bring the past to life” so Montcalm and Wolfe is filled with “lush descriptions of wilderness scenery”. Heroes, villains, and savages fill the pages as Parkman certainly sees the war as, “a conflict between the forces of light and the forces of darkness”.
Lawrence Henry Gipson, a leader in the “imperial school” where American History was studied through the lens of the British Empire, is best known for his fifteen volume The British Empire before the American Revolution. Two volumes are subtitled “The Great War for Empire: The Years of Defeat, 1754-1757” and “The Great War for Empire: The Victorious Years, 1758-1760” though he sums up his argument best in an article for Political Science Quarterly “The American Revolution as an Aftermath of the Great War for Empire, 1754-1763”. In what John Murrin called a “counterfactual” argument, Gipson certainly sees the American Revolution as an aftermath of the French and Indian War. Calling Gipson’s work “Anglophilic and Anglocentric” Fred Anderson, has criticized him for not connecting the war adequately to the American Revolution. This is interesting because, at least as Murrin claims, Gipson believes that had Canada remained French, the colonies would have remained dependent on Britain fir protection.
Moving into more modern interpretations of the French and Indian War, Francis Jennings is one of the first to examine the role of Native Americans during the war. In Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies & Tribes in the Seven Years War in America (1988) Jennings writes that he is writing a “correction” of the record as historians in the past have “botched” the story of the war. The main thrust of Jennings argument though, is that the colonists resistance to Britain that became the American Revolution can be seen during the Seven Years War and not after as some argued.
Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, published in 2000, is probably the most authoritative one volume current work on the war. Professor of History at the University of Colorado, Anderson emphasizes the Seven Years’ War as “decisive” in American history. He argues that changes within the British Empire brought about by the war led directly to the American Revolution. Over 700 pages, Anderson takes the book beyond the war’s traditional end in 1763. Rather, he follows events in the colonies up to 1766, concluding the book with the repeal of the Stamp Act. Anderson has written or edited several books on the Seven Years’ War including The War that Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War a companion book to the PBS documentary.
Anderson has also written, “Why Did Colonial New Englanders Make Bad Soldiers? Contractual Principles and Military Conduct during the Seven Year’s War” in which he examines the importance of “contractual principles” in combating “unwarranted pretension of superiors”. Anderson agues that this is reflective of how colonists felt toward authority, especially the authority of the crown. This eventually led to the British believing that Americans would not make good soldiers while putting American colonists under arms giving them military experience but also exposing them to imperial authority. In A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War (1984), he further contrasts British regulars and Massachusetts volunteers stipulating that the colonists recognized that a growing difference had occurred between colony and mother country. He also argues that the shared experiences would help unite the colonists when later protests broke out against British treatment on the eve of the American Revolution.
In studying aspects of the war, Ian Steele has called the massacre at Fort William Henry “powerful in American folk memory”. His study Betrayals: Fort William Henry & the “Massacre” (1990) focuses on Fort William Henry recognizing the actions and motives of the British, French, and Indians. Unlike Parkman’s natives, Steele’s are presented as whole peoples with thoughts and actions inherent to themselves, not reactionary caricatures. Ben Hughes followed in Steele’s footsteps with his 2011 study The Siege of Fort William Henry: A Year on the Northeastern Frontier. Hughes also focuses on three parties involved however his distinctions are Europeans, Indians, and American colonists, with an examination of the motivations of each.
James Titus in The Old Dominion at War: Society, Politics, and Warfare in Late Colonial Virginia (1991) argues that while Virginians may have been involved in the beginning of the French and Indian War, the attitudes of the Virginia ruling elite and attempts to draft the “lesser sorts” into the armies, combined with the resistance of the “lesser sorts” led to a reordering of Virginia society which made the American Revolution much more likely.
Few American historians have examined the French side of the Seven Years’ War. Frank Brecher in Losing a Continent: France’s North American Policy, 1753-1763 (1998), credits France’s loss to Louis XV’s largely “hands off” policy allowing Madame Pompadour to develop a “hands on” involvement in governmental affairs. Brecher too seems to see the war as a prelude to the American Revolution, however, he challenges the myth that it was Benjamin Franklin’s diplomatic skills that brought the French into the American Revolution on the side of the colonies. He claims that France’s long-term strategy at the end of the Seven Years War to degrade English power left the door “half open” to France’s involvement.
When it comes to interpreting the war’s effect on the backcountry, Matthew C. Ward argues that it was a transformative event for Virginia and Pennsylvania. In Breaking the Backcountry: The Seven Years’ War in Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1754-1765 (2003), he argues that there are four specific areas that the war transformed colonial life. It increased the powers of the colonial governments in Virginia and Pennsylvania, it changed the relationship between the colonies and Great Britain, it changed attitudes toward Native Americans, and finally it shaped new social structures in the backcountry of both states providing a sense of cohesion during the American Revolution not seen in the Carolinas.
Interpretation of the Seven Years’ War transformed beginning in 2004 with the start of the 250th anniversary of the war. Previous scholarship, “portrayed [the war] consistently as a military and imperial conflict”. Cultures in Conflict: The Seven Years’ War in North America (2007) takes an ethno-, cultural, and social history approach. Born out of an anniversary conference that took place on the campus of Shenandoah University, in Winchester, Virginia, Cultures is a collection of essays examining various aspects of the war. Fred Anderson’s essay “Introduction: Old Forts, New Perspectives-Thoughts on the Seven Years’ War and Its Significance” argues that the War is a significant turning point in American History leading to the Revolution. In addition, his footnotes provide a mini historiography identifying major works and their strengths and weaknesses. Paul Mapp in “British Culture and the Changing Character of the Mid-Eighteenth Century British Empire” examines Britain’s evolution from a mercantile empire to a territorial one and sees the Seven Years War as an expression of this change. Mapp admits that Britain’s effort to exercise greater control over the colonies contributed to the American Revolution but stated that discussion is better slated for a volume on the American Revolution.
“Great Power Confrontation or Clash of Cultures?: France’s War against Britain and Its Antecedents” by Jonathan R. Dull, argues that the War was not just another in the long history of conflicts between Britain and France but an expression of the difference between the political cultures between the two countries. For Dull France’s culture of war, Catholicism, and state power conflicted with England’s aggressive culture of trade, pursuit of wealth, and suspicion of the French monarchy.
Timothy J Shannon in “War, Diplomacy, and Culture: The Iroquois Experience in the Seven Years’ War” examines the response of the Iroquois to the war. He surmises that the Iroquois were so acculturated to the Anglo-American presence that a nativist movement such as the one that led to Pontiac’s War was unthinkable. Eric Hinderaker looked at the Ohio Indian experience in “Declaring Independence: The Ohio Indians and the Seven Years’ War”. Citing their lack of unity as crucial to the origins of the war, Hinderaker then related their attempt at securing independence from the Iroquois and eventually achieving unity, albeit too late to have an impact on either the French or the British empires.
“How the Seven Years’ War Turned Americans into (British) Patriots” by Woody Holton challenges the notion that the Seven Years War led automatically to the American Revolution. Indicating that one could make the case that the Seven Years’ War made the American Revolution less likely, Holton outlines the way that British Americans brimmed with imperial pride after the war and ways that counterbalanced that pride as tensions grew between Britain and the colonies.
Cultures closing essay “The Seven Years’ War in Canadian History and Memory” by Catherine Desbarats and Allan Greer is a historiography of the war from the Canadian perspective.
Alfred A. Cave’s The French and Indian War (2004), part of Greenwood Guides to Historic Events, 1500-1900 series had the potential to provide a good overview of the war. Cave places the war in context providing a brief background of other colonial wars leading up to the French and Indian War, and addresses other aspects of the war updating the reader on current (to the time) scholarship. Chapters on Natives, French and Indian relations, Colonists, and Britain’s Imperial struggles provide a well rounded interpretation. However, shoddy editing and proofreading distract from the historical narrative and undermines the authority of the book.
A better overall introduction to the war is Walter R. Borneman’s The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America (2006). Borneman agrees that the French and Indian war set up the American Revolution. In writing that has a popular feel to it, Borneman highlights many of the personalities of the war including William Pitt, George Washington, Edward Braddock, and Robert Rogers. Like Cave, Borneman does a good job of placing the French and Indian War in context with other colonial wars.
Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763 (2005) by William M. Fowler, Jr. takes a more global view of the war. Fowler argues that the split between Britain and her colonies had happened years before and that the true significance of the Seven Years’ War was as a world shaping event. On the grand scale it defined the limits of the French and British empires around the world. In North America it was the beginning of the decline of the native power in the United States and Canada as the natives could no longer play the British and the French off against one another.
Stephen Brumwell, author of Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (2002) and White Devil: A True Story of War, Savagery, and Vengeance in Colonial America (2004) views the French and Indian War as certainly having had huge implications of the future of Britain’s American colonies. While part of an overall ongoing English/French struggle, Brumwell claims that, “Historians have typically viewed New France’s defeat…as a fait accompli”. Because of this the role of Britain’s soldiers, the Redcoats, have been overlooked, which is the focus of his study. He also points out that while most see the French and Indian War as a prelude to the American Revolution that also is not a “fait accompli”. At the end of the French and Indian War Americans were, “identifying more closely with Britain then ever before”. While he doesn’t go into great detail he credits British policies with “squandering” such feelings, leading to the Revolution.
If the Seven Years War was a “decisive” point in American History, Thomas E. Crocker views the Braddock campaign as a “decisive” point in the Seven Years War. In Braddock’s March: How the Man Sent to Seize a Continent Changed American History (2009), he argues that the “unknowns” assembled by Braddock would, years later, form the nucleus out of which the Continental Army would be formed. It would also be the first use of rifles and shatter the myth of invincibility of the British regulars. On the political side the “burden-sharing” between the colonies and England which would eventually lead to cost sharing (taxation) and revolution.
One of Crocker’s more controversial arguments is that the Carlyle House conference, held on April 14, 1755, precursor to the Continental Congress. Stating that the royal governors were sensitive to the same people who elected the delegates to the Continental Congress and that they were sensitive to funding Braddock’s expedition by taxing the colonists, Crocker points out that it, “framed the issues that were to rend the Anglo-American political fabric over the ensuing twenty-odd years”. While he admits that the Carlyle House Congress represented a narrower base, the elements that would lead to the American Revolution were already in place.
David Preston would agree with Crocker about the importance of Braddock’s Campaign but argues that the story so far has been told badly. In his Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution (2015), Preston states that, “no study has yet fully explored French and Indian perspectives”. In addition, the British perspective, “is in need of a complete retelling, for factual errors, untested arguments, myths and outright fictions” have corrupted “modern renderings”. Preston’s footnote refers the reader to Crocker’s book.
David A. Clary’s George Washington’s First War: His Early Military Adventures (2011) recognizes the importance of the Seven Years War, but for a different reason. While Clary does see the war as the first real world war, his focus is on how Washington’s experiences sets him on the road to become a Founding Father. For Clary, understanding Washington’s experiences is key to understanding the Washington who would be commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution.
Historians have been telling the story of the Seven Years’ War in America since shortly after the United States was founded. While each of them may come up with slightly different conclusions virtually all agree that the war played a significant role in changing the British colonies in America. They all also to one degree or another recognize that the war played a role in the American Revolution, but as historical thought and study changed so to did historical analysis of the war. We have seen a movement from a “grand narrative” to a cultural study as well as “micro-histories” as historians examine smaller aspects / campaigns. This shows an ongoing quest to explain the process that had fundamental impacts on shaping North America.
Anderson, Fred. A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers & Society in the Seven Years’ War. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
__________. Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
__________. The War that Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. New York: Viking, 2005.
__________. “Why Did Colonial New Englanders Make Bad Soldiers? Contractual Principles and Military Conduct during the Seven Year’s War.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3 (July 1981): 395-417.
Bancroft, George. History of the United States of America, Volume II. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888.
Borneman, Walter. The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Breecher, Frank W. Losing a Continent: France’s North American Policy, 1753-1763. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Brumwell, Stephen. White Devil: A True Story of War, Savagery, and Vengeance in Colonial America. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2004.
__________. Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Cave, Alfred A. The French and Indian War. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Clary, David A. George Washington’s First War: His Early Military Adventures. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
Crocker, Thomas E. Braddock’s March: How the Man Sent to Seize a Continent Changed American History. Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, 2009.
Fowler Jr., William M. Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763. New York: Walker & Company, 2005.
Gipson, Lawrence Henry. “The American Revolution as an Aftermath of the Great War for the Empire, 1754-1763”. Political Science Quarterly 65, No. 1: 86-104.
Hamilton, Edward P. Fort Ticonderoga: Key to a Continent. Fort Ticonderoga, NY: Fort Ticonderoga, 1964.
Hildreth, Richard. History of the United States of America, Volume 2. New York: Harper Brothers, 1882.
Hofstra, Warren R., ed. Cultures in Conflict: The Seven Years’ War in North America. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
Hughes, Ben. The Siege of Fort William Henry: A Year on the Northeastern Frontier. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2011.
Jennings, Francis. Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies & Tribes in the Seven Years War in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988.
Murrin, John M. “The French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the Counterfactual Hypothesis: Reflections on Lawrence Henry Gipson and John Shy”. Reviews in American History Vol. 1, No. 3 (Sep., 1973), 307-318.
Parkman, Francis. Montcalm and Wolfe: The French & Indian War. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press, 1984.
Preston, David. Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Titus, James. The Old Dominion at War: Society, Politics, and Warfare in Late Colonial Virginia. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Ward, Matthew C. Breaking the Backcountry: The Seven Years’ War in Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1754-1765. Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2003.