Modern history

Wars and Empires



Although best known as the founding father of the United States, George Washington grew to adulthood as a loyal British subject. He was born in 1732 to a prosperous farm family in eastern Virginia. When George's father died in 1743, he became the ward of his half-brother Lawrence and moved to Lawrence's Mount Vernon estate. Lawrence's father-in-law, William Fairfax, was an agent for Lord Fairfax, one of the chief proprietors of the colony.

When George was sixteen, William hired him as an assistant to a party surveying Lord Fairfax's land on Virginia's western frontier.

Although less well educated and less well positioned than the sons of Virginia's largest planters, George shared their ambitions. As a surveyor, he journeyed west, coming into contact with Indians, both friendly and hostile, as well as other colonists seeking land. George himself began investing in western properties. But when Lawrence Washington died in 1752, twenty- year-old George suddenly became head of a large estate. He gradually expanded Mount Vernon's boundaries and increased its profitability, in part by adding to Mount Vernon's enslaved workforce. He now had the resources to speculate more heavily in western lands.

George was soon appointed an officer in the Virginia militia, and in the fall of 1753 Virginia's governor sent him to warn the French stationed near Lake Erie against encroaching on British territory in the Ohio River valley.

The French commander rebuffed Washington and within six months gained control of a British post near present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and

named it Fort Duquesne. With help from Indians hostile to the French, Lieutenant Colonel Washington launched a surprise attack on Fort Duquesne in May 1754. The initial attack was successful and led the governors of Virginia and North Carolina to send in more troops under the command of the newly promoted Colonel Washington. The French then responded with a much larger force that repelled the British troops, and Washington was forced to surrender.

Colonel Washington gained valuable experience through both successful surveying expeditions and failed military ventures. As a landowner in Virginia and on the western frontier, he had also gained property to defend. Washington's fortunes and his family increased when he married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759 and became stepfather to her two children. An increasingly successful planter, Washington sought to extend Britain's North American empire westward as a way to create opportunities for an expanding population as well as a protective buffer against European and Indian foes.

Like Washington, Herman Husband hoped to improve his lot through hard work and the opportunities offered by the frontier. Born to a modest farm family in Maryland in 1724, he was swept up by the Great Awakening in the early 1740s. He became a New Light Presbyterian but later joined the Society of Friends, or Quakers. In 1754, as Washington headed to the Ohio valley, Husband explored prospects on the North Carolina frontier and decided to settle with his family at Sandy Creek.

Husband proved a successful farmer, but he denounced wealthy landowners and speculators who made it difficult for small farmers to obtain sufficient land. He also challenged established leaders in the Quaker meeting and was among a number of worshippers disowned from the Cane Creek Friends Meeting in 1764. Disputes within radical Protestant congregations were not unusual in this period as members with deep religious convictions chose the liberty of their individual conscience over church authority.

In 1766 a number of Quaker and Baptist farmers joined Husband in organizing the Sandy Creek Association. The group hoped to increase farmers' political clout as a way to combat corruption among local officials. The association disbanded after two years, but its ideas lived on in a group called the Regulation, which brought together frontier farmers who sought to "regulate" government abuse. Husband quickly emerged as one of the organization's chief spokesmen. The Regulators first tried to achieve reform through legal means. They petitioned the North Carolina Assembly and Royal Governor William Tryon, demanding legislative reforms and suing local officials for extorting labor, land, or money from poorer residents.

Husband wrote pamphlets articulating the demands of the Regulators and wielding religious principles to justify resistance to existing laws and customs. In certain ways, his ideas echoed those of colonial leaders like Governor Tryon, who had launched protests in 1765 against British efforts to impose taxes on the colonies. Tryon, however, viewed the Regulators as political foes who threatened the colony's peace and order. In 1768 he had Husband and other Regulators arrested, which confirmed the Regulators' belief that they could not receive fair treatment at the hands of colonial officials. They then turned to extralegal methods to assert their rights, such as taking over courthouses so that legal proceedings against debt-ridden farmers could not proceed. This led the Regulators into open conflict with colonial officials.


of Washingt opportunities and conflicts. Mid-eighteenth-century colonial America offered greater opportunities for social advancement and personal expression than anywhere in Europe, but the efforts of individuals to take advantage of these opportunities often led to tension and discord. The conflicts on the frontiers of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina foreshadowed a broader struggle for land and power within the American colonies. Religious and economic as well as political discord intensified in the mideighteenth century as conflicts within the colonies increasingly occurred alongside challenges to British authority. Individual men and women made difficult choices about where their loyalties lay. Whatever their grievances, most worked hard to reform systems they considered unfair or abusive before resorting to more radical means of instituting change. Some, such as Washington, became revered leaders. Others, like Husband, gained local support but were viewed by those in authority as extremists who threatened to subvert the religious, economic, and political order.

Join, or Die Benjamin Franklin created the first political cartoon in American history to accompany an editorial he wrote in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754. Franklin's cartoon urged the mainland British colonies to unite politically during the French and Indian War. Legend had it that a snake could come back to life if its severed sections were attached before dusk. Library of Congress

A War for Empire, 1754-1763

The war that erupted in the Ohio valley in 1754 sparked an enormous shift in political and economic relations in colonial North America. What began as a small-scale, regional conflict expanded into a brutal and lengthy global war. Known as the French and Indian War in North America and the Seven Years’ War in Great Britain and Europe, the conflict led to a dramatic expansion of British territory in North America, but also to increasing demands from American colonists for more control over their own lives.

The opening Battles

Even before Washington and his troops were defeated in July 1754, the British sought to protect the colonies against threats from the French and the Indians. To limit such threats, the British were especially interested in cementing an alliance with the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, composed of six northeastern tribes. Thus the British invited an official delegation from the Iroquois to a meeting in June 1754 in Albany, New York, with representatives from the New England colonies, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia had drawn up a Plan of Union that would establish a council of representatives from the various colonial assemblies to debate issues of frontier defense, trade, and territorial expansion and to recommend terms mutually agreeable to colonists and Indians. Their deliberations were to be overseen by a presidentgeneralappointed and supported by the British crown.

The Albany Congress created new bonds among a small circle of colonial leaders, but it failed to establish a firmer alliance with the Iroquois or resolve problems of colonial governance. The British government worried that the proposed council would prove too powerful, undermining the authority of the royal government. At the same time, the individual colonies were unwilling to give up any of their autonomy in military, trade, and political matters to some centralized body. Moreover, excluded from Franklin’s Plan of Union, the Iroquois delegates at the Albany Congress broke off talks with the British in early July. The Iroquois became more suspicious and resentful when colonial land agents and fur traders used the Albany meeting as an opportunity to make side deals with individual Indian leaders.

Yet if war was going to erupt between the British and the French, the Iroquois and other Indian tribes could not afford to have the outcome decided by imperial powers alone. For most Indians, contests among European nations for land and power offered them the best chance of survival in the eighteenth century. They gained leverage as long as various imperial powers needed their trade items, military support, and political alliances. This leverage would be far more limited if one European nation controlled most of North America.

The various Indian tribes adopted different strategies. The Delaware, Huron, Miami, and Shawnee nations, for example, allied themselves with the French, hoping that a French victory would stop the far more numerous British colonists from invading their settlements in the Ohio valley. Members of the Iroquois Confederacy, on the other hand, tried to play one power against the other, hoping to win concessions from the British in return for their military support. The Creek, Choctaw, and Cherokee nations also sought to perpetuate the existing stalemate among European powers by bargaining alternately with the British in Georgia and the Carolinas, the French in Louisiana, and the Spaniards in Florida.

Faced with incursions into their lands, some Indian tribes launched preemptive attacks on colonial settlements. Along the northern border of Massachusetts, for example, in present-day New Hampshire, Abenaki Indians attacked British settlements in August 1754, taking settlers captive and marching them north to Canada. There they traded them to the French, who later held the colonists for ransom or exchanged them for their own prisoners of war with the British.

The British government soon decided it had to send additional troops to defend its American colonies against attacks from Indians and intrusions from the French. General Edward Braddock and two regiments arrived in 1755 to expel the French from Fort Duquesne. At the same time, colonial militia units were sent to battle the French and their Indian allies along the New York and New England frontiers. Colonel Washington joined Braddock as his personal aide-de-camp. Within months, however, Braddock’s forces were ambushed, bludgeoned by French and Indian forces, and Braddock was killed. Washington was appointed commander of the Virginia troops, but with limited forces and meager financial support from the Virginia legislature, he had little hope of victory.

Other British forces fared little better during the next three years. Despite having far fewer colonists in North America than the British, the French had established extensive trade networks that helped them sustain a protracted war with support from numerous Indian nations. They also benefited from the help of European and Canadian soldiers as well as Irish conscripts who happily fought their British conquerors. Alternating guerrilla tactics with conventional warfare, the French captured several important forts, built a new one on Lake Champlain, and moved troops deep into British territory. The ineffectiveness of the British and colonial armies also encouraged Indian tribes along the New England and Appalachian frontiers to reclaim land from colonists. Bloody raids devastated many outlying settlements, leading to the death and capture of hundreds of Britain’s colonial subjects.

A Shift to Global War

As the British faced defeat after defeat in North America, European nations began to contest imperial claims elsewhere in the world. In 1756 France and Great Britain officially declared war against each other. Eventually Austria, Russia, Sweden, most of the German states, and Spain allied with France, while Portugal and Prussia sided with Great Britain. Naval warfare erupted in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Battles were also fought in Europe, the West Indies, India, and the Philippines. By the end of 1757, Britain and its allies had been defeated in nearly every part of the globe. The war appeared to be nearing its end, with France in control.

Then in the summer of 1757, William Pitt took charge of the British war effort and transformed the political and military landscape. A man of formidable talents and grand vision, Pitt redirected British efforts toward victory in North America, while Prussian forces held the line in Europe. Pouring more soldiers and arms into the North American campaign along with young and ambitious officers, Pitt energized colonial and British troops.

By the summer of 1758, the tide began to turn. In July, British generals recaptured the fort at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, a key to France’s defense of Canada. Then British troops with George Washington’s aid seized Fort Duquesne, which was renamed Pittsburgh. Other British forces captured Fort Frontenac along the St. Lawrence River, while Prussia defeated French, Austrian, and Russian forces in Europe and Britain gained key victories in India (Map 5.1). In 1759 General Jeffrey Amherst captured Forts

MAP 5.1

The French and Indian War, 1754-1763 Clashes between colonial militia units and French and Indian forces erupted in North America in 1754. The conflict helped launch a wider war that engulfed Europe as well as the West Indies and India. In the aftermath of this first global war, Britain gained control of present-day Canada and India, but France retained its West Indies colonies.

Ticonderoga and Crown Point on Lake Champlain. Then General James Wolfe, with only four thousand men, attacked a much larger French force in Quebec. Despite heavy casualties, including Wolfe himself, the British won Quebec and control of Canada.

The Costs of Victory

Despite Wolfe’s dramatic victory, the war dragged on in North America, Europe, India, and the West Indies for three more years. By then, however, King George III had tired of Pitt’s grand, and expensive, strategy and dismissed him. He then opened peace negotiations with France and agreed to give up a number of conquered territories in order to finalize the Peace of Paris in 1763. Other countries were ready to negotiate as well. To regain control of Cuba and the Philippines, Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain. Meanwhile France rewarded Spain for its support by granting it Louisiana and all French lands west of the Mississippi River. Despite these concessions, the British empire reigned supreme, regaining control of India as well as North America east of the Mississippi, all of Canada, and a number of Caribbean islands.

The wars that erupted between 1754 and 1763 reshaped European empires, transformed patterns of global trade, and initially seemed to tighten bonds between North American residents and the mother country. English colonists in North America as well as their Scottish, Irish, German, and Dutch neighbors celebrated the British victory. Yet the Peace of Paris did not resolve many of the problems that had plagued the colonies before the war, and it created new ones as well.

The incredible cost of the war raised particularly difficult problems. Over the course of the war, the national debt of Great Britain had more than doubled. At the same time, as the North American colonies grew and conflicts erupted along their frontiers, the costs of administering these colonies increased fivefold. With an empire that stretched around the globe, the British crown and Parliament were forced to consider how to pay off war debts, raise funds to administer old and new territories, and keep sufficient currency in circulation for expanding international trade. Just as important, the Peace of Paris ignored the claims of the Iroquois, Shawnee, Creek, and other Indian tribes to the territories that France and Spain turned over to Great Britain. Nor did the treaty settle contested claims among the colonies themselves over lands in the Ohio valley and elsewhere along British North America’s new frontiers.

Battles and Boundaries on the Frontier

The sweeping character of the British victory encouraged thousands of colonists to move farther west, into lands once controlled by France. This exacerbated tensions on the southern and western frontiers of British North America, tensions that escalated in the final years of the war and continued long after the Peace of Paris was signed.

In late 1759, for example, the Cherokee nation, reacting to repeated incursions on their hunting grounds, dissolved their long-term trade agreement with South Carolina. Cherokee warriors attacked backcountry farms and homes, leading to counterattacks by British troops. The fighting continued into 1761, when Cherokees on the Virginia frontier launched raids on colonists there. General Jeffrey Amherst then sent 2,800 troops to invade Cherokee territory and end the conflict. The soldiers sacked fifteen villages; killed men, women, and children; and burned acres of fields.

Although British raids diminished the Cherokees’ ability to mount a substantial attack, sporadic assaults on frontier settlements continued for years. These conflicts fueled resentments among backcountry settlers against political leaders in more settled regions of the colonies who rarely provided sufficient funds or soldiers for frontier defense. The raids also intensified hostility toward Indians.

A more serious conflict erupted in the Ohio valley when Indians there realized the consequences of Britain’s victory in Quebec. As the British took over French forts along the Great Lakes and in the Ohio valley in 1760, they immediately antagonized local Indian groups by hunting and fishing on tribal lands and depriving villages of much- needed food. British traders also defrauded Indians on numerous occasions and ignored traditional obligations of gift giving. They refused to provide kettles, gunpowder, or weapons to the Indians and thereby caused near starvation among many tribes that depended on hunting and trade.

The harsh realities of the British regime led some Indians to seek a return to ways of life that preceded the arrival of white men. An Indian visionary named Neolin, known to the British as the Delaware Prophet, preached that Indians had been corrupted by contact with Europeans and urged them to purify themselves by returning to their ancient traditions, abandoning white ways, and reclaiming their lands. Neolin was a prophet, not a warrior, but his message inspired others, including an Ottawa leader named Pontiac.

When news arrived in early 1763 that France was about to cede all of its North American lands to Britain and Spain, Pontiac convened a council of more than four hundred Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Huron leaders near Fort Detroit. Drawing on Neolin’s vision, he mobilized support to drive out the British. In May 1763, Pontiac’s forces laid siege to Detroit and soon gained the support of eighteen Indian nations. They then attacked Fort Pitt and other British frontier outposts and attacked white settlements along the Virginia and Pennsylvania frontier.

Accounts of violent encounters with Indians on the frontier circulated throughout the colonies and sparked resentment among local colonists as well as British troops. Many colonists did not bother to distinguish between friendly and hostile Indians, and General Amherst claimed that all Indians deserved extermination “for the good of mankind.” A group of men from Paxton Creek, Pennsylvania, agreed. In December 1763, they raided families of peaceful, Christian Conestoga Indians near Lancaster, killing thirty. Protests from eastern colonists infuriated the Paxton Boys, who then marched on Philadelphia demanding protection from “savages” on the frontier.

Although violence on the frontier slowly subsided, neither side had achieved victory. Without French support, Pontiac and his followers ran out of guns and ammunition and had to retreat. About the same time, Benjamin Franklin negotiated a truce between the Paxton Boys and the Pennsylvania authorities, but it did not settle the fundamental issues over protection of western settlers. These conflicts convinced the British that the government could not endure further costly frontier clashes. So in October 1763, the crown issued a proclamation forbidding colonial settlement west of a line running down the Appalachian Mountains to create a buffer between Indians and colonists (Map 5.2).

The Proclamation Line of 1763 denied colonists the right to settle west of the Appalachian Mountains. Instituted just months after the Peace of Paris was signed, the Proclamation Line frustrated colonists who sought the economic benefits won by a long and bloody war. Small farmers, backcountry settlers, and squatters had hoped to improve their lot by acquiring rich farmlands, and wealthy land speculators like Washington had staked claims to property no longer threatened by the French or their Indian allies. Now both groups were told to stay put.

MAP 5.2

British Conflicts with Indians, 1758-1763, and the Proclamation Line The entrance of British troops into former French territory in the Ohio River valley following the French and Indian War fueled conflicts with Indian nations. Colonists in Pennsylvania and the Carolinas also battled with Indians, including tribes who were allies or remained neutral during the war. Parliament established the Proclamation Line to limit westward expansion and thereby diminish such hostilities.

Conflicts over Land and Labor Escalate

Conflicts among colonists and with Britain were not confined to frontier regions. Land riots directed against the leasing policies of landlords and the greed of speculators had plagued New York’s Hudson valley and New Jersey before the war, and these struggles continued into the 1760s. New clashes also occurred in the Carolinas as pioneer settlers like Herman Husband clashed with landlords and speculators there.

Even before the French and Indian War ended, the owners of large estates along the Hudson River in New York State raised rents and reduced the rights of tenants. These enormous estates had been granted in two periods. In 1629 the Dutch government established a patroon system by which men who provided fifty adult settlers to New Amsterdam were granted vast estates. Then in the early 1680s, the newly installed English governor Thomas Dongan granted lands to a select group of Englishmen. Some of these estates encompassed nearly 400 square miles, far larger than the island of Manhattan. In the early eighteenth century, the titles to some of these estates were challenged by small landowners and tenants, but even where legitimate titles existed, tenants declared a moral right to own the land they had long farmed. The manors and estates of the Hudson valley, they claimed, were more appropriate to a feudal government than to an enlightened empire.

Farmers in neighboring New Hampshire were drawn into battles over land when the kings Privy Council in London decided in 1764 that the Green Mountains belonged to New York rather than New Hampshire. Landlords along the Hudson River hoped to expand eastward into this region, but the farmers already living there claimed they had bought the land in good faith and deserved to keep it.

Following the Privy Council’s decision, groups of farmers in New Hampshire waged guerrilla warfare against New York authorities, large landowners, and New York farmers who now claimed land that others had already cleared and settled. These Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Allen, refused to recognize New York authorities as legitimate in the region and established their own local governments and popular courts.

Inspired by the Green Mountain Boys and earlier uprisings in New Jersey, tenants in the Hudson valley banded together in 1765—1766. Under the leadership of William Prendergast, a group of tenants calling themselves Levellers refused to pay rent and instead claimed freehold title to the land they farmed. New York tenants petitioned the colonial assembly and sought redress in a variety of ways. But landowners refused to negotiate, and Prendergast concluded that “there was no law for poor men.”

In many ways, the beliefs of Allen, Prendergast, and their followers echoed those of Herman Husband and the North Carolina Regulators. All of these groups developed visible, well-organized networks of supporters, targeted specific landlords, sought redress first through colonial courts and assemblies, and then established popular militias and other institutions to govern themselves and to challenge those in authority. These challenges included attacks on property: Burning barns, attacking livestock, and pulling down fences were common practices among irate farmers.

Conflicts in North Carolina escalated when the colonial assembly, dominated by the eastern slaveholding elite, passed a measure to build a stately mansion for Governor Tryon with public funds. Outraged frontier farmers, many already in debt and paying high taxes, withheld their taxes, took over courthouses, and harassed corrupt local officials. By the spring of 1771, faced with what he viewed as open rebellion on his western frontier, Governor Tryon recruited a thousand militiamen to confront the Regulators. In May, armed conflict erupted. The Regulators were defeated, and half a dozen leaders were publicly hanged. Herman Husband managed to escape and headed to the Pennsylvania frontier to establish a new homestead for his family. There, too, he met frontier farmers angered by their lack of political representation, economic opportunity, and protection from Indians.


• How did the French and Indian War and the subsequent peace treaty affect relations between Britain and its North American subjects?

• How did the French and Indian War and the increasing power of large landowners contribute to conflict between average colonists and colonial elites?

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