COLONIAL IDENTITIES

Like the Indians, colonists emerged from the Seven Years’ War with a heightened sense of collective identity. Before the war, the colonies had been largely isolated from one another. Outside of New England, more Americans probably traveled to England than from one colony to another. In 1751, Governor George Clinton of New York had called for a general conference on Indian relations, but only three colonies bothered to send delegates. The Albany Plan of Union of 1754, drafted by Benjamin Franklin at the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, envisioned the creation of a Grand Council composed of delegates from each colony, with the power to levy taxes and deal with Indian relations and the common defense. Rejected by the colonial assemblies, whose powers Franklin’s proposal would curtail, the plan was never sent to London for approval.

Participation in the Seven Years’ War created greater bonds among the colonies. But the war also strengthened colonists’ pride in being members of the British empire. It has been said that Americans were never more British than in 1763. Colonial militiamen and British regulars fought alongside each other against the French. Tensions developed between the professional British military and the often undisciplined American citizen-soldiers, but the common experience of battle and victory also forged bonds between them. For much of the century, New Englanders had called for the conquest of Canada as a blow for “Protestant freedom” against “popish slavery.” Now that this had been accomplished, British victory in the Seven Years’ War seemed a triumph of liberty over tyranny. The defeat of the Catholic French reinforced the equation of British nationality, Protestantism, and freedom.

In fact, however, after 1763 Britain’s global empire was not predominantly Protestant or British or free. It now included tens of thousands of French Catholics and millions of persons in India governed as subjects rather than as citizens. The English statesman Edmund Burke wondered whether British liberty could be reconciled with rule over this “vast, heterogeneous, intricate mass of interests.” Burke was almost alone in seeing the newly expanded empire as a challenge to the principles of British freedom. But soon, the American colonists would come to believe that membership in the empire jeopardized their liberty. When they did, they set out on a road that led to independence.

REVIEW QUESTIONS

1. Why was Father Junipero Serra such a controversial and significant figure?

2. How did the ideas of republicanism and liberalism differ in eighteenth century British North America?

3. Three distinct slave systems were well entrenched in Britain’s mainland colonies. Describe the main characteristics of each system.

4. What were the bases of the colonists’ sense of a collective British identity in the eighteenth century?

5. What ideas generated by the American Enlightenment and the Great Awakening prompted challenges to religious, social, and political authorities in the British colonies?

6. How involved were colonial merchants in the Atlantic trading system, and what was the role of the slave trade in their commerce?

7. We often consider the impact of the slave trade only on the United States, but its impact extended much further. How did it affect West African nations and society, other regions of the New World, and the nations of Europe?

8. Using eighteenth-century concepts, explain who had the right to vote in the British colonies and why the restrictions were justified.

FREEDOM QUESTIONS

1. Although many British colonists claimed theirs was an “empire of freedom,” most African-Americans disagreed. Why would African Americans instead have viewed Spain as a beacon of freedom, and what events in the eighteenth century demonstrated this?

2. The eighteenth century saw the simultaneous expansion of both freedom and slavery in the North American colonies. Explain the connection between these two contradictory forces.

3. Explain how the ideals of republican liberty and liberal freedoms became the widespread rallying cries of people from all social classes in the British empire.

4. Today we treasure freedom of expression in all its forms, and codify these rights in the First Amendment. Why were these freedoms considered dangerous in the eighteenth century and thus not guaranteed to everyone in the British empire?

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