World Civilizations

AMERICA: A Narrative History

From Empire to Independence
Chapter Five



Seldom if ever since the days of Elizabeth had England thrilled with such pride as in the closing years of the Great War for Empire. In 1760 the vigorous, young George III ascended to the throne and confirmed once again the Hanoverian succession. And in 1763 the Peace of Paris, even though it brought England less than some would have liked, confirmed the possession of a great new empire spanning the globe. Most important, the Peace of Paris effectively ended the French imperial domain in North America. This in turn influenced the future development of the sprawling region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River and from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson's Bay. The maturing mainland colonies began to experience dynamic agricultural and commercial growth that enormously increased their importance to the British economy. Yet the North American colonies remained both extraordinarily diverse in composition and outlook and peculiarly averse to cooperative efforts. That they would manage to unify themselves and declare independence in 1775 was indeed surprising.

In 1763 the colonists shared in the ebullience of patriotism generated by the great victory over the French. But the moment of euphoria was all too brief. It served to mask festering resentments and new problems that were the heritage of the war. Underneath the pride in the British Empire an American nationalism was maturing. Ben Franklin foresaw a time, he said, when the capital of the British Empire would be on the Hudson instead of the Thames. Americans were beginning to think and speak of themselves more as Americans than as English or British. With a great new land to exploit, they could look to the future with confidence.

Many Americans had a new sense of importance after starting and fighting a vast world war with such success. Some harbored resentment justified or not, at the haughty air of British soldiers and slights received at their hands, and many in the early stages of the war lost their awe of British soldiers, who were at such a loss in frontier fighting. One Massachusetts soldier expressed some puzzlement that he should be expected to "stand still to be shot at" in the field rather than take cover.

Recent studies of the Seven Years' War reveal that many Americans became convinced as well of their moral superiority to their British allies. Ninety percent of the New England provincial soldiers were probably volunteers, and most of them were sons of moderately prosperous and tenaciously pious farm families. The proportion of volunteers was lower in New York and much lower in Virginia until pay rates and bounties were raised in a successful effort to boost recruitment.

At least one-third of military age New England males participated in the fighting. For them, army life was both a revelation and an opportunity. From their isolated farms they converged to form huge army camps--hives of thousands of strangers living in overcrowded and disease-infested conditions. Although they admired the courage and discipline of the British redcoats under fire, New Englanders abhorred the carefree cursing, whoring, and Sabbath breaking they observed among British troops. But most upsetting were the daily shrieks and cries resulting from the brutal punishments imposed by the British leaders on their wayward men. Minor offenses might earn hundreds of lashes and a thousand was the standard punishment for desertion. One American soldier recorded in his diary in 1759 that "there was a man whipped to death belonging to the Light Infantry. They say he had twenty-five lashes after he was dead." The war thus heightened the New Englanders' sense of their separate identity and of their greater worthiness to be God's chosen people. The Puritan utopia might be a lost cause, but the Puritan ideal remained resilient.

Imperial forces nevertheless had borne the burnt of the war and had won it for the colonists, who had supplied men and materials, sometimes reluctantly, and who persisted in treading with the enemy. Molasses in the French West Indies, for instance, continued to draw New England ships like flies. The trade was too important for the colonists to give up, but was more than Pitt could tolerate. Along with naval patrols, one important means of disrupting this trade was the use of "writs of assistance," general search warrants that allowed officers to enter any place during daylight hours to seek evidence of illegal trade. In 1760 Boston merchants hired James Otis to fight the writs in the courts. He lost, but in the process advanced the provocative argument that any act of Parliament that authorized such "instruments of slavery" violated the British constitution and was therefore void. This was a very radical idea for its time. Otis sought to overturn a major tenet of the English legal system, namely that acts of Parliament were by their very nature constitutional.

Neither at Albany in 1754 nor later in the war had the colonies been able to form a concerted plan of action. They had relied on the imperial authorities to name a commander-in-chief, to formulate strategy, to bear most of the cost, and to set up superintendents of Indian affairs north and south. The assemblies had used the exigencies of war, though, to extract still more power from the governors and turn themselves more than ever into little parliaments.

The peace that secured an empire also laid upon the British ministry a burden of new problems. How should they manage the defense and governance of the new possessions? What should be done about the western lands inhabited by Indians but coveted by whites? How were they to service an unprecedented debt built up during the war and bear the new burdens of administration and defense? And--the thorniest problem of all, as it turned out--what role should the colonies play in all this? The problems were of a magnitude and complexity to challenge men of the greatest statesmanship and vision, but those qualities were rare among the ministers of George III.


World Civilizations

RESEARCH: Ralph'sWorld Civilizations
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