(HOST) On Independence Day, here’s commentator Peter Gilbert to tell us about the war that made Independence Day possible. It’s been nicknamed the War that Made America — and it’s not the American Revolution.
(GILBERT) Over the next few years, you’ll be hearing about anniversaries and re-enactments of events that happened 250 years ago at places familiar to Vermonters – like Ft. Ticonderoga, Crown Point, Lake George, Lake Champlain, and Quebec. You’ll be hearing about people like Roger’s Rangers and Generals Wolfe and Montcalm. What was the context in which all these events happened?
They were all part of a war that started about twenty years before the American Revolution – from 1754 to 1763. We call it the French and Indian War – because the war was between British colonists, British forces, and Indian allies on the one hand and French forces and their Indian allies on the other. The fighting and related maneuvers happened on what was then the western frontier – in Pennsylvania, Virginia, New York, Vermont, and elsewhere. French garrisons and land claims on the western edge of the thirteen British colonies were challenges to British claims and obstacles to westward migration of British colonists.
The French and Indian War was only part of a global conflict – in fact, the first world war – called the Seven Years War. The French and Indian War was essentially that part of the Seven Years’ War fought in the North American theatre. It started in 1754 with twenty-two-year old George Washington and a small force of militia trying to drive the French out of the Ohio Country. They hoped to capture Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh), but when it proved too strong, Washington quickly built Fort Necessity. The French attacked and captured the fort. Washington surrendered, and he and his troops were sent packing back to Virginia, promising not to fight again for a year. One year later, he returned under the command of General Braddock, who was ambushed near Fort Duquesne and killed, along with many of his British troops; Washington – and his reputation – survived the battle known as Braddock’s Defeat.
The French may have won that battle, but their eventual defeat in the French and Indian War meant that France had no involvement in eastern North America south of Canada; the field now belonged to the British. But in Britain’s victory lay the seeds of the American Revolution. The costs of the British army protecting the colonies’ grew, as did colonialists’ resentment of the higher taxes to pay for their protectors, and their feelings of autonomy and self-identity.
Even as the French and Indian War laid the groundwork that made our country’s independence possible, the larger Seven Years War helped found the British Empire. Britain initially saw the Seven Years War as principally a European matter, if admittedly one that played itself out around the world. But British Prime Minister William Pitt recognized in the conflict a golden opportunity to establish an empire – and he took it. While the American colonies broke away comparatively early, other British colonies around the world (including India) would not gain independence until the middle of the twentieth century.
Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.