History is what has happened, in act and thought: it also is what historian’s make of it,’ an insight from historian Bernard Bailyn, in The Idea of Atlantic History. Historians continually seek out new perspectives through research resulting in a more comprehensive understanding of a given topic. For example, there are countless military, social, economic, political factors that went in to the start, middle, end and post-war of the Seven Years’ War. These same ingredients combined to stir thoughts of independence and culminated years later into the American Revolutionary War. Every historian who has written on the subject has relayed facts, sited evidence and promoted their own theory on what transpired. Nationalist or Whig historian, George Bancroft, in1834, wrote, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, which was a providential and romantic account about the origins of the United States and its revolution which is in stark contrast to Progressive historian, Charles Beard’s, Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, written in 1913. With each changing perspective, the reader learns something a bit different and is left to decipher what he wants to take away from it.
E.H. Carr asked ‘What is history?’ He explained that ‘It is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and past.’1 He believed that the society in which a historian lives, cannot but influence his writing of the past. Carr carried this argument further by adding he did not believe a historian could objectively write just the facts. ‘The historian will always be subject to his own personal interpretation regardless of the facts.’2 A good example of this is Frederick Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.” He was a product of his time and it influenced his writing. According to Gordon Wood, “For Turner, the New World that the Europeans came to in the seventeenth century was ‘virgin soil,’ an ‘unexploited wilderness’ out of which American distinctiveness was born. The Indians had no place in it. No colonial historian could write that way anymore.” 3 Historiographer, Ernst Breisach describes a historian’s writing as a ‘historical nexus’ in that ‘every important new discovery of the past changes how we think about the present and what we expect of the future: on the other hand, every change in the condition of the present and in the expectations for the future revise our perception of the past.4 He further explains the importance of historiography with, “Once the link between history writing and the human condition is grasped in all its complexity, simple solutions vanish.”5
All of this is a lot to take in before delving into Seven Years’ War history research. Combine this along with the fact that even the name of this war causes a bit of confusion. It has multiple names, not the least of which is the Seven Years’ War, in spite of it lasting nine years. It is known as the French Indian War, Bancroft refers to it as, The First Phase of the American Revolution, Arthur R. Ropes describes it as, The Great Diplomatic War, Lawrence Henry Gipson refers to it as The Great War for the Empire, Winston Churchill, The First World War and Baugh, The Global Seven Years’ War. Beyond this multiplicity, it is also prudent to understand the context in which the historians have written. With all of this in mind, this paper will attempt to identify historians within their historiography school and discuss their views on the Seven Years’ War and how it impacted the colonist. In spite of all the different interpretations and perspectives of the who, what and when’s of the war, and its impact, there is one tangential factor that binds them. This particular war set off a chain of events and emotions that somehow culminated into a revolution. In the process of understanding the historiography of Seven Year’s War it became evident that historiography itself mirrors the essence of what the nation actually became: a nonhomogeneous group of people slowly and constantly evolving with different ideas and philosophies that somehow came together to form a community with the liberty to speak and write what they choose.
Historian George Bancroft is referred to by some as the “father of American history.” He wrote ten-volumes about The Origins of America, over a fifty-year period. Born in the year 1800, Bancroft actually lived with the people who had first and second-hand knowledge of the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. For example, he is the only historian who had been able to sit down with James Madison and received a first-hand account of the Continental Convention. Bancroft’s nationalistic narrative held that the colonies looked to and depended on God to help guide them to their destiny. He wrote that the United States was special in that it was capitalizing on freedom, democracy and equality. He believed this model was something the world would emulate. Bancroft wrote that ‘The successes of the Seven Years’ War were the triumphs of Protestantism…Individuality was the groundwork of new theories in politics, ethics and industry.’6 This mindset was coupled with Bancroft’s view that King George III, was a monarch who used the threat of his military to impose tyranny on the colonies for ‘his own measures of aggrandizement.’7 Divine providence and progress, according to Bancroft, facilitated the colonies ability to begin building a new nation, which would then serve as an example for other countries to follow, ‘A new order for the ages, Novus ordo Seclorum.”8 For all of Bancroft’s research and a lifetime spent writing, Federalist historians in the 1890’s immediately criticized his work. John Franklin Jamison, one of the founders of the National Archives and American Historical Association, accused Bancroft of lacking objectivity. Historians regard context as an important factor in judging and understanding history. Bancroft provides both within his work because it is a unique insight into how people felt about their new nation and into the cultural mindsight during that period in spite of its historical shortcomings.
In contrast to Bancroft, Arthur E. Ropes wrote, The Causes of the Seven Years’ War from a British perspective. He begins his essay describing the 18th century as ‘the Age of Diplomacy.’9 He believed that the Seven Years’ War was one of the most important wars of that century.10 As part of the Imperial School of historiography, written in 1889, two years after Bancroft’s death, Ropes see the war far beyond the American land and Indian disputes and the struggle over colonial dominance. That is just a small part of the war. Ropes looks to the origin of the war as a massive change in Europe’s political system. He characterizes it as ‘a rupture of old friendships and extension of old enmities.”11 Diplomatic friend and foes changed and consummated alliances within a year’s time. Given that the war initially began over the rights to the Ohio River Valley between Britain and France, Ropes believes it was the diplomatic failures that led to a world war. He argues that the French demanded cooperative action from Frederick the Great and from here the dominoes began to fall. Alliances were broken and new ones took their place. The war that was initially between two adversaries became an international diplomatic game of twister. In Ropes version of the war, the new diplomatic order dramatically altered the world and the colonists were a small part of the game.
Lawrence Henry Gipson, also in the Imperialist school, questions the more nationalistic and patriotic views of the war and its aftermath. Gipson sees the war as an American war caused by the colonists which pitted the French, Indians and British against each other. The Americans feared the Appalachians as a potential barrier to expansion. The French and their Indian allies were strong enough that the colonists could not defend themselves and therefore British had to defend their territory. Gipson named this ‘The Great War for the Empire.’ In his book, American Revolution as an Aftermath of the Great War for the Empire 1754 through 1763, Gipson rejects the term ‘the French and Indian War’ because it underscores the complexities of how great a landscape the war covered, for it was fought ‘over nine years on three oceans.’12 He argued that the colonial war only proved to determine what ‘culture and political institutions’ that would eventually expand throughout America. He explained his view this way; ‘The determination of this crucial issue is perhaps the most momentous event in the life of the English-speaking people in the New World and quite overshadows in importance of the Revolutionary War and the later Civil War events which it is clear were each contingent upon the outcome of the earlier crisis.13 Moreover, Gipson confronts the nationalistic perspective by arguing that the war is really just between the French, Indians and British and concerned the colonies very little. It is his premise that Britain took on the war to protect their colonists. With victory they brought on an unprecedented potential for wealth, land and power. Yes, a nationalistic fervor carried forward to the revolution, but more importantly, Gipson see the colonist’s independence growing because of Britain’s protection.
Historian Bernard Bailyn adds the Seven Years’ War to the list of cultural persuasions that were accumulating to eventually form a unique ideology. In his book, Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bailyn identifies the seeds of this new ideology, dating back to the 1720’s with the book publication of the Cato Letters and fifty- three papers from the Independent Whig Weekly. ‘Undercurrents’ of liberty and independence were simmering in the colonist minds for decades. The colonists were fearful of power and its’ corrupting qualities within a government. Bailyn quotes Reverend Peter Whitney, ‘Like other blessings, power may become scourge, a curse, and severe punishment to a people,’ and then finishes his point with, ‘What turned power into a malignant force was not its own nature so much as the nature of man- his susceptibility to corruption and his lust for self-aggrandizement.’14
Bailyn argued that the colonists had an inclination to be loyal, but their skepticism of power superseded this and lent a highly discriminating perspective of British policies. After the war, the colonists felt they had proven themselves to the British and therefore deserved equal standing as a people. The British felt otherwise and postwar the colonists faced a British degradation via the heavy burden of taxation with ‘the invasion of customs officers born with long claws like eagles,’ and the oppression of the ‘standing British army.’15 Bailyn believes the ‘pre-war liberty propaganda plus America’s strength during the war combined with their decentralized authority amongst the thirteen colonies’16 all worked together to propel the colonies into adapting, believing, and acting upon a revolutionary ideology. Essentially, the Seven Years’ War and Britain’s poor post-management of it, served to ignite the ideological fuse at the Boston Tea Party. Ultimately, the colonist’s fear of British power sparked them enough to define power on their own terms in the Constitution.
Historian Jack P. Green asks two questions regarding the colonies and the Seven Years’ War. Did the British ‘metropolitan actions’ spark the revolution or did the war experience set up a colonial revolutionary response to those actions?17 Green argues the colonies originally had the freedom to grow in their own way, however, once Britain recognized the market and wealth potential, they began to reign in colony freedoms in order to exert some control. Because Britain had allowed certain freedoms, the colonists were free to create their own society free of a social caste system. Hard work, not birth rights were rewarded. Americans wanted to govern themselves and were mindful of Britain’s potential encroaching power. As the colonies prosperity increased Britain’s response was to impose more force. The Currency Act of 1751 and the Board of Trade’s actions reflected Lord Granville’s sentiments to Ben Franklin, ‘The colonies had ‘too many and two great privileges’ and that it was ‘not only the interest of the crown, but of the Nation to reduce them to ‘an absolute subjection to orders.’18 Greene’s premise, in his speech, ‘A Posture of Hostility: A Reconciliation of Some Aspects of the Origins of the American Revolution,’ is that between 1748 and 1756 Britain chose to tighten control over the colonies was ultimately lead to ‘the colonial population to resistance, rebellion, and independence.19
Matthew C. Ward‘s, Breaking the Back Country: The Seven Years’ War in Virginia and Pennsylvania, 1754 to 1765, sheds light not only on the colonist’s strategic and military ambitions, but also on the lives living the war against the French and Indians. As a new Military historian, Ward focuses on both the military and social aspects of the war. Ward connects the dots between the cultural, diplomatic, and political realms. The war exposes what Ward refers to as the ‘intense individualism’ of the back country. This independence of spirit conflicted with the British soldiers, the Indians and French. Once the war began, a deeper sense of fear and survival permeated both the Indians and colonists. After gruesome and fierce raids, a peaceful co-existence was no longer possible between the two. In 1756, Indian raids captured thousands and killed over 1000 backcountry colonists and soldiers. When the war ended, the bloody confrontations between colonists and Indians continued. Ward believes that once the French were defeated and forced out, British behavior towards both the colonists and the Indians created a culture for rebellion. As a result, the Indians rebelled against them in Pontiac’s War. On the other hand, the colonists culture of competition and individualism heightened their animosity toward the British in direct relation to their standing army and post-war policies. Ward ensues a very effective view of both military strategy and actual conflict combined with the social construct of the parties involved to understand the impetus toward rebellion.
In Fred Anderson‘s, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of the Empire in British North America, 1754 through 1766, he takes on a Revisionist view in that he argues the war did not necessarily lead to the American revolution, rather the colonist’s freedoms had formulated into a concept of limited government inherent to their daily lives. Before and during the war, colonists recognized the British as the ‘freest most enlightened empire in history- in which they shared a common enemy, the French and their Indian allies.’20 Anderson creates the framework where France is always struggling to best Britain in a continual vie for power and strength. He connects military strategy, operation and logistics,21 as well the social and economic interplay between the French, British, Colonists and Indians. Anderson makes the case that the colonists, before, during, and after the war were true loyalists. But it was not until 1766, with the imposition of new taxes, that Britain became a threat to their liberties. The outcome of the Seven Years’ War weakened the British Empire monetarily, which in-turn, led to the ‘event that decisively shaped American history.’22 ‘Our colonial period is something more than a quaint mezzolint prelude to a national history.”23 ‘The war became the necessary precondition,’24 for the development of an American nation- state,’25 and was aided by the French desire for revenge. Anderson astutely argues that ‘war and freedoms are intertwined in our nation’s history.’26
Revisionist historian, Daniel Baugh, unlike Anderson’s military focus, zeroes in on and the tangled web of the French and British rivalry and diplomatic relations within the framework of a worldwide war. Baugh dives deep into the French perspective. He argues France’s rivalry with Britain combined with the ever-growing market of North American trade pushed France to act in order to preserve their pathways for trade. In 1753, the British received reports that the French had their military in the Ohio Valley and were building forts to use as garrisons. This news pushed the British into action in North America, which led ultimately to a world war. Baugh argues that the British military leadership bested the French, as did their finances. Baugh’s book covers the global event of the war and primarily focuses on the leadership, military, and diplomatic constructs. As such, by omitting the stories of the common man, soldiers, slaves and Indians, a new social historian would feel this book hopelessly incomplete. In Baugh’s conclusion and aftermath chapter, he summarizes the economic foundations as the seeds for a North American revolution. Representative of this issue is Lord Granville‘s belief, ‘We have expanded much in America. Let us now avail ourselves the fruits of that expense.’27 Baugh argues, ‘Fundamentally, the Anglo-French Seven Years’ war had begun because of the importance of the North American market for British exports and the Stamp Act suddenly ruined the market.’28 These acts brought the markets to a halt, ‘creating both a trade recession and unemployment in Britain.”29 The need to control the colonies ultimately led to the revolution and presented an opportunity for French payback against Britain. The combined efforts of France and Spain aiding the Americans led to the British losing North America. In spite of this, Baugh ends his argument with stating, ‘The British were able to recapture the American markets via Britain’s commercial and financial capabilities’ and in turn ‘shape the future of world politics for two centuries.’30
Historiography, as a subject, is wide ranging and diverse. It offers the reader many different perspectives on any given history topic with no two alike. For the colonists, the Seven Years’ War may or may not have been the stepping stone to war, depending on which historian you read. Perhaps, as Richard Hofstadter, a Consensus historian contended, postwar conflict may have had a more “ad hoc basis” devoid of any deep ideological divide.31 After reading the many different accounts it is difficult not to conclude that the war served as an impetus toward an eventual revolution. However, what I do come back to is Breisach’s historical nexus. The more I consider it the more it makes sense. “History has an inescapable link between the past, present and future, which destroys history’s image as an activity resembling idle rummaging in a bag of dry leaves.”32 When applying this idea to the different perspectives in each historiological school of thought it reveals that the writing of history reflects our society as well as our past and can give insight into the future. “Change and continuity, have always testified to the unbreakable connection between life and historical thought.”33 This is demonstrated within each historian’s perspective. Historiography serves to reflect time and change amongst historians, just as their perspectives reveal an ever-changing narrative of history. When combined, it reflects a similarity with what our country was founded on. The colonists amalgamated to form a country just as historians serve to write their history all stemming from their multiple opinions, strengths and weaknesses, political, military, social and economic ideas. In so doing, both our nation and our history
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