Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The colonies in the eighteenth century

19th-century engraving of
 the wounding of Major-General Braddock
at the Battle of the Monongahela, July 1755

Insecurity and expansion

In the eighteenth century the American colonists found themselves placed geographically between two powerful European empires, the French and the Spanish and in the midst of an often-hostile native population. European conflicts impacted on the lives of the colonists: for example, in 1704, at the height of the European War of the Spanish Succession a combined raid by the French and the Abenaki on Deerfield, Massachusetts left fifty dead, while a hundred were taken prisoner. Insecurity was built into the colonial experience. 

In spite of the insecurity the population was rising rapidly. Between 1700 and 1770 it rose from 265,000 to more than 2.3 million. Outside New England it was becoming ethnically more diverse. Germans flooded into Pennsylvania, creating the Pennsylvania Dutch community, ‘Scotch-Irish’ and Irish into the eastern seaports.  After Britain acquired territory from France in 1713, this population was increasingly on the move, extending beyond the original colonial boundaries, into New Hampshire and Maine, the Hudson Valley, and the Appalachians. 

The twin experiences of insecurity and expansion into often-hostile territory meant that the population of the colonies was more familiar with warfare than many European populations of the time. Even before the Revolution the Americans imbibed the belief in an armed citizenry. As early as 1645 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, an elite body of men, of no more than thirty years old, were selected from the general ranks of town based trained bands to be ready for rapid deployment, and known as ‘minutemen’.

The Concord Minuteman of 1775

The colonists were torn between the opposing ideas of liberty/equality and slavery. The economy of the tobacco-growing south depended on slavery, but northerners were also slave-owners.  About 40 per cent of New Yorkers owned slaves; slaves were 8.5 per cent of the population of Boston. But within the white population there were higher literacy rates and less social deference than in Europe, and the gender roles were less circumscribed.  This
John Locke
relative egalitarianism was absorbed by the elites who, from their study of the writings of the English philosopher, John Locke, had come to believe that governments were in a contractual relationship with the people they ruled, and that the people had a right to resist tyrannical governments. 

The French and Indian War (the Seven Years’ War)

From the sixteenth century, the French had been establishing fishing camps and trading posts along the St Lawrence River. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec. Fur traders and missionaries operated from the Great Lakes down to New Orleans, founded in 1718.

Map of the French and Indian War

From 1748 Britain and France were competing for the Ohio Valley, the essential link between Canada and the Mississippi.  In 1754 the French established Fort Duquesne where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio River (now downtown Pittsburgh). On 4 July George Washington, then a major in the Virginia Militia, was forced to surrender to the French at Fort Necessity and was permitted to withdraw with the survivors. With that disaster, a great world war had begun.

The British had fewer than 900 troops in North America and felt increasingly vulnerable. On 9 July 1755 the inexperienced Major-General Edward Braddock was ambushed and defeated at the Monongahela River near Fort Duquesne. He lost his life in the encounter. His defeat left the frontier wide open. In 1756 General Montcalm drove the British from Lake Ontario.

However, in 1758 a force mostly of Americans captured Fort Duquesne. On 13 September 1759 Quebec fell to the British though General Wolfe died as the city was taken. In 1760 the French forces in Canada surrendered (after a failed attempt to recapture Quebec.

With the peace treaty of 1763 the British Empire in North America made spectacular new gains. The whole continent to the east of the Mississippi from Spanish Florida to Hudson Bay was under British authority. Yet within 12 years hostilities had broken out with the mother country and in 1783 Britain was forced to recognise the independence of the United States. All that remained of its North American Empire was Quebec and Nova Scotia. Paradoxically, the victory in Canada paved the way for American independence.

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