Monday, October 5, 2015
October 5, 2015: Before the Revolution: The French & Indian War
[October 7th marks the 250th anniversary of the convening of the Stamp Act Congress, one of the most significant moments in pre-Revolutionary American history. So this week I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy three such pre-Revolution moments, including the Congress itself on Wednesday. Leading up to a weekend post on some of the best scholars of this period, past and present!]
Two important contexts for a conflict that was more than just historical foreshadowing.
In the brief time that my secondary school American History textbooks and courses spent on the French and Indian War (1754-1763), it was framed almost entirely as offering a series of preludes to the Revolutionary period: from the quartering of English soldiers in colonial homes that would become one of the colonists’ principal grievances against the Crown to the youthful George Washington’s military service in the war, and in many other ways, the French and Indian War helped point the way toward issues and histories that would come to dominate the American landscape in the subsequent two decades. Given that our communal narratives of the Revolution often begin with the 1765 Stamp Act and its aftermaths, it makes sense to extend our historical lens further back, to consider other moments and factors that moved the colonies toward hostilities with England, and this sweeping global conflict represents one of the mid-18th century’s most prominent such moments to be sure.
The war’s global sweep, however, also helps us engage with its own histories and complexities in ways that don’t simply seek to look beyond it and toward the next American conflict. For one thing, this American war became the first such military conflict to spread to the Old World, prompting the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) that would come to involve virtually every prominent European power (pitting an alliance of France, Russian, Sweden, Austria and Saxony against one of Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain). Even on the colonial level, the war represented a conflict over India and global trade routes as much as over the Americas, an international element of which I’m quite sure those American History textbooks made precisely no mention. For all those reasons, when viewed through a global lens—something that the transnational turn in AmericanStudies rightfully demands that we consider—the French and Indian War seems at least as significant as the American Revolution, and likely more so; only one of those conflicts has often been called the first world war, after all.
Even if we return to a more specifically American lens, there’s an element to the French and Indian War that has frequently been elided or downplayed: the “Indian” part. I’m sure that those aforementioned textbooks mentioned that some Native American tribes fought alongside the English, and some alongside the French. But that framing continues to view the conflict in terms of the European powers and colonies, and still doesn’t get close to considering what it meant for Native perspectives and peoples. Fortunately for us AmericanStudiers, we have a prominent, multi-layered historical text that offers us precisely such a perspective: Chief Pontiac’s impassioned 1763 speech to the Ottawa, Huron, and Potawatomi tribes, an oration that both illustrated a Native perspective on the concluding French and Indian War and helped prompt a subsequent conflict, Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763-1766). Bringing together Native mythology and present political issues, and addressing his audiences as both longstanding cultural communities and players on the contemporary global stage, Pontiac’s speech illustrates just how much that term “Indian” comprised and included, and opens up an entirely distinct way to AmericanStudy this international war.
Next pre-Revolutionary post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Pre-Revolution moments you’d highlight?