RALEIGH – It was the war that made America, and George Washington was involved right from the beginning. But don’t think Paul Revere and crossing the Delaware. Don’t think Saratoga and Guilford Court House.
Instead, think Frederick the Great and “Last of the Mohicans.” The war in question was called the Seven Years’ War in Europe and the French and Indian War in America. Not only was it the event that led inexorably to the creation of the United States of America, as author Fred Anderson argues in a 2005 book I just read, but it was also arguably the first true world war. It may have begun in the backcountry of North America, but the war featured major engagements in Europe, India, the Caribbean, and the high seas.
George Washington’s notoriety as a soldier dates to the start of the French and Indian War, but it wasn’t the kind of notoriety he sought – and, indeed, he spent years trying to repair his reputation. Anderson, a University of Colorado historian, set the stage for Washington’s story by explaining the role of the Iroquois Confederation in the power politics of 17th and 18th century North America. Perhaps the most important contribution of Anderson’s The War That Made America and its companion TV series on PBS was to underline the importance of competition among Indian groups for status and resources. It’s a mistake to view the Iroquois, Delawares, Shawnees, Cherokees, and other cultures simply as victims of Western manipulation and conquest. They were victims, not the least of devastating illnesses brought by Europeans that permanently changed the power balance, but they were also able traders, diplomats, warriors, and manipulators in their own right. They were active participants in determining their fates – and their place in the American history yet to be written (albeit mostly by others).
To make Anderson’s not-very-long story still shorter: in the early 1750s, the French sought to stabilize a rapidly changing set of trade agreements with Indians along the Ohio River by building three forts, even though French Canadians warned that fortification would cause more problems than it would solve. In the meantime, agents of the Pennsylvania and Virginia colonies were vying for economic influence in the same area, motivating the governor of Virginia hurriedly to assemble and dispatch a small force to demand French evacuation of the forts in 1754. Accompanying Washington’s force was a small group of Mingos led by a chief, Tanaghrisson, who had been the representative of the Iroquois Confederation in the area and longed to reassert his and Iroquoian sovereignty over Indians who had been making their own lucrative deals with the French.
Eventually, Washington’s men won a small engagement with a French detachment and captured its leader, a marine ensign. While the French commander sought to parley with Washington about the dispute, Tanaghrisson walked up to the man, raised his hatchet, and dispatched him with a single, bloody blow. Later, Washington’s men were surrounded and forced to surrender at Fort Necessity. The future president signed the order of capitulation without realizing that it had been drafted by the murdered ensign’s brother and that it stated Washington and his men were responsible for assassinating the ensign. “To assassinate a diplomatic envoy was, under the eighteenth-century law of nations, an act of war,” Anderson wrote. Washington had “handed Louis XV all the justification he would ever need to declare war on Great Britain.”
Which is what happened. Of course, things didn’t turn out well for the French in the end, though its forces enjoyed much success early in the war (and France and its allies had early victories in Europe, too). If the story of Indian intrigue and Washington’s blunder intrigues you, you’ll find even more of interest in Anderson’s discussion of the river port sieges and backcountry raids that typified the North American war. The aftermath of the French and Indian War saw a triumphant but debt-burdened Britain try to recoup its costs by increasing levies on its lightly taxed American colonies, only to be surprised and stung by their violent reaction. The seeds of the Revolution were planted during these critical events in the 1750s and 1760s.
There really is a strong case that the French and Indian War – begun when a “desperate Indian chief murdered a French ensign before a young Virginian’s horrified eyes in 1754” – was the conflict that made America. Anderson argues it well.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.