The Second Hundred Years War
Copyright © 2005-12, Henry J. Sage

A CENTURY OF IMPERIAL WAR

Beginning in the late 1600s, a series of wars swept across Europe and around the world, all of which involved both the British and the American colonies. These wars were fought all over the globe in some cases, and virtually every one saw fighting in America, pitting the British and Americans against their French and Spanish neighbors in the Western hemisphere. The European components of those wars often dealt with issues of little or no concern to the Americans, but they were often affected directly or indirectly by the outcomes, sometimes to their detriment. In some wars they fought alongside British regulars and made significant gains on the battlefield, only to see the fruits of their efforts bargained away by treaties being made far across the ocean.
A substantial portion of these wars dealt with Empire—indeed, the last of them has been called the “Great War for Empire.” The net result of all of them was that Great Britain stood alone in command of most of North America—at least everything north of Mexico and east of the Mississippi. The Indian threat, which had been made worse because of the Indian alliances with the French, was significantly reduced, and the Americans in 1763 could feel secure within their borders. From fighting in these wars the Americans gained military experience as well as a sense of strength. Though they were not ready for any sort of union by 1763, they had begun to realize that in serious matters they had more in common with their colonial neighbors than they had previously believed.

Colonial American history was greatly affected by events in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. King Louis the XIV of France came to power in 1660, and as part of his strategy to increase French power in Europe he began what became a series of dynastic and imperial wars. In America, the aim of these wars was defense against Indians and against other colonial powers, especially France.

These wars, which became known as the Second Hundred Years War included:

  • 1689-1697: KING WILLIAM'S WAR (War of the League of Augsburg)
  • 1702-13: QUEEN ANNE'S WAR (War of Spanish Succession)
  • 1715: YEMASSEE WAR: bitter, harsh; Indians defeated. (King Philip's War in New England.)
  • 1739: WAR of JENKINS' EAR: British and Spain—lasts until 1748 and leads into ...
  • 1740-48: KING GEORGE'S WAR (War of Austrian Succession)
  • 1756-1763 THE GREAT WAR FOR EMPIRE—The FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR (Seven Years' War)

In 1755, the British sent General Edward Braddock to drive the French out of the Ohio Valley. Accompanied by a young American officer, Braddock ran into trouble and was soundly defeated. The war was fought all over the world—from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to India. The British, under the leadership of William Pitt, concentrated on the American colonies, which Pitt realized were the key to British power. Pitt dispatched two fine generals to America, James Wolfe and Lord Jeffrey Amherst. With the help of the American colonial militias, the British captured Quebec, defeated the French and Indians in other battles, and emerged victorious. By the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Great Britain gained all of North America east of the Mississippi, including French Canada and Spanish Florida. Great Britain now stands “astride the world like a colossus,” but is deeply in debt—the stage is now set for the coming of the American Revolution.

These major wars were interspersed with periods of shaky peace and episodes of lesser conflict among the major powers. Each of these wars was fought in Europe among the British, French, Spanish, Russians, Germans, Austrians, and other players. In addition to being struggles over power on the European continent, these wars also affected the imperial domains of the nations concerned; thus many of them were fought not only in North America but on other parts of the globe where the European powers were struggling to build colonial empires. These wars also had religious implications, as Catholic and Protestant nations were often at odds, with issues left over from the bitter Thirty Years’ War, 1618–1648.

In the American colonies each of these imperial wars was named for the monarch on the throne of Great Britain at the time. Thus the War of the League of Augsburg became known as King William’s war; the War of Spanish Succession was known as Queen Anne’s war; the War of Austrian Secession was called King George’s War; and, as already mentioned, the Seven Years’ War was known in America as the French and Indian War. (That last war is sometimes referred to as the Great War for Empire.)

These wars were world wars and were often carried out in the four corners of the earth. In North America, however, they affected the colonies deeply, as both the Spanish and French engaged Indians as allies to fight against the British colonists, and the colonists themselves furnished troops, supplies, and money to support these wars, which were also fought by British Redcoats shipped to America. The contributions of the colonial soldiers, while they were small in number, often involved substantial portions of the American population. Settlements along the front areas from New England to the South were threatened by Indian attacks, and the colonists lost significant numbers of soldiers and civilians from Indian raids. Most colonists considered their participation in these wars part of their duties as members of the British Empire, and the Empire looked at it in the same way. The colonists, however, were frequently frustrated by the fact that when these wars were terminated by treaties that ended the conflicts in Europe, those treaties often left the colonists wondering what they had been fighting for. For example, in one of those conflicts the colonists at great expense to themselves captured the French fortress of Louisburg in Nova Scotia. At the end of the war, however, the fortress was returned to the French as part of the peace settlement.

The last of these wars, the Seven Years’ or French and Indian War, was important for several reasons. First, the American contribution was substantial, and many Americans, including a young Virginia planter named George Washington, received combat experience that would serve them well in the coming revolution.

fort william henryOne story of the tribulations of American colonists in that war is about an event in 1757, the Battle of Fort William Henry (left) on Lake George in New York. Colonial militia went went to help defend the fort, and were present when Colonel Monro, the fort’s commander, surrendered to French General Montcalm. As the British soldiers and colonial militia were marching away from the fort, they were attacked by Indian allies of the French, and many were massacred or captured. The story has been told by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans and in the recent film made from the book.

Second, at the end of the war, which the British won handily thanks to the superb generalship of James Wolfe and Lord Jeffrey Amherst in America, the French gave up all their domains in North America, leaving the British in control of everything east of the Mississippi River, including Florida, which remained British until 1783.

Third, the war was extremely expensive for the British, as previous wars had also been. Thus at the end of the French and Indian War the British treasury was exhausted and the nation was deeply in debt, which caused the British to look for new ways to raise revenue. Many British officers who had been in America during the French and Indian War had observed that American cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York had become quite prosperous, and the colonists obviously had resources that could go to direct support of the British Empire.

Thus in the years following the French and Indian War, the British began to tax America more heavily than it had done in the past. One historian, in fact, has made a strong case that the French and Indian War was so significant in affecting relations between the American colonists and the mother country that the American Revolution was all but inevitable. That does not necessarily mean that there had to be a Revolutionary War, but it did mean that substantial grievances that arose between the colonists and the mother country would have to be settled in order for the relationship between the Empire and its American colonies to continue. As we know, the result of that conflict was indeed the American Revolution, and we shall proceed to that war in due course.

See Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766.

anderswowsnAs Anderson points out in his enlightening work, the seeds of the American Revolution were sowed at least a decade earlier than is generally assumed. The ongoing struggle between Great Britain and the other European powers, primarily France, had various dimensions. On one hand was the Catholic-Protestant divide, a factor that had entered international war and politics almost as soon as the Protestant Reformation was fomented by Martin Luther early in the 1500s. Because the French had colonized the northern part of North America in the region that is now Canada, a feeling persisted among the mostly Protestant English colonists that a Catholic polity to the North was a threat. Later, during the events leading up to the real revolution, it was feared that English overtures to France might lead to domination of the northern colonies by "papists."

Because the French colony of Canada was structured differently from the English colonies, that threat was less formidable than the colonists tended to believe. The French had focused their attention on trading with Indians and establishing outposts to maximize the opportunities for trade with the various Indian nations. Cities like Montréal and Québec did of course arise, but the explorations of the French into what was perceived as British territory had more of a flavor of exploitation than outright conquest. At the center of the difficulties between the British and the French were, of course, the Indian tribes. The relations between the Indians and both sides varied from time to time. Clashes between the outlying colonial settlements and Indians who felt their lands were being encroached were common and violent. Because French trading practices tended to be more favorable to the Indians than those of the English or Dutch, many Indian tribes pursued friendly relations with the French. On the other hand, some of the Indian tribes were well aware that the English had come to stay, and reaching peaceful accommodations with them was in their long-term best interest. In any case, the French and Indian War tapped into many complicated emotions among the English colonists, some of which were directed at the French and Indians, while others were directed at the British authorities. When at the end of the war the French threat was removed, it opened the door for the American colonists to explore new paths to their future, a future which was not yet clearly defined, but which was sure to assume new and revolutionary dimensions.

More detail on these wars is covered in the American Revolution section.

Colonies and Empire | British EmpireBritish Government  | Sage History Home | Updated December 19, 2016