Also known as the Seven Years’ War, this New World conflict marked another chapter in the long imperial struggle between Britain and France. When France’s expansion into the Ohio River valley brought repeated conflict with the claims of the British colonies, a series of battles led to the official British declaration of war in 1756. Boosted by the financing of future Prime Minister William Pitt, the British turned the tide with victories at Louisbourg, Fort Frontenac and the French-Canadian stronghold of Quebec. At the 1763 peace conference, the British received the territories of Canada from France and Florida from Spain, opening the Mississippi Valley to westward expansion.
The French and Indian War: A Summary
The Seven Years’ War (called the French and Indian War in the colonies) lasted from 1756 to 1763, forming a chapter in the imperial struggle between Britain and France called the Second Hundred Years’ War. In the early 1750s, France’s expansion into the Ohio River valley repeatedly brought it into conflict with the claims of the British colonies, especially Virginia. In 1754, the French built Fort Duquesne where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers joined the Ohio River (today’s Pittsburgh), making it a strategically important stronghold that the British repeatedly attacked. During 1754 and 1755, the French won a string of victories, defeating in quick succession the young George Washington, Gen. Edward Braddock, and Braddock’s successor, Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts.
In 1755, Governor Shirley, fearing that the French settlers in Nova Scotia (Acadia) would side with France in any military confrontation, expelled hundreds of them to other British colonies; many of the exiles suffered cruelly. Throughout this period, the British military effort was hampered by lack of interest at home, rivalries among the American colonies, and France’s greater success in winning the support of the Indians. In 1756 the British formally declared war (marking the official beginning of the Seven Years’ War), but their new commander in America, Lord Loudoun, faced the same problems as his predecessors and met with little success against the French and their Indian allies.
The tide turned in 1757 because William Pitt, the new British leader, saw the colonial conflicts as the key to building a vast British empire. Borrowing heavily to finance the war, he paid Prussia to fight in Europe and reimbursed the colonies for raising troops in North America.
In July 1758, the British won their first great victory at Louisbourg, near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. A month later, they took Fort Frontenac at the western end of the river. In September 1758, General John Forbes captured Fort Duquesne for the British, and Fort Pitt—named after William—was built on the site, giving the British a key stronghold near what is today Canada. The British then closed in on Quebec, where Gen. James Wolfe won a spectacular victory in the Battle of Quebec on the Plains of Abraham in September of 1759 (though both he and the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, were fatally wounded). With the fall of Montreal in September 1760, the French lost their last foothold in Canada. Soon, Spain joined France against England, and for the rest of the war Britain concentrated on seizing French and Spanish territories in other parts of the world.
The Treaty of Paris
The French and Indian War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in February 1763. The British received Canada from France and Florida from Spain, but permitted France to keep its West Indian sugar islands and gave Louisiana to Spain. The arrangement strengthened the American colonies significantly by removing their European rivals to the north and south and opening the Mississippi Valley to westward expansion.
Impact of the Seven Years’ War on the American Revolution
The British crown borrowed heavily from British and Dutch bankers to bankroll the war, doubling British national debt. King George III argued that since the French and Indian War benefited the colonists by securing their borders, they should contribute to paying down the war debt.
To defend his newly won territory from future attacks, King George III also decided to install permanent British army units in the Americas, which required additional sources of revenue.
In 1765, parliament passed the Stamp Act to help pay down the war debt and finance the British army’s presence in the Americas. It was the first internal tax directly levied on American colonists by parliament and was met with strong resistance. It was followed by the unpopular Townshend Acts and Tea Act, which further incensed colonists who believed there should be no taxation without representation. Britain’s increasingly militaristic response to colonial unrest would ultimately lead to the American Revolution.
Fifteen years after the Treaty of Paris, French bitterness over the loss of most of their colonial empire contributed to their intervention on the side of the colonists in the Revolutionary War.