A real historian makes my argument for me

I’m reading Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766, a history of the French and Indian War by Fred Anderson.  The first thing I noticed about the book was the date range—specifically, that the book covers up to 1766.  That’s well after the British conquest of Canada (1760) and the end of the French and Indian War; it’s after the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France of which the French and Indian War was a theatre; it’s after Pontiac’s Rebellion (1764), the bloody American Indian uprising against British rule in the Old Northwest that usually forms the epilogue of American histories of the war.

In fact, it’s a broad enough period that it firmly includes the Stamp Act 1765 and the crisis that followed it, the first instance of Parliament attempting to tax the British colonies and the colonists responding by uniting against such taxation, a pattern that would repeat itself regularly, as we all know, until the Second Continental Congress declared the colonies’ independence on 4 July 1776.  As such, the Stamp Act is pretty much never considered as a part of the Seven Years’ War but, rather, is always the first chapter of any history of the American Revolution.

Anderson’s introduction to the book explains why he chose to place the endpoint of his narrative so long after the war’s end: so that it would allow him to include the war as an early cause of the Revolution and, by extension, bring forward the starting date for “causes of the American Revolution” from 1763 to 1754.

This immediately put me on my guard.  I already think 1763 is too early a starting point for the teaching of the American Revolution, not because I don’t think the Stamp Act and the Stamp Act Congress weren’t important first steps in Parliamentary overbearance and colonial cooperative resistance—they were—but because treatments of “the causes of the American Revolution” always assume that the Revolution and American independence were the obvious and most logical outcomes—indeed, even the only logical outcomes.

But you can only assume that if you’re starting with another assumption, that the British, in Britain, and the Americans, in the colonies, were already two distinct peoples in 1763 with two distinct national identities, and that independence was therefore an inevitable recognition of that.  That’s an easy assumption for us to make; after all, we live in a world where Britons and Americans are quite obviously two separate peoples, and have been for over two hundred years.  But those two separate national identities were a product of the Revolutionary War; they didn’t exist in the 1760s.  For the most part, the men attended the Stamp Act Congress and the First Continental Congress and who authored Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania and organised committees of correspondence would have vigorously (and truthfully) denied that independence was either a desirable or a likely outcome of their efforts.

When we miss that, we misunderstand the American Revolution and we misunderstand the men who undertook it.  We divide them into Americans and British, a distinction they wouldn’t have liked and that they certainly wouldn’t even have understood the way we apply it—Tom Paine was no more an American than William Franklin was British.

To broaden that misconception to also include the Seven Years’ War, then, makes me pretty leery, since the war is pretty much the height of the colonists’ identification with the British Empire.  When George Washington led a war party into the Ohio Country in 1754, and when he returned a year later as the aide-de-camp to a British general at the head of two regiments of Irish soldiers, he didn’t think of himself as securing Ohio as American territory; he thought of it as securing it as British territory.  (He did think of it as securing it for Virginia, but that’s something different.)  When Benjamin Franklin proposed a common federal government for the British colonies to the Albany Congress, with a grand council elected by the colonial legislatures and a president for all of British America, he proposed it as a measure that would strengthen Britain for her coming war with France, and he did it with the hope that such a union would be enacted by Parliament in London, because he thought that the colonies could only ever be united if it happened under Parliament’s guidance.  When General Wolfe—an Englishman from Kent who had spent his entire career fighting in Germany and Scotland—was killed on the Plains of Abraham, commanding the British assault that conquered Quebec from France, he became the American colonies’ greatest national hero just as he became a national hero in Britain, because the colonists knew that they were just as much a part of the Britain he conquered Quebec for as were the people of the Isles.

Then I read the introduction and I discovered Anderson agrees with me on that, and that’s exactly why he’s written a history of the war that runs all the way up to 1766:

Virtually all modern accounts of the Revolution begin in 1763 with the Peace of Paris, the great treaty that concluded the Seven Years’ War.  Opening the story there, however, makes the imperial events and conflicts that followed the war—the controversy over the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act crisis—into precursors of the Revolution.  No matter how strenuous their other disagreements, most modern historians have looked at the years after 1763 not as contemporary Americans and Britons saw them—as a postwar era vexed by unanticipated problems in relations between colonies and metropolis—but as what we in retrospect know those years to have been, a pre-Revolutionary period.  By sneaking glances, in effect, at what was coming next, historians robbed their accounts of contingency and suggested, less by design than inadvertence, that the independence and nationhood of the United States were somehow inevitable.

(I love that phrase “By sneaking glances … at what was coming next”.)

Anderson writes a history of the Seven Years’ War and the Stamp Act, then, not to include the war in the “pre-Revolutionary” narrative, but rather to reframe those “pre-Revolutionary” events into their proper context, not as the prelude to a revolution, but as the aftermath to a war that had redefined the entire North American continent.  “Examining the period from a perspective fixed not in 1763 but in 1754 would necessarily give its events a different look and perhaps permit us to understand them without constant reference to the Revolution that no one knew lay ahead, and that no one wanted.”

This hits on something really important in history: perspective.  It’s difficult and counterintuitive to divorce our understanding of historical events from our knowledge of what comes next, but if we fail to do so, we cannot have a real understanding of the people we’re learning about or of how they might have seen the events as they participated in them.

This is one of the reasons I love alternate history, but it’s also one of the challenging things about alternate history.  Alternate history can get you to look at things differently than the conventional view has them, can get you to reevaluate your preconceptions and try to place yourself in the heads of the people you’re considering.  But that can also be really hard to do, and it can be almost impossible to notice that we’re failing to do it because we’re too anchored in our own preconceptions to realise that they are simply our own preconceptions rather than How Things Were.

The American Revolution is my favourite example of this because it’s such a glaring instance of us imposing our own image on the “pre-Revolutionary” timeline instead of seeing on its own, postwar terms.  By insisting on seeing Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and George Washington in 1765 as nascent Americans, foreigners to Great Britain, rather than as men united by “their common connection with what they thought of as the freest, most enlightened empire in history”, we, as Anderson puts it, “rob [them] of their contingency”—we impose 4 July 1776 on them beforehand, rather than respecting the transformative journey it took for them to get there on their own.

I

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