Military history

CHAPTER 15

The Strains of Empire CAUSES OF ANGLO-AMERICAN FRICTION

1756

LORD LOUDOUN, taking stock of the year’s developments, put little hope in the Easton negotiations, which after all depended on the good faith of a savage. Convinced that the Pennsylvanians were incapable of protecting themselves, he saw the killings on the frontier more clearly than the hope of peace and merely dispatched a battalion of the Royal American Regiment to stiffen Pennsylvania’s defenses. The troops arrived at Philadelphia in December, however, to face something like a reprise of the quartering crisis that Loudoun had experienced at Albany in August: there were too few rooms in taverns and other public houses to accommodate five hundred men, and the assembly refused to billet them in private homes. The legislators had prudential as well as constitutional concerns, for smallpox had just broken out in the regiment. Loudoun, however, found any resistance to housing the troops he had sent to defend the province deeply offensive. As in the case of Albany, he threatened to use force to obtain quarters, this time with the concurrence of Governor Denny, who as a regular field officer could hardly have agreed more with Loudoun’s judgments.

Faced with the prospect of having not only soldiers but an epidemic imposed on Philadelphians at bayonet-point, the assembly followed the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin and handed over the new province hospital as a temporary barracks for the troops. As in Albany, only force or the threat of force had moved the assembly to comply with Loudoun’s directives; also as in Albany, it would be nearly another year before the province would finally build adequate barracks for the regulars. Lord Loudoun might well have wondered what madness afflicted Americans, who seemed to regard the king’s troops as if they, not the French and Indians, were the enemy. Denny simply concluded that such “open neglect of Humanity was the highest Instance I have ever met with of the Depravity of human nature.”1

The collapse of Britain’s war effort in the colonies during 1756 had resulted from a variety of factors, including the confusion that resulted from the change in command from Shirley to Loudoun, the general weakness of the position in which Shirley had left the campaigns, the stunning loss of Oswego, and the deftness of the French in using Indian allies against the British settlements. These were all the reasons Loudoun and his masters at Whitehall recognized, and each was in its way valid as an explanation. Yet there were two other factors, neither of which they could fully have grasped, that contributed even more dramatically to the failures of British arms in America.

The first of these was Lord Loudoun himself. As his repeated wrangles with colonial legislatures over quartering showed—and before his tenure as commander in chief ended, such disputes would have occurred in five colonies, or practically everywhere he had stationed large elements of the army—both his personality and his understanding of Americans inhibited cooperation between the provinces and the Crown.2 As a professional officer who had been granted extraordinary powers and as an aristocrat with scant sympathy for the cultural norms of the provinces, Loudoun interpreted any resistance to his authority as evidence of colonial inferiority, corruption, and rebelliousness. His virtually automatic response to opposition was to threaten to use force to compel submission. That tactic, while effective in the short term, tended over time to convince the colonists that Loudoun himself posed at least as grave a threat to their liberties as the French and Indians—and one much closer at hand. In this way the actions of His Majesty’s own commander in chief, because he enjoyed the support of the most influential men in English government as well as the obedience of thousands of regular troops, became the most convincing arguments many Americans had yet seen for the lack of identity between their own and the empire’s interests. Resistance to Loudoun’s edicts, haphazard and sporadic at first, grew more general and more consistently sullen as his tenure lengthened.

The second factor contributing to the failure of the war effort was the lack of willingness, either on the part of the Crown or the colonies, to expend the vast sums of money necessary to make the war a success. Although Loudoun’s powers were virtually viceregal in character, his purse was notably short, for the ministry had sent him to America on the assumption that the provinces could be made to create a common fund to pay for the war. When the various provincial assemblies refused to comply with his requisitions without exercising the kind of oversight that their previous experience had led them to believe was their prerogative, Loudoun saw more evidence of colonial recalcitrance and degeneracy. But particularly in the colonies from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, which had known no serious external threat for years, assemblies regarded military expenditures as undesirable at best, and as an absolute threat to their rights if dictated by Lord Loudoun. The parsimony of the House of Burgesses in funding its own provincial regiment offers the best case in point. By refusing to offer wages and bounties to compete with what civilian laborers and artisans could earn, and relying instead on the conscription of socially marginal men, Virginia’s government virtually insured that its provincial forces would be both chronically undermanned and next to impossible to discipline. In the end, Virginia got exactly as much defense for its frontiers as the Burgesses were willing to pay for, and despite Washington’s best efforts by the close of 1756 the bloody results were only too clear.

Friction between the colonists and their commander in chief over issues of finance and local control incapacitated British arms in North America during 1756. Although the next year would see substantial gains in organizational stability and a new efficiency in supply and transport services among the British and colonial forces, these underlying problems would go unresolved for a very long time. Before the remedy could be found would fall the darkest hours of the war for Great Britain and its colonies.

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