Military history


The Future of Empire


IN MASSACHUSETTS, a seismic shift in the balance of political power; in New York, a standoff between governor and assembly; in Virginia, a divided elite. All of these followed the Stamp Act, and the controversies surrounding it intensified them all, yet the Stamp Act caused none of them. The country party’s triumph in the Bay Colony culminated a campaign against Thomas Hutchinson’s court party that had been in progress since before the end of the war and followed factional patterns that could be traced to Governor Shirley’s day. New York’s reactions against the Quartering Act emerged from encounters with the army that went back to 1756, when Lord Loudoun had seized quarters in Albany and threatened to station battalions in New York as if it were a conquered city. The Robinson scandal in Virginia arose from the interplay of planter indebtedness, depression, and the Currency Act’s restriction on paper money issues. In every case, local competition, tensions, and anxieties defined the conflicts that the Stamp Act had aggravated and magnified. While factionalism, infighting, and deadlock had long been common features of the colonial political scene, there was something new in the ferocity of the post–Stamp Act disputes: something novel about the seeming ease with which the participants lost perspective on the issues that were in fact at stake. Far from restoring prosperity, peace, and harmony to the empire, the repeal of the Stamp Act seemed in some perverse way to have loosed devils into the colonial political arena, or perhaps into the colonists’ minds.

Even areas untouched by the Stamp Act agitations seemed more unsettled than before in 1765–66. In West Florida, bizarre disputes over rank and precedence arose between Governor George Johnstone, a half-pay naval captain with a famously bad temper, and the colony’s army officers. In the absence of a clear and consistent policy stipulating who was entitled to command the troops within a province, Johnstone had asserted his authority over the 21st and 31st Regiments. When the commanding officer of the 31st, at Pensacola, refused to obey Johnstone’s orders, Johnstone ordered the 21st Regiment out from Mobile—to besiege the 31st! Eventually the governor arrested the regimental commandant and charged him with treason. Gage thought to resolve the mess by appointing a colonel from the St. Augustine garrison in East Florida as acting brigadier general and regional commander, and sending him to take command at Pensacola. When that unfortunate brigadier arrived, however, Johnstone refused to recognize his commission and challenged him to a duel. Had all this not taken place while the province was on the brink of war with the Creek nation, the governor’s behavior might have seemed merely ludicrous; but under the circumstances it was no laughing matter. Johnstone tried summoning a popularly elected assembly to support his wish to declare war on the Creeks. This might have gained him the backers he needed, for many West Floridians lusted after Creek lands, but it came too late. Gage demanded Johnstone’s recall; and on February 19, 1767, the Southern secretary summoned him home, disgraced, from a province verging on anarchy.1

Something oddly similar was happening in Canada at about the same time. Since becoming royal governor there in August 1764, James Murray—Wolfe’s junior brigadier on the Plains of Abraham—had contrived to alienate not only the English-speaking merchants (mainly New Englanders) who had taken up residence after the war, but most of his colony’s senior army officers. In petitions to the Board of Trade and appeals to their correspondents in London the merchants loudly demanded punishment for his high-handedness and partiality to the Canadians. Murray had refused to summon an assembly, they pointed out, and governed like a frog-eating tyrant, imposing taxes by decree and enforcing customs regulations without observing the forms of law. He had nullified the provisions of the Proclamation of 1763 that established English law in Québec by permitting inferior courts to continue using French law codes and allowing Catholics to serve on juries—even juries that decided suits to which Englishmen were party. Meanwhile, Murray had fallen out with the commandants of Canada’s principal regiments over issues relating to quartering and troop discipline, but most of all because he, although now a half-pay officer, insisted on giving them orders. They resisted; public disputes erupted as Murray issued directives that the officers ignored; finally Gage had to intervene. In the spring of 1766 the ministry summoned Murray home to answer the complaints that had been leveled against him. Although he, unlike Johnstone, was never cashiered, he was never allowed to return to Québec. Even if Murray had broken no laws, he too had lost control of his province.2

In two new colonies out of the four carved from the North American conquests, then, government ground to a halt at the same time as in the older provinces, for reasons that had nothing to do with the Stamp Act. The cases of West Florida and Canada were superficially similar— headstrong governors, jealous of their authority, had meddled in military administration—but the roots of the conflicts in fact ran deep into the organization of the postwar empire. The problem was partly institutional, for civil and military authority overlapped so haphazardly as to make conflict almost inevitable wherever military units were stationed within the limits of colonial governments. Yet even outside the bounds of established colonies, in areas where their authority was undisputed, military officers were failing as colonial administrators in 1765–67. Events in trans-Appalachia showed that, at its heart, the problem was the army itself. However effective the redcoats had once been as conquerors, they were utterly unsuited to controlling the conquests. Nothing could have made this clearer than their inability to halt, or even diminish, migration beyond the Allegheny crest.

As the Indian war receded into the Illinois Country, illegal settlements began cropping up beyond the Proclamation Line. Hunters and farmers built cabins within sight of forts despite the protests of Indians and the formal prohibitions of post commanders. By June 1766 more than five hundred families, mainly from Virginia, were living in the valley of the Monongahela and its tributaries. In September, Gage ordered the commandant of Fort Pitt to warn them off, and to threaten them with force if they ignored his orders. Nothing happened. The following spring the squatters squatted in larger numbers than ever, and Gage was trying to excuse himself to the secretary of state. The settlements lay on land claimed by Virginia, he wrote, and the Virginians had lately been touchy about “the exertion of Military Power without their Authority.” Only in May 1767, he explained, had he felt justified in ordering the commandant of Fort Pitt to burn out the illegals along Red Stone Creek and the Cheat River. Yet even that effort would prove futile. Within six months the squatters were back, in “double the Number . . . that ever was before.”3

Gage knew that burning down a few accessible settlements was only a symbolic gesture, although he hoped it would scare off the other unauthorized inhabitants of the region. As he understood only too well, three regular companies at Fort Pitt could never locate all the squatters in the upper Ohio Valley, let alone chase them out of thousands of square miles of woods. But he also realized that if they did not evacuate the region, a new war would in all likelihood break out, and soon. For the backwoodsmen had not only been encroaching on the Indians’ lands, poaching their game, and promiscuously selling them liquor; they had also been killing Indians in appalling numbers since late 1765.4

A decade of warfare had left frontier whites with innumerable scores to settle and a rage that eroded their willingness to make distinctions among potential victims. In the first half of 1766 alone British subjects in the old pays d’en haut murdered more than twenty Indians, mostly in the Ohio Country and especially around Pittsburgh. George Croghan, working to keep open the communication links between Fort Pitt and the Illinois Country, temporarily defused tensions with condolence ceremonies and gifts: a brilliant if expensive diplomatic feat that Croghan said “cost him more trouble than he had ever had in his life.” But the pace of blood-letting did not slacken and tensions soon mounted higher than ever. By the middle of May 1767, the commander at Fort Pitt informed Gage, the settlers in the area were “under no Laws”; the Delawares and Shawnees were threatening to take revenge on the squatters and seemed likely to start a general war. Gage could only hope that the burning of the Red Stone and Cheat River settlements would reassure the Indians that the empire was on their side, for he was under no illusion that Fort Pitt’s paltry garrison could maintain the peace. He privately advised the officer in charge to have his men keep their heads down: so long as the Indians retaliated only against “those who have injured them,” His Majesty’s troops were not to intervene in quarrels between squatters and natives.5

That a new Indian war did not erupt in the Ohio Country in 1767 had less to do with anything Gage or the garrison at Fort Pitt did than with three other factors: George Croghan’s willingness to spend the king’s money freely in practicing his own virtuoso diplomacy, the unprecedented quantities of alcohol flooding into trans-Appalachia, and the difficulty the Shawnees encountered in organizing a defensive coalition with the peoples of the lower valley. Croghan met with the Ohio chiefs at Pittsburgh in June, assuring them of British goodwill and asking them to control their young men until he and Sir William Johnson could set things right; then, in the fall, he traveled along the Ohio River, up the Muskingum through the Delaware towns, to Lake Erie and Detroit, condoling the Indians for their losses, covering the dead with presents, and promising punishments for white murderers. Croghan’s ceremonial negotiations consumed huge quantities of time and money, but they helped preserve the peace. The Shawnees found that they had to postpone from the fall to the spring, and finally until 1769, a congress that would create an alliance between themselves, the Delawares, and other western nations, including their traditional enemies from the lands south of the Ohio River.6

If Croghan’s diplomacy had something to do with forestalling this alliance, so did the essentially unlimited trade in rum at the western forts. Traders brought an estimated 13,000 gallons to Fort Pitt and 24,000 gallons to Detroit in 1767—quantities that Sir William Johnson himself sanctioned both for their utility in stimulating trade and for their debilitating effects. But Croghan’s condolences and gifts could only cover past murders, and the binge drinking of young men, however it inhibited collective action in the short term, could also feed a rage that would make retaliation more devastating when it finally came. Meanwhile the western settlers went on murdering Indians and appropriating land. On the basis of Croghan’s trip both he and Gage concluded that unless some more permanent solution to the problems of settlement could be found, a new Indian war would be inevitable.7

Whatever the solution to Britain’s problems in North America might have been, by the end of 1767 it should have been evident that the army was not it. His Majesty’s forces had been the starting point for British reasoning about the future of the empire at the end of the war. The Triumvirate’s reforms and Grenville’s revenue measures had aimed at paying for an American military establishment that was supposed to defend the colonies and control the conquered territories. But these efforts to solve problems of control and finance had strained relations between colonies and metropolis to the snapping point, and the army had proven incapable of projecting imperial authority beyond the gates of its forts. The preeminent agency of British sovereignty in America had proved itself a blunt instrument at best, but nonetheless one capable of striking sparks wherever it touched.8 Whether anyone in London understood that the postwar colonies might grow more combustible with every administrative miscalculation—or for that matter if such an epiphany would enable the Rockingham ministry to shift British policy out of the course Halifax and Grenville had set at war’s end—remained to be seen.

THUS A STORY that began with a blundering Anglo-American military force attempting to project British imperial power beyond the Appalachians, at the Forks of the Ohio, ends with British military detachments stationed not only at the Forks but at Michilimackinac on the upper Great Lakes, Fort de Chartres on the Mississippi, Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico, St. Augustine in East Florida, and Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. The distresses that followed the war, in the form of Indian rebellion and civil unrest in the colonies, had been resolved, and no immediate threat to the empire’s future tranquillity loomed. Thus ministers and policy makers and members of Parliament might well have believed that, despite its unlikely beginnings and its anxious conclusion, the story had been a narrative of imperial triumph. But in truth the British army was fully in control at none of these far-flung posts. The vast empire survived not because of Britain’s power, but despite its weakness, at the sufferance of the peoples whom the British believed they had conquered, and on the strength of the emotional ties between Britons and the Anglo-American colonists who had participated in the conquest. And the great Indian war had shown, as the Stamp Act crisis had demonstrated, that both the sufferance of the supposedly conquered and the allegiance of the colonists had limits that were all too easy to exceed.

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