As did many Americans, Benjamin Franklin loved Britain and identified himself as a Briton. In his lifetime of 85 years he spent twenty years, almost a quarter of his life, serving in London as an American agent. He rejoiced in Britain's victory in the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War), and he heralded America as the future "grandeur and stability of the empire." Yet he also knew the challenges awaiting the colonies in their new postwar relationship with Britain. The relative autonomy they had enjoyed since the 1600s, due to Britain's focus on its European rivals for empire, changed on a dime when America, not Europe, became Britain's obsession. All that land in North America to protect—all the soldiers and ships required to defend it—all the money needed to replenish the treasury and stimulate postwar commerce. All these new anxieties, wrote Patriot historian David Ramsay in 1789, "occasioned doubts in the minds of enlightened British politicians whether or not such immense acquisitions of territory would contribute to the felicity of the Parent State. They saw, or thought they saw, the seeds of disunion planted in the too widely extended empire."1 The seeds of disunion: a worrisome prospect, indeed.
Here, though, we begin by viewing the jubilance of victory shared by Americans and British after their total defeat of France in North America—sealed with the conquest of Quebec in 1759 and the formal peace treaty in 1763, in which Britain gained all French territory in North America east of the Mississippi River (see maps, above).2
Colonists respond to British victory in the French and Indian War, 1759-1763. Americans greeted the news of British victories as though they were their own . . . which, for all intents and purposes, they were. Their men were fighting with the British against the despised French, their frontier lands were being defended, and their longtime Indian enemies were being driven west. With victory they stood to gain enormous status in the empire and renewed impetus to their own growth. Look at the maps above: in 1763, France is gone. In the treaty, it relinquished all its land east of the Mississippi River to the British (and west of the Mississippi to the Spanish). It kept two small Caribbean islands.
In this compilation of texts and images, we see the immense relief and heightened expectations of Americans as they celebrated victory in the French and Indian War. The selections include a news account of a town's celebration, Benjamin Franklin's commentary on Britain's ascendance, thanksgiving sermons, and the renowned painting by Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe (see below). What characterizes the American celebration of victory? How did they prepare for their position in the postwar empire? What expressions of imperial pride appear? Any intimations of discord and disunion? Note: The compilations in this primary source collection are designed to be divided among students and not assigned in their entirety. See Discussion Questions below and Suggestions for Classroom Use of the compilations. (6 pp.)
Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe (1759), oil on canvas, 1770. A key victory in the war was the defeat of the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (Battle of Quebec) in September 1759. Not only did that triumph enable the British to take control of all of Canada and eventually all of North America east of the Mississippi River, it also produced the event that the painter Benjamin West would later turn into an iconic image of imperial glory. The revered British commander, General James Wolfe, died in the battle just as the word of victory was delivered to him. West captures this moment in a work that was controversial in its day, for it violated the conventions of traditional history painting. Instead of togas, the figures wear late-eighteenth-century dress, and instead of swords they carry muskets. Under a sky from which storm clouds are clearing and against a background of massed troops, light falls on three groups of men. At the center is the dying Wolfe, reclining Christ-like in the arms of his officers. On the right are two soldiers wringing their hands over the demise of their commander, and on the left a group of officers peer down on Wolfe as an American scout announces the victory and an Indian ponders Wolfe's passing.
Benjamin West (1738-1820) was the tenth child of a Pennsylvania Quaker family. Proud, ambitious, and artistically talented, he could find no suitable art teacher in America and went to Italy as a young man to study Renaissance art. He traveled to London in 1763 to continue his studies just in time for the forming of the Royal Academy, which blessed the visual arts in Great Britain with the prestige of the crown. West became a favorite of George III and a mentor for American artists in London before, during, and after the Revolution. He mastered history painting, a genre that teaches civic virtue through the depiction of stories already known to the viewer, usually stories from classical Greece and Rome. Working within this genre, he elevated General James Wolfe into the pantheon of British and colonial heroes. Consider the questions on the painting (below) as you view this work. (National Gallery of Canada, 1 p.)