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1. 1763: Britain Victorious

No one can rejoice more sincerely than I do on the Reduction [defeat] of Canada; and this, not merely as I am a Colonist, but as I am a Briton. I have long been of Opinion that the Foundations of the future Grandeur and Stability of the British Empire lie in America . . .

Benjamin Franklin to Lord Kames,
3 January 1760

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 PDF file
  • 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. Internal Link to Discussing Art page 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.)

Discussion Questions

  1. In these documents, how did Americans display loyalty to Britain as well as pride in their contributions to the war effort?
  2. To Americans in 1763, what did it mean to be loyal English subjects? citizens of the empire?
  3. Compare the expressions of loyalty in these texts with those in the later petitions and declarations of rights and grievances sent to the king (especially in 1765 and 1773-75). What changes do you detect?
  4. In what ways did the French and Indian War address American colonial goals as well as British imperial goals?
  5. In what ways could these goals clash in the future?
  6. In what ways could Americans, who would later divide into Patriots and Loyalists, view the British victory differently?
  7. Follow Benjamin Franklin's commentary in this Theme CRISIS. How did his opinion that the "future Grandeur and Stability of the British Empire lie in America" change over the next twelve years?
  8. Follow the commentary of Patriot David Ramsay in his 1789 History of the American Revolution. How do his views, written after the war, compare with those of Franklin? What perspective do these men provide us of the prerevolutionary period?

Painting Questions

  1. How does West use light and shadow in this painting?
  2. How has West structured the painting to direct the viewer's eye to General Wolfe?
  3. What elements in the painting establish General Wolfe as a hero?
  4. Why did West include a Native American in this painting? Compare his posture and dress with that of the other figures. What is his function in the painting?
  5. West includes an American scout in the painting. Why is his coat green? What function does he play in the painting? Why is he positioned next to the Native American?
  6. How does this painting represent the new redrawn map of empire?
  7. In what ways is this an "American" painting?
  8. James Wolfe became a hero both in Great Britain and the colonies. From the evidence in this painting, what did he represent to the British? to the colonists?

Framing Questions

  • Between 1763 and 1775, what changed many Americans from loyal British subjects to rebellious Patriots?
  • Why did many Americans remain loyal to Great Britain and oppose rebellion?
  • How did Patriots and Loyalists convey their views through the media outlets of the time?
  • Was the American Revolution inevitable? If so, was there a "point of no return"?


COMPILATION: Colonists respond to British victory
West, The Death of General Wolfe
 6 pp.
 1 pp.
 7 pp.

Supplemental Sites

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham (Battle of Quebec) (Canadian War Museum)

Benjamin West, links to artwork and commentary
"Born Yet We Are Debarred Englishmen's Liberty," Massachusetts soldier confronts British society, 1759 (History Matters)

AMERICAN, Pt: V of Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763 (primary source collection, National Humanities Center)
The American Revolution, overviews and primary sources (Library of Congress)
"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

1 The History of the American Revolution, 1789 (New York: Russell & Russell, reproduced from the London edition of 1793, 1968), v. 1, p. 41.
2 Spain, also a combatant in the war, ceded Florida to Britain in the treaty, but gained it back in the 1783 treaty ending the American Revolution (it had entered the Revolution in 1779 as an ally of France and the Americans). In the 1763 map above, the pink section in the lower left corner indicates territory held by Spain before the French and Indian War, and the yellow indicates territory acquired by Spain in 1763 after the French and Indian War.

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division:
– Cóvens & Mortier, L'Amérique septentrionale, dressée sur les mémoires le plus récens des meilleurs géographes . . . , map, Amsterdam, 1757 (detail); Call No. G3300 1757 .C62 Vault.
– Richard William Seale, A new and accurate map of North America, laid down according to the latest, and most approved observations and discoveries, map, London, 1763 (detail); Call No. G3300 1763 .S4 Vault.

Banner image: Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston, engraving (detail), in W. D. Rev. Mr. Cooper, The History of North America (London: E. Newbery, 1789). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-538 (also Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Digital ID us0012_01). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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