Saturday, July 03, 2004

Defeated on the Third of July

Fred Anderson, a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and co-author of the forthcoming Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000, reminds us of the dialectic of empire that turns victory into defeat.

On July 3, 1754, George Washington, "acting in the name of King George II (and also on behalf of the land-speculating gentry of Virginia)," was defeated by a French and Indian force at the battle of Fort Necessity, the defeat that "helped precipitate the 18th century's greatest conflict, the Seven Years' War" (Fred Anderson, "What Would George Celebrate?" New York Times, July 3, 2004). The Seven Years' War, known as the French and Indian War in the United States, ended in British victory: "The Treaty of Paris, signed in early 1763, ended France's empire in North America. Britain emerged as master of everything from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico" (Anderson, July 3, 2004). The triumph of the British Empire, however, was short-lived:
It took the British a little more than a decade to squander the victory they had won, alienating colonists to such a degree that thousands of them took up arms against the king's troops in 1775, with George Washington, once a loyal soldier of empire, at their head. The Americans' complaints, as everyone knows, centered on Parliament's attempts to tax them, as it tried to impose order and fiscal stability on a vastly extended, virtually bankrupt empire. Yet we cannot fully grasp the colonists' willingness to resort to violence in defense of their rights without seeing the Revolution, as they did, in light of the recent imperial war.

The French and Indian War had convinced the colonists that they had achieved full partnership in a British empire that stood for liberty and individual rights —- especially property rights —- under the rule of law. When Parliament tried to impose order on the colonists between 1763 and 1775, however, it treated them not as partners but as mere subjects.

The colonists' sense of betrayal was palpable not because they understood themselves as Americans at the time, but because they saw themselves as British patriots who had shed their blood to preserve the rights that Parliament now seemed determined to destroy. When Britain responded to their protests with force, it seemed only to make manifest a tyrannical intention to destroy their liberty and expropriate their property.

The 250th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Necessity reminds us that imperial victories can endanger the victor as much as the vanquished. Success in the Seven Years' War convinced Britain's leaders that their nation possessed the world's greatest military power. From that accurate perception, they drew the fatal inference that they had nothing to lose by using force against colonists whose genuine affection for British institutions, rights and liberties had hitherto constituted the empire's strongest bond.

In this light, the Revolution can be seen as an unintended and perhaps paradoxical consequence of imperial victory: an empire shattered when leaders, backed by tremendous military might, failed to understand that their only enduring basis of control lay in the consent of the governed. (Fred Anderson, "What Would George Celebrate?" New York Times, July 3, 2004)

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