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Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America

by William M. Fowler Jr.; Walker & Company, 2005

The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War

by Fred Anderson; Viking Press, Penguin Group, 2005

Often forgotten by Americans, the Seven Years’ War is worthy of being called “the true World War I,” a power struggle between both continental and global European powers that affected the fates of West African slaves, the Indian subcontinent and the colonists and native peoples of North America, at an overall cost of almost 1 million lives. As part of that larger conflict, the French and Indian War on North American soil is often viewed as either ensuring that Americans would speak English while laying the groundwork for the American Revolution, or merely a sideshow to the main event in Europe and around the globe. The war in North America, however, differed from previous extensions of British and French rivalries in that its outcome was more decisive and its consequences more widespread. In contrast to previous cases in which Franco-British conflicts spilled over into the colonies (the War of Spanish Succession, 1702-13, and the War of Austrian Succession, 1744-48), the French and Indian War unofficially began two years before the Seven Years’ War with the outbreak of fighting at the Forks of the Ohio, now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that lit the fuse that eventually set off the powder keg in Europe.

Playing a pivotal role, albeit a blundering one, in that opening round was a 23-year-old Virginia militia officer named George Washington. Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, the man Americans regard as “The Father of Our Country” may well also be considered the father—or, to paraphrase King Frederick the Great, the “midwife”—of a world war.

Washington’s rash attack on what the French insisted had been an “embassy” mission during a time of peace and the death of its leader, Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, occurred on May 28, 1754. Retribution came on July 3, as a French force led by Captain Louis de Jumonville, older brother of the slain ensign, trapped Washington at Fort Necessity. Washington was forced to sign a document of capitulation that held him responsible for the “assassination” of the younger Jumonville. By failing to read—or understand—the fine print, Washington had handed the French an excuse for war.

The 250th anniversary of that incident and its consequences has inspired at least two new books on the subject. The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War, by Fred Anderson, and Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, by William M. Fowler Jr., differ primarily in shades of interpretation. The War That Made America is a companion volume to the PBS television documentary of the same name and provides detail and explanatory depth that is sometimes missing from the television production. Its chapters are short and fast-moving but informative as they summarize a multitude of facets and oft-overlooked turning points in a war that was as complex as the wider Franco-British conflict.

Central to Anderson’s treatment is the usually ignored importance of a third major power in North America—the Iroquois confederation. One of the confederation’s leaders, Tanaghrisson, who had participated in the death of Jumonville, was a spokesman for the Indians of the Ohio region whose ambiguous power led whites to call him the Half King. His decision to ally with Britain, after years of wavering neutrality, sealed France’s fate in the New World more than the fall of Louisbourg or Quebec. Here was a case of allies with different agendas, for while Washington’s aim in 1754 was merely to drive the French out, Tanaghrisson’s was to openly defy the French, commit the Iroquois to the British and increase his own standing among them. For all that, Tanaghrisson died soon after, leaving Washington embarrassed and a world sliding toward the brink of war.

In the long run, the decision to side with Great Britain in the Europeans’ struggle did nothing to save the native Americans from being driven from the lands east of the Ohio and even Mississippi rivers. Neither they nor the British foresaw the emergence of yet another power dedicated to accelerating white settlement of the frontier: the independent United States of America. Author Anderson treats the American Revolution as a logical consequence of forces and attitudes created or exacerbated by the French and Indian War: the question of western settlement; the matter of who should pay for the war; and disagreements on the proper governance of the colonies. In addition, the actual conduct of the Revolutionary War was influenced by the lessons Washington learned as a colonial officer under British command, including his attitude toward the role of discipline in the Continental Army, and his experience gained in wilderness fighting.

Operating independently of a television derivative, Fowler writes just as elegantly and eloquently in Empires at War. In spite of America as the central setting, however, Fowler connects the French and Indian War more frequently to the outside world, which influenced and was influenced by the conflict. Pointing out New France’s disadvantages in numbers and the eventual loss of its Indian allies, he mentions the even more fundamental handicap of its colonial defense, which lay primarily in the hands of the French navy, itself perpetually the junior partner in France’s military. He describes the French and Indian War’s effects on Europe and the world, and its influence on the coming revolt of the 13 colonies and on the less violent but no less inevitable independence of Canada.

The difference between these two histories, then, is mainly one of degrees. As their titles imply, The War That Made America focuses a bit more on American affairs—including those of native Americans—while Empires at War presents a somewhat wider worldview. Nevertheless, both indicate that the New World was already finding its place and having its effect on global affairs long before there was a United States or a Canada.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here