The French and Indian War commenced with George Washington’s failed offensive against the French near present-day Pittsburgh in 1754. Part of a global struggle, known as the Seven Years’ War, whose main theater was in Europe, the French and Indian War was the final colonial struggle between the British and French for global mastery.
In North America, the French gained the upper hand quickly, as British regulars under the command of Braddock were annihilated in 1755, not far from where Washington had met defeat nearly a year earlier. The failure of British offensives in Pennsylvania’s backcountry, along with spectacular French success along the New York frontier, led to a reassessment of British war efforts by late 1757.
With the accession of William Pitt, the elder, as prime minister and architect of British global strategy, the focus of the global conflict shifted to North America, and Pitt demanded increased colonial support for the imperial cause. The pacifist heritage and continued Quaker presence in Pennsylvania hindered British efforts to mobilize the militia and severely limited the colony’s contribution to the war effort.
Within Pennsylvania society, the lack of Quaker support for the British caused deep division along religious and regional lines. The pacifist groups, which included most Quakers, Amish, and Moravians, lived in the long-inhabited Delaware River Valley, where there were no hostile Native American tribes nearby. The situation in the backcountry stood in stark contrast to that in the eastern regions, as the French and their allies threatened the Scots-Irish Presbyterians and Reformed Germans. Not surprisingly, these backcountry groups deeply resented the failure of the elites to provide an effective defense, and a group of such disgruntled citizens called the Paxton Boys marched upon Philadelphia when the colony failed to settle a dispute between settlers and natives after Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763.
Briefly stated, while the British and colonial efforts against the French resulted in a decisive victory on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, the conflict revealed deep divisions in Pennsylvania society. The diversity and pluralism that marked Pennsylvania from its beginning yielded bitter fruit well after the commencement of the war in 1763.
The efforts of British colonial administrators to pay for the immense burden of empire following the expensive conflict dominated the next and final epoch of colonial Pennsylvania. Over the 1760s, administration after administration of the British government sought to pay for the French and Indian War by increasing the tax burden on the American colonies through a variety of import and trade taxes.
In Pennsylvania, the long-prevailing political divisions between the Proprietors and the royalists led by Benjamin Franklin continued well into this period. The Proprietor forces, led by John Dickinson, opposed British efforts to gather taxes by arguing that without colonial representation in the English Parliament, these new fees and dues encroached on the colonists’ personal liberties. Interestingly, Franklin supported many of the British taxes, arguing that imperial control over Pennsylvania was simply better than being under the thumb of the Penn family.
In the 1770s, as the conflict with Britain approached, Pennsylvania remained deeply divided along the ethnic, religious, and regional lines that had ruptured during the French and Indian War. When the Congress gathered in Philadelphia declared independence in 1776, the Pennsylvania delegation remained split, as Dickinson abstained and Franklin vocally pressed for independence along the lines of his Albany Plan of 1754. When British forces defeated Washington at the battle of Brandywine Creek in the fall of 1777 and occupied Philadelphia two weeks later, many of the Quaker elite welcomed British soldiers into their homes and left with the British forces when the town was evacuated in the spring of 1778. The diversity, tolerance, and liberty that had marked the Pennsylvania of William Penn was supplanted by bitter and deep division by the time of the American Revolution. Peter Bratt See also: Delaware River; Fort Duquesne; Franklin, Benjamin; Germans; Lenni Lenape (Delaware); Penn, William; Pennsylvania (Chronology); Philadelphia; Susquehanna; Document: Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges (1701). Bibliography Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Illick, Joseph E. Colonial Pennsylvania: A History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976.
French and Indian War Photo Gallery