Proclamations versus land-hunger

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 began the process of turning the British Empire’s total victory over the French into the loss of the American colonies. But why?

Once I would have said something like this: “The British government, in its blindness, totally disregarded the legitimate interests of the American colonists.” That’s the way American history often paints it. But from London, each disastrous move seemed reasonable, even logical. The frontier problems King George tried to address were much the same as those that faced another George – Washington – thirty years later.

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The Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War in 1763 expelled the French from North America, leaving the British in uncontested possession from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the northern and western limits of settlement in Canada. But of that vast territory, the British American had settled only the areas between the ocean and the Appalachians, and that sparsely. From the mountains to the Mississippi, and throughout most of what had been French Canada, those actually in possession were American Indians.

British North America regarded the Treaty of Paris as the green light for expansion . But their imperial leaders weren’t so sure that was a good idea. The French had considered the Indian nations centered on the Great Lakes to be valuable allies. Could those Indians be reconciled? It had to be considered. In October, King George surprised the colonists with his Royal Proclamation of 1763, forbidding settlement beyond the mountains.

In those days, Indians were not remnant peoples. In 1763, and into George Washington’s presidency 30 years later, they were nations, and although they were outnumbered, the technological gap was not so large (that is, they were not so impossibly outgunned) and they were neither desperate nor helpless. In fact, the Indians helped precipitate the proclamation.

While the king and his ministers were wrestling with the problem of reorganizing the governing of North America, they learned of the outbreak of the rebellion led by Pontiac, an attempt to prevent the British from occupying the lands formerly claimed (but not settled) by France. Pontiac’s War would continue for three years and end in defeat, but its largest impact may have been the impetus it provided for the Royal Proclamation.

King George decreed that for the time being, no more settlement would be allowed west of the Appalachians. Any lands whose rivers flowed into the Atlantic were open to colonial settlement. Lands whose rivers flowed into the Mississippi were reserved for the Indian nations. Furthermore, the act prohibited purchase of Indian land by anyone other than Crown officials, not colonial officials.

That proclamation, like so many temporizing acts of statesmanship, sought not to prevent change but to delay it, in the hope of making it more manageable. With time (London hoped) the Indians would learn to live with the British as they had lived with the French.

But the land-hungry colonials had fought hard against the French. They had been raised to fear the French-Indian combination that had resulted in so many backwoods massacres. Were they now to be deprived of the fruits of their victory? King George, like his royal predecessor King Canute, was able to command the tide to halt, but was unable to enforce it.

The clamor for revision or withdrawal of the proclamation began pretty fast, encompassing not only settlers who were already beyond the mountains, but prominent public men and land speculators both in North America and in the home islands. It wasn’t long before the boundary line was moved westward, first in the Treaty of Sort Stanwix (1768), then in the Treaty of Lochaber (1770), until the area open to British American settlement extended Virginia into what later became the states of Kentucky and, still later, West Virginia.

But the damage to relations between mother country and its American colonies had been done. The colonists (particularly colonial land speculators, which in those days meant nearly anybody with a little extra money) resented the British government’s refusal to permit new settlements. The proclamation ignited suspicions that the actions that seemed eminently reasonable to the Crown officials were evidence of a deep-laid plot to suppress and oppress them for the greater good of the home island.

Suspicion usually trumps reason, and so it proved in the 1700s. But after the American Revolution, the new government found itself confronting the sme problem that the proclamation of 1763 had tried to address. A series of laws and court decisions attempted to protect Indian lands from encroachment, and declared that only the federal government could buy Indian land, but in the end hunger for land and resources trumped governmental regulations every time. In the long run, the United States government’s policies were not much different from those of King George, and not much more effective.


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