The French and Indian War

British, French, and Spanish possessions in 1750. (Lands in purple had been ceded by France to Britain in the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713.)

What North America called the French and Indian War, the rest of the world called the Seven Years’ War. It was fought worldwide, but here we will concern ourselves only with its North American phase. In any case, “Seven Years’ War” refers to the war in Europe, which continued from 1756 to 1763. The war in North America extended from 1754 to 1760.

In North America, the war was fought between British and French colonists, and soldiers from the two parent countries, and Indian allies on each side, with battles taking place on the frontier from Virginia to Nova Scotia. The French particularly depended on Indian allies, because they were so heavily outnumbered. Though their early voyages of exploration gave them claim to vast amounts of North America, they had few settlers on the ground – about 75,000, mostly along the St. Lawrence River valley — defended by about 3,000 colonial troops (no French regulars). The British colonies, by contrast, outnumbered them 20 to one, with about a million and a half people strung along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to Newfoundland, and continually moving inland. Most of the British colonies had only ill-trained local militia, but Virginia, being by far the largest colony, with the longest and most exposed frontier, hosted several companies of British regulars.

The immediate cause of hostilities came in the Ohio country, which was claimed by French, British and Iroquois. British activity in the Ohio territories prompted the Governor-General of New France to dispatch a force of 300 men to the area, with the objective of punishing the Miami tribe for continuing to trade with the British. In 1753,  a mixed 2,000-man force constructed and garrisoned forts in the area. As the force moved south, it drove off or captured British traders, thus alienating the Mingo Indians.  The Iroquois, insisting that the British block French expansion, applied to the British Superintendent for Indian Affairs in the New York region and beyond, William Johnson, whom the Iroquois called “He who does great things.” (He spoke their languages, had been made a colonel of the Iroquois, as well as a colonel of the Western New York Militia. Must have been an interesting man.)

The French began building Fort Duquesne near the site of present-day Pittsburgh. The Governor  of Virginia ordered a 22-year-old militia officer named George Washington to warn the French to leave. Washington’s party surprised them on May 28, 1754, killing many , including their commanding officer, at the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Thus Washington precipitated what became a global struggle.

When England heard of the battles, the government sent an army expedition to dislodge the French. The British plans leaked, and France sent New France six regiments. Naval engagements led to formal declarations of war in 1756.

The year 1755 was a year of disasters for the British, with four operations against the French all failing. The worst defeat came to British General Edward Braddock at the Battle of the Monongahela. Braddock lost 1,000 killed or injured, and died of his wounds a few days later. Young Washington led the remaining 500 British troops to safety in Virginia. In preventing defeat from turning into a rout, Washington immediately became famous throughout the colonies. (In 1774, delegates to the First Continental Congress, meeting the man they had read about 20 years earlier, were surprised to see not some old greybeard but a young and vigorous man of 42.)

Military matters didn’t go much better for the British in the following two years, except in Canada, where forces from Nova Scotia overcame the French in Acadia (present-day New Brunswick). British commander in chief William Shirley, acting without orders, expelled the French from the area, thus dispersing the Acadians (or ‘Cadians, and eventually Cajuns) as far as Louisiana.

In 1757, a mixed French force of Canadian scouts and Indians besieged Fort William Henry, which finally capitulated with an agreement to withdraw under parole. When the withdrawal began, some of Montcalm’s Indian allies, angered at the lost opportunity for loot, attacked the British column, killing and capturing several hundred men, women, children, and slaves. And, since smallpox was present within the fort, the siege may have helped spread smallpox among the Indians beyond the Mississippi, as returning warriors unknowingly carried it with them.

The turning point of the war came after William Pitt became Prime Minister. He committed large numbers of troops and ships to the struggle in the New World, which France was unable to match, partly due to the British blockade, partly due to France’s military entanglements on the European continent.

Then came 1759, which the British called the year of miracles. The British captured both Ticonderoga and Quebec city. In September 1760, the French Governor-General negotiated a surrender that guaranteed French residents religious freedom, security of property and the right to remain if they chose. And that was more or less the end of the fighting on the North American continent. The war in North America officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, a few days before another treaty ended the Seven Years’ War.

Now, notice this. The British offered France a choice: surrender either its continental North American possessions east of the Mississippi or the two Caribbean islands that the British had occupied, Guadeloupe and Martinique – and the French chose to keep the islands, for the value of their sugar production. Inexplicable to us, logical to them. So, the peace treaty gave the British everything east of the Mississippi, handed over the rest of French possessions to their Spanish allies, and left France with only the Caribbean islands plus a couple of fishing islands in the St. Lawrence.


The war changed everything, for Britain, for France, for Spain, for their colonies, and for the natives inhabiting the territories involved. The Seven Years’ War nearly doubled Britain’s national debt, which led to attempts to impose taxes on the colonies. The French debt increased as well, and they handed over territories comprising some of the richest farmland and hunting territories in the world. The Indians, regardless which side they had allied with, found that the British now faced no counterweight to expansion. British takeover of Spanish Florida prompted most of its population to leave for Cuba, and sent Indian tribes westward to avoid the British, leading to rising tensions between the Choctaw and the Creek.

Some people think might makes right; some think might makes wrong, and in either case, their assumptions determine their conclusions. But history is rarely that neat, and if people are almost never divisible into angels and devils, states are that much less so. The French and Indian War was no exception.

The Albany Congress

It isn’t always easy to tell success from failure, even long after the fact.

The Albany Congress made specific proposals. The British Colonial Office turned them down.

So did every one of the legislatures from the seven colonies that had sent representatives.

Nothing proposed was ever implemented. And yet Benjamin Franklin much later said that had its proposal been implemented, the Revolutionary War probably wouldn’t have happened.

Pretty extravagant language for a conference of only 21 delegates, representing only the northern seven of the 13 colonies, meeting for only three weeks. Justified? Well, consider. That conference was the colonists’ first attempt at continental unity, and many elements of the plan it proposed were implemented in the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution.


The summer of 1754 was the beginning of the French and Indian War as it would be fought in North America. It was clear enough that war with France was likely. Even if it didn’t come to that, there were other matters of common concern, most particularly how to achieve better relations with the Indian nations on the frontiers of the colonies.

The legislatures of the (then) four New England states, plus those of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, sent representatives to the meeting in Albany, which convened June 19 and continued to July 11, 1754. The Carolinas, Georgia, Delaware and New Jersey did not participate, presumably because they were not on the front line of any potential conflict. But (for some reason not at all clear to me), neither did Virginia, which had the largest territory to defend against the French and Indians.

“The Conference of Albany” was supposed to be talking about coordinated actions and attitudes toward French and Indians. Perhaps it was natural for the conference to be hijacked by Benjamin Franklin’s Albany Plan. As it turned out, they spent most of their time considering it.

Franklin, ever the combination of practical man of affairs and visionary thinker, proposed that the colonists create a “grand council” that would have jurisdiction over Indian affairs. As matters stood, each colony dealt with various tribes, and so the Mohawks, say, might sign a treaty with New York that ignored or contradicted a treaty signed with Pennsylvania. The jumble of competing jurisdictions made everyone’s life complicated. Franklin proposed that the various legislatures create the council and cede it sole power to deal with the Indians. He wasn’t thinking of a federal government (as far as anybody knows), but of a sort of specialized supra-colonial legislative agency confined to one set of problems.

The King would appoint an executive, who together with a Grand Council selected by the colonial legislatures would be responsible for Indian affairs, military preparedness, and enforcement of laws regulating trade and finance. An equivalent today might be one of those compacts of states that deal with the problems of a multi-state river system, like the Colorado or the headwaters of Chesapeake Bay. A different analogy might be the Coal and Steel Community that was set up in Europe after World War II, that grew to become the Common Market and eventually the European Community.

In any case, it never got off the ground. The colonies’ legislatures rejected the plan, since it would encroach upon their powers. The Colonial Office rejected the plan, perhaps because it had been hoping for some kind of unified military command. The British Board of Trade turned it down, too, and that was the end of the matter.

Or – was it?

The Albany Congress marked the first time that various colonies had met to discuss a common concern. Even though the Southern colonies were absent, it would become the precedent for the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and, much more importantly, the First Continental Congress in 1774, which led directly if not immediately first to the Articles of Confederation and then to the Constitution.

Franklin, in 1789:

“On reflection it now seems probable, that if the foregoing plan or some thing like it, had been adopted and carried into execution, the subsequent separation of the colonies from the mother country might not so soon have happened, nor the mischiefs suffered on both sides have occurred, perhaps during another century. For the colonies, if so united, would have really been, as they then thought themselves, sufficient to their own defense, and being trusted with it, as by the plan, an army from Britain, for that purpose would have been unnecessary: The pretences for framing the Stamp Act would not then have existed, nor the other projects for drawing a revenue from America to Britain by Acts of Parliament, which were the cause of the breach, and attended with such terrible expense of blood and treasure: so that the different parts of the Empire might still have remained in peace and union.”

Maybe so, maybe no. In any case, that isn’t the way it happened.

Through the Cumberland Gap

[“Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap” by George Caleb Bingham, 1852]

For their first few generations, English colonists continued to think of themselves in relation to the ocean, with all its connections to home and to the rest of the world. But with time and the spread of the areas of settlement, the settlers of western Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and North Carolina, increasingly looked not east, but west.

For decades, pioneering families moved from the Pennsylvania Dutch country down the long Shenandoah valley through Maryland and Virginia, and some of them wound up in North Carolina. (In this way, North Carolina, a state with few good natural harbors, was actually settled as much west to east as east to west.) They wanted to keep moving West rather than farther South, to stay in the latitudes they were used to. But to the West were the Appalachians. Before highways and the internal combustion engine; before railroads powered by steam; before unpaved roads traversed by horse and wagon, those mountains formed a solid barrier hemming in frontier families who were looking for a little elbow room.

In the mid-1700s, unpaved roads were dusty in dry weather, muddy in wet, and rutty and potholed always. And that was on flat land! Passages across broken land were difficult, often impossible, for carriages and wagons. Seaboard America didn’t put a lot of time or money into improving its roads, since travel by river and sea was so much cheaper and easier. But once the line of settlement moved beyond the rivers, travel and commerce depended on roads, and roads depended on terrain.

Nearly the entire length of that old mountain range was far too high and too rugged for the technology of the day to run roads through it. To run a road over the mountains, you’d need to find an interruption in the wall that would let you thread through the barrier to get to the promised land.

Surely there was such a way over the Appalachians. There had to be!

There was. It was (and is) located more or less where the modern-day states of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee come together. In the year 1750, a Virginia doctor named Thomas Walker pointed it out and named it, and in time the Cumberland Gap became the gateway to the West.

Walker found the gap, but the man who did more than anyone else to open the way to Kentucky was a man named Daniel Boone.

Daniel Boone was born in 1734, two years after George Washington, of Quaker parents, on the edge of the Pennsylvania frontier. The Pennsylvania Quakers had good relations with the Indians, and young Boone learned woodcraft as much from the Lenape Indians as from the local white settlers. (He was given his first rifle at the age of 12 to provide food for the family.) In 1750, when Daniel was 16, his father moved the family to western North Carolina.

Because he grew up on the frontier, Boone, like Abraham Lincoln two generations later, had little formal education, and like Lincoln he was literate and enjoyed reading. In later years, he would bring books with him on his long hunting expeditions, sometimes entertaining his companions by reading to them around the evening campfire. But unlike Lincoln, who was born 75 years later, Boone never had much to do with cities or even towns. He was acknowledged as an unexcelled master of the woods. (Late in life someone asked him if, in his extensive solitary travels,  he had ever gotten lost. He said, no, he wasn’t ever lost, “but I was bewildered once for three days.”)

Like the young George Washington, Daniel Boone served with the British military during the French and Indian War. In fact, in 1755, he was a wagon driver with the same expedition that young Washington narrowly saved from total disaster after the British general was killed. Oddly enough, one of the most important results of that failed expedition was that a wagon driver named Daniel Boone had his imagination caught by the tales he heard from another driver named John Finley, who had been across the mountains, trading with the Indians in a place they called Kentucky. Nothing happened just then: Boone went home and the following year married. But the seed had been planted.

For years, Boone supported his family as a commercial hunter, going alone or with a few others into the wilderness, hunting and trapping for weeks or months along what were called the Medicine Trails (buffalo migration trails), then returning to sell the hides and pelts. But by the mid-1760s, colonial immigration into the Yadkin valley area had made it harder for a hunter to find enough game to make ends meet. Time to move.

He thought about moving to the Pensacola, Florida area, and actually bought some land there, but his wife refused to move so far from everything she knew. Not Florida? Well, then, where? And then fate stepped in again, and here was John Finley visiting, still with his tales of Kentucky.

Boone first reached Kentucky in the fall of 1767 while on a long hunt with his brother. At some point he learned that the feared Iroquois Indians had signed the Fort Stanwix treaty, ceding Kentucky to the British. In May, 1769, Boone began a two-year hunting expedition in Kentucky, but in December, he was captured by Shawnees, who had not signed the Fort Stanwix treaty. They regarded Kentucky as their hunting ground. They confiscated all the skins and told Boone and his companion to leave and never return. But Boone continued hunting and exploring Kentucky, and in September, 1773, he led a group of about 50 would-be emigrants to establish a settlement in Kentucky. The attempt was abandoned after one of his sons, and another man, were captured by a band of Delaware, Shawnees, and Cherokee Indians, and tortured to death. That massacre led to what was called Dunmore’s War between Virginia and the Shawnees, which ended in the Shawnees relinquishing their claims to Kentucky. And in 1775, a North Carolina judge named Richard Henderson hired Boone to blaze what became known as the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap.

Boone led a party of 30 into central Kentucky, marking a path to the Kentucky River and founding Boonesborough. He brought his family there on September 8, 1775, when he was 49 years old. The road he marked, and the settlements he founded and protected, are the reason that Kentucky had enough inhabitants in 1792 to be admitted to the Union as the first state west of the Appalachians, eleven years prior to the admission of Ohio.


Daniel Boone had a lot more life to live, but the story is too long to tell here, and too interesting to make short work of. He served as an officer of militia in the Revolutionary War, fighting in the 1782 Battle of Blue Licks, which was one of the last battles of the war, fought after the surrender at Yorktown. He continued pioneering, and became a legend in his own lifetime, famous not only in America but in Europe. He died of natural causes on September 26, 1820, nearly 86 years old. By the time he died, the wilderness road had enabled an estimated 300,000 men, women and children to get past the mountain barrier.


A byword and a hissing

A byword and a hissing

A memorial to Arnold on the Saratoga battlefield does not mention his name, but says, instead: “In memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution, and for himself the rank of Major General.”

His name became a slur, an insult. To call someone a Benedict Arnold is to call him a traitor. The name has no other meaning. Such a strange and tragic fate for a brilliant general. Not an undeserved fate – there can be no doubt of his guilt – but tragic nonetheless, because before he became a traitor he was a hero, and the country he betrayed he first suffered for and served well.

His career poses questions that can’t be answered, but should be asked. To attempt to understand is not the same thing as making excuses. The fact is, Arnold betrayed his trust and attempted to betray his country. But why did he do it? That’s a valid question.

Here is his record.

In 1775, he was responsible, with Ethan Allen, for capturing Fort Ticonderoga, which as we have seen, provided the guns that made it possible to force the British to leave Boston (and, nearly all of New England) forever. He successfully urged the Continental Congress to invade Quebec, was denied command, led a second expedition through the wilderness to attack Quebec City (having received permission from Washington himself), had his left leg shattered in the same attack that killed the commander of the other expedition; and nonetheless kept the city under siege for another four months until he was relieved in April, 1776.

When a British army forced the Americans out of the city of Montreal, Arnold directed the rear guard during the army’s retreat, got a fleet constructed on Lake Champlain, and fought a naval action that delayed the British long enough to make it impossible for them to advance farther in 1776.

By now a general, he was on good terms with Washington and with general Schuyler and Gates, but he had made powerful enemies within the Army and within Congress. In February 1777, when he learned that Congress had refused to promote him to major general, he resigned, but Washington refused to accept the resignation. He finally did get the promotion as a result of his crucial role in a battle at Ridgefield, Connecticut. but was dissatisfied because Congress didn’t give him seniority to others who had been promoted earlier. In July he resigned again. Again Washington refused to accept it, and ordered him north to help defend against the British, who had retaken Fort Ticonderoga.

Arnold was responsible for relieving the siege of Fort Stanwix, then distinguished himself – and got himself into trouble – in both battles of Saratoga. In the first, he got into a shouting match with General Gates and was relieved of field command. In the second, he fought against orders, and led attacks which led to his being wounded again in the left leg. (The wound suffered at Saratoga resulted in his left leg being two inches shorter than his right.) Had he died on that field, he would be remembered as a hero of the Revolution, which, to that point, he was. When he returned to the army at Valley Forge in May 1778, the men who had served under him at Saratoga applauded him.

Congress restored Arnold’s seniority when it learned of his actions at Saratoga. However, this was too late to satisfy him. Congress had repeatedly passed him over for promotion, partly because others claimed his credit or accused him of corruption. He seems to have been slow to forget grievances.

When the British withdrew from Philadelphia the month after Arnold rejoined the army, Washington appointed him military commander of the city. There he lived extravagantly and prominently, and met, and the following year married, the daughter of a Loyalist sympathizer.

At some point he decided to turn his coat. By July 1779, Arnold was providing the British with troop locations and strengths, as well as the locations of supply depots, and negotiating with them for compensation. Arnold resigned his military command of Philadelphia in late April, 1780.

As everybody knows, he was given command of West Point, offered to sell the position to the British, was detected, and narrowly escaped with his life. He was made a British brigadier general and served with them until after Yorktown. He died in England in 1801 at age 60.

The question remains. Why?

It’s always risky to generalize, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that Arnold would have been better off to have had Washington’s patience, integrity, and willingness to forget or overlook personal grievances for the sake of the common cause. But then, asking anyone to emulate Washington’s gifts of character is asking a lot.

Arnold’s actions are no one’s fault but his own, but people don’t act without reason. The men who repeatedly promoted lesser men over him – are they free of responsibility for his change of heart? Years of experience with an incompetent and ungrateful Confederation government; the fact that Congress rebuffed the Carlisle Peace Commission’s offer of self-rule for the colonies and Parliamentary representation; the alliance with long-hated France – did all this lead him to re-evaluate his position? Marriage to a rich wife from a Loyalist family – did this lead to a changed perspective?

For whatever reasons, when he opened secret negotiations with the British, he moved from a well-deserved fame to eternal infamy – no longer a hero, now a Benedict Arnold.




“The American Peace Commissioners,” by Benjamin West.

[Only the American commissioners are portrayed, because the disgruntled British refused to pose for it.]

In 1763, England, like America in 1945, stood unequalled, all its enemies prostrate at its feet, all its war goals achieved, apparently able to proceed to do anything it wished. The end of the French and Indian War, known to England as the Seven Years War, had swept the French from the North American continent (also from India, but that part of the story does not concern us here.)

Twenty years later, in 1783, England, like America in 1972, signed a humiliating peace in order to extricate itself from an endless mess caused in large part by its own combination of arrogance, ignorance, and stupidity. What had started out as a simple police action to discipline the colonials had developed into a global dogfight that left the English financially broke, diplomatically isolated, and militarily fighting a host of European enemies. Nothing had gone as expected, planned or hoped. It all came down to a bitter peace negotiated in Paris but not really accepted.

(Had the British only known it, the hard lessons learned in losing the Revolutionary War were going to serve them well. In ten years’ time they would be enmeshed in 21 years of warfare against first revolutionary France, and then Napoleonic France, the result of which would be, again, total victory, this time leading to 100 years of economic and diplomatic dominance over Europe and, indeed, most of the world. But that was in the unseen future, and is also not part of our story here.)

Peace talks began in April 1782, after the American-French victory at Yorktown toppled the Tory government and brought in the Whigs, who had never been strong on coercion in the first place.

Since the war had become a world war, involving France, Spain and the Netherlands as well as the 13 colonies, Britain was going to have to make peace with one and all. As is often the case among allies, whether in victory or defeat, various members of the winning coalition had to keep close eyes on one another. And indeed, as it turned out, England signed four treaties, a separate peace agreement with each belligerent power. (One for all, all for one, and every man for himself.)

America’s alliance with France specified that neither party would make a separate peace without the consent of the other, and the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, wanted, and expected, that the Americans would coordinate their diplomatic strategy with the French. But the American delegation knew that the French king had allied himself with the British colonials for his own reasons, and might easily change without notice. They declined to allow the French monarchy to use them and their cause as a make-weight to improve its own diplomatic position. Instead, they negotiated independently, and to good effect.

Benjamin Franklin and John Jay obtained remarkably generous boundaries that extended all the way to the Mississippi, and John Adams secured economically important fishing rights. The American negotiators secured not only peace but every goal that Congress had set forth in 1779. Franklin wanted Britain to cede Quebec to avoid future conflicts between the two powers, but this he couldn’t obtain. Adams, Franklin, Jay, and Henry Laurens were able to sign preliminary articles of peace for the United States on November 30, 1782.

It was a good deal for the United States. The Treaty of Paris recognized the thirteen former colonies as free, sovereign and independent states, with agreed-upon territorial boundaries. It confirmed their right to fish on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Both parties agreed to impose no impediment to creditors attempting to recover valid debts. Congress was to “earnestly recommend” to state legislatures the restitution of estates, rights and property that belonged to British subjects, and would end prosecution of loyalists and confiscation of their property. All prisoners of war were to be set free, The Mississippi River would remain open both to British and American citizens, and any territories captured by either side after the treaty was signed would be restored without compensation.

It is true, America lost the privileges that it had automatically enjoyed as part of the British empire. This meant new restrictions on trade with British possessions, and, as we have seen, meant loss of protection from Muslim pirates in what are now Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Also ahead was trouble over boundaries with the Spanish possessions, and difficulties getting the British to live up to their agreement to relinquish their posts on American territory. But these were problems that would be sorted out in time. The immediate American goals had been met, and the former colonies were free to try to turn themselves into a nation.

The final treaty was signed on September 3, 1783 by Adams, Franklin and Jay. On that day, Britain signed separate agreements with the other allies, as well, ceding East and West Florida to Spain, recovering captured Grenada, Montserrat and the Bahamas from the French and Spanish, exchanging captured territory with France, and returning Dutch possessions in the East Indies, captured in 1781, in exchange for trading privileges in the Dutch East Indies. The treaty was ratified by the American Congress of the Confederation on January 14, 1784 and by British Parliament on April 9, 1784.

The long war was officially over.



The most dangerous moment of the Revolutionary War had nothing to do with the British army. In fact, it came after the preliminary treaty of peace was signed.

The Army was stationed at Newburgh, New York, watching occupied New York City. Yorktown had ended the Revolutionary War, essentially, and everybody knew it. People started looking ahead toward life after the war.

Congress had promised Continental officers a lifetime half-pay pension. But Congress, in early 1782, had also stopped paying them, promising to make it up after the war was over. Congress talked about paying them, but nothing happened. Finally General Henry Knox drafted a memorial to Congress, signed by enough general officers that it had to be taken seriously, protesting that pay was months in arrears, and offering to accept a lump sum payment instead of the lifetime half pay pension. The officers also sent representatives to warn the politicians quietly that the army’s temper was uncertain.

But, as usual, the larder was empty, and Congress didn’t have the power to compel the states to pay a dollar more than they happened to want to pay. And there was a long-running battle in Congress between those who wanted to honor the pledge to the Army and those who (not quite saying so) thought it would be inconvenient to do as they had promised.

On February 13, rumors of a preliminary peace agreement heightened the sense of urgency among the nationalists. And one of two things happened, and it is impossible to know which. Either (a) the nationalists politicians in Philadelphia suggested to some officers that they turn up the heat on their Congressional colleagues by making it look like the army might mutiny or (b) the army was tempted to act on its own. Enough officers were angry, and were aware of Congress’ already long history of broken promises, and were aware of their own strength vis-à-vis the civilian government, and perhaps had General Horatio Gates as their leader, that they were ready to take control of the army from General Washington and put life in what was otherwise an empty threat.

Either way, what was planned might have had disastrous effects.

Whichever it was, on the morning of March 10 an unsigned letter called upon the army to send Congress an ultimatum. Published at the same time was an anonymous call for a meeting of all field officers for 11 a.m. the next day. Washington, in his general orders on the 11th, announced that there would be a meeting of officers on the 15th instead, to be presided over by the senior officer present. He requested a report of the meeting, implying that he would not attend. But as soon as General Gates opened the meeting, Washington entered and asked to speak. What could Gates do? He stepped aside.

An excerpt from Washington’s little speech, silently paragraphed to make it easier for modern readers:

“If my conduct heretofore has not evinced to you that I have been a faithful friend to the army, my declaration of it at this time would be equally unavailing and improper. But as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common country; as I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty; as I have been the constant companion and witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel and acknowledge your merits; as I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the army; as my heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard its praises, and my indignation has arisen when the mouth of detraction has been opened against it, it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the war, that I am indifferent to its interests.

“But how are they to be promoted? The way is plain, says the anonymous addresser. `If war continues, remove into the unsettled country; there establish yourselves and leave an ungrateful country to defend itself.’—But who are they to defend? Our wives, our children, our farms and other property which we leave behind us? or, in this state of hostile separation, are we to take the two first (the latter cannot be removed) to perish in a wilderness with hunger, cold and nakedness? `If peace takes place, never sheath your swords,’ says he `until you have obtained full and ample justice.’

“This dreadful alternative of either deserting our country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our arms against it, which is the apparent object, unless Congress can be compelled into instant compliance, has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea. My God! what can this writer have in view, by recommending such measures?. Can he be a friend to the army? Can he be a friend to this country?”

Washington said he wanted to read them a letter he had received. He took the letter from his pocket, then took out a pair of reading glasses, and said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”

Theatrical, yes. But it was effective. Many of the officers were moved to tears, and their mood instantly changed. Every man in the hall knew that Washington had served since 1775, and there were few enough others who had served all those eight long years

After that, the resentments and just indignation that might have supported action against the government were gone.

(Washington knew how to put pressure on politicians, though. He made sure that Congress saw those anonymous addresses. Congress ultimately agreed to provide five years’ full pay in the form of government bonds, the bonds that Hamilton redeemed a few years later.)

More than 40 years later, a man who had been on Washington’s staff at the time wrote, “I have ever considered that the United States are indebted for their republican form of government solely to the firm and determined republicanism of George Washington at this time.” Washington had saved the officers from themselves, had saved them from wrecking all that they had fought and suffered to achieve.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

The one achievement for which the Article of Confederation Congress is remembered is the Northwest Ordinance, which created the first organized territory of the newly independent United States, a territory bounded by the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Great Lakes, and the western boundary of Pennsylvania.

The Ohio (as part of the Mississippi river system) was the key to the heartland. But the state of Maryland refused to sign the articles unless assured that all the other states with claims to lands west of the existing states would cede them to the federal government. These claims were not trivial. Virginia’s claim included virtually the entire territory, but other states also had overlapping claims extending to the Mississippi, including Georgia, the Carolinas and even New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. (An echo of these earlier claims is the part of northern Ohio still sometimes referred to as the Western Reserve.)

The states did cede their claims, which made the northwest territory the nation’s public domain. As passed and ratified by the 13 States, the original northwest ordinance was less an act of a central government than a treaty among sovereign states. In its language: “the following articles shall be considered as Articles of compact between the original States and the people and states in the said territory, and forever remain unalterable, unless by common consent….”

Adopted under the new Constitution and signed into law in 1789 by President Washington, it became so fundamental in shaping the growth of the new nation that we require an effort of imagination, today, to see how things might have been in its absence. We take for granted that the nation’s eventual expansion across the continent would be by the process spelled out by the ordinance, but suppose the original 13 states had decided to hold any new territory perpetually in common, perhaps as a politically dependent area that would be, in effect, an internal colony? Suppose one or all of the original 13 states had attempted to expand into some or all of the new land? Surely any such attempts would have resulted in rebellion, sooner or later, but how nice that matters took a different course.

More to the point, though, are other specific provisions of the ordinance that shaped the territory in ways we take for granted. Among the provisions of the final (of three) ordinance:

  • The territories were to be administered directly by Congress, rather than by any of the states. Unsettled lands became part of the federal government’s public domain, rather than part of any existing state’s territory.
  • Navigable waters were designated as “common highways and forever free” for the original inhabitants, the citizens of present and future states.
  • Once a given territory had acquired a population of 60,000 citizens, it would become eligible for statehood on equal status as existing states.
  • Each territory would be divided into gridded townships, so that the land could be surveyed and then sold in an orderly manner, with section 16 of each township reserved to finance the creation of schools in the district.
  • Slavery was prohibited within the territory.

All this had consequences. The Northwest Ordinance (and succeeding legislation) established legal rights, including habeas corpus, the right to a trial by jury, limitations on fines, and a prohibition of ex post facto laws and of cruel or unusual punishment. It established religious freedom, and encouraged education in the following words: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Much of what we came to think of as essentially American were fixed and then imitated by the ordinance.

In speaking of consequences, we must remember the consequences of the path not taken. One provision of the ordinance states, presumably with a straight face, and possibly with sincere intent: “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.”

Had this provision been adopted in spirit as it was in legislation, perhaps the wars with Blue Jacket and Little Turtle might have been avoided. Just possibly the long-term coexistence that George Washington envisioned might have come into being. Probably not: Chances are the Indians still would have objected to the expropriation of land they considered theirs. But we’ll never know.

On the other hand, prohibiting slavery north of the Ohio set the stage for the competition between slave and free states that would be arbitrated by the Missouri Compromise, aggravated by the spoils of the Mexican War, broken open by Kansas-Nebraska, and finally settled in blood.