Colonial Wars
Colonial Wars
By the late 1600s, the French and English had emerged as the two dominant forces in North America. The two nations jockeyed for position in Europe and the New World, resulting in occasional wars that took place on both continents (though the wars on the two continents often had different names, and sometimes occurred over slightly different time periods). This series of wars, which ranged through the first half of the 18th century, culminated in the French and Indian War of 1754–1763.
The Path to War
In the early 1750s, Virginia, Pennsylvania, France, and the Iroquois tribe all claimed ownership of the Ohio Valley. The French began constructing forts to stave off English colonial advances and to maintain their fur trade with local Native Americans. In 1754, a young George Washington, on the orders of the Virginia governor, led 400 Virginia militiamen against the French. He was quickly forced to surrender and lead his men home.
Following this and other skirmishes, colonial delegates gathered in Albany, New York. Benjamin Franklin submitted the Albany Plan, which called for the colonies to unify in the face of French and Native American threats. The Albany Plan, remarkable for its attempt to establish a unified colonial government, won the support of the delegates but was rejected by the colonies, who were not yet ready for union. British officials did not push for the union because they were wary of the powerful colonial entity it would create.
The French and Indian War
Soon after the Albany meeting, the French and Indian War broke out, pitting England against France and its Native American allies. This war paralleled the Seven Years War in Europe (1756–1763). England held a great advantage in men and supplies, yet in the first two years the cunning guerrilla tactics of the French and their allies resulted in numerous humiliating losses for the English. Still, under the able leadership of Prime Minister William Pitt, England righted itself and pushed France out of the Ohio Valley and into Canada. In 1759, English forces captured Quebec, effectively ending the war in North America. Under the Treaty of Paris (1763), Britain gained all of the land in North America east of the Mississippi.
The euphoria of victory, however, soon wore off. Due to the costs of the war, England faced financial difficulties. The English reasoned that because the colonies benefited the most from the war, they should be taxed to alleviate England’s war debt. England ended its century-long policy of salutary neglect. This change in policy sparked an escalating tension between England and its colonists that eventually led to the American Revolution.
The Writs of Assistance
Tensions between the colonies and England initially arose during the French and Indian War. Colonial traders smuggled French goods from the French West Indies in order to avoid English taxes—set by the 1733 Molasses Act—on molasses, rum, and sugar imported from non-British territories. As its war debt accumulated, England strictly enforced the Molasses Act in order to raise more revenue from the colonies. In 1760, England authorized British revenue officers to use writs of assistance. Writs of assistance served as general search warrants, allowing customs officials to enter and investigate any ship or building suspected of holding smuggled goods.
The writs of assistance proved a useful tool in combating smuggling, allowing the British to seize and ransack buildings and ships at will. The colonists were furious. In 1761, Boston merchants challenged the constitutionality of the writs before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, arguing that the writs stood “against the fundamental principles of law.” Although they lost the case, the merchants and colonists continued to protest the writs, believing Britain had overstepped its bounds.
Colonists and many British observers were outraged at the breach of what had been considered traditional English liberties. Writs of assistance allowed officials to enter and ransack private homes and ships without proving probable cause for suspicion, a customary prerequisite for any search in England.
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