The Plains of Abraham at 250

Article excerpt

September 13th marks the 250th an- niversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the decisive event leading to the fall of Quebec and eventual British victory in the French and Indian War (also called the Seven Years' War). Nothing less than the fate of a continent was at stake - a struggle to be decided between two powerful nationstates, very different colonial philosophies and diverse long-term prospects.

The British Colonies in North America were populous, prosperous and chaotic knockoffs of the Old Country. No particular effort had gone into screening immigrants. Indeed, many viewed the Colonies as an ideal depository for quirky religious groups, political casualties, redeemable convicts and the indentured poor. A sizeable proportion of women went into this mix, and the population grew dramatically as economies diversified among subsistence agriculture, commercial agriculture, cottage industries, fishing, shipping and commerce. Appropriated Dutch New York and Swedish Delaware increased ethnic diversity and collaterally increased tolerance for settlers who came from other-than-English stock, as did requirements for labor in these expanding economies. Native Americans (hereafter Indians) were generally pushed beyond the physical margins of the land-hungry British Colonies. Black slaves were imported to assist with the grueling demands of commercial agriculture. By 1750, more than a million white settlers clustered along the Atlantic seaboard, complemented by the labor of 200,000 blacks.

New France, on the other hand, was better designed to serve the corporate interests of France's monarchy and privileged elite. It was an extractive commercial emporium, trading widely with the Indians for furs and other portable wealth but not developing much agriculture or other settled industries. Success in this area of commerce depended on good relations with the Indians, who proved far more likely to become allies of the French than of the British, since the former put so little pressure on their lands. Good relations often included intermarriage. To minimize friction, religious heretics, political dissidents and the otherwise unfit were unwelcome in New France. French Huguenots were denied the option of settling there and instead settled in the British-owned Colonies.

New France had a governor who actually ran things continent-wide, whereas multiple appointees passing for governors in the British Colonies had limited venues, frequent quarrels with local legislatures and plenty of secondguessing from London. New France may have been better organized than the factious British Colonies, but it was far less populous - approximately 65,000 Frenchmen scattered in a wide arc from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence through the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley to the Gulf of Mexico.

British Colonial population size did not readily translate into military power. Militiamen could be potent locally but did not have much capacity to project power. Expeditionary combat required money. The British Colonies were prosperous but too chaotic and minimally taxed to generate reliable funding streams. New France was better off in that regard, but both major powers relied upon revenues, fleets and regular soldiers from the home country to pursue major operations in the New World. The French also relied heavily on Native American allies.

Hostilities commenced in 1754 and went poorly for the British at first. A disastrous defeat on the Monongahela River drove them out of the Ohio River Valley, their expedition against Fort Niagara fizzled, and seesaw warfare along the Lake Champlain-Lake George water route ended in the fall of Fort William Henry and the massacre of much of its garrison in 1757. Perhaps worse, emboldened Indians, at times in concert with the French and at times not, ravaged the length of the frontier. Thousands of settlers were killed and tens of thousands fled in terror.

Reeling from such defeats, Britain's forceful new prime minister, William Pitt, resolved to invest heavily enough in the North American fighting to win it. …