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250 years since the contract that changed American history

Just over 250 years have passed since the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 10 February 1763. To look back at this influential contract and a turning point in the history of the United States, we present an excerpt from one of Oxford’s Pivotal Moments in American History series — Colin G. Calloway’s The Scratch of the Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America.

As the roots of the second World War can be found in the Versailles Peace Settlement of 1918, so in the 1763 Peace of Paris can be found the roots of the American Revolution, the Peace of Paris in 1783, and the American national empire that followed. Looking back, the road from victory in 1763 to revolution in 1775 seems clear, and the British government’s missteps and misjudgments with regard to taxing the colonists seem obvious. But Britons, on whichever side of the Atlantic they lived, did not see things so clearly in 1763. They were entering uncharted territory, sometimes literally. Never before had Britons enjoyed such power, imagined such possibilities, or confronted such challenges. The path to revolution was only one of many stories unfolding that year.

At the Peace of Paris in 1763, France handed over to Great Britain all its North American territories east of the Mississippi. It transferred Louisiana to Spain, and Spain transferred Florida to Britain. Twenty years later, at another Peace of Paris, Britain recognized the independence of thirteen former colonies and transferred to the new United States all its territory south of the Great Lakes, north of the Floridas, and east of the Mississippi. It returned Florida to Spain, and the British inhabitants of St. Augustine packed up and left, just as the Spanish inhabitants had done in 1763. In 1783 as in 1763, the ministry that concluded the Peace of Paris was not the same ministry that had conducted the war.

A Map of the New Governments, of East & West Florida, 1763.
A map of the new governments, of East & West Florida, 1763. Cartographer John Gibson. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

During the debates in England over whether to give up Canada or Guadeloupe at the 1763 peace settlement, William Burke, a relative of the renowned statesman Edmund Burke, had argued that Canada should be left in French hands as a way of binding the North American colonies to Britain: “A neighbor that keeps us in some awe is not always the worst of neighbors,” he explained; removing French Canada would free the original thirteen colonies to separate from the mother country. “By eagerly grasping at extensive territory,” he warned, “we may run the risque, and that perhaps in no very distant period, of losing what we now possess.” As Canadian historian William Eccles pointed out, the Duc de Choiseul not only predicted the American Revolution, but “was counting on it.” For Choiseul, 1763 gave France the peace it needed to rebuild for war. He started rebuilding the navy even before the treaty was signed, and the ink was barely dry before the French were surveying the English coasts to formulate revised invasion plans. France restored its overseas trade, implemented reforms in its army and navy, and strengthened its economy, while at the same time keeping Britain diplomatically isolated in Europe. When, as Choiseul knew they would, the American colonies revolted, France had the power to make the difference. During the War of Independence Britain found itself in the same position France had been during the Seven Years’ War—bogged down in a protracted land war while the enemy took full advantage of its renewed sea power. The British navy momentarily lost command of the seas to France, and Lord Cornwallis lost his army. Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who had carried the articles of Montreal’s surrender to the British in 1760, was present when the British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781.

Looking back over the course of events from 1763 to 1783, Henry Ellis explained the connection between the two treaties. “What did Britain gain by the most glorious and successful war on which she ever engaged?” he asked. “A height of Glory which excited the Envy of the surrounding nations and united them in the late unnatural contest with our revolted colonies—an extent of empire we were equally unable to maintain, defend or govern—the final independence of those colonies which the dispossession of the French from Canada necessarily tended to promote and accelerate, and the enormous debt of two hundred and fifty millions.” Faced with a huge new territorial empire in North America in 1763, the British tried to defend it, administer it, and finance it. Instead they lost it. They turned to the kind of empire they did best—an ocean-based commercial empire.

France exacted revenge for the humiliation of 1763 but achieved little else. American negotiators signed the preliminary articles of peace with Britain in 1783 without informing the French. France did not replace Britain as America’s trading partner and was unable to shape the direction of American expansion. The French minister, Vergennes, wanted the old Proclamation Line of 1763 to mark the western territorial limits of the new United States, with the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi reserved as Indian country. The Earl of Shelburne, now Secretary of State, recognized that American settlements in the West would gravitate to British trade and envisaged joint British participation in the commercial development of the Mississippi Valley. Britain sold out its Indian allies and handed their lands to the United States. “It is rather ironic,” notes William Eccles, “that the British government here insisted on giving away what France had once sought to deny to Britain but now desperately wanted Britain to retain.”

Neither the Peace of 1763 nor the Peace of 1783 made any mention of the Indian peoples who inhabited the territories being transferred. In both cases, Indian interests were sacrificed to imperial agendas. As in 1763, Indians in 1783 were “thunderstruck” by the terms of a treaty that did not include them. As in 1763, they complained that a foreign king had no right to transfer lands and rights they had never given up, let alone breach treaties previously made in solemn council. No such cession could “be binding without their Express Concurrence & Consent.” A Cherokee chief, Little Turkey, said “the peacemakers and our Enemies have talked away our lands at a Rum Drinking.” As in 1763, the victors looked west across vast territories transferred to them in Paris and wondered how to make them into an empire. As in 1763, they believed for a time that they could dispense with the protocols of doing business in Indian country and could dictate to the Indians from a position of strength. As in 1763, they learned their mistake.

Pontiac’s war was not the last Indian war for independence. States and nation encroached on Indian lands and life even more aggressively than had colonies and empire. Multi-tribal coalitions resisted American occupation of the lands ceded by Britain in 1763. During the 1780s and 1790s, and again in the first decade of the nineteenth century, multi-tribal coalitions stalled American advance into the West and mounted formidable opposition to American expansion that sought to gobble up tribal lands piecemeal.

The United States learned from some of Britain’s mistakes. It bound its new territories to it by interest rather than by imperial administration. In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Confederation Congress laid out the provisions by which western territories could enter the union as equal states. In so doing it established a blueprint for perpetual nation-building rather than eventual separation. In Jefferson’s “empire of liberty,” the citizens of the nation shared the fruits of its expansion.

Napoleon Bonaparte had dreams of a revived French empire in America, certainly of a revived French sugar empire in the Caribbean. “I know the full value of Louisiana,” he said, “and I have been desirous of repairing the fault of the French negotiator who abandoned it in 1763.” On October 1, 1800, at the Treaty of San Ildefonso, Spain secretly ceded Louisiana back to France. Thomas Jefferson understood the value of Louisiana too. The threat of an aggressive (rather than a weak) European power having a stranglehold on New Orleans sent a chill down his spine. It looked as if France was to be the United States’ “natural enemy.” But a French Caribbean empire was not viable so long as British sea power remained intact and the slave revolt of Toussaint l’Ouverture remained defiant in Saint Domingue. Napoleon had to defeat them both. He could do neither. Yellow fever decimated his army in Saint Domingue and Horation Nelson destroyed his fleet at Trafalgar. The French emperor needed money to wage war against England. He decided to cut his American losses and unload Louisiana. Louisiana, ceded to Spain in 1763, was French again for less than three years. In the spring of 1803, Robert Livingston and James Monroe, special ministers to Paris, concluded negotiations with Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. For $15 million (80 million francs), the 900,000 square miles of Louisiana became American territory. Passed back and forth like an unwanted stepchild since the Peace of Paris in 1763, Louisiana changed hands one more time in Paris in 1803. The events initiated in 1763 finally played themselves out. The empire in the West would not be French, Spanish, or British; it would be American.

Western lands—those between the Appalachians and the Mississippi that passed from French to British hands in 1763 and then from British to American hands in 1783, and those between the Mississippi and the Rockies that passed from French to Spanish hands in 1763, briefly back to France, and then to the United States in 1803—allowed an empire of slavery as well as an empire of liberty to expand. Should the western territories and the new states formed from them be slave or free? The question proved to be volatile and despite repeated attempts at compromise, defied resolution. The West split the British Empire after 1763. Less than a century later it split the United States. The Revolution severed the relationship between the people who were the citizens of the new nation and peoples who were not continued to contradict the ideals expressed to justify the nation’s birth.

Map of the British colonies in North America, 1763 to 1775.
Map of the British colonies in North America, 1763 to 1775. Map from 1923, depicting 1763-1775 by William Robert Sheperd. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Peace of 1763 transferred huge stretches of territory and transformed America. The contest for North American dominance that had raged between France and Britain for close to 100 years was settled once and, with the exception of a brief Napoleonic dream, for all. But the Peace brought little peace and much turmoil to North America. In wrapping up one round of conflicts, it ushered in others. One peace led to another. Territories that had changed hands in Paris in 1763 changed hands again in Paris in 1783. Twenty years later Louisiana changed hands, again in Paris. A new American nation emerged and built a single empire on the lands of numerous Indian nations transferred among three European nations in 1763.

Like King Midas, eighteenth-century Britons perhaps had wished for something too much in America. As happened in 1861, 1914, and 2003, people in 1763 responded to problems whose consequences they could see but not accept by initiating actions whose consequences they could not clearly forsee. In doing so, they set in motion events that changed forever the America they had known.

Colin G. Calloway is Professor of History and Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth College. His many books on early American history include The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America; New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America; The American Revolution in Indian Country; and One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark (2003), which received the Ray Allen Billington Prize, the Merle Curti Award, and many other prizes and was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of the Year.

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