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American Revolution and Expanding the States – How the American Revolution and nationhood voided the Proclamation Line of 1763, allowing expansion for American settlement of the Western frontier

In 1763, with “the scratch of a pen,” North America had changed forever.[1] After years of looming as an ever-present danger, the French threat had finally been removed from Canada and the lands east of the Mississippi. The territory had been hard won as a result of the 1763 Treaty of Paris that formally ended the French and Indian War waged on the British colonies’ western frontier since 1754. “That Enemy who hath so long stuck like a Thorn in the Sides of our Colonies is removed,” wrote Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard; now “North-America” was “[e]ntirely British.”[2] Native American unrest followed. That same year, the newly crowned King George III, fearful of further rebellion and citing it as “essential to our Interest,” stopped western expansion with a theoretical line on a map that ran through the Appalachian Mountains (which run from modern day Canada to Alabama).[3] The Proclamation of 1763, as it was known, barred Americans from collecting their promised spoils of war, and unknowingly became one of the American Revolution’s earliest causes.

The French and Indian War had been fought globally, but had been ignited in America over disputed lands just west of the Appalachians that the British, French, and Natives each believed to be rightfully their territory. At the center of the outbreak was a twenty-two-year-old Lt. Col. George Washington of the Virginia Militia, whose expedition and skirmish in the area around modern-day Pittsburgh had in part sparked the conflict. Washington was one of many American colonists who would fight for King and Country, but who also hoped to reap the lucrative gains of the frontier.

Peace was supposed to place the land into the waiting hands of American colonists. But as speculators laid claim to millions of acres and settlers migrated to reap the benefits of the rich farmlands of the Ohio Valley, it sparked a rebellion of unified Native American tribes.[4] Known as Pontiac’s Rebellion, the conflagration was ultimately suppressed at great British expense and effort. Hoping to stop an unrestrained colonial rush into the west in order to prevent further Native hostility (and both to retain control over the colonies and trade and to promote settlement in Quebec and Florida), the Proclamation halted American migration and “reserve[d]” the land “under” the King’s “Sovereignty, Protection, and Dominion, for the use of the said Indians.”[5]

Although the Proclamation was virtually unenforceable and was deemed temporary, the royal decree still triggered a sharp backlash and even outward violence from colonists who had invested in western lands, sought to settle, or been denied their promised rewards for military service. From the Mississippi Land Company to the Ohio Company, potential fortunes had been stifled, as land could not formally change hands from the Natives without royal approval and licensing.

Still, colonial resistance to the Proclamation of 1763 went beyond personal economic interests. It was one of the first of many British failings that colonists saw as distancing them from the mother country. The British Army, which was supposed to defend all subjects yet was historically viewed with deep fear by Anglo-Americans, was potentially weaponized to avenge the King’s “Displeasure.”[6] Colonists were limited in their movement, their property rights were hindered, and more substantially promises offered by the Crown had been invalidated. Furthermore, it seemingly protected Native Americans’ interests over the American colonists’. It created “two distinct worlds” whereby any claims to being a subject disappeared west of the line and the military held authority.[7] Colonists, like Washington, pressed their western claims up to and beyond the Revolution’s outbreak. As he complained, regardless of whether the Proclamation was “founded in good, or ill policy,” a promise of land grants had been made to French and Indian War veterans — one that was “to all Intents & purposes considered, as a mutual contract.”[8]

Although the Proclamation wasn’t actively enforced and with the line pushed further west due to the Treaties of Fort Stanwix and Hard Labor in 1768 and the Treaty of Lochaber in 1770 (prompting further speculation), the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia in 1776 still considered the issue as worthy of inclusion in the Declaration of Independence. For, in the Patriot view, the King “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States,” and “refus[ed]…to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”[9] In doing so, the Congress acknowledged the Proclamation as being more than just a financial issue; it was a long remembered ideological and governmental grievance.

Twenty years after the 1763 Treaty of Paris opened the frontier to American colonists, the 1783 Treaty of Paris both ended the Revolution and ceded all lands east of the Mississippi River to the United States. Under the Articles of Confederation there was further delay in western expansion by design and conflict over territorial claims between various states.[10] It was under the new U.S. Constitution that additional disputes were resolved, existing state borders formalized and expanded westward, and the remaining lands organized into the Northwest and Southwest Territories, with statehood dependent upon population.[11] Furthermore, Secretary of War Henry Knox attempted to spread American “civilization” to the Native Americans, as he believed it would “most probably be attended with the salutary effect of attaching them to the Interest of the United States.”[12] In 1792, Kentucky entered the United States as the fifteenth state and first in the region formerly barred by the Proclamation of 1763 (Tennessee and Ohio would follow shortly). Although the paper barrier had fallen, tension with the British (as well as the Spanish) and Natives remained, as the land, its culture, and its borders were contested through the War of 1812. Meanwhile, the issue of the expansion or restriction of slavery in the new states simmered for over half a century, before erupting in the Civil War.

Craig Bruce Smith is the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era and an assistant professor of history at William Woods University. For more information: www.craigbrucesmith.com

[1] Colin G. Calloway. The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 14-15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Royal Proclamation, Oct. 7, 1763. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/proc1763.asp

[4] For economic motivation see: Woody Holton. Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[5] The Royal Proclamation, Oct. 7, 1763. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/proc1763.asp; Jennifer Monroe McCutchen. “Proclamation Line of 1763,” Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/proclamation-line-of-1763/; Fred Anderson. Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. (New York: Vintage, 2000), p. 580.

[6] Ibid; Calloway. The Scratch of a Pen, p. 92-93.

[7] Patrick Griffin. American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and the Revolutionary Frontier. (New York: Hill & Wang, 2007), p. 21; Alan Taylor. American Revolutions. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2016), p. 61; Brendan McConville. The King’s Three Faces: The Rise & Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776. (Chapel Hill: Omohundro, 2006), p. 235.

[8] George Washington to Lord Botetourt, 8 Dec. 1769. Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-08-02-0188

[9] The Declaration of Independence. 4 Jul. 1776, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

[10] Benjamin Harrison to Virginia Delegates, 19 September 1783, footnote 3. https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%22proclamation%20of%201763%22&s=1111311111&sa=&r=65&sr=

[11] US Constitution, 1787, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=9&page=transcript; Northwest Ordinance, 1787, https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=8&page=transcript;

Southwest Ordinance, 1790

https://constitution.org/uslaw/southwest_ordinance.pdf

[12] Henry Knox to George Washington. 7 July. 1789. Founders Online. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-03-02-0067

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2 replies
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Barb, I echo your sentiment. It is the primary reason I come back again and again each year.

    I am listening to Trail of Tears by John Elhe. Very interesting to see how the Cherokees had adopted European/Continental cultures and customs, wrote a Constitution, was on the brink of building own versus of Washington DC on the Georgia/Tennessee border. They took up farming with a prominent Cherokee leader owning hundreds of acres which he framed for cotton, crops, almost 2000 Apple, peach trees, cows, pigs, horses. Sent his son to school in New England. But all for naught as the expansionistic desire won out and trumped, nullified active Treaties. Extremely interesting.

    PSD

    Reply

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