John Trumbull’s painting Declaration of Independence is a classic depiction of history being made. From John Adams to Benjamin Franklin, all the key players appear to be in attendance. But are they?
In depicting only well-to-do white men, Trumbull ignored something like 95 percent of the people who participated in the American Revolution. Indians, slaves, small farmers, and women of all ranks played important roles when American colonists broke free of British control. In some cases, ordinary Americans very directly influenced the actions of the Founding Fathers. One little-known example involves a law Parliament passed two hundred fifty years ago. The Stamp Act, which took effect on November 1, 1765, was one of Britain’s most famous encroachments on colonial freemen’s rights. Its purpose, however, is little understood.
Contrary to popular myth, which has the British government adopting the Stamp Act to force Americans to pay down their share of its staggering debt, the real reason for the Stamp Act was to help fund a garrison of ten thousand British soldiers who remained in North America at the conclusion of an Anglo-French war in 1763. This was a sizable force: about the same number of troops Washington would have at Valley Forge fifteen years later.
Why weren’t these men sent home to Britain with their comrades? Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British forces in North America, explained in a December 1765 report to Lord Barrington, the secretary at war, that the redcoats had stayed behind because of “the Numerous Tribes of Savages who joined the French during the War, and over run our Frontiers.”
The Indian attacks of the 1750s and early 1760s shocked British officials as well as American colonists. Ever since Columbus’s time, natives had occasionally risen up against encroaching colonists—sometimes with rival colonizers as their allies. But for nearly a century, English and (after 1707) British monarchs had found, to their great relief, that whenever they went to war against their archrival, the king of France, they could count on significant native support in the American theater. That reassuring pattern, however, came to an abrupt halt during the conflict that is now widely viewed as history’s first global war.
It is known in Britain as the Seven Years’ War (since it officially began in 1756 and ended in 1763) and in Canada as the War of the Conquest (because during the war, in 1760, Britain captured Canada from France). Americans call it the French and Indian War because those two were the enemies, at least from a British perspective. For the first time ever, in fact, most of the Indian nations that participated in the interimperial conflict—including the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami Confederacy (on the Miami and Wabash rivers in present-day Ohio and Indiana), and the Anishinaabe in modern Michigan—took France’s side.
This left British officials determined to have at least some Indians at their side the next time they fought France. To be sure, Britain had captured Canada in 1760 without significant Indian support, but at great cost. Then as now, wars were by far the largest expense governments incurred, and the Seven Years’ War had almost doubled the British government’s debt. Imperial officials knew they would reduce their financial exposure in the next clash with France in proportion to the number of Indians who came in as their allies rather than their enemies.