Monday, January 23, 2006

The "Middle Ground" and the Colonies

So far I have greatly enjoyed The War that Made America, the documentary about the American theater of the Seven Years War (some might call it the French-Indian War.) At least the first part looked seriously at the political maneuverings and social context behind the start of hostilities, the second part (for obvious reasons) dealing more with combat.

What has impressed me so far is the melding of Native American politics into the narrative of conflict between the British, French and their respective colonists. Perhaps the subject matter lends itself to Richard White's middle ground, the attempt of natives to establish themselves between the colonizing empires (a good, brief summary of White's thesis is here.) In the first episode, the dealings of native leaders are contextualized as attempts to confirm possession of Iroquois lands in the Ohio Valley as European commercial endeavors expand westward and southward.

In the past I have been attracted to the paradigm of the middle ground, and I have wondered whether it could be used (or has been used) outside the context of the Americas and situations of contact between natives and Europeans. It stresses adaptation, even accomodation, in the quest to retain autonomy. Furthermore, it allows modernization without abandoning cultural persistence.

One thing, however, piqued my curiosity. It concerned a different "middle ground," if you would, the one American colonists used to fight Britain's war with France. The second episode makes great hay over the negotiations that occurred between British commanders and their would be soldiers, be they colonists or Native Americans. This invites comparisons between how the European powers approached both groups. The Virginians are more easily convinced to fight with the British, and in the "European style," because of George Washington's enthusiasm for British military traditions. The New Englanders resist, mostly because they will not fight under the direct authority of a British commander, but only their own military leaders (as per their enlistment contract.)

The narrative clearly and deliberately sets up future conflict: a perception among New Englanders that they did not belong to Britain's hierarchy. The presentation, however, overemphasizes the point. The narrator sets out the reasons for New Englanders' resistance, it is then dramatize (using almost the same words the narrator used), and then it is explained again. No other scene is presented in this way. It gives the impression that the American colonists, like the Indians, are maneuvering for their autonomy within the imperial system, but in a manner that is less cooperative.

[ETA] On a slightly related topice, I found this article on Benjamin Franklin's appeal for unity among the American states. The author describes Franklin's American model as a predecessor to internationalism. I have doubts. It seems that Franklin addressed the problem of autonomy as European imperialism gained strength; unity was a means of preventing the Americans from becoming playthings of the Old World. Probably closer to EU than UN.

Anyway, I can't wait for the final two episodes this week.

[ETA] The show's website has a good linkography of online resources about 18th C North America, as well as the war itself, emphasizing primary sources.


At 12:36 PM, Blogger Marc said...

I've only watched a portion, so please keep that in mind if I remark on something that was brought up (and I just hadn't seen it yet).

One thing to keep in mind regarding the attitude of New Englanders toward the Crown during the F&I War is that they were informed by their past experience over the course of the earlier Colonial Wars. They felt as if they had been hung out to dry by the Crown many times because they had received only promises and not much real material aid.

They also did tend to exaggerate their own contributions and felt slighted when the Crown didn't seem to. For example, the particular instance in which they took the lead an captured Louisbourg (albeit--in this instance--with much acclaim in London) only to see the Crown negotiate it back to France caused a great amount of dismay. They felt unappreciated. This combined with the fact that they had gotten used to doing things on their own helped to set the stage to their attitude during the F&I War.

Also, regarding the interests of the Virginians, they weren't as interested in the other colonial wars, but got quite interested when their interests were involved. As this and the failure of Franklin's Albany Plan of Union helps to illustrate, the colonies were still quite independent of each other. and only became interested in battle when they had a concrete reason to do so.

In the end, there is a bit of a deterministic tone to the narrative, but it is still a fair piece of history "making." I've enjoyed it so far.


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