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From the Book:
A History of the United States Constitution
The story of the United States Constitution begins in 1754 with the Albany Plan of Union during the early stages of the French and Indian War.
The French and Indian War was the North American version of a much larger conflict between France and England. This war in Europe is called the Seven Years War. The war raged from 1754 through 1763. It is this war that set the stage for many of the events that led to the American Revolution twelve years later. The French controlled Canada and had designs on the area that is now the Midwestern United States. They had already established trading posts at Vincennes on the Wabash River as well as, Cahokia, St. Louis and other places along the Mississippi River. You may not know that George Washington played an important part in beginning this war.
Many historians regard the Battle of Jumonville Glenn as the opening battle of the Seven Years War.
The French and the British both claimed the rich region of the Ohio River Valley. The Amerindian inhabitants that lived in the region shifted alliances between the two powers, depending upon which offered them the better bargain for their alliance. By the early part of the decade, their allegiance began to shift towards the British. However, it was a tenuous shift. When Virginia Royal Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent George Washington on his mission to Fort Le Boeuf to warn the French to leave the Ohio River Valley Region in October 1753, Washington had passed through the Forks of the Ohio area on his way to Fort Le Boeuf. The area had impressed him as an ideal place to build a fort. Thus, when Dinwiddie wanted to fortify the area, he acted upon his trusted colonial officer’s recommendation and ordered Captain William Trent and a company of colonial militia to build a fort at the site. Trent had arrived in mid-February and began constructing the fort the British would call Fort Prince George.
In March 1754 Dinwiddie ordered Washington to gather a force together to reinforce Trent’s company at Fort Prince George and begin building a road. Washington complied, departing for the area by April 2, 1754, with 160 men. More militia joined him at Winchester. Unknown to Dinwiddie and Washington a French force of 500 – 600 soldiers had arrived at Fort Prince George on April 17 and forced Trent, with his far smaller force, to leave. The French tore down Fort Prince George and began construction of the larger Fort Duquesne. Upon informing Washington of this development, Trent joined Washington’s force to return to the Forks of the Ohio region to build the road Dinwiddie wanted.
Washington’s force had built the road to an area called Great Meadows, a marshy clearing in the forest, by May 14. He built a base camp here, he dubbed Fort Necessity, to serve as a stockade to store supplies. Then he began sending out scout parties to explore the area while waiting for Dinwiddie to send more troops. One of the scouting parties led by Washington’s companion on the December mission to Fort Le Boeuf, Robert Gist, discovered that a French scouting party was operating in the area. One of Washington’s native allies, a Mingo chief named Half King, suggested that Washington should lead a force to ambush the party.
Because of the tenuous relationship between the natives and the British, in order to retain support of the chief, Washington agreed. Various accounts of the battle that followed blur many of the details. By one account, Washington’s force of about seventy-five men surrounded the French force, numbering about forty. Shots were fired and a battle of about fifteen minutes ensued. Washington prevailed, his men killing about ten of the French and forcing the surrender of the remainder. After the surrender, Half King allegedly walked up to the commander of the French party, Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, and struck him in the head. The blow killed the officer, after which Washington fell back to Fort Necessity and began reinforcing the structure. The battle, called the Battle of Jumonville Glen, as well as the next battle that followed played a major role in the Seven Years War.
The Battle of Great Meadows at Fort Necessity slapped young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington with his first, and only, battlefield surrender. It also served as the opening salvo in a world war that became known as the Seven Years War. In Colonial America this war became the French and Indian War.
This campaign was Washington’s first experience leading a military force. After his men finished construction, he realized that Fort Necessity was in a bad position. It occupied boggy soil in the center of a depression. His men had only cut the tree line back about a hundred yards. At that range the besieging French troops could hide in the forest and fire on the fort from cover. They could also charge downhill. He did not have time to rectify his position. French commander Louis Coulon de Villiers led the French troops. During the earlier Battle of Jumonville Glen an Amerindian ally had killed his younger brother during Washington’s interrogation. Louis considered the death a murder and wanted vengeance.
Under orders from his superior, Washington’s men had built a road through the wilderness to allow troops to move towards the area. This road did help the reinforcing forces arrive from the east. On June 9 the remainder of the Virginia Militia Regiment arrived, followed by 100 British regular troops a week later. Washington’s force now numbered about 400 men and nine swivel guns. On June 16, Washington led 300 of his men out of Fort Necessity to continue work on the road for the additional reinforcements he believed would arrive. His intelligence from Fort Duquesne led him to believe that there were only 500 French troops there, and that these had inferior training. After the Battle of Jumonville Glen Washington’s Amerindian allies had largely deserted him, so he needed those reinforcements badly.
Some of the natives did continue to supply Washington with intelligence about French movements and from reports he decided to retreat back to Fort Necessity. The troops arrived back there on July 1, 1754. The militia began work improving the defensive works around the fort and enlarging the perimeter. They attempted to dig defensive trenches, but these quickly filled with water in the boggy soil.
On July 3, six hundred French troops and one hundred native warriors arrived in the forests surrounding Fort Necessity. They had used the road Washington’s troops had painstakingly cut through the forest. They occupied the high ground around the fort and poured a relentless fire down into it. the attack continued throughout the day and Washington’s casualties mounted. A pouring rain arrived, wetting the gunpowder. His situation dire, Washington remembered the ferocity of the Indians he had seen in battle. There were over a hundred warriors among the besiegers. His military career might just be coming to an end.
Louis Coulon de Villiers received a report that a large British force was closing in on the site. It was a false report, but the French commander could not know this. Not wishing to get caught by vengeful British troops discovering a massacre or herding a line of prisoners, de Villiers sent messengers to the besieged Washington in the late evening. He offered to allow Washington and his troops to depart the fort unharmed. The negotiations took a lot of time, as de Villiers did not speak English and Washington spoke no French. They soon consummated a deal and on the morning of July 4, 1754, Washington signed the agreement. Since Washington could not read French, he was not aware that de Villiers had inserted a clause in which Washington admitted to the murder of Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers while a prisoner of war. The French would use this admission of guilt as a powerful propaganda tool in the coming war.
Washington lost about thirty men during the battle. He marched his remaining troops out of the fort on the morning of July 4, 1754. The French burned the fort. The battle had disastrous consequences for the British. They had no outposts of any kind left in the important Ohio River valley. And war beckoned.
In an effort to bolster their forces in North America in the face of mounting French pressure, Parliament and the King began encouraging their North American colonies to take concerted action against the French. Colonial leaders in the various colonies planned to summon a congress to Albany, New York in July.
When Benjamin Franklin learned that colonial leaders planned a Congress in Albany, New York in 1754 to plan united action on several issues he printed the cartoon “Join or Die,” in his newspaper. The cartoon appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette and featured a dead snake cut into thirteen pieces, the implication being that the colonies, like a snake cut into pieces, would perish if they remained disunited.
Originally encouraged by the King and Parliament to propose a treaty to deal with the Iroquois tribe, colonial leaders also intended to discuss taking united action on several other issues regarding mutual defense. The French still controlled Canada and the Spanish threatened from the south. There was always the threat from the various Amerindian tribes. During this time the French were stirring up the native tribes in the Ohio Valley to attack the British settlements in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The colonies that bordered Canada suffered frequent incursions from the northern tribes. Many colonial leaders were coming to the conclusion that a plan for united defense from all colonies would be beneficial to all. Not surprisingly, Benjamin Franklin came up with a plan. The colonial assemblies in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire all sent representatives to this Congress. Pennsylvania chose Benjamin Franklin to represent the colony.
The idea of a united colonial government had occurred to many colonial leaders at the time, Franklin among them. Many had published articles outlining proposals for these plans. Franklin was one of these men and during his trip from Philadelphia to Albany he penned letters to several of the New York delegates with proposals. During this trip he wrote a draft version of his plan.
The Congress held its first session on June 19, 1754. The delegates held a vote on June 24 to consider union and the result was a unanimous consensus to formulate a plan for union. The committee charged with writing it submitted a draft version on June 28. From that date until July 10, the Congress debated and revised the plan. On July 10, 1754, the delegates voted to adopt the plan and sent it out to Parliament, the King and the various colonial assemblies for consideration.
Parliamentary leaders and the King studied the plan and decided not to push it in the colonies. They had initially encouraged a union of some sort but upon considering the plan they feared that they were creating a political entity that they could not control. The various assemblies considered the plan, and all rejected it. They feared losing some of their power and taxing authority to a centralized government. The colonies were not quite ready for a unified government.
I have used portions of two of my books, Colonial American History Stories – 1753 – 1763 and a History of the United States Constitution in this story.
Readers can find both of these books on my website, http://www.mossyfeetbooks.com. You can also contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for listening.
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