Wednesday’s Book Review: Colin Calloway’s “The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America”

The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America. By Colin B. Calloway. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

What does the 1763 Treaty of Paris have to do with the 1783 Treaty of Paris? More than you might think after reading this important book. A part of the “Pivotal Moments in American History” series, The Scratch of a Pen is a well-researched and -written account of the events surrounding the creation of the demarcation line separating British settlements along the eastern seaboard from the Native Americans to the West. It took the crest of the Appalachian Mountain chain as that demarcation line, setting in train significant complaints about arbitrariness at Parliament and controversies that would not be settled until the American Revolution more than a decade later. At least that has been what most students of history have been taught about the event.

What is clear from Colin B. Calloway’s narrative, however, is that the story is both more complex and more interesting, to say nothing of its greater significance. Calloway, professor of history at Dartmouth College, relates the story of the Seven Years War, an international conflict with theaters in several continents, usually called the “French and Indian War” in North America, and how this changed the nature of imperialism in the Western Hemisphere and the geopolitical relationship between not only France and Great Britain but also the other nations of Europe.

At a fundamental level the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years War must be viewed through the lens of unintended consequences. The Great Powers experienced a seismic shift in relations as a result, especially as France lost its North American colonies. North Americans of all stripes had to deal with new situations, boundaries, governments, and restrictions. The costs of winning that war prompted British leaders to begin increasing efforts to squeeze more money out of their colonies, setting on a path toward revolution the American colonies—we all know that the American Revolution began as a tax revolt.

Calloway also makes much of the arbitrary demarcation line put into place by the British government and the fact that it served to rile up traders, hunters, settlers, Native Americans, ethnic British, ethnic Franch, ethnic Spanish, and just about anyone else on the frontier. From everyone’s perspective this was an intrusion on their liberty and deserving of either ignoring it or overturning it. The fact that the British army sought to enforce the line ensured that disagreements would take center stage. Clashes increased in frequency and in their violence. Pontiac’s War demonstrated all the more for the British government why it had to separate European and Native American populations. The result was enormously significant for the future of the United States.

Colin Calloway has written a very fine short history of these ramifications of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and how they contributed to the rise of revolutionary fervor in what became the United States. The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America is an excellent history and well worth reading and pondering.

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