...in 1759, a regiment of Massachusetts men serving in the French and Indian War began to talk of mutiny against their British commander. The colonel had decided not to release the volunteers when their eight-month enlistment was over. Outraged, the men refused to perform their duties. The British Regulars were shocked at such insubordination and disloyalty, but the colonists were incensed that the army had not honored the terms of their contract. The French and Indian War was the first time most of these Massachusetts men had any contact with their Old World cousins, and the experience revealed that the Mother Country and her colonies had developed very different notions of authority and liberty. Fifteen years later, these differences would lead to a revolution.
When the Massachusetts men stationed in Canada resisted the authority of their British officers, they were playing a small part in a much larger drama. Throughout much of the colonial period, England and France engaged in an ongoing struggle for imperial domination. Much of the fighting took place in Europe and on the seas, but violence also spilled over into New England and New France.
When it did, the British recruited colonists to serve under the command of American officers. But in the climatic confrontation, the Seven Years' or French and Indian War (1756-1763), Massachusetts men played a greater role and had greater impact than in the past. Historians estimate that over 30% of all adult males in Massachusetts did at least one tour of duty. The majority of those enlisting were young men who would reach the peak of their economic and political influence 20 years later when resistance to British rule came to a head. The revolutionary generation was formed in the crucible of the French and Indian War.
The farmers and artisans who fought with the Regulars, as Britain's professional army was called, in the late 1750s traveled widely. They fought in Nova Scotia, in the Adirondack wilderness, and on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec. They formed bonds with men from all parts of Massachusetts. They learned to survive on the frontier and on the front. Being part of the greatest war the century had yet seen gave them confidence in their abilities as soldiers.
In this war, for the first time, provincial soldiers were under the command not of American officers who had recruited them but of Regular British Army officers. The experience was not a pleasant one for either group. The British Regulars regarded their colonial cousins as poorly trained, undisciplined, and insolent. As professional soldiers in the world's most powerful army, the Redcoats looked with disdain upon "rustics" who did not know the basics of camp hygiene, military formations, and the behavior expected of subordinates. For their part, many of the Massachusetts men found the profanity, drunkenness, and irreligious habits of the Regulars deeply offensive. It was customary for ministers to accompany provincial companies and to conduct services on the Sabbath. British Regulars often spent Sundays gambling and gaming.
Another thing that shocked the colonists was the attitude of British officers towards their subordinates. As one appalled private put it, "the regulars . . . are but little better than slaves to their officers." The British officer corps was drawn from the upper classes; there was a general understanding that officers were socially superior to the men who served under them and that they would be treated with deference. British soldiers accepted that one was born into a certain place and had a duty to defer to one's superiors, and ultimately, to the king.
Not so the American soldier. By the 1750s, Britain's American colonies had been largely self-governing for over 120 years. The colonists had grown accustomed to governmental authority exercised from afar; they had little or no notion of the Mother Country's highly stratified social system. Men born and bred in Massachusetts people whose grandparents had been born and bred in Massachusetts had developed their own rules for behavior, based largely on a system of contracts entered into voluntarily.
The contract, or covenant, was central to the Puritanism that lay at the core of Yankee culture. Everything was understood as a contract salvation, church membership, marriage, economic transactions. If either party altered a contract, it was void. The enlisted soldiers did not see themselves as inferior to their officers. They believed their relationship was governed by a contract they had made, and they expected the army to abide by the terms of that contract.
Provincial soldiers agreed to serve a number of months in exchange for pay, food and rum, blankets, and other necessities. When the British failed to deliver the soldiers' provisions, the Massachusetts men protested that their rights were being violated. When the British officers, needing men to complete a campaign, held the enlistees beyond their stated term, provincial soldiers mutinied or deserted en masse.
The Americans felt entirely justified. The army had violated its contract. The British felt betrayed. The Americans had disregarded the all-important code of deference. The experience of Massachusetts provincials in the French and Indian war revealed how different the culture and norms of New and Old England had become.
A People's Army: Massachusetts Soldiers & Society in the Seven Years' War, by Fred Anderson (The Institute for Early American History and Culture, 1984).
The War that Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War, by Fred Anderson (Viking, 2005).