Seven Years War - background
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
[By 1745] The storm-clouds were lowering not only for Great Britain but for all Europe. For two conflicts were inevitable. Frederick of Prussia had won for his country a new position among the nations at the cost of the bitter hostility of Austria, and it was quite certain that sooner or later he would have to fight for his life. British and French colonists in America and British and French traders in the East had begun a conflict for dominion which sooner or later would have to be fought out to the bitter end.
Whether those two conflicts would be kept separate or would be merged together, and how, in the latter case, the Powers concerned would combine, were the great questions of the hour. The question at issue in America was plain to view. From Nova Scotia on the north to the border of the Spanish Florida on the south the seaboard and the region inland to the Alleghanies were occupied by some two millions of British colonists, constituted as a number of independent states having no common central government, in most respects autonomous, but all ultimately subject to the control of the Crown and parliament at Westminster.
The New World
Those two million colonists intended to expand westwards until one day they should reach the Pacific Ocean. But on the north the French occupied the basin of the St. Lawrence with their colony of Canada, and in the south they had planted the colony of Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi. The French had carried their exploration along the Mississippi itself and its great tributary the Ohio, which flows from north to south, its sources lying at no great distance from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, the most easterly of the group of the great lakes out of which the St. Lawrence flows.
The French claimed these two river basins; in other words, the whole belt of territory running from the mouth of the St. Lawrence on the north-east to the mouth of the Mississippi at the south-west. If that claim were admitted the British colonists would be cooped up between the French and the Atlantic; the French could expand westwards and the British could not. On the other hand, the British claimed the right of free expansion westwards, which in effect would have restricted the French to expansion in the modern Dominion of Canada, leaving them in the south very little more than the mouth of the Mississippi. There was no possibility of compromising these rival claims; one or other of the parties would have to be driven off the field.
The number of the French colonists was much, less than that of the British; prima facie, if the two sets of colonists were left to fight the matter out between themselves, the British colonists ought to have been secure of victory. Had they enjoyed a common central government and a standing army there could have been little doubt of the issue. But they were subject to no common direction, and their fighting forces consisted in the separate militias of the separate colonies, organised chiefly for defence against the Redskins, and all having the strongest objection to serving outside the borders of their own particular state.
The French in Canada, on the other hand, were under a single directing head; and the bead at this time was a man of genius, both military and administrative, the Marquis de Montcalm. Moreover, a factor in the situation was provided by the Red Indian tribes, who, for the most part, were on better terms with the French than with the British. Hence it is by no means clear that the British would in fact have had the better in a straightforward contest. But in effect, however inert Great Britain and France might be, however little disposed to give serious attention to colonial questions, it was not possible that they should abstain altogether from intervention in the quarrels of the colonies. It is obvious that if they intervened the effective employment of sea-power would determine the issue precisely as it would determine the issue in India.
Both in the west and the east the rivals on the spot were fairly well matched, and the issue, as between them, would turn very largely on the comparative capacity, diplomatic and military, of the leaders on the spot. But in both regions, if one party received energetic support from home and the other party did not, that support would more than counterbalance any local superiority. In both regions it followed that nothing but flagrant mismanagement could deprive the British of ultimate victory, if they made use of their naval ascendency to prevent the arrival of French reinforcements and to carry reinforcements to their own people.
Now if we turn to Europe, the one thing certain there was that the Austrian government was set on the destruction of Prussia, or at the very least on the recovery of Silesia. And Prussia had at least one other enemy in the Russian Tsarina Elizabeth. By this time both Holland and Sweden had dropped out of the ranks of the Powers which had to be reckoned with as of first-class importance in European complications. But at the beginning of the century Peter the Great had set about the organisation of the vast but incoherent Russian dominion, at least semi-barbaric in its composition, into an empire approximating to Western models. The new Power had not been greatly concerned with the rivalry; between Hapsburg and Bourbon, the "balance of power" which loomed so large in the eyes of Western statesmen.
Still less was she concerned with the overseas rivalry between Great Britain and France, which had not yet been fully realised even at Versailles and Westminster. But she was concerned with the Turks and Poland, and for that reason was touched by the affairs of Austria and of Prussia. Her power was an incalculable quantity, and her intervention might weigh enormously in the scales.
As matters stood in 1748, Prussia and France were in alliance, and Austria and Great Britain were in alliance. Austria and France were traditionally hostile. According to all tradition, therefore, it was to be anticipated either that France and Great Britain would fight out their own duel and stand aloof from the Austro-Prussian quarrel, or that France would support Prussia and England would be on the side of Austria, though in a very half-hearted fashion, since she had no ill-will whatever to Prussia. Austria, on the other hand, could count on the good-will of the Tsarina because of Elizabeth's personal hatred not of the Prussian state but of Frederick himself, since he had been unable to resist the temptation to make sarcastic comments on her morals. Spain would in no case be brought into the embroglio so long as the present King Ferdinand remained on the throne.
The Roots of the Seven Years War
At Vienna Maria Theresa had for her minister a clear-sighted statesman, Kaunitz. At Berlin all things were directed by the keenest brain and the readiest hand in Europe. At Versailles there ruled an autocrat who neither had statesmanship himself nor knew how to choose statesmen to help him, a king who was completely under the influence of his mistress, the Pompadour. In London the administration was a mere chaos; the Government was incapable of framing a policy, or of keeping consistently to any definite line.
To Kaunitz it appeared that from the Austrian point of view the attitude of England was of less consequence than that of France. France, neutralised or brought into alliance, was worth more than an alliance with the British, who, in the last war, had repeatedly urged Maria Theresa to concede the unwelcome demands of the king of Prussia. France might be amenable because, among other reasons, Frederick had enraged the Pompadour very much as he had enraged the Tsarina.
Kaunitz's plan was to combine Austria, Russia, and France for the destruction of Prussia. Saxony too would be drawn into the net, and the Hanoverian connection was more likely to be an embarrassment to Great Britain than a help to Frederick. Kaunitz's diplomacy was effecting a revolution in the system of European alliances. Frederick, preparing for a life and death struggle, preferred a British to a French alliance, because in the last war the French had very obviously neglected his interests to pursue their own ends; and British subsidies, extremely useful to a poor country engaged in a costly war, would at any rate be expended in the manner most useful to Prussia. Great Britain merely drifted, and ultimately found herself in alliance with Prussia and at war with the European coalition, while ministers themselves hardly understood how that position had been arrived at.