Epilogue or Prologue? The Royal Proclamation Turns 250

If you’ve heard of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, it’s probably in the form of the “Proclamation Line,” the imaginary line of masking tape across the Appalachian Mountains dividing English colonists along the coast from native populations in the interior of North America. According to a group of historians gathered at the Old State House in Boston this past Friday, it may have far greater significance. (Or not.)

Today, October 7, 1763, is the 250th anniversary of the Royal Proclamation. To commemorate the anniversary, the Bostonian Society (stewards of the Old State House in Boston) hosted a roundtable discussion this past Friday co-sponsored by the McNeil Center of Early American Studies and UMass-Boston. The meeting was the culminating event for the Old State House’s exhibit on 1763: A Revolutionary Peace, featuring Britain’s copy of the Treaty of Paris and the Massachusetts copy of the Proclamation. Dan Richter of the McNeil Center moderated the panel, and proposed that Boston was the “northeastern outpost of the McNeil Center”—an assertion that, judging by the familiar Philadelphia feel of the crowd, may not have been far off at least for that afternoon. The McNeil Center has spent much of this year focused on 1763, sponsoring a conference this spring on The War Called Pontiac’s, and an upcoming one in December on The Conestoga Massacre perpetrated by the Paxton Boys.

As a whole, Richter explained, we should view the Proclamation as part of Britain’s attempt to manage the territories it conquered at the end of the Seven Years’ War. The Line, he noted, is only the last of the measures in the Proclamation, coming after the establishment of military governments for the “extensive and valuable acquisitions” of Grenada, East and West Florida, and Quebec and a scheme to distribute land to war veterans. That provision plus the line, Richter emphasized, were relatively meaningless to the settlers who streamed westward after 1763, but caused enormous problems for land speculators (such as the young Virginia colonel George Washington) whose claims in the West relied on titles to land they could no longer receive.

Each of the speakers picked up on the theme of the “imperial view.” Heather Welland, an early modern British historian at Binghamton University, opened the discussion by placing the Royal Proclamation in the context of contemporary British politics. In particular, she focused on two competing factions within Parliament trying to define British authority in the new colony of Quebec. One, a group of merchants, lobbyists, and other commercial men. These men, she argued, were keenly focused on British institutions—a representative assembly, trial by jury, and other mechanisms to protect commercial transactions. The other group focused more carefully on settlement and defining Parliamentary authority both in the metropole and North America. This faction thought lobbyists were actually undercutting Parliament, and saw the management of Quebec as an opportunity to reassert authority, which Welland pointed to as a way of reading the Quebec Act of 1774.

Colin Calloway of Dartmouth offered the perspective from Indian country. In the Ohio Valley in 1763, Calloway reminded the audience, British authority was asserted far more easily than it was demonstrated. And the British weren’t even very good at that, failing to learn any lessons from either the French or their own war experience. Calloway also directly brought the conversation back to Pontiac. The rebellion in 1763, which Calloway described as an “Indian War of Independence,” was remarkably successful as natives took every fort but Niagara. That military action did not “produce” the Proclamation, but it did get the Proclamation through the machinery of British government at remarkable speed. Not meant to be permanent, settlers immediately pushed to revise the line with both John Stuart and William Johnson, the two superintendents of Indian affairs. The problem of the Proclamation, Calloway argued, was how to manage the frontier from a distance, a problem that continued to plague the new United States government well into the nineteenth century.

The last speaker, Karl Hele of Concordia University, is “a member of the Garden River First Nation community of the Anishinaabeg people,” as noted in his biography, and he turned the conversation to the present by examining some of the ways in which the Canadian government has used (or abused) the Proclamation in its dealings with First Nations groups. Hele argued that the current government views the Proclamation as one of Canada’s founding documents (the CBC this morning used the analogy of “The Indian Magna Carta” in a story on the anniversary), though not deserving of the same fanfare that has accompanied its commemorations of the War of 1812. As a member of a First Nations community, Hele views the legal and legislative interpretations of the Proclamation as conflicting and self-serving. In particular, the Proclamation reifies the view that natives had usufruct rights to land but could not claim title under English law. Furthermore, Hele worked to convince the audience that for the Indian-Canadian relationship, the truly crucial document was not the Proclamation but the 1764 Treaty of Niagara. That treaty, negotiated with some two dozen native groups, established a set of principles to guide the relationship among the British government and native nations and provides for specific guidelines for the purchase of land.

The discussion that followed the presentations led in some particularly fruitful directions. Since the event was itself a roundtable, it seems appropriate to include another perspective on the discussion. For that purpose, I’d like to bring in a colleague to offer his comments on where the discussion should leave us.

Carl Keyes, Assumption College

Recently I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about public history and popular conceptions of the American Revolution, in part because I am preparing to teach my first introductory public history class next semester.

When I entered the Old State House I first had to pass through the museum gift shop and several exhibition spaces before arriving in the hall where the roundtable discussion took place. Along the way, I encountered a fair number of museum visitors, many of them presumably tourists following the Freedom Trail through Boston. I assumed that each of them shared two qualities: they already knew something about the American Revolution before exploring the Old State House and nearby historic sites and they were inquisitive and wanted to learn more. While some may have sought the comfort of having traditional narratives reinforced, they put themselves in the position of being exposed to more complicated interpretations of the past as they engaged with exhibits and sites presented by public historians working in collaboration with their peers in the academy. I wondered how many visitors in the Old State House were familiar with the Royal Proclamation of 1763 before visiting the museum, as well as if and how they would incorporate it into their understandings of the Revolutionary era after returning to their everyday routines.

In his opening remarks, Dan Richter noted that the Proclamation, a plan for managing the British empire following the Seven Years War, established four new colonies with military governments and enumerated a scheme for distributing land to war veterans. It is only the final third of the document, Richter underscored, that detailed the Proclamation Line, though this attempt to keep settlers bottled up east of the Appalachians has received by far the most attention from historians because it so alienated colonists who felt betrayed by British leaders. This has become a part of the standard narrative in many early American history courses for undergraduates: the Revolution was not solely about taxation without representation, we stress to our students, but also about other perceived abuses, including favoring indigenous Americans by setting aside land west of the Appalachians at the expense of Anglo-Americans who had just fought and sacrificed for the British empire in a long and bloody war. Following Fred Anderson’s lead, many of us seek to convince students that the Seven Years War was the war that made the United States long before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. The Royal Proclamation goes quite a way in making that case, providing a larger frame of reference for understanding imperial ruptures and the decision to declare independence in 1776.

Each of the panelists offered insights aimed at deepening the scholarly community’s appreciation of various aspects of the Royal Proclamation, moving far beyond exclusive consideration of the infamous Line. At the conclusion of a lively discussion, Laura Keenan Spero asked the panelists how they thought the Royal Proclamation might be commemorated, analyzed, and interpreted in another fifty years. Several responded that the Proclamation is such a powerful part of the Revolutionary narrative that it will continue to be considered a central aspect of the story for the next half century, especially as scholars further explore its many complex features and their various repercussions.

This prompted me to wonder: Whose Revolutionary narrative? I thought once more of the museum visitors I walked past not more than two hours earlier. Was the Royal Proclamation part of their Revolutionary narrative, either before or after visiting the exhibit at the Old State House? I am sure that the panelists are correct that historians and other scholars will engage in research that increases our appreciation of the Proclamation over the course of the next five decades and beyond, but I hope that this will parallel efforts by both academic and public historians to enrich the general public’s understanding of the Revolutionary era by increasing awareness of the Royal Proclamation. When another generation of scholars gathers to commemorate its tricentennial, I hope that the work so many of us are doing in the classroom now, buttressed by the efforts of our public history colleagues, will have produced a popular narrative of the Revolutionary era that includes the Royal Proclamation of 1763 alongside the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, and the Boston Tea Party that are already so familiar to the general public.

One comment on “Epilogue or Prologue? The Royal Proclamation Turns 250

  1. […] documents, one extraordinary war.  The Junto (an early Americanists blog) has an interesting post today on the Bostonian Society’s roundtable of this past Friday (Oct. 4) on the Royal […]

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