1.26 Wars

The Balance of Power

Raw economics became a major focus of war in the seventeenth century, when the rival commercial empires of Europe fought over territory and trade routes, not just glory and dynastic lines. The Dutch and British fought repeatedly from 1652 – 1675, conflicts which resulted in the loss of Dutch territory in North America. The British also fought the Spanish over various territories. The noteworthy result was that the formerly-Spanish territory of Florida was handed over to the British in return for the Cuban port of Havana.

The most significant conflicts, however, were the ongoing series of wars between the two greatest powers of the eighteenth century: Britain and France. Britain had established naval dominance by 1700, but the French state was richer, its army much larger, and its navy almost Britain’s match. The French monarchy was also the established model of absolutism. Despite the financial savvy of the British government, most Europeans looked to France for their idea of a truly glorious state.

France became a highly aggressive power under Louis XIV, who saw territorial gains as essential to his own glory. His “grand strategy” was to seize territory from Habsburg Spain and Habsburg Austria by initiating a series of wars; he planned to force conquered populations to help pay for the wars and ultimately hoped to expand France to the Pyrenees in the south and the Rhine in the east. His wars in the late seventeenth century resulted in the seizure of small territories around the existing French borders, most notably in the Pyrenees. These wars, however, also drove the other powers of Europe into a defensive alliance against France, since it was clear that France threatened all of their interests.

The most significant war started by Louis was the War of Spanish Succession (1701 – 1713). The last Spanish Habsburg died in 1700, and the heir was Louis’ grandson Philip. The Austrian Habsburgs rejected the legitimacy of the claim, and soon they recruited the British to help defeat France. The fighting dragged on for a decade as more European powers were drawn in. Finally, with France teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and Louis himself now old and ill, the powers agreed to negotiate. This resulted in the Treaty of Utrecht. The results of the war were that Britain acquired additional territory in the Americas and a member of the Bourbon line was confirmed as the new Spanish king. However, the French and Spanish branches of the Bourbons were to be permanently distinct from one another: France would not control Spain, in other words. In addition, the Austrian Habsburgs absorbed the remaining Spanish possessions in Italy and the Hapsburg-controlled parts of the Netherlands, meaning Spain was now bereft of its last European territories outside of the Iberian peninsula itself.

Burton, P.S. "Europe 1748 – 1766."
This map shows Europe in the years after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle 1748 and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Europe did not see another major geographical change until 1766. The red line marks the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. The work was created with Inkscape and is mainly based on a map in: Putzger – Historischer Weltatlas, Berlin 1990, 78 pp. Wikimedia. July 15, 2018.

The Seven Years’ War

Enlightenment ideals spread throughout the European nations as well as their colonial empires. Locke in particular was very influential in the British colonies where his ideas helped spark a successful, though unintentional rebellion, that led ultimately to the creation of the United States. The first step on this path was an event that began in North America, but soon embroiled all of Europe in war.

Key Takeaways

Watch these film clips on the Seven Years’ War and consider the following questions:

  • What were the causes and results of the Seven Years’ War?
  • How and why it was decisive for the colonial ambitions of Britain and France?

Conflicts continued on and off between the Great Powers even after the War of Spanish Succession. The next major conflict was the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 1763), better known in America as the French and Indian War. The war began when Prussia attempted a blatant land-grab from Austria, which quickly led to the involvement of the other Great Powers.

“The Seven Years’ War.” The East India Company: Episode 1. 2014. Films on Demand. 2:29. 

This was a particularly bloody conflict, especially for the Native American tribes that allied with French or British colonial forces. The results of this war, another British victory, were far-reaching: France lost its Canadian possessions, including the entire French-speaking province of Quebec, it lost almost all of its territories in India, and Britain achieved dominance of commercial shipping to the Americas. While France was still the most powerful kingdom on the European continent, there were now no serious rivals to Britain on the oceans, something that allowed it to become the predominant imperial power in the world in the nineteenth century.

In turn, the Seven Years’ War directly led to the American Revolution (1775 – 1783). The British Parliament tried to impose unpopular taxes on the American colonists to help pay for the British troops garrisoned there during and after the Seven Years’ War. Open revolt broke out in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. The French provided both material and, then, actual military aid to the Americans starting in 1778, and Britain was finally forced to concede American independence in 1783. Significantly, this was the only war that France “won” over the course of the eighteenth century, and it gained nothing from it but the satisfaction of having finally beaten its British enemy. The real winners were the American colonists who were now able to go about creating an independent nation.


“French and Indian War Ends.” Liberty! Episode 1-The Reluctant Revolutionaries (1763-1774). Films On Demand. 1997. 1:29.

If you get a message that the video cannot be authenticated, use this link: https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=41024&loid=68918.

The eighteenth century was the culmination of many of the patterns that first came about in the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. The Great Powers were centralized, organized states with large armies and global economic ties. The social and legal divisions between different classes and categories were never more starkly drawn and enforced than they were by the eighteenth century. Wars explicitly fought in the name of gaining power and territory, often territory that spanned multiple continents (as in Britain’s seizure of French territory in both the Americas and India).

Ironically, given the apparent power and stability of this political and social order, everything was about to change. As the ideas of the Enlightenment spread and as the groups that made up the Third Estate of commoners grew increasingly resentful of their subservient political position, a virtual powder keg was being lit under the political structure of Europe. The subsequent explosion began in France in 1789.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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