“The Proclamation of 1763.” It sounds so official. So formal. In fact, it’s so important that we only have to refer to it as the Proclamation of 1763 to know what we’re talking about. That’s pretty impressive.
But what was this “Royal Proclamation of 1763?” Why was it so important?
In short, it was a decree from Parliament, sanctioned by the king, that forbade the settlement of territory west of the Appalachian Mountains — a range of peaks that stretches from Maine in the Northeast all the way to Alabama and Georgia in the Southeast. This was the same territory Britain had acquired from France as part of the Treaty of Paris, signed to end the Seven Years’ War.
There were reasons for issuing such a decree, but American colonists interpreted this proclamation as an overstep by the king into colonial affairs and an unfair response to the colonial effort during the war with France.
In this sense, it stimulated rebellious sentiment in the colonies. It reminded colonists that their best interests were not the same as those of the king and Parliament; it reminded them that the American colonies existed to benefit the Crown — a sobering, and potentially very dangerous, fact.
Over time, most especially during the 13 years after the Proclamation of 1763, this would become even more apparent, eventually driving the colonists to declare their independence and fight for it in the American Revolution.
How’s that for important?
What Did the Proclamation of 1763 Do?
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 established a temporary western boundary for the American colonists living in North America at the time. The line was set at the foothills of the Appalachian mountains.
Interestingly, the official language of the proclamation stated that all the lands with rivers flowing into the Atlantic belonged to the colonists and all lands with rivers flowing into the Mississippi belonged to the Native Americans. A somewhat strange way of distinguishing between territory. But what works, works.
Why Was the Proclamation of 1763 Issued?
It was passed after the Treaty of Paris was agreed to between France and Britain, ending the Seven Years’ War. This conflict had started in North America but quickly became a global one, with Spain entering the fray to fight Britain in the late 1750s.
The victory gave the British control over a large expanse of territory that included the Northwest Territory as well as the territory of Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In addition, the British took over French territory in Canada, which extended from Nova Scotia in the East and past what is now the city of Ottawa to the West.
The king issued the proclamation so as to better organize this new territory and establish a system for administering what had suddenly become a massive overseas empire.
Yet the Proclamation of 1763 angered most American colonists, as it dramatically hindered the space that they had to expand. What’s more, many people already had land grants in the territory they were now forbidden from settling on.
Many colonists who had fought in the French and Indian War saw these lands as part of the prize for their sacrifice and being forbidden from settling disrespected their service.
All of this caused the colonists to take the Proclamation of 1763 as an insult. A reminder that the king did not recognize them as independent governing bodies but rather as pawns in a massive chess game designed to increase his wealth and power.
But the boundary was not supposed to be permanent. Instead, it was designed to slow westward expansion of the colonies, which the Crown had found difficult to regulate due to the vastness of the territory, and also because of the near-constant threat of attack from Native Americans.
As a result, the proclamation was intended to help bring order to the settlement of this new territory. But in doing this, the British government instead created considerable disorder in the Thirteen Colonies, and this helped set the wheels in motion for the movement that would lead to the American Revolution.
The Proclamation Line of 1763
The language of the original Proclamation used the directional flow of rivers to establish a territory line, which is much more complicated than it needs to be in the 21st century.
So, here’s something a bit more visual and specific:
However, as mentioned, this initial line was not intended to be permanent. And, as colonists who had a problem with the line raised issues within the legal system of the British Empire, it was gradually pushed west.
By 1768, the Treaty of Fort Stanwix and the Treaty of Hard Labor opened this territory up considerably to settlement by the American colonists, and in 1770, the Treaty of Lochaber went even further to allow settlement of the territory that would eventually become Kentucky and West Virginia.
Here’s a map of how the line changed in the years after the Proclamation of 1763:
So, in the end, the colonists may have jumped the gun getting so angry at the king for the proclamation. It took five years to get a new treaty, and seven to fully extend the scope of the available territory.
This is a long time, and while people were waiting for this issue to be resolved, the king was getting even more involved in colonial affairs and making the idea of revolution and independence that much more appetizing.
A Starting Point
The Proclamation of 1763 was not the “straw that broke the camel’s back” leading up to the American Revolution. Instead, it was more like one of the first straws. An initial straw. The camel started to slowly tire after the proclamation, only to collapse thirteen years later.
As a result, the Proclamation of 1763 really does deserve its all-important status, for it helped set in motion one of the most influential movements in human history: the American struggle for independence.