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1 The Politics of Coalition Building in the Ohio Valley, 1765–1774 rob harPer John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore and the last royal governor of Virginia , was an arrogant, stubborn, and often drunken fool with little political or diplomatic ability. His frontier policies antagonized much of the backcountry population, other colonial governments, the British army and diplomatic corps, his superiors in London, and the Indians of the Ohio Valley. He also alienated his own legislature, which refused to appropriate any funds to support his western adventures. Less than a year after those adventures concluded, his government would collapse as Virginia joined the vanguard of the American Revolution.1 Given these many failings, Dunmore could hardly hope for success in the complex realm of frontier politics. Nevertheless, this untalented and widely disliked man carried out a successful military and diplomatic campaign in Ohio—more successful, in fact,than any subsequent invasion before Anthony Wayne’s twenty years later. This unlikely triumph came about because of the help of a diverse array of influential figures within both Indian and colonial communities. Together, these allies stitched together a multifaceted coalition that advanced Dunmore’s efforts. Understanding why these disparate individuals cooperated with Dunmore , and why their cooperation proved so fruitful, requires a closer examination of the politics of coalition building.2 Such a study shifts scholars’ understanding of politics in the interwar Ohio Valley.It encourages a focus not on broad categories, such as militant and accommodationist Indians or + The Politics of Coalition Building in the Ohio Valley, 1765–1774 · 19 pro-government and anti-government colonists, but rather on the messy web of political interests and affiliations that such categories often obscure . For example, conflict surrounding colonization affected most areas of Revolutionary Ohio politics, but individuals interpreted and responded to that conflict in disparate ways. Ohio Indians generally tried to establish and maintain some form of territorial sovereignty, but different individuals adopted diverse and often conflicting strategies to achieve that general goal. Most colonists in the region aspired to acquire land, but when, where, and how they pursued that goal varied substantially, as did their political interests and priorities. This diversity of concerns and strategies created the need for coalitions that bridged geographic, political, ideological, ethnic , and racial divisions. Lacking either an effective formal political system or a broad consensus regarding ends and means, Ohio Valley inhabitants could achieve their goals only by cultivating allies with dissimilar interests and priorities. The process of coalition formation therefore centered on the search for allies with overlapping interests, the articulation of those interests in ways that encouraged cooperation, and ongoing attempts to downplay or finesse coalition partners’differing goals. These activities constituted the core of political life in Revolutionary Ohio. Because of their limited purpose and the differences among their members , coalitions were inherently unstable. To achieve unity among so much diversity, coalition builders typically used strategic ambiguity to obscure differences in coalition partners’ objectives. As Richard White argues, eighteenth-century Great Lakes diplomacy relied on creative responses to cultural misunderstandings: Europeans and Indians built alliances not because they understood each other but because their mutual confusion fostered new ways of resolving differences. The coalitions of the Revolutionary Ohio Valley similarly depended on misunderstandings, but the coalition builders themselves intentionally propagated them by manipulating or distorting information. The resulting confusion bolstered coalitions by obscuring the many differences among their members—at least enough to permit cooperation, for a time.3 White also stresses that the “Middle Ground” of the earlier Franco– Great Lakes Indian alliance system depended on a balance of power—in particular, the inability of either Europeans or Indians to achieve their goals by force. Revolutionary-era coalition building similarly involved 20 · Rob Harper mutual dependence but did not necessarily reflect a balance of power. The divergent interests of coalition partners often reflected wide gaps in the resources and influence available to them. This imbalance discouraged the emergence of stable, lasting alliances like those analyzed by White. Nevertheless , the weakness of formal political institutions made the “power” of individuals contingent upon their relationships with others. The importance of compromise and popular support continually created opportunities for the relatively powerless to seek out new coalition partners with whom to pursue their objectives.4 Some of the region’s most successful and durable coalitions centered on networks of patronage. In these networks, local brokers linked groups of Ohio Valley inhabitants to influential patrons based outside the region. Patrons included investors,military commanders,and political...


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