In the spring of 1754, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington of the Virginia militia led a company of men into disputed territory. He was twenty-two, and the governor of Virginia ordered him to occupy lands claimed by both Britain and France, in modern-day Pennsylvania. On the way, Washington attacked a French scouting party – without provocation, according to the French. He and his men killed several French soldiers and took others prisoner.
Young Washington’s War and the Little Archduchess
Washington had won his first battle. But the skirmish was a diplomatic disaster. It triggered further fighting, which grew into the French and Indian War: years of conflict between Britain and France.
A little more than a year later, in 1755, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria gave birth to daughter: the Archduchess Maria Antonia. At the time, the empress enjoyed an alliance with Great Britain against France. But soon after the birth, Britain signed an alliance with Prussia – Austria’s bitter enemy – thanks to fears surrounding the French and Indian War. As a result, France and Austria patched up old grievances and signed their own alliance, in 1756. A few months after these alliance earthquakes, all four powers and more had been dragged into the war – now a global conflict remembered as the Seven Years’ War.
The Alliance, the Dauphin, and Marie Antoinette
The war ended in 1763, but the Franco-Austrian Alliance continued. In 1770, the two sides sealed the pact with a kiss. The Austrian empress married her fourteen-year-old daughter, Maria Antonia, to the Dauphin: the sixteen-year-old heir to the French throne. The Dauphin became King Louis XVI, and his wife and queen adopted the French version of her name: Marie Antoinette.
Young Washington’s attack on the French created a link in a chain of events – a chain that connects the war, the Anglo-Prussian Alliance, the Franco-Austrian Alliance, and Marie-Antoinette’s marriage and crown. Maybe one or more links could be removed without chaning the overall outcome. Maybe not. Either way, the chain connects Washington to Marie Antoinette, one of his few rivals for 18th Century fame.
For more on Washington, see “George Washington and the Dignity of the Presidency,” as well as “Thank You, American Armed Forces.”
© 2023 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.
- Portrait of George Washington, Charles Willson Peale, 1772
- Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, Joseph Ducreux, 1769