18. Fighting the Revolution: The Big Picture

18. Fighting the Revolution: The Big Picture


Prof: Okay. So a
quick review of what we covered on Thursday in the first of
these two lectures in which I’m going to be talking about the
war. And hopefully,
as you hopefully remember, we began by talking about the
British and the logic of their actions during the war.
And I talked for a little while
about a number of their logistical disadvantages:
like problems getting supplies and then dragging them all over
the American countryside; like the large expanse of land
that the British confronted that was one big battlefield in a
sense; the ways in which some kind of
traditional battle strategies, war strategies,
didn’t necessarily work so well in this campaign;
and along the same lines, that there were different kinds
of challenges that the British faced in fighting against a
citizen army. I talked about how Britain
couldn’t turn its back on the rest of the world,
particularly France. They had to keep an eye on what
France was doing and France–as you’re going to see in today’s
lecture–is going to play a large role.
And then finally I talked about
the simple fact that for the British to win,
they needed to stamp out a widespread rebellion over a
large expanse of land, while the Americans didn’t
necessarily have to defeat the British to emerge victorious.
They just had to keep fighting
long enough to exhaust British supplies and funding and
energies. And I also mentioned a few
mistaken assumptions on the part of the British,
like the way that they consistently underestimated the
Americans, and then along similar lines,
the ways in which they consistently overestimated the
amount of Loyalist support that they were expecting to find in
the colonies. And I spent time in Thursday’s
class going into those kinds of details before talking about
phases of war and strategies and things like that because they
help us to understand the logic of British military strategies
throughout the war. I think it’s really easy to
look back on any historical event–
but I think it’s particularly true for the American Revolution
that leads to the American founding–
it’s easy to look back and blame the loser for making dumb
mistakes, but there were really logical
reasons for what the British did during this campaign.
And that’s part of what I’m
trying to bring out in last week’s lecture and in today’s
lecture, that there were logical
logistical reasons why they did what they did.
There were equally logical
reasons as to why the war ultimately had the outcome that
it did, but all of those things that I
talked about in the last lecture at the start show how the
British were acting under pretty challenging circumstances and
they were guiding their decisions and doing whatever
they decided to do based on whatever information and insight
and tradition they had at hand. So their actions have a logic,
and I bring that up at the start of this lecture because
it’s part of what I’ve been doing overall in this class over
the course of the semester, and that is,
throughout whatever I’ve been lecturing about,
I’ve tried to explain the logic and reasoning behind people’s
choices and decisions, to give you a view of unfolding
events from the viewpoints of people who were there.
Now of course it’s just
inherently interesting to look at historical events from the
viewpoint of people who were there,
so that’s part of the reason why I do this–
because it’s interesting and it’s fun and I find it
fascinating– but more important,
I actually take this approach because I want to emphasize the
idea that the Revolution wasn’t inevitable.
It wasn’t an inevitable event.
It wasn’t a good revolt against
bad people. It was actually a product of
individual choices, individual actions on all
sides, and that’s ultimately what history is all about.
Right?
It’s about people making
choices and then taking action, and particularly in the case of
the American founding period, I think it’s an important thing
to remember, because it’s easy to forget
that the Revolution and its aftermath weren’t inevitable or
inherently right. It has to do with our nation’s
founding, so it’s natural to sort of
assume those things, but neither one of those things
helps us to really understand what was unfolding as the
Revolution unfolded. So basically,
in all of my classes, I always try to counter the
sort of seeming inevitability of things in the founding period by
really trying to re-create the logic of decisions at that time
in that moment. So that’s part of why I’ve been
focusing in that way throughout the semester.
But okay, back to the decisions
of the Revolution and Thursday’s lecture.
The bulk of my lecture on
Thursday was spent discussing three of the four phases of the
Revolution, and again hopefully you
remember I defined these phases based on shifts in British
strategy at various points. So the British would shift
their strategy, the Americans would respond,
and then that phase would continue until there’d be a new
shift and a new response. Just to review very briefly
here, the first phase lasted until roughly July of 1776 and
was largely guided on the part of the British by the assumption
that just a little coercion and maybe a little sign of
reconciliation would be all that the Americans needed to sort of
push them into backing away and would bring matters to a close.
That phase lasted through July
1776, and at that point the British
stepped up their strategy by deciding to seize New York,
seemingly one of the major cities in the colonies–
and again, by sort of traditional war standards,
you get a major city, you turn the tide of war–
plus, the British were hoping that if they could sort of
separate New England from the rest of the colonies they might
isolate the troublemakers up in New England and again,
maybe that would draw things to a close.
In part, at that point the
British were underestimating the intercolonial and interregional
bonds that were beginning to be forged throughout the conflict
thus far, and they also were
overestimating what it would mean along those same lines to
isolate New England. So that strategy obviously
didn’t end things, which leads us to the third
phase, which began in 1777, and that phase largely
consisted of the British trying to subdue the middle colonies–
well, now states by 1777. Again, sort of the basic
assumption being let’s keep going for those major cities,
and if we get enough of those major cities they’re going to
have to cave. So now Philadelphia and
Pennsylvania become major targets in this third phase.
And then I ended the lecture by
talking about America’s shocking victory at the Battle of
Saratoga, which ended up being a real
turning point in the war. And I’m going to go a little
bit more into that–reasons why that’s the case–today.
But I do want to mention–at
the very end, after I finished my lecture on
Thursday, a few people came up to me with
questions about precisely how the Americans won at Saratoga,
because I just sort of generally talked about problems
with supplies, and then the Americans won,
and a few people had questions: Well,
what actually really happened? So I’ll offer just a little bit
more detail here to give you a sense of how it is that the
Americans came to have this unexpected victory.
So remember at that point,
British General Howe is headed off to Philadelphia as part of
the major sort of attempt of that third phase of the war,
so General John Burgoyne is up north with his army,
and lo and behold part of the Continental Army under Horatio
Gates– General Horatio Gates–attacks
Burgoyne, and Gates’ part of the army is
joined by another part of the Continental Army led by General
Benjamin Lincoln. Also, militiamen from nearby
areas, individually and in groups,
began heading to Saratoga when they sort of got a sense that
something major was happening there.
So by October 7 of 1777,
there were roughly 11,000 American troops all told facing
roughly 5,000 British troops under Burgoyne.
So now Burgoyne is in a little
bit of trouble and Howe couldn’t help him because he’s down in
the South somewhere, and for a little while Burgoyne
thought that there might be another group of British
soldiers led by Sir Henry Clinton coming to save the day.
Clinton and his men did not
come to the rescue. So Burgoyne is in trouble.
And to give you just a little
sense of what I’m talking about here, here’s a quote from a
British lieutenant who actually took part in the battle.
And he writes that on October 7
in his regiment, quote, “Our cannon were
surrounded and taken– the men and horses being all
killed– which gave them [the Americans]
additional spirits, and they rushed on with loud
shouts, when we drove them back a
little way with so great loss to ourselves,
that it evidently appeared a retreat was the only thing left
for us.” Okay.
So that’s a British soldier
taking part, describing massive deaths.
The Americans get cheered by
what’s happening and sort of surge, and the British come to
the realization that they’re going to have to retreat.
So Americans ultimately wage a
war on the actual fort at Saratoga and ultimately breech
the fort, and Burgoyne withdrew his army
to the heights of Saratoga. He lost roughly 600 men,
which was about four times the number of Americans that are
killed in that battle, and that’s the moment where
Burgoyne meets with his chiefs of staff and decides that at
this point what they need to do is actually surrender.
And I mentioned at the very end
of Thursday’s lecture the surrender ceremony when both
sides were sort of so shocked at what was unfolding that they–
everyone was sort of quiet and the Americans sort of had their
eyes down, supposedly because they
couldn’t quite believe what was happening in front of them.
Now I’m going to mention one
last fact regarding Saratoga that I just sort of stumbled
across today actually, but I thought it was really
interesting because it relates back to my earlier point about
the British overestimating the amount of Loyalist support that
they had in America. After he lost the battle,
Burgoyne ends up going back to England and he ends up getting
examined by Parliament to explain exactly what happened at
Saratoga. That must have been really fun
for Burgoyne. And here are just one or two
sentences from his testimony before Parliament.
He said, “Would the Tories
have risen? Why did they not rise round
Albany and below it at the time they found Mr. Gates’ army
increasing?” (“Mr.”
Gates, not General Gates’
army.) “A critical insurrection
from any one point of the compass within distance to
create a diversion, would probably have secured the
success of the campaign.” So there is Burgoyne talking to
Parliament and saying, ‘Where were the Tories?’–like:
just a little action, some diversion on the part of
American Tories might have saved the day,
but where were they? I didn’t–They weren’t there.
So he’s puzzled,
and he’s partly blaming that for what happened at Saratoga.
So the victory at Saratoga
accomplished important things militarily.
Of course, psychologically it
was a tremendous victory for the Americans after a series of
somewhat less inspiring battle moments,
but in many ways the most important impact of the Battle
of Saratoga was on the world stage.
Because when news of the battle
reached Europe in December of 1777,
it gave some credibility to the American cause,
particularly in France, which the Americans had already
been eyeing as a potential source of support during the
war– and that makes sense given
France’s long-standing enmity to England.
It makes perfect sense that the
Americans think: hmm, maybe the French are going
to come aid us as we’re fighting against their long-time enemy.
Now Franklin–Benjamin Franklin
was in Paris at this point when the news begins to reach Europe.
He is serving as an American
ambassador, and while he’s in France,
he proved that among his many talents,
he had an amazing talent at self-promotion,
because although he was an extremely cultured American,
he was incredibly shrewd at playing “the American”
in Paris. Basically, he knew what the
French sort of expected Americans to be like,
and they thought Americans were going to be these sort of
simple, pure, virtuous,
natural backwoodsmen. So there’s Franklin.
He’s in the splendor–the grand
splendor of the French court and he dressed really,
really simply–and many of you have probably seen this image.
He always wore this sort of fur
cap like: ‘I just went out and killed myself an animal and now
I’m wearing this hat. [laughter]
I’m a backwoods philosopher.’ It was–Basically,
the role he was playing was the sort of amazing rustic,
natural, backwoods American philosopher.
He continually presented
himself in that way, which really stood out among
all the splendor of the French court, and the French absolutely
adored it. He became a sort of fad of the
French court. There were countless portraits
and images made of him. He was put on dishes.
He was put on medallions.
As Franklin himself put it,
“My Face is now almost as well known as that of the
Moon.” Right?
They just adored him in France.
Apparently, Franklin also knew
how to enjoy himself in France, because a little later in the
war one of Washington’s aides was sent to France to control
Franklin [laughs]– to sort of keep him from having
a little bit too much fun. Let’s just say that Franklin,
who was in his seventies at this point,
so he’s advanced in age, Franklin liked the ladies and
the ladies liked Franklin, and particularly given that he
was the fad of the court, I think Franklin had a very
enjoyable time in Paris. [laughs]
And so Washington–one of Washington’s aides actually gets
sent to sort of baby-sit Benjamin Franklin.
Now all of this adulation of
Franklin irked John Adams, surprise, surprise.
[laughter]
John Adams really sort of on some fundamental level thought
that he deserved some too, and Franklin was so beloved it
really proved irksome to Adams. He kept a diary and in the
diary he tended to record adulation moments of Franklin,
like: here’s another one of those darn moments where they
just loved this guy. And I want to offer one just so
you can get a sense of what this would have been like,
I guess both for Adams and Franklin.
This is from Adams’ diary,
from his journal, from April 29,1778,
and this is what Adams writes: “After dinner we went to
the Academy of Sciences. Voltaire and Franklin were both
present, and there presently arose a
general Cry that Monsieur Voltaire and Monsieur Franklin
should be introduced to each other.
This was done and they bowed
and spoke to each other. This was no Satisfaction.
There must be something more.
Neither of our Philosophers
seemed to divine what was wished or expected.
They, however,
took each other by the hand . But this was not enough.
The Clamor continued,
until the explanation came out ‘Il faut s’embrasser � la
fran�aise.'” Right?
They have to embrace themselves
French style. “The two Aged Actors upon
this great Theater of Philosophy and frivolity then embraced each
other, by hugging one another in their
Arms and kissing each others cheeks,
and then the tumult subsided.”
So there’s Franklin’s sort of
everyday existence in Paris, which was pretty extreme.
So Franklin is there,
living it up in Paris. He’s there when news of
Saratoga reaches France. On hearing the news,
France decides ultimately that they’re going to formally
recognize America as an independent nation,
obviously with Franklin and Adams and others helping things
along. And upon recognizing America as
an independent nation, the French went one step
further and agreed to enter the war as allies to the Americans.
So obviously,
Saratoga happens, the news gets to Europe,
France hears it, and those are two major
developments: France recognizes American
independence; France joins the war on the
side of the Americans. With this agreement,
these really major two agreements,
for the first time there seemed to be a remote possibility that
the Americans might actually have a chance of being
victorious. This is a major,
major ally that’s just signed up on the American side.
Not only did the French bring
credibility to the American cause,
but of course they also brought military supplies,
and most important of all, as we’re going to see a little
later in the lecture, they brought the French navy.
America at this point is still
figuring out how to have a navy, so having the French navy was
of huge importance. Now it’s important to note at
this point that it’s not– the dynamic here isn’t that the
French were so inspired by the nobility of the American cause
that they decided they would join the war with the Americans.
There–That is true for some
French individuals. I’ll talk a little bit more
later on in the lecture about the Marquis de Lafayette.
He’s one of a number of people
who actually were inspired by the American cause.
But as a nation,
the French were particularly eager to help the Americans
because they assumed that after the war they might be able to
take over much of the lucrative trade with America that the
British had controlled before. So basically,
joining America in this war effort was an investment now
that they thought would probably pay off later,
and of course add to that the fact that by allying themselves
with the Americans they’re now fighting their long-term,
long-time enemy, the British,
so that makes it an attractive proposition as well.
So in February of 1778,
France signed two treaties with America.
The first was the Treaty of
Amity and Commerce that said that France recognized the
United States as a sovereign nation.
It also said that France had
trading privileges with America as a favored nation,
but America preserved the right of free trade.
Second, France signed the
Treaty of Alliance that would go into effect if war erupted
between England and France because of the first treaty,
which indeed it did five months later,
so basically the first Treaty of Amity and Commerce is signed,
Britain and France now decide they’re warring,
and then France says, ‘Okay. Now the Treaty of Alliance is
going into effect. We are now officially allied
with America.’ The stated purpose of the
Treaty of Alliance was to assure the,
quote, “liberty, Sovereignty,
and independence absolute and unlimited of the [said]
United States.” France renounced claims to the
mainland of North America east of the Mississippi or to the
Bermuda Islands, if captured by America.
In return, France asked the
United States to recognize whatever France might capture in
the West Indies. In other words,
if France captures some British islands in the West Indies,
America says, ‘Fine.
[laughs]
We’ll recognize that for sure.’ America was given a free hand
to conquer Canada. [laughs] Yay.
[laughs] Conquer Canada.
Good thing we got that in the
treaty. And then both sides agreed not
to negotiate for peace without consent of the other.
So now you’ve got Britain and
France in war against one another,
and with that the American Revolution becomes something of
a world war, because Spain and the Dutch
ultimately join on the side of the French.
So now Europe and European
powers and their own disputes also end up playing a role in
who’s siding with who during the Revolution.
Now it’s really important to
note at this point that with the involvement of other European
nations, and particularly with the
involvement of France, America became far less of a
central concern to the British, who now felt compelled to send
thousands of soldiers to the West Indies to guard against
French invasion, which means that less manpower
was available to fight in the United States.
The West Indies,
or what at the time that would have been known as the Sugar
Islands, were the truly great prizes as far as colonies were
concerned. They were greater prizes than
the North American colonies. That’s where the real money
was, in these Sugar Islands, so some British manpower very
naturally went right to the Indies to protect British
properties from the French. At this point,
feeling a little desperate because of the French-American
alliance, the British actually make one
last stab at reconciliation– they are persistent–though as
we’ll see in a few minutes, they made some misjudgments
that ultimately did not achieve the success of this attempt.
On February 17,1778,
Lord North proposed in the House of Commons the
Conciliatory Propositions. The Conciliatory Propositions,
February 17,1778. And the Propositions called for
the repeal of all of the acts that Americans had found
obnoxious. Right?
‘Okay.
We’ll take it all back.’
No standing army in time of
peace in the colonies; no changes in colonial charters
unless colonial assemblies request them;
England would agree to consider American representation in
Parliament, or if Americans preferred,
to recognize the American Congress as a permanent
institution. Right?
Suddenly England’s like:
‘okay, we’ll take back all the things you hate if we just end
this now.’ Based on those propositions,
the Conciliatory Propositions, a British commission was sent
to America with instructions to deal with the Continental
Congress– or by this point,
in a sense also could be called the Confederation Congress,
but I’ll talk more about the Confederation later on–
to deal with the Continental Congress as if it was a legal
body, but Congress refused to appoint
commissioners to meet with the British commissioners.
Instead, they considered the
propositions on their own in Congress and then sent a letter
with their response to the British commissioners.
As Henry Laurens,
who’s the President of the Congress at the time,
put it in this letter: “The Acts of the British
Parliament, the Commission for Your
Sovereign”– right? “Your” Sovereign,
not our Sovereign–“and Your Letter,
suppose the People of these States to be Subjects of the
Crown of Great Britain, and are founded on the Idea of
dependence, which is utterly
inadmissible.” And Laurens then went on to add
that if the British wanted, the Americans would be happy to
talk about peace, if the King would either admit
American independence or withdraw all of its forces from
America. So, ‘If the British are ready
to do that,’ the Americans say, ‘we’re willing to talk to you.
Otherwise no,
we’re not willing to admit that we’re dependent on you in any
way. This is utterly inadmissible.
Take them back.’
So clearly it’s too late for
what could have been some pretty radical propositions.
At this point,
we come to the misjudgments, because the British commission
made a fatal error when they realized that that angle wasn’t
going to work. They tried to bribe some
high-ranked American officials including George Washington,
who they offered to make a duke if George Washington would agree
to their terms. As one of the commissioners put
it, “Washington is certainly to be bought–honours
will do it.” And I’m assuming that the
commission somewhere or other is thinking back to Washington and
the French and Indian War and he’s an ambitious guy and he
actually wants military honors, so the British are thinking:
‘we can buy him’– like: ‘show him a couple honors;
he’s an ambitious guy; we’ve got him.’
They also attempted to bribe
Franklin as well. Again, showing some misjudgment
on the part of the British towards either one of those men,
and also assuming clearly how wonderfully attractive British
honors would be, that they would easily seduce
either one of these two men. Neither one of them was
attracted to this; British honors were not going
to sway them from their cause. So not surprisingly,
both sides of this British effort were a complete flop.
Now we’re about to advance to
the fourth and final phase of the war,
but I do want to mention something else that happened in
the winter of 1777, before I move on to this fourth
phase, and that is the American army’s
encampment at Valley Forge. There, Americans for a time had
really serious problems getting supplies.
Supplies are always a problem
generally, partly because the Congress–Continental
Congress–does not have a way of insisting on anything.
I mentioned back when we talked
about organizing a war, the Continental Congress was
not very strong, couldn’t demand things from the
states, could just ask,
so supplies–organizing supplies was a problem.
But at Valley Forge they became
a serious problem– even just basic supplies like
food– partly because of the weakness
of the Continental Congress as well as a simple lack of
organization, and actually some graft as well.
So men were starving,
some of them half naked; some froze to death;
hundreds of horses starved to death.
The army didn’t dissolve or
mutiny at this point, which actually says something,
but the experience of Valley Forge suggested to some of the
men at Washington’s headquarters that there were problems with
the weakness of the Continental Congress.
And I’m going to come back to
this lesson in future lectures when we begin to talk about the
Articles of Confederation and the lead-up to the
Constitutional Convention, because the experience of the
Revolution taught some people, or led some people to believe
that they had learned, some hard lessons about what
wasn’t present– as what–during the war,
as far as the government was concerned,
and led them to believe something stronger needed to be
there. So in some ways,
working at Washington’s headquarters during the war was
like a little nationalist-creating machine
where people at the center, who saw how things were so hard
to organize because of the weakness of the Continental
Congress, many of those people ended up
believing that there needed to be a stronger government after
the war. That’ll come in future lectures.
Okay.
This brings us to the fourth
and final phase of the war, the southern campaign.
The southern campaign lasted
from 1779 to 1781. And this phase is marked by a
decision on the part of the British to transfer their
attention to the South, hoping that by possessing ports
of the South closer to the West Indies they can maybe maneuver
their fighting better; they can keep their eye on
what’s ever–whatever’s happening in the Indies;
they can also fight the Americans in the South as well.
Here, the British again made a
faulty assumption, because they assumed that the
South would be an easy target, because they assumed that there
would be a large reservoir of Loyalist support.
So they really assumed they
would seize key southern ports, there’d be all these Loyalists
there to help them, and then they would move their
way back north, taking one region after another
as they worked their way north. So the British sailed to the
Carolinas. They took Charleston,
South Carolina, which was the most important
city south of Philadelphia. They then left behind British
General Charles Cornwallis with kind of a mopping-up crew in the
South while the rest of the army began to move north to attack
the rest of the Continental Army.
Between 1779 and 1781,
there was a series of battles between the Americans and the
British in the South. Americans suffered defeat after
defeat. They persisted,
but they were not winning these battles.
The British won Georgia,
they already had Charleston, and then the British began to
pursue the Americans into Virginia,
and that’s where the Americans began to rally.
Now in part,
this is due once again to supply problems,
this time for the British Army. For Cornwallis,
the British supply lines were stretched to their maximum.
And continued fighting was
beginning to take a real toll on Cornwallis’ forces,
who suffered worse losses than were expected,
particularly considering they hadn’t really expected much in
the way of losses at all. Also, Loyalists remained
largely silent in the South, partly because the British
didn’t really treat them very well.
The British didn’t do anything
to court Loyalists in the South. The British ruled captured
areas in the South under martial law and made no allowances for
Loyalists. They didn’t grant any power to
Loyalists, so basically they did nothing to solicit Loyalist
support and thus they didn’t get much Loyalist support.
So Cornwallis is following the
American army. He limps into Virginia with his
supply problem, and while the British army is
in Virginia they plunder George Washington’s plantation,
Mount Vernon, just for a little zing.
Well, as long as we’re here,
let’s attack Mount Vernon. They took slaves as they left.
George Washington’s plantation
manager, Lund Washington,
to protect the plantation, to prevent further damage being
done, actually went on board a
British vessel in a nearby harbor and served the British
refreshments. Right?
‘So, please don’t attack Mount
Vernon, and maybe you’ll even give us back our slaves,
and I’m bringing food. Have some cookies.’
I don’t know what they brought,
but they brought refreshments. This did not please George
Washington at all. As he wrote to Lund Washington,
“to go on board their Vessels;
carry them refreshments; commune with a parcel of
plundering Scoundrels, and request a favour by asking
the surrender of my Negroes, was exceedingly ill judged.
It would have been a less
painful circumstance to me to have heard that,
in consequence of your noncompliance with their
request, they had burnt my house and the
plantation in ruins.” Not really good judgment on the
part of Lund Washington. Can you imagine?
He’s sort of on there–on the
boat, sort of hanging out with the British and he’s clearly a
relation of the guy leading the Continental Army.
It’s not good,
not good thinking on the part of Lund Washington.
But, so Cornwallis is in
Virginia. He forms a new base of
action–after he’s plundered Mount Vernon.
He forms a new base of action
at Yorktown, Virginia, near the coast,
planning to fan out into Pennsylvania and Virginia.
But just then,
August 30,1781, a French fleet under French
Admiral de Grasse arrived at the Virginia coast with troops and,
as we’re about to see, this ends up being a really
crucial turning point for what’s happening in Virginia and then
ultimately for the war as a whole.
Washington had troops on land
in Virginia, but in the end it was the
arrival of the French fleet in the harbor that really decided
the battle, because basically it surrounded
the British and they had no way to escape.
The troops surrounded them on
land. They probably would have tried
to escape to their ships in the harbor, but now the French fleet
was there, making that impossible.
If the French fleet had arrived
at the wrong time or in the wrong place, this plan would
have collapsed. And sort of miraculously,
they actually get to the right place at the right time for the
plan to really go into effect. So the arrival of the French
really looks bad for the British, and Cornwallis is low
on supplies. He’s also low on men at this
point, and now he’s trapped at
Yorktown, trapped between American forces and the French
fleet, which now put the British under
siege. So Cornwallis has roughly 7,000
men, and there actually were some Loyalists fighting there,
so they didn’t antagonize all the Loyalists in the South.
There were some fighting
alongside the British at Yorktown.
Cornwallis’s roughly 7,000 men
held off a siege of roughly 15,000 combined American and
French troops for three weeks, which is actually a pretty
amazing accomplishment, but ultimately Cornwallis was
forced to surrender on October 17,1781.
Cornwallis wrote a terse note
to Sir Henry Clinton, who was then in command of the
British forces in America. He wrote, quote:
“I have the mortification to inform Your Excellency that I
have been forced … to surrender the troops under
my command, by capitulation,
on the 19^(th) instant, as prisoners of war to the
combined forces of America and France,”
period. “Mortified”
is a good word. He could not believe what had
happened. Stunned by what happened in
this battle and just the incredible drama of the moment,
there are actually many, many, many eyewitness accounts
of what was unfolding at Yorktown,
because people understood on all sides that something major
was happening. People described,
during the formal surrender on October 19,
the slow passage of the British troops past the eyes of the
American troops who were lined up in two columns that stretched
for half a mile. The British band played a tune
titled “The World Turned Upside Down,”
which they surely felt it was. Witnesses said that the British
looked, quote, “unsoldierly,”
and I think what that means is, according to another witness,
“they were very much in liquor.”
[laughs]
So the British are mortified–not just
Cornwallis–but they’re mortified, and basically,
they were drunk. They couldn’t quite believe
that this was happening. Someone said that their ranks
were broken and “their step was irregular.”
Cornwallis was so mortified
that he claimed to be sick and refused to attend the surrender.
And he sent a deputy to
surrender his sword to Washington–
and Washington, who is so good at sort of
upholding the dignity of the cause,
refused to accept the sword from a deputy and had it
delivered to his deputy, so that terms were equal.
Washington’s always good at the
sort of symbolic gesture. And then, the British as they
were marching by the American troops, they had to lay down
their arms under the terms of the surrender.
And when the British were told
to lay down their arms one witness noted that,
quote, “their mortification could
not be concealed. I am a witness that they
performed this duty in a very unofficer-like manner;
and that many of the soldiers manifested a sullen temper,
throwing their arms on the pile with violence,
as if determined to render them useless.
We are not to be surprised that
the pride of the British officers is humbled on this
occasion, as they have always entertained
an exalted opinion of their own military prowess,
and affected to view the Americans as a contemptible,
undisciplined rabble.” Now here we come to some
documents I want to mention, just because I discovered them
years ago at the Library of Congress,
and I found them so interesting at the time.
It’s just something I would
never have thought of before– which is the glory of doing
research when you’re a historian–
is, you just never know what you’re going to find.
And I was actually–I was at
the Library of Congress. I was actually researching
dueling, right? So what I really wanted to know
was– supposedly, Americans learned
to duel by watching the French during the Revolution,
and they think this is such a great idea they take it
themselves. It sounds dubious to me,
but I was researching this to see if I could find any record
of this, and I found these letters
from–between actually British commanders and French commanders
during the surrender at Yorktown.
And what was fascinating about
them is, the British and the French are
writing to each other and what they’re both basically saying in
their letters is: the British are saying,
‘Okay. Would you please tell the
Americans to step out of the way because they don’t know how to
do a surrender; they don’t know what they’re
doing, and they’re in the way. Just please,
French commander, tell the Americans to step
aside because they’re pesky and they’re amateurs.’
And the French are basically
writing back to the British and saying, ‘Yeah.
We understand the Americans are
in the way. Aren’t they cute,
those little Americans? We’ll have them step off to the
side. You and I, we know how to
really have a real surrender. Don’t worry.
Your needs will be tended to.’
So basically,
I found these letters in which the French and the English were
treating each other as absolute equals and neither one was
treating the Americans as equals on the same plane.
And it really gives you a sense
of how the French and the English were these sort of
long-time Old World war veterans who–
even though they were enemies–really sort of
understood and appreciated each other,
and the Americans are such little sort of pipsqueak
newcomers; they’re not even on the radar
screen. So I thought that was
fascinating, to find the French and the English.
It’s not what I thought I would
find. I was like: oh,
cool, letters between the French and the British during
Yorktown. Hey, wait a minute.
[laughs]
The French are telling us to get out of the way.
So it was interesting.
It really gives you a sense of
sort of American status, relatively speaking.
Back in England,
one witness was with Lord North when he received word of the
loss at Yorktown and, as this witness wrote,
North took the news “as he would have taken a shot in the
breast. For he opened his arms,
exclaiming wildly, as he paced up and down.
“Oh, God!
it is all over!”–words
which he repeated many times under emotions of the deepest
consternation and distress.”
So at this point England,
which is already overtaxed, definitely sees no sign of
victory on the horizon, decides to commence peace
negotiations. Now clearly,
you can see how French aid had a major, major impact on what
happened at Yorktown and thus on the war in general.
The French gave supplies.
They gave men.
They gave naval support.
They gave moral support.
They distracted the British.
In lots of ways,
the French had a huge influence on the outcome of the war.
Now I noted earlier,
that French self-interest played some role in the decision
of the French to join on the side of the Americans,
but it is also worth noting that there were some Frenchmen
who came to the aid of America because they actually really did
get swept up into the American revolutionary cause and they saw
it as a justified fight for freedom.
And the Marquis de Lafayette is
maybe the most notable example of this.
He was really young at the time.
He was about nineteen years old.
He’s a marquis,
so he’s clearly very wealthy and obviously he was really
moved by what was going on in America so he actually took a
large ship, loaded it with men and
supplies, and sailed to America just to volunteer his ship,
his men, his supplies and himself.
‘Here I am joining the American
cause.’ And he ended up being this
really beloved figure in America.
Washington really almost
treated him like a son, when you read letters that
Washington writes, and Washington’s not exactly a
cozy kind of individual, but clearly he had a lot of
affection for Lafayette. But Americans in general really
admired and appreciated Lafayette because he was sort of
this starry-eyed youth who sacrificed for the American
cause for no reason. He just appeared because he was
swept into the cause. And between 1824 and 1825,
right on the cusp of the fiftieth anniversary of the
Declaration of Independence, Lafayette actually came back to
America for the sort of triumphal tour,
to sort of visit old friends. I think he met with Jefferson
and Adams and I think Andrew Jackson.
By 1824, there’s a weird
conglomeration of people that he’s meeting with.
But he went on a grand tour of
all of America. He went to all of the
twenty-four states–and I think he was in his seventies at the
time, so he’s pretty vigorous. And he was celebrated.
He was paraded all over the
place; he had receptions where he sort
of hung out, ready to talk to Americans.
Americans of all kinds would
line up on the street just to see him, to watch parades go by,
to look at him enter their city.
So he was beloved at the time
and then he was sort of– in a way maybe he sort of
symbolized French assistance, the French alliance,
afterwards, because Americans gave a lot of love to the
Marquis de Lafayette. And it’s important to note–I’m
mentioning Lafayette because he’s maybe the best known
figure, but he’s not the only Frenchman
who volunteered to come and fight for the American cause,
and actually France is not the only country where people came
voluntarily to join the American cause.
So back to the French:
The aid of the French: clearly major,
major factor in the American victory.
And with the American victory
at Yorktown in 1781, the British decide to commence
peace negotiations. It is important to note that
even though the British have now informally decided that they’re
going to start negotiating for peace,
it doesn’t mean that there was an instant ceasefire in the war.
There was kind of a fuzzy
period here in which there was still a sizable British armed
force in America. The British hadn’t officially
declared surrender. Authorities in London told
British forces that they should avoid battle unless attacked and
they should begin to evacuate troops,
but Yorktown was not really the instant end of the Revolution,
and there are still skirmishes and battles afterwards for some
time. People don’t have any way of
really knowing the war is over. There’s still a British army
there. It’s not until June of 1782
that negotiations began in Paris.
Americans sent a commission of
four men: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin,
John Jay, and Henry Laurens. It’s interesting to note that
even now– okay, Yorktown,
surrender, war over, we’re going to have a peace
negotiation– even now, the British still
hope that maybe there’d be some way to come to terms with the
Americans that would still somehow leave America within the
British empire. They’re really persistent.
And it wasn’t until John Jay
arrived in Paris–and he is a no-nonsense, sort of
straightforward person. Jay actually said, ‘Look.
We’re not going to proceed with
peace negotiations unless independence is assumed,
guys’–like: okay, end.
[laughs] This is not negotiable.
We’re independent.
War over.
It wasn’t until he really
insisted, that negotiations began and independence was
really finally accepted as inevitable by the British.
So Britain recognized American
independence. They agreed to evacuate all
royal troops from American soil. John Adams, thinking of New
England, got American fishing rights off of the Grand Banks of
Canada; Canada appears again.
I like the fact that John Adams
is there, working for fishing rights.
Okay. Yeah, independence.
Fishing rights!
[laughter]
Thank you, John Adams. The Americans promised that
they would urge state legislatures to compensate
Loyalists for property loss during the war,
and agreed that British creditors would be able to
collect prewar debts. Even though those two very nice
things were agreed to by the Americans,
in fact neither one happened in a very reliable manner and
created all sorts of problems because there were a lot of
states that were just not really excited about compensating
Loyalists or about repaying the British.
No mention was made of Native
Americans, many of whom had supported the
British for really logical reasons,
given their fears about the spreading domination of an
independent American republic with settlers swallowing up
land, and ultimately many Indian
nations simply didn’t recognize American claims of sovereignty
over their territory. For the Americans overall,
independence had been won, but at a high price.
And actually,
only the Civil War produced a higher ratio of casualties to
the nation’s population. And still undecided at the
close of the war were two obvious big, major questions.
What kind of society was
America going to become, and what kind of government
would the new nation and its states possess?
These are two questions which
we’re going to be talking about in lectures to come.
On Thursday I’m going to talk
about American society and then we sort of segue into a
discussion of people wondering exactly what’s supposed to be
happening, what kind of a national
something is supposed to be governing over these states,
and that’s going to lead us up to why a constitutional
convention actually made sense, because it didn’t make sense to
everybody and it took a while for it to make sense to anybody.
So that’s to come.
I will conclude there and I
will see you on Thursday.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *