Modern history


NEWS of the great event was carried northward by Tench Tilghman, Washington’s aide, who galloped from Yorktown to Philadelphia, spreading word of the surrender through village and farm like Paul Revere in reverse. The ride took four days, bringing him into Philadelphia at 2:30 in the morning of October 24. Pounding through the silent streets with clatter of hoofbeats that sounded to frightened residents like the noise of an invasion, he rode up to the house of Thomas McKean, President of the Congress, and banged loudly on the door. Seized by the night watch, he was saved from arrest by McKean, who, aroused from bed by the turmoil below, came down to vouch for his visitor. In the darkness Tilghman told his marvelous news to a gratifying response. McKean ordered bells to peal from the belfry of Independence Hall. The night watchman, a German-speaking veteran, carrying his lantern, started at once on his rounds, crying, “Basht dree o’glock und Gornvallis ist gedaken!” Windows flew open, excited residents thrust forth their heads to hear the words, then rushed into the streets to share the news and embrace each other; artillery salutes boomed; fireworks blazed, the city was illuminated; thanksgiving services were held in the churches; newspapers published extras; prominent citizens made speeches and gave balls; in distant Newburgh, New York, the populace enthusiastically burned Benedict Arnold in effigy.

The bells that pealed from Independence Hall spoke for more than military victory. They rang for the promise of a new world, for redemption from tyranny and oppression, for the hopes and dreams of America held not only by Americans who fought for the Revolution, but also by the French who had volunteered to share in the fight, by Dutch dissenters, by the Opposition Whigs in England, by spirits everywhere nurtured in the Age of Enlightenment and imbued by its optimism for the perfectibility of man. The triumph of the Revolution signaled the start of progress toward the guarantee of liberty offered by the American Declaration of Independence. It was for this, the “meliorating influence on all mankind,” as Washington said in his Last Circular to the States of 1783, that bonfires burned and citizens embraced—for the great hope that was America. It was for this that Lafayette carried home with him a quantity of American soil sufficient for a grave, and was buried in it when he died in 1834.

After disposal of the prisoners of Yorktown in guarded camps and garrisons, Washington wanted to carry the crest of victory forward to a combined attack on Wilmington and Charleston, but the departure of the French fleet made that impossible. Under orders to return to the West Indies by early November, de Grasse sailed for the Caribbean on November 4 with a mission to attack and take whatever British islands whose defense might be weakened after the hurricanes. On the general assumption that Jamaica, Britain’s richest island, was his objective, the Admiralty called on Rodney, who, though barely out of surgery, could be counted on to make a determined fight for the defense of the island. Other candidates for naval command inspired no great confidence. One, Admiral Kempenfelt, who had been sent to intercept the French fleet, had avoided a fight on the ground that he had twelve ships of the line to the enemy’s nineteen. The French grasp fell first on St. Eustatius, which Rodney thought he had left impregnable, but it was not proof against trickery. When the French landed an English-speaking regiment of de Bouillé’s troops wearing British red coats “exactly like the English with red jackets and yellow lapels,” who were composed partly of native Englishmen and partly of Irishmen in French pay as soldiers of fortune, the defense was thrown into hopeless confusion. The golden rock was retaken in November, 1781, administering another wound to British pride so soon after the fall of Yorktown. In 1784 the French restored Dutch sovereignty, whose flag has flown over the rock of remembered renown until the present. Johannes de Graaff returned to the scene of his former governorship as a private citizen in 1779. St. Eustatius had not been razed to a “desert,” as Rodney had wrathfully threatened, but was busily engaged in its normal occupation, the accumulation of wealth. De GraafFs property and influence enabled him to pursue the accumulation successfully. He lived on for thirty-five years and died a very rich man in 1813.

After the loss of St. Eustatius, two minor properties of the Leewards followed into the French bag while de Grasse, in partnership with the troops of the aggressive Marquis de Bouillé, moved on to capture St. Kitts and threaten Ste. Lucie, causing what was worse than hurt pride, a reduction of the sugar revenue on which England’s budget depended. With these blows, the wrath of the country fell on Sandwich for allowing Kempenfelt to sail like Byng with an inadequate force while “six of the line were lying in English ports.” According to the Opposition leader, Lord Rockingham, “It is no secret that we have now ten ships of the line with scarce a man to put on them.” A vote of censure upon Sandwich as responsible for this feeble maritime condition was defeated by the government with its majority of over twenty-one still intact, before the still feebler performance of Admiral Graves and the loss of America were yet known. Sandwich remained in office.

“May your Lordship never endure the pain and torture I have undergone,” Rodney wrote to him. But, ill as he was, in recovery from his surgery, the navy while under attack could now not wait for his services to save Jamaica. In his new position as Vice-Admiral of Great Britain, an honorary rank outside the regular hierarchy, and with the massive Formidable as his flagship, he was, though exhausted by his ordeal, in hearty spirit and ready to serve. At age sixty-four he accepted active sea duty and in January, 1782, set out for Plymouth to take over the fleet that he would shortly bring to an unprecedented feat in the Battle of the Saints, the most significant sea combat prior to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Ending forever the tyranny of line ahead, he was to break the enemy’s line in a historic and celebrated victory over the French. As visible token, the giant Ville de Paris, the largest ship afloat, would be taken by the British and de Grasse made a prisoner.

The feat was accomplished in April, 1782, when Rodney, reinforced by twelve ships of the line plus Hood’s squadron from America, sighted de Grasse’s fleet sailing northward, headed for Jamaica out of Fort Royal in Martinique, where de Grasse had taken up position on returning from America. With added ships, de Grasse had 33 of the line, and the joint British together had 36. Three days passed while the fleets maneuvered for the wind in the passage between Dominica and Guadeloupe called The Saints for the number of islets by that name located there. In passing, the fleets engaged and parted in sporadic gunfire coming within pistol shot at point-blank range, and in one case collision. Casualties were suffered, masts toppled and men killed on both sides. When the wind momentarily dropped as the French were trying to form a line, a gap appeared in their formation. Sir Charles Douglas, Fleet Captain on board the Formidable, perceived that windward gusts would let the Formidable sail through the gap. Hurrying to find Rodney, he cried, “Only break the line, Sir George! The day is yours and I will ensure you victory.” With no previously arranged plan and uncertain whether his captains would follow him, leaving him to be isolated in battle as once before, Rodney refused to order the helm to come about. It would mean defying the rules of Fighting Instructions and might bring him to court-martial or even, like Byng, to a firing squad. Douglas would not bear the responsibility; it must be the Admiral’s alone. On Douglas’ repeated urging, Rodney changed his mind. The great chance in which he had been frustrated once before was now offered again. The dare boiled in his blood. “Well, well, do as you like,” he replied almost casually. He did not make the mistake of leaving his “line ahead” signal aloft but hauled it down, substituting the signal for “close action.” As the bows of the Formidable slowly swung to starboard, midshipmen scurried to warn gunners to be ready to fire from the outer side. While Rodney watched in suspense to the stern, he saw the next five ships in his line follow him cleanly through the gap in the French line. The Formidable’s main topsail was in rags, an accompanying battleship, the Prince George, had lost its foremast, another was taking on water by three feet an hour, two others had spent their gunpowder, but French decks, equally mauled and crowded with troops, were piled with dead. In red turmoil in the water sharks lunged around the ship, viciously snatching at the bodies of dead sailors thrown overboard. With torn rigging and fallen masts, many of the French ships were motionless in the water, allowing other gaps to appear. English captains caught in the excitement of their Admiral’s purpose, seized their chance. They luffed and, with sails flapping, made their way through gaps in three places. Now broken, the French line was rounded and brought under fire from both sides. Catching wisps of wind through the gathering dusk, the French pointed their heads southward to flee, hotly engaged by the English in pursuit. One by one the French struck their colors, abandoning the mighty Ville de Paris, on which de Grasse, throwing towlines to the disabled, was striving to rally his fleet. His giant figure was seen on deck standing alone. Too closely pursued by the English to take time for repairs, the French ships were overtaken. The Ville de Paris, deserted by her consorts, was raked by the British Russell, then hit broadside by a tremendous cannon blast from Hood’s ship, the Barfleur, while the surrounding British concentrated their fire on the huge flagship. Her decks were ablaze; she had lost rigging, sail and rudder. After nine and a half hours of battle since the moment when Rodney had steered his prow to penetrate the line, de Grasse’s flag fluttered down. Simultaneously, the flag of France came down from the ensign staff. English officers rowed over to accept the surrender.

On the Formidable, an armchair was brought to the quarterdeck, where Rodney sat in the moonlight contemplating his colossal prize and expressing from time to time murmurs of self-appreciation of his success in breaking the line. When day broke, de Grasse himself was accompanied aboard the Formidable to surrender in person and “is at this moment sitting in my stern galley,” Rodney wrote in his reports of victory to Admiralty and family. “His Majesty’s arms have proved victorious over the enemy’s,” he wrote to his son. “Jamaica will be saved by it. The French fleet have met with total defeat and I believe will not give us battle again in this war and are now so much shattered that it will be impossible for them to repair their losses.”

So much was the fact, though it came too late to save the loss of America six months before. That had been, as Hood wrote in a letter reporting the news to a correspondent, “the most melancholy news Great Britain ever received.” The shock of the event had caused political turmoil and would bring the fall of the government in England. London had learned the news of Yorktown from France on November 25, five weeks after the surrender. Rochambeau had dispatched two messengers—the Duc de Lauzun and Comte de Deux-Ponts, who had led the hard and bloodied French capture of Redoubt Nine—in two separate frigates to carry the announcement to the French King. It was received on the same day as another omen of joy, the birth of a dauphin to Marie Antoinette, assuring, as it seemed, the royal succession. But the baby boy was never to see his throne, and the King and Queen within ten years were to lose both their throne and their heads. For all the nearly 1.5 billion livres that Louis XVI had spent to support the American rebellion against the British Crown, success of the Revolution was not auspicious for his own crown, as, with better understanding of political consequences, he might have anticipated.

Agents quickly conveyed news of the Cornwallis catastrophe across the Channel, bringing it first to Lord George Germain, who in turn took it to Lord North in Downing Street. The First Minister flung open his arms “as [if] he would have taken a ball in the breast,” crying in what may be the most quoted words of the war, “Oh, God, it is all over!” and repeating the words “wildly” as he strode up and down the room. Not he but Germain brought the news to King George, who, unshaken in his singleness of purpose, ordered Germain to make plans for the most feasible mode of continuing the war. Apart from diehards in the Cabinet surrounding Germain and Sandwich, few in Parliament and the country offered support. Most acknowledged that the war had been ineffectual, and that to continue it by defensive measures as proposed by Germain, with no hope of winning, but merely to hold out against independence and drive a stiff bargain with the Americans, would be no more effective. It would only mean unacceptable cost to raise new levies to replace the army lost by Cornwallis as well as to pay for the past costs of the war. General opinion concluded, in an excess of gloom equal to the previous apathy in the field, that to recognize the independence of America meant, in Germain’s awful vision, the “ruin” of empire. Equally extreme, the King insisted that to recognize the independence of America would bring Britain to “inevitable destruction” and that he would abdicate rather than be a party to it. The real reason for his frantic resistance was his agony at the prospect of having to call in the detested Opposition men if North’s government, as sponsor of the war, had to go. He could only return to his petulant thunder: “I would rather lose my crown than call in a set of men who would make me a slave.” The inevitable, however, was approaching. North told Germain at this time that to recover America was impossible and he could not continue to finance a war for no purpose except to provide a platform for a stiff stand on peace terms. Since the Americans were adamant for independence, there seemed no way to bring them to peace short of anything less than that demand except by maintaining the pressure of a state of war.

Walpole curiously records in a letter to Horace Mann that “Cornwallis’s disgrace does not make a vast impression, none in Parliament, but a drop will overset a vessel that is full to the brim. Our affairs are certainly dismal and will get worse.” The war was nearing its end, he wrote to his friend, although its consequences were far from conclusion. “In some respects,” he foresaw with a sense of history that went beyond gossip, “they are commencing a new date which will reach far beyond us.” Parliament was already full to the brim. Following Yorktown, and the loss of St. Eustatius and expectation of further French offensives in the West Indies, with potential further loss of sugar islands and their revenue, a sense of military depression took hold. The will to win, never an overwhelming emotion in the nation, subsided to minor key. The City of London, sensitive to the prospect of prolonged and costly expenditure, petitioned the King to end the war. Country meetings echoed the sentiment. Motions in Parliament urging an end were resisted by the government with smaller and smaller majorities. On December 12, a motion by a private member, Sir James Lowther, that “all further attempts to reduce the revolted colonies are contrary to the true interests of this kingdom,” was voted down by only forty-one, less than half the former majority. In February, Henry Seymour Conway, a former Secretary of State, moved that the war in America “be no longer pursued for the impracticable purpose of reducing the inhabitants by force,” and this was put down by a majority of only one. A week later, a second motion by Conway to the same effect was carried. Implacably, a third time, on March 4, Conway moved to inform the King that “this House will consider as enemies to his Majesty and this country, all those who shall [advise] the farther prosecution of offensive war on the continent of North America.” This rather startling proposition was carried without a vote. It put an end to the matter. To refuse Parliament’s advice was unconstitutional. No lawless monarch, George III knew only that he must stay within the rules. To carry on as before would mean overt conflict with Parliament; he must either comply or step down. He actually drafted a statement of abdication which said that as the Legislature has “totally incapacitated him from either conducting the war with any effect or from obtaining any peace that would not be destructive to the commerce and essential rights of the British nation His Majesty therefore with much sorrow finds he can be of no further Utility to his Native Country which drives him to the painful step of quitting it forever.” In consequence, “His Majesty resigns the Crown of Great Britain and the Dominions appertaining thereto.”

Rather than come to that point, he chose the lesser misery and agreed to drop North and treat for peace. On March 20, 1782, in “one of the fullest and most tense Houses that had ever been seen,” with the streets outside equally crowded, the First Minister, who for twelve years had placidly presided over the most turbulent times since the Gunpowder Plot, was relieved at last. Given his long-desired and perhaps now ambivalent wish, Lord North resigned. A government of the Opposition took over, with Rockingham, Shelburne, Fox and the young Pitt. On April 25, the Cabinet agreed to negotiate peace terms with no allowance for a veto of independence.

In the interim, the Battle of the Saints had lifted British spirits even at the cost of disturbing Sir Horace Walpole’s sleep. He complained, expressing the Whig view of Rodney, that his windows had been broken by a noisy demonstration “for that vain fool Rodney when he came out of his way to extend his triumph.” The damage in the Battle of the Saints to French naval prestige ensured that the French would not return to America to lend further aid to Washington, which, together with restored British self-confidence won by Rodney, stiffened the British spine in the peace parleys. At the same time, the Americans were stiffened by formal Dutch recognition when the Dutch provinces cautiously, one at a time, voted to accept Adams’ credentials as minister-envoy of the United States and the States General of the United Provinces confirmed the vote in 1782, becoming the first nation after France to register formal recognition of the United States. A British negotiator proposed by Shelburne—a liberal Scots merchant named Richard Oswald, not a figure of political eminence—had been chosen and accredited to the Congress. Issues to be settled were as many and as hard to handle as a barrel of fish. Boundaries of Canada and the regions of the Northwest and of the Spanish territories in Florida and the South, and the perennial problem of treatment of the Loyalists, relations with the Indians, rights of trade and all the debris of military damage to lands and property required infinite discussion. After a preliminary treaty was reached on November 30, 1782, unfinished business was moved to Paris, where Franklin and John Jay negotiated for America. Differences and disputes between them, repeated by their respective partisans in Congress, prolonged the talks, which suffered further from interference of Vergennes in his effort to control the terms to French advantage. Difficulties stretched out the discussions for another ten months. The definitive peace treaty ending hostilities and acknowledging the independence of the United States was not signed until September 3, 1783.

Even then a new nation was not born from the labor pains. To create a national entity with agreed laws under a single sovereignty on a sound financial footing out of thirteen distinct colonies with interests and habits almost as separate as those of the Dutch was a path as rocky as the Revolution itself. Stumbling over the obstacles and amid the conflicts, the infant nation, at times nearly pulled apart by the strains, survived to become a federation that was to take its place among rulers of the world. While shortcomings and imperfections developed in the body as it grew, the body itself was so large and so rich in resources, and above all in the extra energies of newcomers who had had the grit to leave home for an untried land, that its future dominance as a great power was assured.

Long before the Treaty, in 1777, while hostilities were still alive and Britain was blockading ports of entry along the American coast, the Andrew Doria, bearer of the first greeting, was burned by her crew in the Delaware to prevent British seizure. Her former companions of the first squadron of the navy and of the first combat, the Columbus and the Providence, met the same fate, burned or blown up by their crews to prevent seizure by the enemy. The Cabot, and the Alfred, on which the flag of the Continental Congress was first raised in Philadelphia, were captured by the British. The Providence, last survivor of the originals, was destroyed in 1779 in the Penobscot in Maine. When commissioned in 1775, the squadron had been called “the maddest idea in the world.” Now scattered in ruined timbers along the banks of the Delaware and on the shores of Narragansett and Chesapeake bays, the charred relics expressed the note of sadness that lies beneath human affairs.

A private sadness that haunted Washington to the end was in having no child of his own to be his continuance. He had not grasped the fact that an autonomous America was his child. Yet he was as proud and confident of its future as any father could be of a promising son. In an enraptured, if now heartbreaking, vision of America, he said in his Last Circular to the States, issued in June, 1783, that America “seemed to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity. Heaven has crowned its other blessings by giving the fairest opportunity for political happiness than any other nation has ever been favored with and the result must be a nation which would have a meliorating influence on all mankind.”

Following his lead, historians of the 19th century, believers in progress, drew their nation’s history as a steady advance of liberty, starting from the winning of the Revolution, which was considered the outstanding success in history of a popular military action, while the state it created was seen as having a mission assigned by God to build a model political nation of justice and equality and self-government. At the end of the 20th century we see in that proud design a more somber story, of injustice toward native Americans evicted from their lands, of inequality for those born of different colors and faiths, of government not by the best but by a collection of shoddy and peccant men, inept and corrupt yet always laced with workers and dreamers of a change for the better.

The two centuries of American history since the salute to the flag of the Andrew Doria can be celebrated for many things: for the opening of refuge for the wretched of other lands yearning to breathe free, for laws to establish the rules of decent working conditions, for measures to protect the poor and support the indigent, but the state of “human felicity” that Washington believed “must result from the sovereignty of America” has not been the outcome. Two thousand years of human aggression, greed and the madness of power reveal a record that blots the rejoicing of that happy night in Philadelphia, and reminds us how slow is the pace of “melioration” and how mediocre is the best we have made of what Washington and Greene and Morgan and their half-clad soldiers “without the shadow of a blanket” fought through bitter winters to achieve.

If Crévecoeur came again to ask his famous question “What is this new man, this American?” what would he find? The free and equal new man in a new world that he envisaged would be realized only in spots, although conditions for the new man would come nearer to being realized in America than they would ever come in the other overturns of society. The new man would not be endowed with liberty, equality and fraternity in France; he would not be freed from oppression when the Russians overturned the Czars. A new man formed “to serve the people” instead of himself would not be created by the Communist Revolution in China in 1949. Revolutions produce other men, not new men. Halfway “between truth and endless error” the mold of the species is permanent. That is earth’s burden.

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