HIST 116: The American Revolution
|Transcript||Audio||Low Bandwidth Video||High Bandwidth Video|
The American Revolution
HIST 116 - Lecture 18 - Fighting the Revolution: The Big Picture
Chapter 1. Introduction: The Revolution Was Not Inevitable [00:00:00]
Professor Joanne Freeman: 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.
Chapter 2. Summary of the First Three Phases of the War [00:04:46]
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.
Chapter 3. Franklin in Paris and France’s Recognition of America [00:12:14]
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:
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.
Chapter 4. The British Conciliatory Propositions and Their Rejection [00:21:21]
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.
Chapter 5. The Final Phase: Valley Forge and the American South [00:25:11]
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 19th 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 [correction: ball] 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.
Chapter 6. The French Impact on the War and Peace Negotiations in Paris [00:39:04]
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.
Chapter 7. Victory, Independence, and Uncertainty [00:45:09]
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.
[end of transcript]Back to Top
|mp3||mov [100MB]||mov [500MB]|