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The United States of America: A History
Book 2: Chapter XIII - The Close of the War


1781 A.D.

DURING the later years of the war the English kept possession of the Southern States, which, as we have seen, they had gained so easily. When the last campaign opened, Lord Cornwallis with a strong force represented British authority in the South, and did 'll that he found possible for the suppression of the patriots. But the time was past when any real progress in that direction could be made. A certain vigorous and judicious General Greene, with such rough semblance of an army as he could draw together, gave Lord Cornwallis many rude shocks. The English gained little victories occasionally, but they suffered heavy losses, and the territory over which they held dominion was upon the whole becoming smaller.

About midsummer, the joyous news reached Washington that a powerful French fleet, with an army on board, was about to sail for America. With this reinforcement, Washington had it in his power to deliver a blow which would break the strength of the enemy, and hasten the close of the war. Clinton held New York, and Cornwallis was fortifying himself in Yorktown. The French fleet sailed for the Chesapeake, and Washington decided in consequence that his attack should be made on Lord Cornwallis. With all possible secrecy and speed the American troops were moved southwards to Virginia. They were joined by the French, and they stood before Yorktown a force 12,000 strong. Cornwallis had not expected them, and he called on Clinton to aid him. But it was too late. He was already in a grasp from which there was no escaping.

Throughout the war, the weakness of his force often obliged Washington to adopt a cautious and defensive policy, which grievously disappointed the expectations of his impatient countrymen. It is not therefore to be imagined that his leadership was wanting in vigour. 'Within his calm and well-balanced mind there lurked a fiery energy, ready to burst forth when occasion required. The siege of Yorktown was pushed on with extraordinary vehemence. The English, as their wont is, made a stout defence, and strove by desperate sallies to drive the assailants from their works. But in a few days the defences of Yorktown lay in utter ruin, beaten to the ground by the powerful artillery of the Americans. The English guns were silenced. The English shipping was fired by red-hot shot from the French batteries. Ammunition began to grow scarce. The place could not be held much longer, and Clinton still delayed his coming. Lord Cornwallis must either force his way out and escape to the North, or surrender. One night he began to embark his men in order to cross the York river and set out on his desperate march to New York. A violent storm arose and scattered his boats. The men who had embarked got hack with difficulty, under fire from the American batteries. All hope was now at an end. In about a fortnight from the opening of the siege, the British army, 8000 strong, laid down its arms.

The joy of America over this great crowning success knew no bounds. One highly emotional patriot was said to have expired from mere excess of rapture. Some others lost their reason. In the army, all who were under arrest were at once set at liberty. A day of solemn thanksgiving was proclaimed and devoutly observed throughout the rejoicing States.

Well might the colonists rejoice, for their long and bitter struggle was now about to close. Stubborn King George would not yield yet. But England and her Parliament were sick of this hopeless and inglorious war. The House of Commons voted that all who should advise the continuance of the war were enemies to the country. A new Ministry was formed, and negotiations with a view to peace were begun. The King had no doubt that if America were allowed to go, the West Indies would go—Ireland would go—all his foreign possessions would go; and discrowned England would sink into weakness and contempt. But too much heed had already been given to the King and his fancies. Peace was concluded with France and Spain, and the independence of America was at length recognized.

Eight years had passed since the first blood was shed at Lexington. Thus long the unyielding English, unused to failure, had striven to regain the lost ascendency. Thus long the colonists had borne the miseries of invasion, not shaken in their faith that the independence which they had undertaken to win was well worth all it cost them. And now they were free, and England was the same to them as all the rest of the world, —"in peace, a friend; in war, a foe." They had little left them but their liberty and their soil. They had been unutterably devastated by those eight bloody years. Their fields had been wasted; their towns had been burned. Commerce was extinct. Money had almost disappeared from the country. Their public debt reached the large sum of one hundred and seventy millions of dollars. The soldiers who had fought out the national independence were not paid till they showed some disposition to compel a settlement. There was nothing which could be called a Government. There were thirteen sovereign States, loosely knit together by a Congress. That body had power to discuss questions affecting the general good ; to pass resolutions; to request the several States to give effect to these resolutions. The States might or might not comply with such request. Habitually they did not, especially when money was asked for. Congress had no power to tax. It merely apportioned among the States the amounts required for the public service, and each State was expected to levy a tax for its proportion. But in point of fact it became utterly impossible to get money by this process.

1786 A.D.

Great hardships were endured by the labouring population. The impatience of a suffering people expressed itself in occasional sputterings of insurrection. Two thousand A. men of Massachusetts rose in arms to demand that the collection of debts should be suspended. It was some weeks before that rising could be quelled, as the community, generally sympathized with the insurgents. During four or five years the miseries of the ungoverned country seemed to warrant the belief that her war of independence had been a mistake.

But a future of unparalleled magnificence lay before this sorely vexed and discouraged people. The boundless corn-lands of the west, the boundless cotton-fields of the south, waited to yield their wealth. Pennsylvania held unimagined treasures of coal and iron—soon to be evoked by the irresistible spell of patient industry. America was a vast storehouse, prepared by the Great Father against the time when his children would have need of it. The men who are the stewards over its opulence have now freed themselves from some entanglements and hindrances which grievously diminished their efficiency, and stand prepared to enter in good earnest upon that high industrial vocation to which Providence has called them.

There had been periods during the war when confidence in Washington's leadership was shaken. lie sustained many reverses. He oftentimes retreated. He adhered tenaciously to a defensive policy, when Congress and people were burning with impatience to inflict crushing defeat -upon the foe. The deplorable insufficiency of his resources was overlooked, and the blame of every disaster fell on him. And when at length the cause began to prosper, and hope brightened into triumph, timid people were apt to fear that Washington was growing too powerful. lie had become the idol of a great army, lie had but to signify his readiness to accept a throne, and his soldiers would have crowned him King. It was usual in the revolutions of the world that a military chief should grasp at supreme power; and so it was feared that Washington was to furnish one example more of that lawless and vulgar lust of power by which human history has been so largely dishonoured.

But Washington sheathed his sword, and returned gladly to his home on the banks of the Potomac. He proposed to spend his days "in cultivating the affections of good men, and in the practice of the domestic virtues." He hoped "to glide gently down the stream which no human effort can ascend." lie occupied himself with the care of his farm, and had no deeper feeling than thankfulness that he was at length eased of a load of public care. The simple grandeur of his character was now revealed beyond possibility of misconception. The measure of American veneration for this greatest of all Americans was full. Henceforth Mount Vernon was a shrine to which pilgrim feet were ever turned—evoking such boundless love and reverence as never were elsewhere exhibited on American soil.


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