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Mike Duncan (00:00):
As I said at the end of last week’s episode, the Siege of Yorktown did not have to end the American War of Independence. The British still had forces in Canada and New York, in Charleston and Savannah, a navy sailing off the coast of North America and down in the West Indies. Plus, they had an empire’s worth of resources to draw from. Meanwhile, the Americans were still the loose confederation of now economically deprived colonials who fielded an army that seemed perpetually on the brink of dissolution and whose allies in Europe helped them only so long as it suited them and didn’t cost too much money.
So the war couldn’t possibly end with the Americans destroying Britain’s ability to make war. It had to take the form of destroying Britain’s desire to make war, and that’s exactly what Yorktown did. It was the final spoonful of vinegar in a cocktail that had already started to taste pretty rotten. Facing the prospect of having to start over from scratch, British political opinion turned decisively in favor of peace. Lord North was finally able to resign in March 1782, and in his parting remarks he said bluntly that anybody who tried to carry on the war was an enemy of Britain.
So how did the British manage to screw this up so badly? The list is endless and varied, so we’ll confine ourselves to the big picture. From the very beginning, the British ministry misdiagnosed the problem, and then tenaciously clung to their initial misdiagnosis, and by that I mean that they were convinced that this was all the work of a tight clique of super radicals who couldn’t possibly represent a broad popular coalition that included men and women from every geographic region and socioeconomic rank. That’s not to say the Americans were all against them, not by a long shot, but you don’t get so many people willing to sacrifice so much and then keep sacrificing for six years if this is all about a bunch of hyper-extremists ruining things for everyone else. The British ministry just kept thinking the majority of Americans were loyal, and it really wasn’t true.
With this misdiagnosis in place, the British then pursued a totally incoherent set of policies. They never could decide whether they were waging a war of military destruction or political reconciliation. So you have things like the bombing of Norfolk and Burgoyne’s threat to unleash the Iroquois, and the raids in Virginia all designed to force the Americans to their knees using total war tactics, while at the same time you have Howe’s amiable leniency and Clinton’s promise for amnesty to rebels who laid down their arms designed to coax the Americans back into the British fold.
Adding to this incoherence was the fact that neither Stick nor Carrot was pursued with enough vigor to be effective. The Stick only hardened Patriot Resolve, the Carrot only made them laugh.
This incoherence speaks to the rather harsh conclusion that in terms of military and political leadership, this was simply not Britain’s greatest generation. The politicians were divided, they undercut each other, and just seemed to lurch from strategy to strategy without ever stepping back and getting a handle on the big picture. And the senior military officers were not much better. Thomas Gage might have been the only one to see what the British would face if war broke out, and he was sacked for accurately predicting what it would take to win the war. William Howe was so confident in British superiority and so sympathetic to the American cause that he repeatedly let opportunities to crush the Continental Army pass.
And Johnny Burgoyne was so confident in his superiority that he blundered into total defeat. Henry Clinton was moody and paranoid and soured on the job almost immediately. Lord Cornwallis was a great military tactician, but clearly lacked the kind of political acumen this particular war required. And all the while, they too fought petty little battles amongst themselves, though I’m less inclined to add that to the causes of their defeat, since the American generals were running around in their own camps with knives just as long.
And this is all to say nothing of the complete misuse of the Navy. For most of the war, this all-important advantage was used to ferry troops around, and not much else. When they finally were cut loose a bit after Saratoga, there was zero cooperation between the Army and the Navy. I mean, all told, this was just a badly run war. But all that said, we should also take a look at the fact that as much as the deck seemed to be stacked in Britain’s favor at the outset, the Americans did hold a few trump cards that actually made their victory less implausible than contemporary observers might have allowed.
For one, the American patriots were fighting for something, namely independence. It was a simple goal, it was a fixed goal, and it was an internalized goal that is one that even the lowliest private knew he was fighting for. This helped sustain the war effort through trials that really ought to have broken American resolve.
And that touches on another trump card, which is home field advantage. American soldiers were on their own land, fighting for their homes and their families. Defeat meant who knows what deprivations. But for the British regular, the German Hessian, defeat meant oh well, I guess we go home now. Fighting in your own backyard is not always a decisive advantage, but when you wander through the pages of history, you usually find preternatural resiliency in the armies of the invaded, not the armies of the invaders.
Finally, you have the fact that Britain had enemies just wading in the tall grass looking for an opportunity to whack them over their head when the time was right. Without help from Europe, no amount of patriotic resiliency would have been enough. But Britain did have enemies, and they were wading in the tall grass, and then they did whack the British over the head.
Then of course, there is George Washington. As we have seen, Washington was not some American Napoleon. His battle plans were too complicated. His strategic vision, at least militarily, was not super keen. And as much credit as the Americans get for their shoot-and-hide guerrilla tactics, Washington himself never ran with the idea the way a more creative general might have, and he focused obsessively on turning the Continental Army into a European-style army.
But all that said, he was basically the perfect man to run the war for the Americans. Because that same focus on turning his men into a professional army gave them the political credibility they needed when the French finally did decide to come out of the tall grass. And it was his own personal commitment to the Republican ideals represented by American independence that infused the army with the belief that they were fighting for something.
And then of course, there was his ability to simply hold the army together, whether through brilliantly executed retreats or obsessing about supplies and logistics. The overriding strategic goal for the Americans turned out to be simply keeping an army in the field. As long as they could do that, the war would not be lost. And there was probably no man in America better suited for that job than George Washington.
Okay, so now that the British have lost the war, or at the very least decided that they didn’t want to try to win it anymore, it’s time to move on to the peace process. A process that will take just about two years to complete, from the moment Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown to the final, final signing ceremony in September 1783.
To represent the Americans, the Congress selected five men. Benjamin Franklin, of course, still charming the pants off of French society. John Adams, who was currently in The Hague, trying to arrange more loans from the Dutch. John Jay of New York, currently in Madrid, trying to secure recognition, because though Spain had joined the anti-British coalition, they did not yet technically acknowledge that the United States was, you know, a thing.
Another guy named John Laurens, who had been held in a London prison after being captured at sea in 1780, and then Thomas Jefferson. But Jefferson would beg off, citing personal obligations probably surrounding the recent death of his wife, and Laurence wound up being a non-factor. So really the triumvirate was Franklin, Adams, and Jay, of whom Franklin was the most savvy and Adams the most obnoxiously principled.
The Peace Commission, though, was hamstrung immediately by Congress’s instructions that they consult with the French every step of the way and follow French advice. Even Franklin, a major Francophile, could see how crazy this order was. France and America were allies, but that did not mean their interests were perfectly aligned. What was good for France might not be good for America. So to demand that the Americans play essentially a subordinate role in their own negotiations seemed like folly.
And of course it was. But it appears to be folly that the French purchased fairly on the open market, as they funneled cash to congressional representatives who drew up the instructions on the understanding that those instructions would tend to strengthen the ties between France and America. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. Informal talks began in April 1782 between Franklin, French Foreign Minister Virgin, and the lead British negotiator Richard Oswald, an aging Scottish merchant with old commercial ties to America.
When the other American commissioners started arriving over the summer, the real talks got going. But they immediately hit a wall when Oswald claimed he did not have the authority to recognize the independence of the United States prior to negotiations. Franklin insisted on the point, however, and though it seems a subtle distinction, it was an important one, because Franklin wanted to be sure that independence was not a part of the concessions the British offered. American independence was already a fact, it was no longer Britain’s to concede.
By September, though, they all agreed to a formulation that allowed both sides to have their way, and Oswald agreed that he was treating with representatives of the United States, which went far enough to satisfy the Americans, while falling just short of the formal recognition he couldn’t yet provide.
Not surprisingly, the British negotiating strategy was to divide the Americans from the French. And at first, informal side talks between the French and the British seemed like they were about to lead the French to sell out key American demands, because the French seemed more than happy to blow off American issues like, say, Newfoundland fishing rights, until word reached Paris that Admiral de Grasse had just been trounced in the Caribbean, which left the French in a far weaker position to bargain alone. The reunited French and American front, though, soon gave way to side talks between the Americans and the British, during which Franklin seized on the opportunity to get most of what America wanted without French interference.
In November 1782, the British and Americans worked out the basics of a bilateral agreement. Vergennes was shocked, learned of the agreement just hours before it was signed, having been kept in the dark about the talks, a direct violation of Congress’s instructions. But Franklin placated Vergennes and the French by pointing out that the deal would only go into effect after the French signed their own treaty with the British. It was a deftly played maneuver, and almost certainly won more for the Americans than they would have gotten had they let Vergennes do all the talking.
The foundation of the Treaty of Paris, which wouldn’t be all dressed up in fancy cursive until September 1783, was thus in place. It was, first of all, between His Britannic Majesty and the United States, acknowledged to be sovereign and independent. It set the borders of the new United States at the 31st parallel in the south, that is, the Georgia-Florida border. In the north, it was that irregular, jagged line that mostly forms the border between the US and Canada today. In the west, critically, the line was set at the Mississippi River, not the old 1763 proclamation line.
Open fishing off the Canadian coast was granted, as was full access to the Mississippi River. In return for all this, the American commissioners agreed that all debts owed by Americans to British creditors would be honored in full, which was a fairly controversial concession. The British then further pressed for all confiscated loyalist property to be returned to their rightful owners. This would be really, really hard to sell back home, so Franklin promised to urge the Congress to urge the states to return the loyalist property.
Finally, all British troops would withdraw with all deliberate speed. And though the forces embedded on the Atlantic seaboard would soon be gone, the British dragged their feet about removing their frontier garrisons because, hey, I mean, we still plan to dominate you economically, and if you think we’re just going to give up the Great Lakes fur trade because Cornwallis got trapped in Yorktown, you’re crazy. It would remain a sticking point for years to come. While all of these negotiations were going on in Europe, American leaders began the process of trying to figure out how to transition from war to peace, and how to transition from colonial dependency to full-fledged independent nation.
These two issues would collide in the Newburgh conspiracy of March 1783, and then continue to linger even after that crisis passed, colliding again with Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, which we’ll talk about next week, and at which point a consensus had built up that the current system of national government was unsustainable and needed serious revision. The current system of national government they were talking about is now pretty much a punchline in American history. The Articles of Confederation.
Way back in 1776, just before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Second Continental Congress created a committee to draft a national constitution to go along with all those state constitutions that were being drafted. This committee wound up being chaired by our old friend John Dickinson. Remember him from way back when? Letters from a Pennsylvania farmer, opponent of independence? Well, as he opposed independence, his committee was simultaneously drafting a national constitution for the soon-to-be independent United States. When the draft emerged from committee, though, it met strong resistance, and a debate erupted that previewed the much larger debate over the Constitution fifteen years later.
Taken as a whole, Dickinson’s draft undeniably put the national government above the states, and worked out a formula whereby Congress would hold all powers except for those specifically reserved for the states. Now the delegates in the Second Continental Congress were frankly appalled by this arrangement. Most of them had just spent the last decade arguing relentlessly for the sovereignty of their local governments and against the tyranny of a powerful central government. And here they were supposed to swallow a potentially tyrannical central government.
So as the draft was debated, clauses were struck and clauses were added and struck and added until the formula was reversed. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, that were finally approved in November 1776, vested all sovereignty in the several states, granting to Congress only a few specifically enumerated powers. It was the exact opposite of what Dickinson intended.
Now one thing Dickinson’s draft and the final draft had in common, though, was that the national government would not have the right to tax. This was completely understandable given that the whole revolution is rooted in a tax revolt, but it would prove the undoing of the Articles of Confederation. The debate about the Articles previewed the debate over the Constitution in two important and related ways. First was the question of representation. The Second Continental Congress, being an assembly of the colonies, had adopted a one-colony, one-vote rule. So Little Rhode Island had a voice equal to enormous Virginia.
Representatives of the larger states tried to use the debate over the Articles of Confederation to get this shifted to representation based on population. But it quickly became clear that this would fatally torpedo Union, as the smaller states had no interest in becoming mere satellites of Virginia, and the Congress of the Confederation continued as an assembly of states rather than an assembly of the people at large. Each state would have one vote.
The other issue was how revenue obligations would be assessed. Now like I said, Congress did not have the right to tax, but everyone agreed that the several states would still need to contribute to a general national fund. Madison’s draft calculated each state’s obligation based off of population size, which was a huge problem for the slave states because slaves were being counted as people and that just didn’t seem fair.
It was proposed then that only the white population be counted, but that met resistance from New England who thought that they would now be saddled with a disproportionate burden. When this notion was dropped, the New Englanders were even more incensed when it was proposed to base the assessment on land value, because an acre of land in small and crowded New England went for a lot more than in empty and expansive North Carolina. But New England soon realized that they were fighting a losing battle, as the South and Middle States joined in a consensus around land being the thing.
So for the moment, the issue of how to classify and count slaves, when are they people and when are they property, was for the moment skirted. It will, of course, return in the utterly despicable Three-Fifths Compromise lodged in Article I, Section II of the Constitution, but we’ll get to that. And oh, by the way, the debate over how to calculate who owed what was pointless anyway, because Congress had no mechanism to compel the states to pay their share.
The final draft of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union was approved and sent out for ratification in November 1777, but it was not adopted until March 1781. This delay was caused by the requirement that every state had to ratify before the Articles would go into effect, and Maryland really, really didn’t want to ratify. As we will see, the unanimous consent requirement was a mistake that the framers of the Constitution will conspicuously not make.
Ironically, the big sticking point for Maryland was not that Congress would have too much power, but that it would have too little. They wanted Congress to have jurisdiction over the unincorporated western lands, a power that had been stripped out during the debates. Now Maryland was not alone in this. They were joined, for example, by New Jersey and Delaware. What these three states had in common was that their founding colonial charters set specific borders, rather than having super vague from sea to sea clauses like in say the Virginia charter, written by men who had no idea how far away the Pacific Ocean really was. Unless Congress could step in and check the growth of Virginia or also like New York, there would be nothing to stop them from becoming irresistible super states.
As the years passed, both New Jersey and Delaware caved, but Maryland held out. Finally, New York agreed to give up its claims, mostly on the grounds that it would be unwieldy to govern that territory anyway, and then Virginia followed, though only renouncing their claims to lands northwest of the Ohio River. These concessions in place, Maryland finally agreed, and on March 1, 1781, the Second Continental Congress became the Congress of the Confederation, or more officially, the Congress of the United States assembled. Of course, as we all know with the benefit of hindsight, the intentional weakening of the National Congress made their jobs nearly impossible.
By the time the Articles were ratified, Congress was deep in debt and had no way to pay it back. And not only were they deep in debt, they had no idea how deep in debt they even were. The bookkeeping had been a mess, and wartime prioritizing left them with a trail of certificates and IOUs and vouchers and just verbal promises to pay men back for whatever. Despite Washington’s misgivings, the imperatives of war had led to forced requisitioning, but a receipt was always scribbled on the back of a napkin or something to be redeemed when the war was over. Well, now the war was over, and everyone was coming for what they were owed.
Compounding this debt crisis was the financial crisis. Over the course of the war, Congress had been forced to turn to that always-sustainable practice of just printing money to pay for what it needed.
Not only was this currency not backed by anything, they just kept pumping out more and more. By 1780, they had sent out something like $200 million. It was all worthless, and it led neutrals in and around British-occupied areas to offer their goods and services to the British in exchange for pounds rather than except Continental Script. Those that had accepted the script were then hit with the most unwelcome news in 1780 that Congress was about to try to get its financial house in order and was officially revaluing the money at one-fortieth face value, which, awesome, so glad I accepted it, can’t wait to do business with you again.
Nowhere was the debt and financing problem more obvious and more dangerous than when it came to paying the army. Congress had been getting by on empty promises and worthless paper while the war was on. As late as 1780, Congress promised all officers who stuck it out until the end of the war a pension of half pay for the rest of their lives if you just please stay on. Now that the war was ending, the men understandably wanted, you know, what they were owed. But for the moment, all Congress could do was hold out its empty hands and say we just don’t have the money and we don’t have any way to raise it.
Which brings us to the Newburgh Conspiracy of March 1783. See, there were in Congress many men who were not fans of the severely limited powers granted to Congress. They wanted, and argued that the country in fact needed, a stronger national government. Their colleagues had outvoted them back during the debates over the Articles of Confederation, but they sensed in the growing restlessness in the army an opportunity to reopen the issue.
There were also many officers in the army who concurred with them about needing a stronger national government, not because they stayed up nights reading political philosophy, but because they realized they were going to get stiffed if Congress didn’t have some way to raise money. So the congressional leaders started talking to the military leaders, and a scheme grew to leverage more power for Congress by threatening the use of military force. Specifically, the demand was the Articles be amended to allow Congress to lay a 5% impost on imported goods, an amendment that would require the unanimous consent of the states.
So if we compare this to the English Revolution, we are roughly in about 1647, right after the first Civil War. The New Model Army wants what it has been promised, Parliament is unwilling or unable to give it to them, Fairfax and Cromwell elect to back the men, and eventually they all march on London. It was very orderly, but it collapsed any notion of the army serving its civilian masters, and not the other way around. As this moment approached in the American Revolution, though, George Washington refused to be Fairfax or Cromwell.
In early March 1783, word reached the Continental Army camped at Newburgh, New York that a preliminary peace had been signed with Britain, meaning that they were sure to be disbanded sooner rather than later. An anonymous circular letter then made the rounds for the officers to gather on March 11th to discuss what action to take. When Washington got a hold of this letter, he announced that there would be a meeting, but it would be held on March 15th, after passions had died down a little bit.
When the officers gathered on March 15th, they were shocked by Washington’s surprise entrance, no one expected him to come in person. He politely asked for the floor so he could deliver a short speech, a short speech that was nothing less than an impassioned plea not to go down this road, to not allow anyone to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.
Then he pulled out a letter from a member of Congress he wished to read aloud, but to do so, he had to put on his glasses, and no one had ever seen the general wearing glasses. I have no idea how much of this was planned and how much was spontaneous, but as he put them on, he said, gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have grown not only gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.
And that was pretty much the end of the Newberg conspiracy right there, and the moment when the Continental Army did not become the new model army. Washington had given everything he had to this cause, a cause that they were now all threatening to throw away over some back pay and pensions. The air drained out of the conspiracy completely. With the Newberg crisis passed, Congress promised its officers would get full pay for five years. The enlisted men would get three months pay right now in exchange for peacefully returning home, and that seemed to do the trick.
Washington of course followed his performance at Newberg with a similar performance at the end of the year, when in a carefully choreographed ceremony, gave up his commission. This is the moment when people started referring to him as the American Cincinnatus, the man who gave up power. It also led George III to marvel at the sheer implausibility of it. The king asked an American-born painter what Washington would do now that the war had been won, and the painter replied, they say he will return to his farm. To which the king replied, if he does that, he will be the greatest man who ever lived.
Like I say, George Washington was the perfect guy to run the American war. If for no other reason than he seemed to have no design on running the American peace. Not that destiny was actually going to let him retire to Mount Vernon.
Next week, the nationalist-inclined members of Congress will continue their quest to make the national government solvent, a quest that will fail. As they talked among themselves about how to solve this problem, a little rebellion flared up in western Massachusetts that exposed the terrible limitations of the Articles of Confederation for all to see. So a call will be put out for a convention just to revise the Articles, you know, add a few things, take out a few things. It’s not like we’re going to lock the doors and without any authority whatsoever draft an entirely new constitution.
- Henry Clinton (British Army officer, born 1730)
- Thomas Gage
- William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe
- John Burgoyne
- George Washington
- Benjamin Franklin
- John Adams
- John Jay
- Thomas Jefferson
- Richard Oswald
- John Dickinson
- George III
- John Laurens
As the newly independent United States trasitioned from war to peace, it was tripped up by the ineffective Articles of Confederation.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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