The remaining years of the war were distinguished by few striking or decisive enterprises. The fleet sent by France sailed hither and thither in a feeble manner, accomplishing nothing. When General Howe was made aware of its approach, he abandoned Philadelphia and retired to New York. Washington followed him on his retreat, but neither then nor for some time afterwards could effect much. Congress and the American people formed sanguine expectations of the French alliance, and ceased to put forth the great efforts which distinguished the earlier period of the war. The English overran Georgia and the Carolinas. The Americans captured two or three forts. The war degenerated into a series of marauding expeditions. Some towns, innumerable farm-houses, were burned by the English. Occasional massacres took place. With increasing frequency, prisoners were, under a variety of pretexts, put to death. On both sides feeling had become intensely bitter. On both sides cruelties of a most savage type were perpetrated.
To the very end Washington’s army was miserably supplied, and endured extreme hardships. Congress was a weak, and, it must be added, a very unwise body. The ablest men were in the army, and Congress was composed of twenty or thirty persons of little character or influence. They had no authority to impose taxes. They tried to borrow money in Europe, and failed. They had only one resource – the issue of paper currency, and this was carried to such a wild excess that latterly a colonel’s pay would not buy oats for his horse. Washington ceased to have the means of purchasing. Reluctantly, and under pressure of extreme necessity, he forcibly exacted supplies of meat and flour from the neighbourhood. Not otherwise could he save his army from dissolution and the country from ruin.
But there was one respect in which the cause grew constantly in strength. Men do not fight for eight years, in a war like this, without learning to hate each other. With a deep and deadly hatred the American people hated the power which ruthlessly inflicted upon them such cruel sufferings. Under the growing influence of this hatred, men became soldiers with increasing alacrity. The hardships of soldier-life no longer daunted them, so long as they had the English to resist. The trouble of short enlistments had ceased, and Washington was at length at the head of an army, often ill fed and always ill clad, but disciplined and invincibly resolved that their country should be free.
The Americans had a strong fortress at West Point, on the Hudson river. It was one of the most important places in the country, and its acquisition was anxiously desired by the English. Possession of West Point would have given them command of the Hudson, up which their ships of war could have sailed for more than a hundred miles. But that fort, sitting impregnably on rocks two hundred feet above the level of the river, was hard to win; and the Americans were careful to garrison effectively a position so vitally important.
In the American army was an officer named Arnold, who had served, not without distinction, from the beginning of the war.
Clinton sent Major Andr? to arrange the terms of the contemplated treachery. A mournful interest attaches to the name of this young officer: the fate which befell him was so very sad. He was of French descent – high-spirited, accomplished, affectionate, merry-hearted. It was a service which a high-principled man would scarcely have coveted. But Andr? desired eagerly to have the merit of gaining West Point, and he volunteered for this perilous enterprise.
Sept. 1780 A.D. At midnight Major Andr? landed from the boat of a British ship of war, at a lonely place where Arnold waited him. Their conference lasted so long that it was deemed unsafe for Andr? to return to the ship. He was conducted to a place of concealment within the American lines, to await the return of darkness. He completed his arrangement with Arnold, and received drawings of the betrayed fortress. His mission was now accomplished. The ship from which he had come lay full in view. Would that he could reach her! But difficulties arose, and it was resolved that he must ride to New York, a distance of fifty miles. Disguising himself as he best could, Andr? reluctantly accepted this very doubtful method of escape from his fearful jeopardy.
Within the American lines he had some narrow escapes, but the pass given by Arnold carried him through. He was at length beyond the lines. His danger might now be considered at an end, and he rode cheerfully on his lonely journey. He was crossing a small stream – thick woods on his right hand and his left enhanced the darkness of the night. Three armed men stepped suddenly from among the trees and ordered him to stand. From the dress of one of them, Andr? thought he was among friends. He hastened to tell them he was a British officer, on very special business, and he must not be detained. Alas for poor Major Andr?, they were not friends; and the dress which deceived him had been given to the man who wore it when he was a prisoner with the English, in place of a better garment of which his captors had stripped him.
Andr? was searched; but at first nothing was found. It seemed as if he might yet be allowed to proceed, when one of the three men exclaimed, “Boys, I am not satisfied. His boots must come off.” Andr?’s countenance fell. His boots were searched, and Arnold’s drawings of West Point were discovered. The men knew then that he was a spy. He vainly offered them money; they were incorruptible. He was taken to the nearest military station, and the tidings were at once sent to Washington, who chanced to be then at West Point. Arnold had timely intimation of the disaster, and fled for refuge to a British ship of war.
Andr? was tried by a court formed of officers of the American army. He gave a frank and truthful account of his part in the unhappy transaction – bringing into due prominence the circumstance that he was brought, without intention or knowledge on his part, within the American lines. The court judged him on his own statement, and condemned him to be hanged as a spy.
His capture and sentence caused deep sensation in the English army, and every effort was made to save him. But Washington was resolute that he should die. The danger to the patriot cause had been too great to leave any place for relenting. There were dark intimations of other treasons yet unrevealed. It was needful to give emphatic warning of the perils which waited on such unlawful negotiations. Andr? begged that he might be allowed to die a soldier’s death. Even this poor boon was refused to the unhappy young man. Since the awful lesson must be given, Washington considered that no circumstance fitted to enhance its terrors should be withheld. But this was mercifully concealed from Andr? to the very last.
Ten days after his arrest, Andr? was led forth to die. He was under the impression that his last request had been granted, and that he would die by the bullet. It was a fresh pang when the gibbet, with its ghastly preparations, stood before him. “How hard is my fate,” he said; “but it will soon be over.” He bandaged his own eyes; with his own hands adjusted the noose to his neck. The cart on which he stood moved away, and poor Major Andr? was no longer in the world of living men. Forty years afterwards his remains were brought home to England and laid in Westminster Abbey.
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. 1781 A.D. When the last campaign opened, Lord Cornwallis with a strong force represented British authority in the South, and did all 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 twelve thousand 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; but a violent storm arose and scattered his boats. The men who had embarked got back 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, eight thousand 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.
1782 A.D. 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. Jan. 20, 1783 A.D. 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 million 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 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 store-house, 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. He 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. He had become the idol of a great army. He 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.” He 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.
Washington saw from the beginning that his country was without a government. Congress was a mere name. There were still thirteen sovereign States – in league for the moment, but liable to be placed at variance by the differences which time would surely bring. Washington was satisfied that without a central government they could never be powerful or respected. Such a government, indeed, was necessary in order even to their existence. European powers would, in its absence, introduce dissensions among them. Men’s minds would revert to that form of government with which they were familiar. Some ambitious statesman or soldier would make himself King, and the great experiment, based upon the equality of rights, would prove an ignominious failure.
The more sagacious Americans shared Washington’s belief on this question. Conspicuous among these was Alexander Hamilton – perhaps, next to Washington, the greatest American of that age. Hamilton was a brave and skilful soldier, a brilliant debater, a persuasive writer, a wise statesman. In his nineteenth year he entered the army, at the very beginning of the war. The quick eye of Washington discovered the remarkable promise of the lad. He raised him to high command in the army, and afterwards to high office in the government. It was Hamilton who brought order out of the financial chaos which followed the war. It was Hamilton who suggested the convention to consider the framing of a new Constitution. Often, during the succeeding years, Hamilton’s temperate and sagacious words calmed the storms which marked the infancy of the great Republic. His career had a dark and bloody close. 1804 A.D. In his forty-seventh year he stood face to face, one bright July morning, with a savage politician named Aaron Burr – a grandson of Jonathan Edwards the great divine. Burr had fastened a quarrel upon him, in the hope of murdering him in a duel. Hamilton had resolved not to fire. Burr fired with careful aim, and Hamilton fell, wounded to death. One of the ablest men America has ever possessed was thus lost to her.
1783 A.D. Immediately after the close of the war, Hamilton began to discuss the weakness of the existing form of government. He was deeply convinced that the union of the States, in order to be lasting, must be established on a solid basis; and his writings did much to spread this conviction among his fellow-countrymen. Washington never ceased from his retirement to urge the same views. Gradually the urgent need of a better system was recognized. It indeed soon became too obvious to be denied. Congress found it utterly impossible to get money. Between 1781 and 1786, ten million dollars were called for from the States, but only two million and a half were obtained. The interest on the debt was unpaid; the ordinary expenses of the government were unprovided for. The existing form of government was an acknowledged failure. Something better had to be devised, or the tie which bound the thirteen States would be severed.
1787 A.D. Hamilton obtained the sanction of Congress to his proposal that a convention of delegates from the several States should be held. This convention was to review the whole subject of the governing arrangement, and to recommend such alterations as should be considered adequate to the exigencies of the time. Philadelphia, as usual, was the place of meeting. Thither, in the month of May, came the men who were charged with the weighty task of framing a government under which the thirteen States should become a nation.
Fifty-five men composed this memorable council. Among them were the wisest men of whom America, or perhaps any other country, could boast. Washington himself presided. Benjamin Franklin brought to this – his latest and his greatest task – the ripe experience of eighty-two years. New York sent Hamilton – regarding whom Prince Talleyrand said, long afterwards, that he had known nearly all the leading men of his time, but he had never known one on the whole equal to Hamilton. With these came many others whose names are held in enduring honour. Since the meeting of that first Congress which pointed the way to independence, America had seen no such Assembly.