It only remains for the commander-in-chief to address himself once more, and that for the last time, to the armies of the United States, however widely dispersed the individuals who composed them may be, and to bid them an affectionate, long farewell.
News of the victory at Yorktown came to Congress in Philadelphia on 24 October 1781. Washington with his characteristic generosity had given the honor of bearing the dispatch to Tench Tilghman, an aide who had served in the general’s military family from the first. Tilghman made a driving two-day ride on hired horses, and before Congress retired to the Lutheran church nearby to give thanks, Tilghman needed to pay for those horses. The treasury of the United States, however, was broke, dead broke. Members reached into their own pockets to bail Tilghman out. The incident was simply one small reflection of an immense national problem: Congress was more exhausted by victory than Commons by defeat, nor did it see a way out of its distress. The Revolution had created a national identity but nothing like a national government. As one student of the Revolution notes, Jefferson had declared the independence of “the united States” –lower case united, upper case States. When Americans spoke of the new nation, they used the plural, as in “The united States are committed to republican principles.” Congress had been improvising a makeshift government throughout the long years of war, more or less depending on the voluntary cooperation of the states to support the struggle. Now that peace seemed near at hand, the states, balky at all times, were less inclined than ever to cooperate with Congress. Washington understood frankly that money was “the sinews of war,” and certainly money must be the sinews of peace as well. Without the power to tax, however, Congress, already vastly indebted, could not raise a dollar.
Congress’ financial distress was just then provoking a profound crisis. The crisis was brewing in the camps of the very men who had shouldered muskets to win American liberty. For the army posted forty miles up the Hudson at Newburgh, it was a winter of discontent and not without reason. They had borne the battle, and hardship and privation had been their lot, and still Congress owed these stalwarts something like $6,000,000 in back pay. Officers had been promised half-pay pensions, which Congress could not deliver and for which the states denied any responsibility. To make an ugly business uglier, speculators with ready cash were systematically buying up these pensions from impoverished officers. The pensioner would get pocket change to carry him home now, and the speculator would make a fortune when the government righted its financial ship. The army in desperation looked as they had learned to look in an hour of crisis–to Washington. And it is not to be wondered that in desperation they did not use the best judgment. To a few it seemed that the only solution was Washington. In the spring of ’82, a Continental colonel, Lewis Nicola, sent to Washington a plea to become King George I of America. Washington exploded in rare wrath: nothing in the dark days of war had given him “more painful sensations.”
Nicola and misguided royalists were properly rebuked, but a larger circle was already crafting a plan that came to be known as the Newburgh Conspiracy. In short, when peace came–if peace came–the army would refuse to disband. They would march on Philadelphia if need be and demand that Congress raise by tax or tariff the money they so justly deserved. The leaders of the conspiracy were thus in league not only with the speculators but with politicians aiming to use this threat to the government as a means of ultimately strengthening the powers of that government. These shadowy conspirators circulated anonymous letters among the officer corps calling for a mass meeting. Washington was appalled. The country stood now, as Washington wrote, “on a tremendous precipice.” If the army could impose its will on the civil authority now, republican government would collapse before it was fairly founded. On 15 March 1783 Washington rode to Newburgh to confront the malcontents. There he made an impassioned speech. As you “value your sacred honor,” he pleaded, look with “utmost horror and detestation” on this attempt to “overturn the liberties of our country.” He pledged his own ceaseless advocacy with Congress on their behalf. He had been their most constant, urgent, and eloquent advocate down through the hard years of war, yet the men remained unmoved. They meant to compel an ungrateful government to fulfill its promises. Washington carried with him a letter from Congress. In it was not much more than an assurance that Congress would in good faith do right by its soldiers. Washington now drew the letter from his pocket and along with it his spectacles. Only his closest aides had seen the general in spectacles. Washington paused a moment before reading. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles.” Then, quietly: “I have already grown gray in the service of my country. Now I am going blind.” Washington went on to read the letter from Congress, though it was not important now. The general’s simple expression of republican virtue may have been spontaneous, may have been staged, but it dissolved the conspiracy in a rush of emotion and open tears. The general left the hall. His officers repudiated the anonymous letters, accepted the good faith of Congress, and voted their thanks to the general. Distressed soldiers elsewhere would continue to threaten Congress well into the following summer, forcing them at one point to flee the capital, but this immediate crisis was over.
The war, however, despite Yorktown, was not over. Nathanael Greene had fought the “fugitive war.” Now it seemed that America was in pursuit of the “fugitive peace.” Nor was Congress managing the peace process any more capably than it had managed the war. In fairness it had done one supremely wise thing: it sent to Paris as its chief negotiator Benjamin Franklin. Printer, inventor, philosopher, statesman, Franklin was also as cunning a Yankee as ever drove a hard bargain. The first demonstration of his skill was his decision to ignore the instructions of Congress. Congress had directed him to insist on a single condition of peace, the recognition of American independence. In all other matters, he was simply to follow the guidance of the French–as if the national interests of that imperial power could in every particular coincide with the interests of the fledgling American republic. Dr. Franklin was more than willing to cooperate with France in the person of her chief negotiator, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergenne. But with his colleagues, John Jay and John Adams, he intended to secure a peace on American terms. With so many contending parties and competing interests, even the informal preliminary talks beginning in the spring of 1782 were necessarily a snarl. Spain had entered the conflict against Britain in 1779, but not strictly speaking as an American ally. She had yet to recognize American independence. Her cherished territorial ambition in Europe–British Gibraltar on the Mediterranean–did not trouble Franklin, but her New World ambitions did. Spain wanted Florida but, more importantly, control of the Mississippi and all the territory eastward from the great river to the crest of the Alleghenies. The latter Franklin would not hear of. “A neighbor might as well ask me to sell my street door,” he insisted. The French, now that this immensely expensive war was nearly won, were less committed to securing American independence than to plundering Britain’s West Indian empire. For her part Britain was unwilling to be plundered without some hard bargaining of her own. At the very least she could try to drive a wedge between the French and the Americans while the European conflict continued on the high seas. British resolve was much heartened when on 12 April the Royal Navy struck the French a stunning blow at the Battle of the Saints in the West Indies, scattering the enemy fleet and capturing its commander, Admiral de Grasse, who had been so instrumental in the victory at Yorktown. Several months later the garrison at Gibraltar beat back a determined French and Spanish attack, and Admiral Howe reinforced and resupplied the defenders.
As spring gave way to summer in Paris, Franklin remained alone on his mission. John Jay was in Madrid working for a formal recognition from the Spanish court that he would not achieve. Adams was in Holland, where he was delighted to receive Dutch recognition of American sovereignty, but he had his hat in his hand as well, seeking yet another loan from the Dutch. The fourth commissioner, Thomas Jefferson, pleading pressing personal problems, had declined. The fifth, Henry Laurens, taken on the high seas, was still a prisoner in the Tower of London. He would be soon released, but between his long captivity and the death of his son, John, killed in action that summer, his health failed and his service would be limited. So the work of forging a peace that would secure America’s independence would fall to Franklin, Adams, and Jay, and the heavy lifting would be done by Franklin, seventy-six years old that momentous summer of 1782. In this atmosphere of animosity and mutual mistrust, Franklin had at least two advantages that we might describe as working relationships. First, Franklin and Vergennes’ collaboration went back to the days before the alliance and had been purposeful and productive. The two understood and trusted one another–within reason and within the limits of their own national interests. Second, in the difficult months ahead Britain would be fortunate in its choice of chief negotiator. Rockingham called on Richard Oswald and sent him to Paris. Oswald, like Franklin, was long in years and experience, a successful businessman before taking up affairs of state. Public service, not personal ambition, had brought both men to Paris. It might be possible for these wise old heads to cobble together a peace that all the parties could live with prosperously.
There were two sticking points immediately. First, by the terms of the Franco-American alliance, neither party could seek or ratify a separate peace with the British. Second, Oswald’s instructions specifically prohibited a formal recognition of the United States–a recognition that Congress insisted on as a first condition for even negotiating a peace. The first problem Vergennes solved somewhat ingenuously. While Franklin and Oswald bargained, France would simply look the other way, willing to consider what sort of agreement Franklin might craft. (Vergennes was not about to stand idly by while Franklin drove his own bargain, of course; in September he sent his secretary to London to open separate talks with the British also.) The second problem was solved by some verbal sleight-of-hand. Franklin and Jay were prepared to go forward with formal peace talks if Oswald’s instructions were revised to recognize the two as official representatives of the United States. The language the ministry used now was frankly ambiguous–and productively so. Lord Shelburne (who succeeded to the prime ministry on the death of Rockingham in July) authorized Oswald to treat with the “13 United States.” It was not exactly “the United States” that Franklin had insisted on, but Congress was willing to accept it as recognition, and Shelburne’s ministry was prepared to deny it if the talks went sour. And this was very much to the good, for it opened the way to peace with the British. John Jay was an admitted Francophobe, but he was correct in thinking that France held Spain’s interests closer to heart than America’s.
When formal talks opened in October, Franklin put in front of Oswald a bold proposal. It might be simply summarized as four basic points and a few “advisable articles.” First, Britain would recognize American independence, withdrawing her troops from American soil and her vessels from American waters. Second, Britain would recognize the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the United States, but both parties would enjoy the right of free navigation on the great river. Third, Britain would recognize the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River as America’s northern border, essentially reestablishing the pre-war frontier. Fourth, Britain would recognize the right of Americans to free and full use of the great Grand Banks fisheries off the Newfoundland coast. Among the “advisable articles,” at least one was almost inevitable. Even Franklin could not resist the spell of Canada as the fourteenth state, and he urged Britain to cede it to the United States. Finally, Franklin urged Britain to issue a public apology for the war, an overture to lasting peace between the English-speaking cousins of the Atlantic world.
Britain was not likely to apologize for fighting in defense of what she held to be her constitutional rights, and that article was probably simply window-dressing anyway. Canada was certainly going to stay in the British empire, and Franklin conceded this article without much resistance. Two other questions were stickier. Americans owed British merchants substantial pre-war debts, and Britain wanted them settled as a condition of peace. After some wrangling, the commissioners were not so accommodating about another property issue: Britain believed her Loyalists ought to be compensated for homes and property taken or destroyed in the struggle. The American commissioners held, not without reason, that the Loyalists had backed the wrong horse in this contest and losing their stakes was only rough justice. (It was exactly the justice the Rebels would have suffered in defeat, though a Rebel might lose his head as well as his house.) Franklin put a counteroffer on the table. Parliament ought to compensate all those Americans whose seaports went up in flames, whose homes were plundered, whose property was seized. This the British were unwilling to do, though they were willing to accept a face-saving compromise. Congress would urge the states to compensate Loyalists who did not actively support the king’s cause. It was a rather cynical article: Congress had no powers over the states, and it was quite clear that the Loyalists would never see a dime–at least not from America. In time to come the British government would compensate the Loyalists to some degree, but for now they were the big losers in the American war. Perhaps as many as 80,000 went into penurious exile, mainly to Canada and the West Indies.
By the end of November Franklin and Oswald produced a provisional treaty remarkably close to the outlines of Franklin’s original proposal. First and foremost, “His Britannc Majesty acknowledges the said United States… to be free Sovereign and independent States.” The northern border was settled very nearly on today’s Canadian border, and the southern fixed at the 31st parallel. (Spain would get Florida by a separate treaty with the British.) The western reach of the new nation was the Mississippi River. The river was open to British shipping and the Grand Banks to American fishing. Pre-war debts, American and British alike, were to be collected in “the full value of Sterling Money.” The article about compensating Loyalists remained in the treaty, but all it really said was that Congress would recommend that the states do so. There would be no further confiscation of property on either side, and no prosecution for acts committed in the course of the war. Great Britain would withdraw her forces “with all convenient speed.” On 30 November Franklin sent word to Vergennes that a provisional accord with the British had been reached and would be signed that day. Vergennes was not amused but he was resigned. Franklin had certainly ignored his instructions from Congress about consulting the French. He had not quite violated the terms of the Franco-American alliance, however. The treaty would not go into effect until France and Britain likewise reached a peace. The British, with nothing to gain by delay now, agreed to preliminary terms with both France and Spain early in the new year. Finally on 3 September 1783 all parties to the peace signed the formal treaties of Paris and Versaille. The war begun with a rattle of musket fire on Lexington Green in the spring of ’75 was over. The American republic now assumed “among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station, to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.”
Congress would not officially ratify the Treaty of Paris until 14 January 1784, but British troops were going home now, or at least “with all convenient speed.” Cornwallis and Clinton having long since sailed, the responsibility for the evacuation fell to Sir Guy Carleton, the one British general who had held his ground. By the fall of 1783 nearly all the remaining garrisons were likewise headed home. On 25 November, more than two years after Yorktown, the last garrison in New York sailed for England. The city was back in American hands for the first time since Washington had abandoned it after the Long Island disaster in August of ’76. The disbanding of the Continental Line kept pace more or less with the British evacuation. On 18 October from Newburgh General Washington issued his final General Order to the army: “It only remains for the commander-in-chief to address himself once more, and that for the last time, to the armies of the United States, however widely dispersed the individuals who composed them may be, and to bid them an affectionate, long farewell.” With his deep affection went some stern advice, urging the men toward conciliation with Congress over the issue of back pay and urging the officers to support a strong national government. When the order was read out in the camps, however, it was difficult for the men to look ahead to the political life of the republic. Most were simply overcome by the momentous reality of their triumph and of their chief’s farewell. As one remembered, the “most hardy soldiers were unable to restrain the copious flow of tears.”
There were to be more tears in the hour of ultimate triumph. On 4 December Washington gathered to him his military family for a farewell dinner at the Fraunces Tavern in New York (still standing on the corner of Broad and Pearl). For warriors celebrating a great victory, the mood of the room was not festive. Officers spoke in muted tones, and the survivors of so many hardscrabble camps picked at the rich dinner offering. At length Washington rose, for once unsteadily, filled a glass with wine, and spoke haltingly in a voice heavy with emotion: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” He collected himself a moment, drained his glass, and went on: “I cannot come to each of you to take my leave, but will be obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.” Henry Knox, Washington’s chief gunner, stepped forward now, the giant who had manhandled the great guns of Ticonderoga over the frozen Berkshires to give Washington the means to his first victory at Boston, who had pushed his guns forward under fire to the last parallel at Yorktown. He took the general’s hand and then embraced him. The others followed, in turn and in silence, and likewise embraced their chief. No on in that room ever forgot the farewell, but Benjamin Tallmadge left the most vivid account: “Such a scene of sorrow and weeping, I had never before witnessed, and hope I may never be called up to witness again. . . . The simple thought that we were about to part from the man who had conducted us through a long and bloody war, and under whose conduct the glory and independence of our country had been achieved, and that we should see his face no more in this world, seemed to me utterly insupportable.” Washington, so famous for his icy self-control, left the room “suffused in tears.”
Washington’s final and perhaps finest hour as a solder began at noon on 23 December in the Senate Chamber of the old Maryland State House in Annapolis. Congress had come here, having been driven from Philadelphia by disgruntled soldiers of the Pennsylvania Line. Washington had come here to resign his commission, the commission he had accepted with such diffidence in 1775, believing himself unequal to so grave a responsibility. Congress convened and Washington was ushered in. Thomas Mifflin of Pennsylvania, president of the Congress, addressed him: “Sir, the United States in Congress assembled, are prepared to receive your communications.” The general rose and bowed. Congress, then just twenty representatives from seven states, rose and removed their hats but did not bow, an unmistakable affirmation of the civil authority over the military. It was precisely such an affirmation of the civil authority that the general had come here to make. “Mr. President,” he said, “The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place, I have now the honor of offering my sincere congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country.” He commended the care of “our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God.” He commended the care of his brother officers who had struggled with him to Congress. “Having now finished the work assigned me,” he closed, “I retire from the great theatre of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” Not since Cincinnatus in the fifth century BCE had a conquering general freely surrendered his sword to a civil authority. President Mifflin was unequal to the great occasion, deliberately so it would appear, for he had been part of the Conway Cabal that tried to unseat Washington four years earlier. He mumbled through a gracious text of celebration and thanks written for him by Jefferson. But that was a small matter now. The great work had been accomplished by a determined people under the leadership of an indispensable man. A republic dedicated to human equality and civil liberty had emerged from the sound and fury of the battlefields.