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George Washington

Hope, Betrayal, Victory, Glory: the End of the of War

Victory, Defeat, Misery, Stalemate: the Early War Years

A Founder of his Country


In 1778, the French entered the war on America's side. Victory seemed closer than ever. Then a strange thing happened: the war slowed down. The British turned their attention to the South, where the American forces were weaker. Washington's frustrations with Congress increased. His army lacked troops and supplies, and, at one point in August 1779, it even lacked gunpowder. Congress was unwilling to tax its struggling colonies to fund the Continental Army, so the war ground nearly to a halt. Aside from several victories against Indians on the frontier, not much happened. The French were coming, but they took a long time to arrive.

Finally, in July of 1780, the French Army landed in Rhode Island, led by General Comte de Rochambeau. Washington wanted to invade New York City, where Clinton's army was camped, but he realized he could not attack until a second group of French soldiers arrived. While waiting, Washington experienced one of his greatest disappointments: Benedict Arnold, the talented soldier who had helped the Americans win at Saratoga, defected to the British side. This did not significantly affect the war's outcome, but Arnold's treachery shocked and saddened Washington.

In August of 1781 Washington and de Rochambeau learned the French navy would soon arrive off the coast of Virginia. They decided to march there in order to trap the British General Charles Cornwallis, who had camped his army at Yorktown on Chesapeake Bay. It was a brilliant surprise: Washington led the French and American troops in a siege of Yorktown, pinning Cornwallis against the ocean. British ships tried to rescue Cornwallis but were turned away by the French navy. Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender his entire army. This crushing defeat for the British effectively ended the war. Britain was finally ready to grant America independence and negotiate peace.

It wasn't as simple as that, however. Though the British and American sides began negations soon after Yorktown, it wasn't until two years later that the Treaty of Paris was signed, spelling out the terms of peace. In the meantime Washington remained in control of the army, ready to fight again if necessary. The soldiers were restless. They wanted to go home and enjoy the fruits of victory, see their families, and tend to their neglected homes. Washington yearned for this as well. He urged the troops to stay patient, but some talked of mutiny. In March of 1783 several officers circulated a paper calling for the army to march on Congress. Congress owed them pay and a pension, which they wanted immediately. Washington was determined not to let the military threaten civilian government, and he stopped the rebellion in its tracks.

Soon after, word of an agreement with Britain came. Now America was finally independent. Washington's job as commander was over. Few people seem to have expected him to quit, however. He was the most powerful person in America by far, commanding the devotion of his army and the support of the people. He could have become a dictator, possibly even crown himself king. Many people expected him to, and many more were eager to see him do it.

The world was shocked and amazed, therefore, when on December 23, 1783, Washington resigned his command of the Continental Army. Leaders and statesmen across Europe hailed him as the greatest man of his generation. They called him the symbol of republican virtue: a private citizen who served his country when called and returned to private life when his duty was done. It was nearly unique in the history of the world for someone with so much power to willingly give it up. But he did. Washington returned to Mount Vernon, ready to enjoy his retirement.


Washington understood that in order to win the war he needed to convince people of America's power and resolve. He needed to convince the British that his army would not crumble; he needed to convince the French that helping America would help France; he needed to convince Americans that it was worth the sacrifice and suffering. He, almost alone, juggled the expectations of three nations. He suffered many defeats and setbacks, but seems to never have lost his belief in his cause. In his letters to friends, colleagues, and the Continental Congress, he never wavered in his conviction that America would prevail.

Even if Washington ever doubted America's chances, he dared not express his fears in public. No one knew better than he did what a long shot it was. This is why he was eager to attack; the constant waiting and retreating made him restless. The longer the wait, the less likely he would be to keep the loyalty and spirit of his soldiers and the American people. When the French entered the war, most Americans rejoiced, believing the war would soon end. Washington knew differently. The French joined the war to hurt Britain, not to help America. Their assistance would only go so far.

Washington believed that virtue and honor in defense of a just cause would bring America victory. He took these ideals seriously. He came from a society in which men of his class all sought honor and the respect of their fellow citizens. For these men wealth was a given–they owned slaves and vast tracts of land–but honor had to be earned. From our perspective they may seem hypocritical or self-righteous, but they ought to be judged by the standards of their own time.

Washington took the notion of virtue more seriously than most people did. He believed in duty to his country and expected as much from his solders. This is why Arnold's defection caused him such pain; it is also why he was so disturbed to discover that his own officers had been plotting to overthrow Congress. When he learned of the plot he called his officers together and reminded them of their duty to the people of America. He ended with a dramatic touch, pulling out his eyeglasses to read. "Gentleman you must pardon me," Washington said, "I have grown gray in the service of my country and now find myself growing blind." With these simple words and gesture, Washington communicated to his troops how much he had sacrificed for the cause of liberty and that a betrayal of those ideals would be a betrayal of him. The officers, shamed and inspired, immediately gave up their rebellious plans.

Washington expressed his ideals not in words but in action. No single moment of his life expresses this better than his resignation in 1783. While we can hardly imagine an American dictator or monarch now, in 1783 such leaders were all the world knew. Yet Washington, like many Americans, believed in democracy (albeit a kind of democracy that was very different from what we now have). He knew that by resigning his command he would prove that the ideals of the Revolutionary War were real, not mere excuses to avoid paying taxes. Many Americans were equally devoted to liberty and law and would have done the same thing in Washington's place. But, fortunately, Washington combined that devotion with ambition and ability to lead America through eight years of war, facing a skeptical Congress and a frustrated army.

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