10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots' Victory at Yorktown
10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown

Khalid Elhassan - July 25, 2018

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown
‘General George Washington Resigning His Commission’, by John Trumbull, 1824. Wikimedia

George Washington Laid Down His Command of the Continental Army

When the American Revolutionary War broke out, George Washington was appointed to command the Continental Army, and he served as its commander in chief throughout the conflict. He was never a brilliant battlefield commander, but he was a brilliant leader who took disorganized militia mobs, and forged them into a disciplined standing national army. Despite hardships, shortages, political intrigues, backstabbing, and outright treason from some politicians in Congress and some of his own officers in the field, he kept the Continental Army as a going concern until victory was won.

Washington had the satisfaction of leading that army in delivering the final blow, and with French help, he trapped and besieged the British in Yorktown in 1781. The ensuing surrender of Lord Cornwallis brought major fighting in North America to an end. However, although major combat had ended, the war was still on, and the British still had about 26,000 troops occupying New York, Savannah, and Charleston, plus a powerful fleet. In the meantime, the allied French army and navy had left, so the Americans were on their own.

The war would not come to a definitive end until the Paris Peace treaty of 1783 was finally accepted by Congress, and during that period, Washington remained in command of the army. He had no shortage of anxieties and worries to keep him up at nights, not least them of a threatened mutiny by his officers, who proposed to march against Congress for its failure to pay their wages. Washington managed to overcome those difficulties, and keep the Continental Army from overthrowing the civilian government. That might have been his greatest service to America, by saving it from the precedent of soldiers seizing power. That kept the new country from starting along along the path of banana republics.

Britain recognized American independence in the Paris Peace Treaty, which was signed in September of 1783. George Washington then demobilized and disbanded his army, and on December 4th, 1783, after leading the Continental Army for eight and a half year, he bade his officers farewell. He then resigned his commission, effective December 23rd, and like a new Cincinnatus, he returned to his Virginia Plantation at Mount Vernon. Upon hearing that Washington had voluntarily given up power, king George III did not believe it at first. When he was finally convinced of the report’s veracity, the British monarch stated that such a selfless act made the American general “the greatest character of the age“.

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown
Protesters witnessing a debtor taking down a tax collector near the courthouse at Springfield, Massachusetts. Fine Art America

Economic Distress Led to Rebellions in the Newly Independent Country

The newly independent country began the process of rebuilding after the successful conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, and prosperity began to gradually return to the war torn states. Nonetheless, the first few years after independence were rocky, and it was touch and go for a while whether the new country could survive its growing pains.

An economic crisis in the 1780s fell hard upon farmers, who found themselves drowning in debt as they tried to recover and rebuild following the devastations and disruptions of the war years. Many farms had ran up debts during the war, while their menfolk and breadwinners were away fighting to free their country. Many of those farmers, such as war veteran Daniel Shays of Massachusetts, were unable to pay their debts because the government had stiffed them by failing to pay their military wages in full.

The economic crisis struck particularly hard at rural and newly settled areas in western and central Massachusetts. Unlike other state legislatures, that of Massachusetts did not attempt to alleviate the economic suffering by pro debtor measures such printing more paper money or forgiving debts. As a result, local sheriffs in rural Massachusetts started foreclosing upon and seizing farms, as well as seizing the farmers themselves and throwing them into debtors’ prisons.

Understandably, that infuriated many, seeing as how they were in debt because they had opted to serve their country, and were then unable to pay off their debts because their country then failed to pay them for their service. Many in the affected communities were veterans of the recently concluded war, and the instinct to protest governmental injustices that had led them to take up arms in 1775 was still sharp. Once again, Americans of the Founding Fathers generation resisted high taxes and an unresponsive government by rising up in armed rebellion. This time against the Massachusetts government in Boston, rather than the British one in London.

After special meetings to decry conditions and coordinate their actions, the protesters coalesced under the leadership of Daniel Shays and turned into armed rebels, organizing themselves into regional regiments run by elected committees. In the fall of 1786, they started to forcibly close the courts in their communities, and to free their neighbors from debtor prisoners. The rebellion grew and spread, until the insurgents’ numbers eventually rose to about four thousand.

In January of 1787, about 1200 rebels, now called Shaysites, attacked the federal arsenal at Springfield in an attempt to seize its weapons and use them to overthrow the government. The attempt failed, and the rebels were forced to retreat, pursued by private militias paid for by merchants and bankers. The pursuers surprised the rebels with an early morning attack on February 4th, 1787, and scattered them, bringing the rebellion to an inglorious end.

While small in scale, and eventually easily suppressed, Shays’ Rebellion had a great impact, both in Massachusetts and on the United States as a whole. Within the state, the Massachusetts legislature hurried to pass new laws easing the debtors’ economic straits. Across the country, nationalists cited the rebellion as illustrating the weakness of the federal government as it then stood under the Articles of Confederation. Similar rebellions on a smaller scale, had also occurred in Maine, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, among other places. Those insurrections were used by nationalists to make a persuasive argument for a stronger national government. That contributed greatly to the movement for a Constitutional Convention, which met in Philadelphia a few months after the collapse of Shays’ Rebellion.

10 Significant Events Following the American Patriots’ Victory at Yorktown
‘Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States’, by Howard Chandler Christy, 1939. Pintrest

The United States Were Solidified by a New Constitution

After the Treaty of Paris recognized the independence of the United States, the national government continued to operate under the wartime Articles of Confederation agreed to by the thirteen colonies at the start of the revolution. The Articles had served to help the Patriots muddle through the war, when they were united by their dislike of Britain and the desire for independence. However, they proved inadequate for a stable and viable national government after war’s end.

A major factor behind the new United States’ instability was the national debt. The national government was practically broke, and under the Articles of Confederation, it had no independent means of raising enough money to make itself solvent. It could neither pay the massive war debts owed to European nations or private banks, nor pay the millions in promissory notes given to Americans for supplies and services during the war. That made the United States too fragile to handle an international war, or even internal disturbances such as Shays’ Rebellion.

Concerned nationalists such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, calling themselves “Federalists”, lobbied Congress and convinced it to call the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. There, from May 25th to September 17th of 1787, delegates from the various states met in the old Pennsylvania State House, later renamed Independence Hall because it had also been where Independence was declared in 1776. The conferees ostensibly sought to fix what ailed the government of the Articles of Confederation. In reality, however, prominent delegates such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were determined from the outset to come up with an entirely new system of government, rather than fix the existing one.

George Washington was elected president of the Convention, and in the ensuing months, the delegates hammered out today’s US Constitution, minus its subsequent amendments. They created a compromise document that left none of the delegates entirely happy, but left most of them satisfied that it was the best that could be done in their generation, given the competing interests and constraints within which they operated.

Contentious issues that could not be resolved at the time, such as slavery, were kicked like a can down the road for future generations to deal with. In the meantime, a basic governmental framework was established, featuring an independent judiciary, a powerful executive, and a bicameral legislature collectively more powerful than both. A web of checks and balances was built into the system to keep any single branch from growing too mighty and eclipsing the others.

From the outset, a prerequisite for the new system’s survival was an involved and intelligent citizenry keeping itself well informed of its government’s activities, and keeping a close eye on its elected officials’ actions. At the close of the Convention, Benjamin Franklin was queried by a lady as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberations: “Well, doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it“.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Alpha History – Loyalists

Carolana – The American Revolution in South Carolina: The Evacuation of Charleston

Encyclopedia Britannica – Shays’s Rebellion

History of Parliament Online – Lord North

Library of Congress – Primary Documents in American History: Treaty of Paris

New York Times, June 4th, 2006 – Sunday Book Review: Give Us Liberty

New York Times, November 25th, 2008 – Celebrating 225 Years Since the British Left Town

NPR, July 3rd, 2015 – What Happened to British Loyalists After the Revolutionary War?

Ranker – What Happened Directly After the American Revolution Ended

Schama, Simon – Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (2006)

United States House of Representatives, History, Art, & Archives – Historical Highlights: General George Washington Resigned His Commission in Annapolis, Maryland

U.S. History Org – Shays’ Rebellion

Wikipedia – Georgia in the American Revolution

Wikipedia – South Carolina in the American Revolution

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