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George Washington

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In the meantime, early in May, 1780, Charleston, S.C., was abandoned to the enemy,--General Lincoln, who commanded, finding it indefensible. In September the news came North of the battle of Camden and the defeat of Gates, who showed an incompetency equal to his self-sufficiency, and Congress was obliged to remove him. Through Washington's influence, in December, 1780, Greene was appointed to succeed him; had the chief's advice been followed earlier he would have been sent originally instead of Gates. Greene turned the tide, and began those masterly operations which led to the final expulsion of the English from the South, and, under the guiding mind and firm hand of Washington, to the surrender of Cornwallis.

On January 17, 1781, Morgan won a brilliant victory at Cowpens, S.C., which seriously embarrassed Cornwallis; and then succeeded a vigorous campaign between Cornwallis and Greene for several months, over the Carolinas and the borders of Virginia. The losses of the British were so great, even when they had the advantage, that Cornwallis turned his face to the North, with a view of transferring the seat of war to Chesapeake Bay. Washington then sent all the troops he could spare to Virginia, under La Fayette. He was further aided by the French fleet, under De Grasse, whom he persuaded to sail to the Chesapeake. La Fayette here did good service, following closely the retreating army. Clinton failed to reinforce Cornwallis, some say from jealousy, so that the latter felt obliged to fortify himself at Yorktown. Washington, who had been planning an attack on New York, now continued his apparent preparations, to deceive Clinton, but crossed the Hudson on the 23d of August, to co-operate with the French fleet and three thousand French troops in Virginia, to support La Fayette. He rapidly moved his available force by swift marches across New Jersey to Elkton, Maryland, at the head of Chesapeake Bay. The Northern troops were brought down the Chesapeake in transports, gathered by great exertions, and on September 28 landed at Williamsburg, on the Yorktown Peninsula. Cornwallis was now hemmed in by the combined French and American armies. Had he possessed the control of the sea he might have escaped, but as the fleet commanded the Chesapeake this was impossible. He had well fortified himself, however, and on the 5th of October the siege of Yorktown began, followed on the 14th by an assault. On the 19th of October, 1781, Cornwallis was compelled to surrender, with seven thousand troops. The besieging army numbered about five thousand French and eleven thousand Americans. The success of Washington was owing to the rapidity of his movements, and the influence which, with La Fayette, he brought to bear for the retention at this critical time and place of the fleet of the Count de Grasse, who was disposed to sail to the West Indies, as D'Estaing had done the year before. Washington's keen perception of the military situation, energetic promptness of action, and his diplomatic tact and address in this whole affair were remarkable.

The surrender of Cornwallis virtually closed the war. The swift concentration of forces from North and South was due to Washington's foresight and splendid energy, while its success was mainly due to the French, without whose aid the campaign could not have been concluded.

The moral and political effect of this "crowning mercy" was prodigious. In England it broke up the ministry of Lord North, and made the English nation eager for peace, although it was a year or two before hostilities ceased, and it was not until September 3, 1783, that the treaty was signed which Franklin, Adams, and Jay had so adroitly negotiated. The English king would have continued the contest against all hope, encouraged by the possession of New York and Charleston, but his personal government practically ceased with the acknowledgment of American independence.

The trials of Washington, however, did not end with the great victory at Yorktown. There was a serious mutiny in the army which required all his tact to quell, arising from the neglect of Congress to pay the troops. There was greater looseness of morals throughout the country than has been generally dreamed of. I apprehend that farmers and mechanics were more profane, and drank, _per capita_, more cider and rum for twenty years succeeding the war than at any other period in our history. It was then that it was intimated to Washington, in a letter from his friend Colonel Louis Nicola, that the state of the country and the impotence of Congress made it desirable that he should seize the government, and, supported by the army, turn all the confusion into order,--which probably would have been easy for him to do, and which would have been justified by most historical writers. But Washington repelled the idea with indignation, both for himself and the army; and not only on this occasion but on others when disaffection was rife, he utilized his own popularity to arouse anew the loyalty of the sorely tried patriots, his companions in arms. Many are the precedents of usurpation on the part of successful generals, and few indeed are those who have voluntarily abdicated power from lofty and patriotic motives. It was this virtual abdication which made so profound an impression on the European world,--even more profound than was created by the military skill which Washington displayed in the long war of seven years. It was a rare instance of magnanimity and absence of ambition which was not without its influence on the destinies of America, making it almost impossible for any future general to retain power after his work was done, and setting a proud and unique example of the superiority of moral excellence over genius and power.

Washington is venerated not so much for his military genius and success in bringing the war to a triumphant conclusion, as for his patriotism and disinterestedness, since such moral worth as his is much rarer and more extraordinary than military fame. Fortunately, his devotion to the ultimate welfare of the country, universally conceded, was supreme wisdom on his part, not only for the land he loved but for himself, and has given him a name which is above every other name in the history of modern times. He was tested, and he turned from the temptation with abhorrence. He might, and he might not, have succeeded in retaining supreme power,--the culmination of human ambition; but he neither sought nor desired it. It was reward enough for him to have the consciousness of virtue, and enjoy the gratitude of his countrymen.

Washington at last persuaded Congress to do justice to the officers and men who had sacrificed so much for their country's independence; in spite of the probability of peace, he was tireless in continuing preparations for effective war. He was of great service to Congress in arranging for the disbandment of the army after the preliminary treaty of peace in March, 1783, and guided by wise counsel the earlier legislation affecting civil matters in the States and on the frontiers. The general army was disbanded November 3; on November 25 the British evacuated New York and the American authorities took possession; on December 4 Washington bade farewell to his assembled officers, and on the 23d he resigned his commission to Congress,--a patriotic and memorable scene. And then he turned to the placidities of domestic life in his home at Mount Vernon.

But this life and this home, so dear to his heart, it was not long permitted him to enjoy. On the formation and adoption of the Federal Constitution, in 1789, he was unanimously chosen to be the first president of the United States.

In a preceding lecture I have already presented the brilliant constellation of statesmen who assembled at Philadelphia to construct the fabric of American liberties. Washington was one of them, but this great work was not even largely his. On June 8, 1783, he had addressed a letter to the governors of all the States, concerning the essential elements of the well-being of the United States, which showed the early, careful, and sound thought he had given to the matter of what he termed "an indissoluable union of the States under one Federal head." But he was not a great talker, or a great writer, or a pre-eminently great political genius. He was a general and administrator rather than an original constructive statesman whose work involved a profound knowledge of law and history. No one man could have done that work; it was the result of the collected wisdom and experience of the nation,--of the deliberations of the foremost intellects from the different States,--such men as Hamilton, Madison, Wilson, Rutledge, Dickinson, Ellsworth, and others. Jefferson and Adams were absent on diplomatic missions. Franklin was old and gouty. Even Washington did little more than preside over the convention; but he stimulated its members, with imposing dignity and the constant exercise of his pre-eminent personal influence, to union and conciliation.