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WAR: 1775-1783

8. Losing the War




"It is all over. It is all over," the British prime minister is reputed to have muttered repeatedly when notified of Cornwallis's surrender in October 1781.1 The news was unbelievable, despite the American resurgence after the U.S.-France alliance of 1778. As historian Robert Middlekauff describes the shock, "Few in Britain had imagined that the Americans could pull themselves together and create a central government and an army—and then fight year after year. Fewer still sensed their 'political enthusiasm,' as [Edmund] Burke had styled their near-fanaticism for self-government."2 What was the empire to do now? Equally pained while less surprised were the American Loyalists, whose treatment by Patriots during the war ranged from harassment to horror. They had lost their security, property, and American identity; many had fled to England and Canada; and some had been killed by Patriot mobs. What were they to do now? Here we sample images and documents from this crisis period for the defeated.

    British satirical rebuses PDF file
  • British satirical rebuses on the U.S. alliance with France, 1778. In February 1778, after months of negotiations in Paris, France and the United States signed a treaty of alliance, news which Britain dreaded and understood as a harbinger of defeat. Two months later, a British delegation arrived in America in a last-ditch attempt at reconciliation that Congress rejected. In May, an English husband-wife printmaking house published two rebuses satirizing the plea of the rejected mother (Britain) and the reply of the rebellious daughter (U.S.). Rebus puzzles, in which images replace words and syllables in the text, were a popular mode of satire at the time. How did the English printmakers strike a middle ground between praising Britain and condemning America? Why? See also the American negotiators' letters on the alliance in #4: Sustaining the War. (4 pp.; rebus transcriptions and "translations" included.)

  • British cartoons on Britain's defeat in the war PDF file
  • British cartoons on Britain's defeat in the war, 1782. The rattlesnake as a symbol of the American colonies originated with Benjamin Franklin's Join or Die cartoon of 1754 that depicted a fragmented snake unable to defend itself against an enemy. So in 1782, as Britain was reeling from defeat and maneuvering through treaty negotiations with the U.S. and its allies, English cartoonists relished portraying the U.S. as a vengeful and menacing rattlesnake. Europeans had long been fascinated by accounts of the rattlesnake's threat and prowess—which translated into "deceitful foe"—and yet the cartoonists' awe of the coiled muscular reptile is evident. The U.S. was a power to contend with, period, and the standard symbol of an Indian princess for "America" (as used in the rebuses above) was no longer apt.

    Rarely printed in newspapers at the time, political cartoons were usually published by printmakers as large etchings—the four in this selection average 9 x 13 1/2 inches. They were called satires or caricatures; the term cartoon was not commonly applied to such illustrations until the mid 1800s. What impressions do the cartoonists give of the U.S. and Britain in these satires? How do they characterize the nations' new relationship in 1782? How do they acknowledge that the U.S. is, indeed, a nation among nations? (5 pp.)

  • Loyalists and the defeat of Britain PDF file
  • Loyalists and the defeat of Britain: selections from letters, narratives, etc., 1782-1786. Throughout the Revolutionary period, Americans Loyalists were harassed and condemned as traitors, their homes and land confiscated, their lives threatened and sometimes taken by Patriot mobs. While most stayed in America, about ten to fifteen percent fled to England or Canada. With Britain's surrender in 1781, they faced a new challenge—accepting the finality of defeat, envisioning the future of their homeland, and rethinking the rest of their lives. These selections, compiled by historian Catherine Crary,4 reveal the anguish and anticipation of white Loyalists in the aftermath of the Revolution. Compare these Loyalist experiences with those in Theme II: REBELLION. (For the experiences of black Loyalists, see #6: Fighting the War, and Supplemental Sites below.) (8 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. How do the two rebuses reflect Britain's disdain and anxiety over the U.S. alliance with France?
  2. How did the English printmakers portray Britain as the reasonable (but controlling) mother?
  3. How did they portray the U.S. as a maturing (but misguided) juvenile?
  4. Did the printmakers favor one of the characters? What advice did they imply to each?
  5. How do you rate the rebus as a satirical device in political discourse?
  1. What impressions did the cartoonists give of the U.S. and Britain in their satirical drawings?
  2. How did they characterize the nations' new relationship in 1782?
  3. How did they acknowledge that the U.S. is, indeed, a nation among nations?
  4. Did the cartoonists favor one of the nations?
  5. Conduct research on the symbols for the U.S. used by British and American cartoonists during and after the Revolution. What do the symbols reveal about the nations' relations over the decades? (See Supplemental Sites below.)
  6. How do you rate the cartoon as a satirical device in political discourse?
  7. In what situations might the rebus be a more successful device than the cartoon? And vice versa?
Loyalist Writings_______
  1. From these selections, what overall impression do you get of Loyalists' reactions to Britain's defeat in the Revolutionary War?
  2. Did any reactions surprise you? Why?
  3. What range of reaction do you find?
  4. What did the Loyalists fear most for themselves and the U.S.? What hopes did they maintain?
  5. How would you explain that many Loyalists remained in the U.S. throughout and after the Revolution? What hints do you find in their writings?
  6. Create a dialogue among three characters—two Loyalists represented in the selections, and one of the Founding Fathers. Choose a single point to make with the dialogue. How will the dialogue begin and end? Where will it take place?

Framing Questions

  • How did Patriot leadership—military, diplomatic, and governmental—promote and hinder the war effort?
  • How did the war affect Patriots, Loyalists, Indians, African Americans, and women? How were power relationships changed?
  • How were decisions by Britain and France critical to the outcome of the war?
  • Was victory the last achievement of the thirteen colonies or the first achievement of the new nation?


British rebuses on the U.S.-France alliance
British cartoons on Britain's defeat in the war
Loyalists and the defeat of Britain
 4 pp.
 5 pp.
 8 pp.
17 pp.

Supplemental Sites

John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations (Library of Congress)

Join, or Die, 1754 cartoon by Benjamin Franklin (The History Carper)

Cartoons with symbols or persona representing the United States (Library of Congress) Loyalist (American Revolution), overview (Wikipedia)

James Rivington, "The Last Will and Testament of Congress," Loyalist satire on the end of the war, The Royal Gazette, New York, 31 Jan. 1781 (Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs)

Patriot women of Wilmington, North Carolina, petition for fair treatment of Loyalist women and children, 1782 (LearnNC)

The Black Loyalists' Exodus to Nova Scotia (

Remembering Black Loyalists: Black Communities in Nova Scotia (Nova Scotia Museum)

"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

1"Remarks on Mr. Coventry's Attempt to Identify Junius with Lord George Sackville," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 18:103 (August 1825), p. 174. The British prime minister was Lord North.
2Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 (Oxford University Press, 1982; paperback ed., 1985), pp. 575-576.
3Joan D. Dolmetsch, Rebellion and Reconciliation: Satirical Prints on the Revolution at Williamsburg (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1976), p. 1.
4Catherine S. Crary, ed., The Price of Loyalty: Tory Writings from the Revolutionary Era (McGraw-Hill, 1973).

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division:
– James Gillray (attrib. to), The American Rattle Snake, print: etching, London, 12 April 1782 (detail); LC-USZC4-4598.
– William Humphrey, The Savages let loose . . . , print: etching, London, March 1783 (detail); LC-USZC4-5256.
– Matthew and Mary Darly, rebus puzzle, "Britannia to America," engraving, 6 May 1778 (detail); LC-DIG-ppmsca-17533.

Banner image: John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, oil on canvas, 1820 (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. Capitol, Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

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