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WAR: 1775-1783

9. Winning the War



The Revolutionary War had lasted six years—from the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 to Cornwallis's surrender in 1781—and peace negotiations had dragged on for another two years. Finally, on September 3, 1783, the final treaty was signed in Paris, and it was no mere truce between fighting nations weary of combat. The United States had won. Britain had lost. The stunned and reduced imperial power agreed to recognize the thirteen states as "free, sovereign and independent" (not just autonomous within the empire), relinquish all territorial claims to its former colonies, evacuate its military forces, and allow Americans fishing rights in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland (a critical issue). Here we look at America's victory from the dark days of 1780 through the arduous months of treaty negotiations to the official end of the war.

  • Governors' appeals for citizen unity in the war effort, 1780-1781, selections. As often happens in war, the Revolutionary War lasted longer and brought more hardship and discord than envisioned in the heady days of 1775-76. Patriot leaders, fearing a collapse of the war effort in the early 1780s, urged citizens to rededicate themselves to the cause of liberty, disavow self-serving actions that helped the enemy, and bring a swift victorious end to the war. The two "exhortations to renewed vigor" excerpted here were issued by the governors of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, John Reed and John Trumbull (not the artist whose work is presented in this section). How did they inspire duty and hope on one hand and tap anger and vengefulness on the other? What did they ask the people to do and not to do? How did they explain the failure of state governments to maintain order and justice consistently? We recommend reading the appeals aloud to emphasize their cadence and urgency. (2 pp., Library of Congress).

  • Satirical epitaph for King George III PDF file
  • Satirical epitaph for King George III after the defeat of Britain, broadside, 1782. In 1782, after the defeat of Britain and the commencement of peace negotiations, the Philadelphia printer Francis Bailey published a triumphant in-your-face broadside condemning King George and heralding the victor "A M E R I C A." As official printer for Congress and Pennsylvania during the war, Bailey had published many official documents including the Declaration of Independence, and he may have penned this scathing and provocative satire. It's quite a piece: in one page it encapsulates the history of the Revolutionary period, voices the Patriots' utter contempt for British leadership, and celebrates in verbal fireworks and graphic flourish the triumph of the "thirteen glorious republics." Again, we recommend that you read Epitaph aloud, with dramatic excess. (7 pp.)

  • Benjamin Franklin, letters from Paris on the peace process PDF file
  • Benjamin Franklin, letters from Paris on the peace process, 1781-1784. Franklin spent almost one third of his life in Europe serving as a diplomat for the American colonies (seventeen years in England) and for the United States (nine years in France). In 1776 he arrived in Paris as the first diplomat representing the newly declared United States of America, and he single-handedly (with a morale boost from the American victory in the Battle of Saratoga) achieved the 1778 alliance with France that turned the tide of the American Revolution (see #4: Sustaining the War). His final diplomatic mission was to negotiate, with a team of American commissioners, a peace treaty with Britain to solidify the goals of the revolution. To complicate the task, separate treaties had to be finalized with allies France and Spain. It was a daunting mission. In these selections from Franklin's letters, we follow the intricate obstacle-ridden process of negotiating a peace treaty. Government leaders change, negotiators change, goals change. One side tries to divide and manipulate the others. Transatlantic correspondence is dreadfully slow—orders from Congress don't arrive and peace commissioners' reports are lost (and letters are opened by spies and re-sealed). A preliminary treaty must first be signed and ratified, then the final treaty must be signed and ratified. For Franklin—in his seventies and almost a stranger to his native country—the longing to return to America was deep. And to his close friends he revealed his contempt for war: "All war are follies . . . When will man be convinced of this . . . ?" (9 pp.)

  • Zoomable maps of North America, 1783-1784. These two British maps were published as updates of previous maps to reflect the preliminary peace treaty signed in January 1783 (the final treaty was signed September 3, 1783).

    How do the maps reflect American victory from a British viewpoint? How do they differ in using color to identify the territory now recognized as the independent United States? What information is provided "in" the area of the Atlantic Ocean in each map? How would American-produced maps differ from the British maps? See Discussion Question #32 to compare these maps with earlier British maps of the American colonies. (Library of Congress; view online.)

Discussion Questions

Governors' addresses_______
  1. What factors had damaged Patriot morale and unity by 1780?
  2. How did the governors of Pennsylvania and Connecticut exhort the people to rededicate themselves to the war effort?
  3. How did they inspire duty and hope on one hand and tap anger and vengefulness on the other?
  4. What did they ask the people to do and not to do?
  5. How did they explain the failure of state governments to maintain order and justice consistently?
  6. From the appeals, compile a list of citizen actions that most distressed the state governors. What did the actions have in common? Why were they occurring?
  1. What was Bailey's goal in publishing Epitaph?
  2. To whom did he address the epitaph? Who would buy, distribute, and read it?
  3. How did Bailey use verbal and graphic excess to achieve his goal?
  4. What is the cumulative effect of his references to actual and mythical leaders?
  5. What is the cumulative effect of his references to mythical and biblical occurrences?
  6. For what effect did he occasionally use biblical language?
  7. For Bailey, what characterized the "the most wonderful Revolution"? Why was it unique in the world?
  8. What makes visual satire effective? Is Bailey's Epitaph effective satire? Why or why not?
Franklin's letters_______
  1. Overall, what did you learn about Benjamin Franklin and the diplomatic process from this selection of letters?
  2. What human and technological obstacles caused his frustrations with the peace process?
  3. What change in the process occurred in June 1782? How did Franklin respond?
  4. What did he think of Britain's behavior in the war? How directly did he express his opinion?
  5. What was his opinion of American Loyalists? of privateering? of the ally France?
  6. To what extent did Franklin's letters to his British and American correspondents differ? To his diplomatic colleagues and friends?
  7. What appeals did he make to his English correspondents? to his fellow American diplomats?
  8. Why did Franklin insist on differentiating peace from reconciliation? What did he recommend for achieving both?
  9. What did Franklin identify as "the true political interest of America"? Why?
  10. To Franklin, why was the British release of American prisoners "a kind of Acknowledgment of our Independence"?
  11. What reactions to the final treaty did Franklin predict? Why would the peacemakers be cursed?
  12. What view on warfare did Franklin express in these letters? What did he recommend to curb warfare in the future?
  13. What did Franklin wish for his personal life after concluding the treaty? Did he attain this goal?
  1. How do the maps reflect American victory from a British viewpoint?
  2. How do they differ in using color to identify the territory Britain now recognized as the independent United States?
  3. In each map, what information is provided "in" the area of the Atlantic Ocean?
  4. How would American-produced maps differ from the British maps?
  5. Compare these maps and others from the 1780s (see Supplemental Sites) with British maps produced before and after the French and Indian War (1754-1763). See the primary source collection Becoming American. How did the British perception of their "royal colonies" change in this period, as evidenced by the maps?

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?


Governors' appeals, 1780-81
Satirical epitaph for King George III, 1782
Franklin, letters on peace negotiations, 1781-84
Maps, 1783-84
 2 pp.
 7 pp.
 9 pp.
        View online.
18 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Benjamin Franklin's diplomacy in peace negotiations, overview essay by Harvey Sicherman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Avalon Project (Yale): Resources on the end of the Revolution 1776-1783: Diplomacy of the American Revolution (U.S. State Department)

John Mitchell's 1755 "red line map" used at the Paris Peace negotiations in 1782 Maps (zoomable) of North America, 1783-85, in addition to those listed above (Library of Congress) Benjamin West, The Treaty of Paris, unfinished painting, 1783 (American Heritage)

The American Revolution: 1763-1783, primary documents from The Papers of George Washington (Library of Congress) Ending the War, lesson plan (EDSITEment, NEH)

"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

– Treaty of Paris, 1783, final page with signatures (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.
Bowles's New Pocket Map of the United States . . . as Settled by the Preliminary Articles of Peace Signed at Versailles the 20th Jany. 1783, London, printed by Carington Bowles, 1784 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division, Call No. G3700 1783 .B64 Vault.
Epitaph, broadside, 1782 (detail), printed by Francis Bailey, Philadelphia. Reproduced by permission of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

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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