AN INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS FLEMING, AMERICAN HISTORIAN September 2, 2014
A CONTEMPORARY PRINT OF THE SURRENDER OF CORNWALLIS. IN TRUTH, CORNWALLIS WAS NOT PRESENT AT THE SURRENDER, CLAIMING ILLNESS, AND SENT HIS SECOND IN COMMAND, GENERAL CHARLES O'HARA.
KING OF FRANCE, LOUIS XVI.
THIS UNFINISHED PORTRAIT OF AMERICAN SIGNATORIES - BRITAIN'S REPRESENTATIVES DECLINED TO POSE - BY CONTEMPORARY ARTIST BENJAMIN WEST, DEPICTS, LEFT TO RIGHT, JOHN JAY, JOHN ADAMS, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, HENRY LAURENS, AND WILLIAM TEMPLE FRANKLIN. PHOTO AND CAPTION: COURTESY OF HTTP://XENOPHONGROUP.COM/MCJOYNT/1783_TREATIES.HTM
QUEEN OF FRANCE, MARIE ANTOINETTE, AFTER A PORTRAIT BY ELISABETH VIGEE-LEBRUN.
Editor’s Note: On September 3, 2014, America celebrates a largely forgotten, but an epochal anniversary: The 231st anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, in which Great Britain formally acknowledged the independence of the United States.
In the two-year period between Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown in October 1781 and achieving our independence in September 1783, there were many military, political and diplomatic setbacks in our fight for independence. Contrary to popular sentiments at the time in the wake of the British surrender, the war’s successful conclusion was by no means inevitable. Lack of funds to finance Washington’s army, bitter political infighting in our nascent Congress, and the clash of personalities among patriots all combined time and again to almost derail America’s quest for liberty.
Thomas Fleming, a distinguish American historian and best-selling novelist, author of “The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival After Yorktown”, Smithsonian/Harper Collins, 2007, below depicts the hard-fought battles, the unrelenting political intrigues and delicate diplomatic talks that ultimately won our independence from King George III.
Question: Would you describe the set of challenges that the Revolution –and General Washington especially – faced after the great American-French victory at Yorktown?
Answer: Washington feared that Yorktown would convince many Americans that the war was over. This was anything but the case. The British still had 25,000 well-trained troops in America. The combined American and French regular armies barely totaled 10,000 men. In Philadelphia, the Continental Congress was torn by pro and anti French factions. In London, King George III grimly resolved to continue the fight. In Paris, King Louis XVI and his ministers faced imminent bankruptcy and were talking about a compromise peace that would leave the British in possession of Georgia, South Carolina, and the lower counties of New York, including New York City.
Q: Would you tell us about Washington’s relationship to young Lafayette?
A: The forty-nine year old Washington had no children. The nineteen-year-old Marquis’s father had been killed in battle when he was two years old. Washington was charmed by the passion and courage with which the young French nobleman embraced the American cause. When Lafayette was wounded at the battle of Brandywine in 1777, Washington told an army doctor to “take care of him as if he were my own son.” Lafayette was soon calling Washington “my adopted father.” It was an intimacy that transcended politics.
Q: In Washington’s army “family,” there were several aides who also won his affection. Could you tell us about some of them?
A: Perhaps the least known was Tench Tilghman, a thirty-five year old Philadelphia merchant with family roots in Maryland. He served without pay (like Washington) for six long years. Washington gave him the honor of carrying the dispatch informing Congress of the Yorktown victory to Philadelphia. Another important man was 26-year-old Alexander Hamilton, who played many roles, from ghostwriter to political advisor.
At Yorktown he led the climactic assault on a key British redoubt, forcing Cornwallis to surrender. In the 1790s he won fame as President Washington’s brilliant Secretary of the Treasury. Another man Washington liked was Connecticut born David Humphreys. He was given the honor of carrying the flags of the captured British regiments to Philadelphia. Later he accompanied the General to Annapolis where he resigned his commission in 1783. None of these men achieved the father-son intimacy Lafayette won with his “adopted father” but all of them, especially Hamilton, made large contributions in the struggle for independence.
Q: Could you sketch Lafayette’s role in the run-up to peace negotiations with the British?
A: Lafayette was a crucial voice at the start of the post-Yorktown years. As he prepared to return to France, Washington wrote him a very serious letter, urging him to tell Louis XVI that the war was far from won and both nations would have to maintain a strong fleet as well as an army in America if they hoped to win. Wearing the uniform of an American major general, Lafayette’s arrival in Paris in 1781 caused a sensation. He joined Ambassador Benjamin Franklin in persuading the French to give the Americans an additional loan of 12,000,000 livres (about four million dollars) to keep the Revolution from collapsing. During the next months, Lafayette was consulted by both sides in the peace negotiations with the British, when their delegation came to Paris.
Q: Why is Lafayette not better known – and more appreciated—in the United States?
A: Lafayette was once extremely well known. When he returned in 1824 to help celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of Independence, he drew immense crowds in every city he visited. But in France, his fame has been damaged by the turbulent politics of the 1789 French Revolution. Lafayette and his allies lost control of that upheaval and it turned into a bloodbath (known as the Terror), forcing him to flee the country. Some radical Frenchman still view him with dislike. This may have affected his status among some Americans. But anyone who studies the Revolution soon comes to appreciate him.
Q: How much credit does Lafayette merit for America’s independence?
A: A great deal. He – and his wife Adrienne’s influential family – were crucial voices in persuading France to sign a treaty of alliance with the American Revolutionists in 1778. The Marquis’s heroics on the battlefield won him great popularity – which helped change public opinion in France and thus influenced King Louis XVI and his cautious ministers.
In 1781, the Marquis was received by the King and Queen Marie Antoinette at their Versailles – a crucial statement of royal support for the struggling Americans. It is not too much to say without Lafayette, there would have been no French alliance and no American independence.
Q: In both America and France, Lafayette campaigned all his life for liberty and democratic principles – universal suffrage, an end to slavery, even to some extent for women’s rights. Was he a bit –or a lot — ahead of his times?
A: He was only a bit ahead on universal suffrage. He was one of many voices pushing this idea. But he was a far ahead in calling for an end to slavery. Washington was shocked at first when Lafayette told him he would never have drawn his sword for America if he knew he was founding “a republic of slavery.” Lafayette’s stand changed Washington’s mind. When he became president, he began urging Americans to do something about slavery — and, don’t forget, he freed all his slaves in his will.
In my book, A Disease in the Public Mind, I call Washington our “forgotten emancipator.” Lafayette deserves the credit for this transformation. As for women’s rights, I’m inclined to think the intense love he felt for his wife Adrienne was a step in this direction, at least in France. It was not fashionable to love one’s wife in aristocratic French circles.