When a weary rider galloped into Philadelphia with word of Cornwalli’s surrender at Yorktown two hundred years ago this month, the Continental Congress was so strapped for funds that each member had to put up dollar from his own pocket to pay the messenger’s expenses.
The news he brought would have been cheap at any price. The American victory, wrote an exultant James Madison, would surely “cool the phrenzy and relax the pride of Britain.” It did just that, though a final peace and official independence were still two years away. (In this issue we tell of the near-miraculous combination of circumstances that made the American triumph possible.)
We sometimes find it hard to keep in mind the magnitude of America’s accomplishment two centuries ago, or to remember just what it was that impelled a people—or most of a people—to challenge (and outlast) the supreme might of Great Britain. The old enmity between us and England has long since healed (one wonders what the veterans of 1781 would have made of the distinctly unrepublican rapture with which millions of Americans watched the wedding of George Ill’s direct descendant last summer), but we should not forget what the initial rift was all about.
It can be seen, of course, as an unseemly squabble over tea and taxes. But it was far more than that, as both sides quickly recognized. The American Revolution was, in fact, a pivotal event in world history, not just the beginning of our own. It was, to begin with, the first war ever fought in defense of the inalienable rights of all mankind, the first whose outcome could truly be said to matter to every man and woman on earth. Thomas Paine was not the only revolutionary to see in it an opportunity to “make a world happy.”
Then, too, it was the first war ever fought by a colonial people wishing to be free: it served as the opening signal, distant now but still distinctly heard, for two centuries of revolutions, first in Europe, then in South America, most recently in Asia and Africa.
And just as those who fought and won it were the first people ever to declare that legitimate government rested on the consent of the governed, so they would soon become the first to limit the power of the state and safeguard the rights of the individual with a written constitution; the first to fashion a workable federal system; the first to proclaim religious freedom; the first to seek to establish a society based on classless equality (save for the tragic exception of black slavery).
A “mighty Revolution,” John Adams called it.
Mighty indeed. Still, it didn’t take long for some people to forget what it had all been about. On July 4, 1787—just six years after Yorktown—Dr. Benjamin Rush was already worried about the short memories of Americans. People were confusing the late war with the awesome upheaval in human affairs that it had ushered in. The Revolution is never over, he reminded us, only “the first act of the great drama is closed.”