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Men of the Revolution: Cornwallis
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
Out in India he set to work with characteristic vigor, instituting drastic civil and military reforms in Bengal; and when Tippoo Sahib of Mysore attacked a British ally in 1790, Cornwallis personally took command of the army, conducted a careful, well-conceived campaign, and two years later defeated Tippoo, finally breaking the power and prestige of the Mysore dynasty for good. (In addition to ceding half of his territories, Tippoo was forced to pay indemnities amounting to £3,600,000, and a grateful government awarded over £47,000 of it to Cornwallis, who promptly donated the entire amount to his troops.)
His job done, he returned to England in 1794 to be made master general of ordnance with a seat in Pitt’s cabinet, and he was entrusted with the defenses of the country against an anticipated invasion by Bonaparte that failed to materialize. In 1798 Pitt turned to him again to perform a thankless task: the government badly needed a soldier-statesman to restore peace in Ireland, and Cornwallis was made viceroy and commander in chief of the British forces there. His immediate task was to suppress the rebellion, which he executed with dispatch; next he put the Act of Union into effect and in the meantime, having perceived that the Irish parliament did not represent the people of the country, urged its abolition and championed the right of Irish Catholics to sit in Parliament. But George III refused to hear of this, and in 1801 Cornwallis resigned. Back in England he learned that he had been appointed British plenipotentiary to negotiate a peace with Napoleon. Unhappily Cornwallis was neither a diplomatist nor a match for the combined wits of Joseph Bonaparte and Talleyrand, and the Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802, proved to be a truce, not a peace.
For three years Cornwallis was permitted to rest; then came another urgent summons from the government, requesting him to return once again to India as governor general and commander in chief. Now sixty-six, he regarded the undertaking-as foolhardy for a man his age; but the old sense of duty won out, and off he sailed in March of 1805, arriving to find a “most unprofitable and ruinous warfare” in India, which he moved at once to stop. Heading up the Ganges toward the scene of the fighting, he lost consciousness, and on October 5, 1805, he died.
Whether he had ever felt obliged to compensate for what occurred at Yorktown more than two decades earlier no one can say, but by his own lights a career was not measured in victories or defeats. “The reasonable object of ambition to man, ” he once wrote his son, “is to have his name transmitted to posterity for eminent services rendered to his country and mankind.”