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After eight years of war, the Treaty of Paris in 1783 recognized the independence of the United States and awarded it an enormous territory stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. However, the 1783 treaty created difficulties as well as opportunities for the new nation.

While American patriots celebrated, Americans loyal to the British government and slaves seeking freedom left with the British military forces. Britain’s Native American allies refused to surrender, and potentially hostile Spanish colonies became the southern and western neighbors of the United States. Prosperity remained elusive. Americans could determine their own destiny but the course of that destiny was uncertain.

“Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence.”

George Washington, Address to Congress, December 23, 1783

Franco-American Cooperation Secures Victory

Although the French military in America initially did not want to travel south to engage British forces under General Charles Cornwallis (1st Marquis Cornwallis, 1738–1805), they finally agreed to General George Washington’s plan.

The result was an overwhelming Franco-American victory at Yorktown, Virginia, that proved to be the climactic battle of the American Revolution.

Sebastian Bauman. Plan de l’investissement de York et de Glocester, October 22–28, 1781. Philadelphia, 1782. Hand-colored printed map. Rochambeau Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (40) [Digital ID# ar147100]

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French and American Forces Corner British at Yorktown

French and American army units used the area around Williamsburg, Virginia, as a base of operations against Lord Cornwallis’s British army, finally trapping him at nearby Yorktown. This topographic map of the area around Williamsburg provides military information and the location of numerous estates, hamlets, and other places of interest.

Jean Nicolas Desandroüins. Armée de Rochambeau, 1782. Carte des environs de Williamsburg en Virginie où les armées françoise et américaine ont campés en Septembre 1781. Ithaca, N.Y.: Historic Urban Plans, 1775 [1782]. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (40.03.00) [Digital ID# ar146100]

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John Paul Jones Challenges British Navy

American’s fledgling navy struggled against the mighty British fleets during the American Revolution. John Paul Jones (1747–1792), commander of the American frigate, Bonhommne Richard, accompanied by a small squadron, challenged the British Navy in its home waters. Jones’ ship and the HMS Serapis, under British Commander Richard Pearson (1731–1806) fought an epic battle off the Yorkshire coast of England in 1779. This vue d’optique (optical view) depicts the famous naval battle, during which the out gunned and out numbered Jones answered a British demand for surrender with “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt. Combat memorable entre le Pearson et Paul Jones. Hand-colored etching after a painting by Richard Paton. Augsbourg: ca.1779. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (40.04.00) [Digital ID# cph.3b49755]

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Discover!

General Cornwallis’s Surrender

In this British cartoon, Lord Cornwallis (1738–1805) surrenders to the Americans pictured in the background, while the foreground is occupied by an Englishman and the British lion, whose paw has been injured by a broken teapot and a cow representing “British commerce” being robbed of her milk by Spain, France, and Holland, all supporters of the American cause during the Revolutionary War.

York Town. [London, 1781]. Etching. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (41) [Digital ID# ppmsca-15706]

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John Paul Jones, Naval Hero of the American Revolution

His actions in the battle off the Yorkshire coast established John Paul Jones as America’s first well-known naval hero. Captain Jones presented this memoir of his exploits against Great Britain to King Louis XVI of France in 1787. Jones hoped for a commission in the French Royal navy but was left disappointed. Jones’s memoir remains one of the most stirring accounts of naval warfare during the American Revolution.

John Paul Jones. “Memoire of the American Revolution.” Manuscript. John Paul Jones Papers in the Peter Force Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (041.01.00) [Digital ID# us0041_01]

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Washington Records British Surrender at Yorktown

General George Washington made a laconic in his diary on October 17, 1781, after French and American military forces cornered and forced the surrender of a British army under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington noted: “A desire to spare the further effusion of Blood would readily incline me to treat of the surrender.” The victory forced the British to increase their negotiations for peace.

George Washington. Diary entry for October 17, 1781. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (42) [Digital ID# us0042]

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After British Surrender at Yorktown

On October 16, 1781, British forces made their final failed attempt to break out of the Franco-American siege at Yorktown, leading to Lord Cornwallis’s surrender. Peace prospects brightened after the British armed forces surrender to the French and American military forces led by George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19, 1781. Washington’s laconic entries may have reflected a state of mind resigned to more years of warfare.

George Washington. Diary entry for October 16, 1781. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (42.00.02) [Digital ID# us0042_02]

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Preliminary Articles of Peace

On November 20, 1782, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens signed the preliminary articles of peace between the United States and Great Britain, ending the war for American independence. The treaty recognized American independence and gave the new United States a broad swath of territory east of the Mississippi River.

Preliminary Articles of Peace, November 30, 1782. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (043.00.04) [Digital ID#s us0043p6, us0043p1, us0043p2, us0043p7, us0043p8]

Read the transcript

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Washington Leads America into Peace

After leading the American forces to victory in the American Revolution, General George Washington resigned his commission as commander in chief of all America’s armed forces in this speech to Congress on December 23, 1783. Washington embraced the role of America’s Cincinnatus, leading the way into a peaceful nation under civilian authority. 

After being made dictator during a wartime crisis, the Roman general Cincinattus resigned his absolute authority immediately after victory and returned to being a farmer, just as Washington returned to farming at Mt. Vernon.

George Washington. Address to Congress, December 23, 1783. Manuscript document. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (44) [Digital ID#s us0044, us0044_1]

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Washington’s Letter to the States

In preparation for resigning as commander in chief of America’s armed forces, George Washington wrote to the state governments announcing that “the great object for which I had the honor to hold an appointment in the Service of my Country, [has been] accomplished. . .” Washington could not resign for another six months.

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  • Letter from George Washington to the States, June 8, 1783. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (44.01.03) [Digital ID# us0044_01p3]

    Read the transcript

  • Letter from George Washington to the States, June 8, 1783. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (044.01.02) [Digital ID# us0044_01p4]

    Read the transcript

  • George Washington. Address to Congress, December 23, 1783. Manuscript document. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (044.01.01) [Digital ID# us0044_01p2]

  • Letter from George Washington to the States, June 8, 1783. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (44.01.00) [Digital ID# us0044_01p1]

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Washington Cites Importance of Religious Freedom

George Washington, one of the most religious of the founders of the United States, assured the Dutch Reformed ministers of Kingston, New York, that “Convinced that our Religious Liberties were as essential as our Civil, my endeavours have never been wanting to encourage and promote the one, while I have been contending for the other.”

Letter from George Washington to the Ministers of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church at Kingston, New York, November 16, 1782. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (45) [Digital ID# us0045]

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America Triumphant

This allegorical print depicts American prosperity and victory over England, with Britannia weeping at the loss of America and her trade, while French, Spanish, and Dutch ships fill American harbors. America is represented by the Roman goddess Minerva, seated beneath a tree with a shield bearing a snake, while Fame proclaims the joyous news of American victory.

America Triumphant and Britannia in Distress” in Weatherwise’s Town and Country Almanack. [Boston: 1782]. Etching. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (041.03.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca.24328]

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Franco-American Alliance under Attack

The alliance of France and the United States had already produced the pivotal victory of the war at Yorktown, Virginia, when a British satirist published this belated pictorial attack. This etching shows a rattlesnake, representing the United States, giving a basket of frogs to a Frenchman. A short verse advises Britain to use the peace negotiations to drive a wedge between France and America.

The American Rattlesnake Presenting Monsieur His Ally a Dish of Frogs. [London]: J. Barrow, November 8, 1782. Etching. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (041.02.00) [Digital ID# cph 3a05327]

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Great Britain Faces Humiliation at Loss of American Colonies

British ministers, clergymen, and government supporters shift from insolence to humiliation in this pair of satirical cartoons. In The Hour of Insolence, Lord Frederick North (1732–1792), other ministers, and two clergymen look haughtily at a map of North America. In The Hour of Humiltation, the same ministers stand in front of the same map, appearing dejected, while Lord North, who resigned as British exchequer on March 1782, disappears into the background, as the British face defeat at the hands of the American revolutionaries.

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Surrender of Earl Cornwallis and His British Army at Yorktown

When French forces agreed in 1781 to joint operations against the British in Virginia, the stage was set for the climactic battle of the American Revolution. British General Earl Cornwallis’s surrender of his large British army and naval forces at Yorktown, Virginia, on October 19, 1781, marked the end of large-scale fighting during the American Revolution. In this imaginative engraving General Cornwallis is shown presenting his sword while George Washington, holding his hat in his left hand, and other French and American officers look on. In the background, an allegorical scene represents justice, prosperity, and liberty.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co. The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781. Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (045.01.00) [Digital ID# pga-03352]

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Return to Creating the Declaration of Independence List Previous Section: Founded on a Set of Beliefs | Next Section: Declaration Legacy

Sections: Creating the Declaration of Independence | Creating the United States Constitution | Creating the Bill of Rights