The Fourth of July holiday celebrates the beginning of the American Revolution, not its successful conclusion. And yet we probably would never have heard of the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Jefferson if George Washington and his French allies had not defeated the British five years later.
There were fairweather patriots even then, opportunistic Americans with a wet finger always raised to the breeze. And so the British commander, Lord Cornwallis, picked up a lot of American volunteers in the Carolinas after he had some battlefield success against the patriots.
Cornwallis at Yorktown
But the British and their Loyalists were cornered and outnumbered at Yorktown, and the French fleet blocked any potential British naval attempt to break the siege.
Even in defeat, the haughty Royalists tried to dictate terms. At the ceremony of capitulation, the British general resisted any act of submission to Washington and attempted instead to surrender his sword to the French commander, Rochambeau.
But Rochambeau understood the political importance of the moment, shook his head, and refused the sword. He gestured toward Washington, whose right it was to accept the British surrender.
Washington, in turn, refused to take the British sword. Lord Cornwallis had sent a subordinate in his place, which compounded the insult. And so Washington called Gen. Benjamin Lincoln forward to receive the sword.
It was an amazing turnabout for Lincoln who, the previous year, had been forced to surrender Charleston and its 5,500 defenders to the British commander Henry Clinton. It reminds me of when Gen. Douglas MacArthur summoned an emaciated Gen. Jonathan Wainwright to the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri to take Japan’s surrender in 1945.
High and Mighty in Defeat
It’s not unprecedented for defeated generals to cling to grandiosity even in abject defeat. As the Civil War siege of Vicksburg dragged on, starving residents slaughtered their milk cows, then their horses and mules, then their dogs. Finally they were reduced to trapping and boiling rats. Confederate Gen. John Pemberton wrote his Union counterpart Ulysses Grant that he was prepared to hold out “indefinitely” against Grant’s siege.
But Grant had learned from captured soldiers and local civilians that Vicksburg was starving. It was here that he cemented his nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant, and he squeezed Vicksburg like a python until Pemberton surrendered the city and its garrison on Fourth of July.
Whether you’re a general or a monarch, you get accustomed to deference, to having your own way. You cease to think of your privileges and prestige as the outcome of negotiation. You certainly don’t think it’s up for a vote. But that’s true of all hyper-entitled people. They rarely respect the process enough to concede defeat in a fair fight. The only legitimate outcome, for them, is to win.
Respecting the People
America has, until recently, been an exception to that pattern. There is a lovely American political tradition of high-minded concession speeches. I still remember Jimmy Carter’s wise observation after Ronald Reagan defeated him in 1980 that “in a democracy, the people always win.”
Even Al Gore, not my favorite person, gave an honorable (if overdue) concession speech after the Supreme Court ruled against him in 2000. He joked that “it’s time for me to go,” which was funny because it’s the line he and Bill Clinton used against Republicans eight years earlier.
But America has changed. Many of our neighbors don’t respect election results anymore. When Donald Trump won in 2016, Democrats wanted to surrender their sword to John McCain, Jeb Bush, anybody but the guy who won the election.
Like the ragtag frontier militiamen who tamed the British infantry, we Deplorables are considered undeserving of sovereignty, unfit for self-government. American elites are frantically importing new Tories from the Third World to denounce us, to outvote us, to help them put down our rebellion. Now it’s we who are under siege.
Decency and Patriotism Under Siege
We may have to boil a few rats, but it’s our duty to outlast the siege. We do not have a right to surrender to these people who have malignant intentions for our grandchildren. It’s time to dig deep and call on the Spirit of ’76.
As Ben Franklin reportedly said that summer in Philadelphia, “we must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”