Yorktown. It’s a name seared on to the brain of all lovers of US history. When a combination of American and French troops launched a siege upon the Virginia tobacco port in September 1781, they not only forced the British garrison stationed there into surrender, but they also wrote a new chapter in history.


That chapter would see the British, reeling from this sudden defeat, coming to the painful realisation that they could no longer stay in the fight against the American patriots. For those American colonists, victory in the American Revolution – a conflict that had raged since 1775 – was all but assured.

Yorktown was, in short, a decisive major battle of a war that would witness the birth of a nation. That’s why its name echoes down the ages.

Yet it was far from the end of the story. What happened in the immediate aftermath of Yorktown would have an enormous impact on American history – in shaping the new nation and its relationship with the rest of the world.

For a start, the war wasn’t yet technically over. There was still the small matter of the 30,000 British troops stationed in North America, occupying the seaports of New York, Charles Town and Savannah. For all the humiliation of the defeat at Yorktown, a force of that size still had the capacity to give the colonists’ leading general, George Washington, considerable headaches.

Former loyalists to the Crown were sometimes hunted down and beaten by self-styled patriots

Happily for the colonists, the British were now looking for a way out. “Oh God, it is all over!” a crestfallen British prime minister Frederick North is said to have exclaimed upon hearing of the Yorktown surrender. By April 1782, parliament had passed a resolution calling for an end to the war, with North ousted by a vote of no confidence.

More like this

Independence now seemed increasingly inevitable. But what would that independence look like? That was largely determined by the Treaty of Paris, which saw representatives of Britain’s King George III and an American delegation including founding fathers John Adams and Benjamin Franklin congregate in the French capital in 1782 and 1783 to thrash out a peace deal.

Unfriendly relations

That deal, which saw the British recognise America as an independent nation with territory stretching beyond the original land of 13 colonies to the Mississippi River in the west, has been described as “exceedingly generous”.

Generous or not, relations between the two nations remained strained to say the least. When the last British troops left New York in November 1783, they left behind them a union flag flying from a pole, and made that flag all the harder to remove by covering the pole in grease.

The withdrawal of British troops didn’t signal an end to the turbulence buffeting the new nation. Former loyalists to the Crown were sometimes hunted down and beaten by self-styled patriots, and in 1786–87, an economic crisis in Massachusetts sparked what is now known as Shays’ Rebellion, when around 4,000 men – widely made up of veterans of the Revolutionary War – became embroiled in a military confrontation with government forces over state economic policies.

But such outbreaks of violence didn’t totally dampen the optimism infusing the new nation – optimism that surged in the wake of the election of America’s first president in 1789. There was, however, always going to be one resounding winner. That was the man who’d masterminded the colonists’ campaign against the British, including the victory at Yorktown. That man was, of course, George Washington.

How America managed to down the law 

Getting each and every state to back the US Constitution was no mean feat...
The US Constitution is one of the most revered of all political documents – the backbone of the world’s most powerful nation. Yet it endured the most troubled of births.

That birth occurred in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolutionary War when, having secured their independence from Great Britain, the victorious colonists realised they needed a template for governing the new nation – a document that established the principles of the government’s relationship with its citizens. And so, in February 1787, delegates from all 13 colonies were summoned to Philadelphia to debate what the Constitution should look like. By September, they had reached an agreement and brought the Constitution to life in an official signing ceremony.

But there was a problem. A number of the former colonies were distinctly suspicious of the new document being waved triumphantly before them. They had all kinds of misgivings about its failure to protect basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, and sought to maintain more of their own prerogative. Before long, the new nation had been split into two separate factions: those who supported the Constitution (cosmopolitans) and those who didn’t (localists). America suddenly started to look divided.

So, what to do? The answer lay in the 10 amendments (known as the Bill of Rights) added in an attempt to allay the sceptics’ concerns. The states of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut had all ratified the Constitution early. Now, thanks to the amendments and a vigorous PR campaign headed by such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, other states came round. By its own terms, the minimum number of states required to ratify the Constitution was nine, and on 21 June 1788 that number was reached.



Spencer MizenProduction Editor, BBC History Magazine

Spencer is production editor of BBC History Magazine