Washington on why the war has not been lost: Americans’ "national virtues" have "frustrated the designs of the enemy"
This letter formerly belonged to Signer of the Declaration Caesar Rodney
After winning the Battle of Brandywine and outmaneuvering American forces, on September 26, 1777, the British marched into the rebel capital of Philadelphia. Congress fled west to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and then on to York. Two months later, while the British enjoyed the luxuries of Philadelphia, General George Washington and his Continental Army encamped at Valley Forge, west of the city, to endure that fateful winter there. The British fully expected that holding the enemy capital would end the war, as was generally the case in 18th century warfare, and this belief was fortified by their seeing Congress on the run and the Continental Army cold and starving out in the open. But the Americans’ determination frustrated that expectation. In fact, in February 1778, the fledgling United States negotiated an alliance with France, which the British knew from 400 years experience was a formidable foe. And in addition to its army, the French had a strong navy easier capable of making itself a factor in American waters.
France's entry into the war forced a change in British war strategy, and the ministry in London ordered its chief commander in America, Sir Henry Clinton, to abandon Philadelphia and defend New York City, now vulnerable to French naval power. On June 18, 1778, the British army evacuated the city and retired towards New York. The next day, the Continental Army left Valley Forge in pursuit. On June 28, the armies met at the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. During the fray, Washington rode through the ranks on his white charger, inspiring the soldiers with his confidence. So much so that Lafayette said, “"I thought then as now I had never beheld so superb a man.” The result was an American victory, though the British escaped to New York. It was the last major battle of the Revolution in the north.
Washington followed the British and made his headquarters at West Point, north of New York City on the Hudson River. There he remained for months, keeping an eye out on the British and waiting for the French to arrive. By the end of July, Congress returned to Philadelphia, which again became the capital.
In December 1778, Washington left his New York headquarters for his first visit to Philadelphia since the British left and the city resumed its place as the nation’s capital. He was there from December 22, 1778 to February 3, 1779, and his purpose was to confer with Congress on the state of the army and discuss plans for the 1779 campaign. On December 22, the day of his arrival, he was given an enthusiastic reception; and two days later he visited Congress to general acclaim. On December 29, the magistrates of Philadelphia, who were the persons governing the city, addressed Washington saying: “We, the Magistrates of the city of Philadelphia, with hearts warm with affection and veneration, beg leave to address and congratulate your Excellency on your arrival here in health, after the fatigues and dangers of two important campaigns, wherein you have defeated the designs of a cruel invading enemy, sent by the unrelenting King and Parliament of Britain to enslave a free people.By the vigilance and military prowess of your Excellency and the brave Army under your command, we now in this city enjoy peace, freedom and independence; and we hope, worthy Sir, that you will see the same completely established throughout the Thirteen United States, which will redound immortal honor to you, Sir, and to your country for so great and good a man.”
Washington responded the next day, and this is the original of his historic reply. Autograph Letter Signed, Philadelphia, December 30, 1778. “I return you my warmest thanks for the honor you do me in your obliging address. Such a distinguished proof of the affection of my fellow citizens manifested by so respectable a body as the Magistrates of the city of Philadelphia cannot but afford me the most sensible pleasure. I congratulate you Gentlemen that this State is again in possession of its Capitol; and I sincerely hope that a persevering exercise of the same national virtues which have hereto frustrated the designs of the enemy will perpetuate to this city a full enjoyment of all the blessings which have been the objects of the present glorious and important contest.” The letter is bound in crimson full morocco, with gilt lettering on the sides and spine, with a hand drawn title page, printed transcript, and an engraved portrait bound in. It was formerly part of the collection of lumber mogul David Gage Joyce. It is worth noting that some sources quoting this well-known letter misdate it as December 25 rather than 30.
The reoccupation of Philadelphia and its resumption as the nation's capital ranks as one of the most important moments of the war, as it rekindled American confidence and fortified American courage at a crucial moment. This letter, written on his first visit to Philadelphia after that event, was directed expressly at the city's leaders as surrogates for its citizens. It is reflective of Washington’s character that he was humbled by the affections shown him by the people. Washington's use of the words "glorious" and "important" reflect his own, personal view of the great struggle, and are of enormous significance. Moreover, a search of public sale records going back 40 years fails to disclose his use of both words on any other letter or document on the market; he used "glorious" in exulting over the French alliance, and "important" as part of his first Inaugural Address. His use of “glorious” with “contest” is reminiscent of his general orders to the army after the Declaration of Independence in August 1776, which read, “The General flatters himself, that every man’s mind and arms, are now prepared for the glorious Contest, upon which so much depends.” And finally, the vast majority of Washington's wartime letters were penned for his signature by aides; his ALSs with any good content from the war are extremely uncommon.