The Promise of Yorktown

October 19, 2018



Remarks of President General Jonathan Woods
Yorktown, Virginia


I am delighted to be with you today.

The organization I have the privilege to represent—the Society of the Cincinnati—was founded two hundred and thirty-five years ago to perpetuate the memory of the American Revolution.

Among our founders were heroes of Yorktown—George Washington, our organization’s first president general, and Henry Knox, and dozens of other American officers, as well as General Rochambeau and his officers, and Admiral de Grasse and the officers who commanded the French fleet that made the allied victory at Yorktown possible.

They were all brave men. But they did have one fear—a fear that weighed heavily on the minds of the American officers. Many of them had served in the Continental Army since it was formed in the summer of 1775. Some of them had answered the alarm on the day the British fired on Minutemen on Lexington Green, and had spent more than six years in the army.

They had risked their lives—and had fought beside men who gave their lives—to secure the independence of the United States and establish the first great republic of the modern age. They had spent anxious days and sleepless nights in the service of that republic.

They were brave men, but they were afraid that one day we would forget the great events, the heroic deeds, and the personal sacrifices it took to establish our republic. They were afraid that if we forgot these things, that we would no longer cherish our republic and the liberty it protects. They were afraid that if we forgot the heroism and sacrifice at the dawn of our republic, those liberties would be at risk.

I think I know something about most of you. Unless you’ve stumbled in to today’s festivities by accident, or you got dragged here by someone else, you already believe. You believe that our nation’s history should be understood and appreciated. You believe that the American Revolution was a central event in that history. And you believe that the victory won by brave American and French soldiers here at Yorktown was a pivotal event in that Revolution. You believe these things or you wouldn’t be here.

You’ve come here to celebrate, to commemorate, and to reaffirm your beliefs with others who share them.

But what about the millions of other Americans who don’t share our beliefs? 

What about the millions of Americans who don’t believe, as we do, that our nation’s history should be understood and appreciated because the United States has been an example to the world of what free people can do, of what they can accomplish, and the proof for all time that people can govern themselves, without kings or princes, without dictators or tyrants?

What about the millions of Americans who don’t understand that the American Revolution secured our independence, established the first great republic of modern times, created our national identity, and expressed ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and citizenship that have shaped our history and are shaping our world?

What about the millions of Americans who don’t appreciate the remarkable men and women of our Revolutionary generation, because they haven’t been taught to respect them; because they haven’t been taught the inspiring stories of our Revolution, and to appreciate that the Revolutionary generation changed the world?

It’s our job to reach them.

It isn’t enough to come to Yorktown—the very birthplace of our republic, where men gave their lives in the climactic struggle of our War for Independence—to pay homage to their courage and idealism. We have a great task before us.

For everyone one of us here today, there are many thousands of Americans who know nothing, and care less, about the story of our Revolution. They know nothing, or next to nothing, because many of them are not being taught the truth about our Revolution. Some of them are not being taught anything about our Revolution.

The size of the problem is intimidating. There are today in the public schools of this nation between 49 and 50 million Americans between the ages of four and eighteen. They are being taught by some three million teachers, in about 100,000 public schools.

Don’t let these numbers intimidate you. We need to reach them.

We need to ensure that in those 100,000 schools, young Americans all learn that they are all the heirs to a great legacy:

  • That they are heirs to our independence, personal as well as national;
  • That they are heirs to our republic—the first government in the world to be dedicated, not to the interests of kings and aristocrats, but to the interests of ordinary people;
  • That they are all Americans, and, regardless of whether they are descended from the heroes of our Revolution or whether they just arrived in this country, heirs to the great events that created our national identity—the heroic sacrifices that made our republic a reality—sacrifices made in the homes and in the towns and om the battlefields of our Revolution—nowhere with greater consequence than here at Yorktown; and
  • That they are heirs to the great ideals for which the revolutionary generation struggled and sacrificed—Liberty, Equality, Natural and Civil Rights, and Responsible Citizenship.


It is the task of our generation, as it has been the task of every generation since our Revolution, to fulfill the promise of these great ideals—to ensure that the blessings of liberty and equality extend far beyond the limits of the eighteenth century, to defend the natural and civil rights of all, and to hold all Americans to the highest standards of civic responsibility.

How, you are asking, can we do such a thing?

How can we ensure that near 50 million young people, spread across 100,000 schools, come in contact with the history and ideals of the American Revolution?

The simple answer is that we need to start a movement.

The Society of the Cincinnati has set out to do just that, and we invite you to join us.

We have launched the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati—an advocacy organization that aims to persuade lawmakers and decision makers in our nation’s capital, in every state capital, and ultimately in every county and on every school board and in every one of those 100,000 schools that our nation’s history is important, and that the remarkable story of our Revolution is at the center of our history.

We invite you to join us—to become a part of this movement.

Success will not be easy. The time devoted to history in our classrooms has been declining for the last forty years, crowded out by other subjects. What time is left to history is often spent on the history of other nations and other cultures—all worthy of attention, of course, but not at the expense of our own history.

Success will not be easy. What time is spent on American history in many of our schools is spent teaching our young people that our history is a dark story of oppression and injustice from which we are only now emerging.

That isn’t true. And fortunately there are thousands of great teachers in this country who know this isn’t true. They need our help. We have to empower our teachers to spend more time on American history. We need to give them the support and the tools they need to teach those millions of young Americans the story of our Revolution.

We invite you to join us.

Before the American Revolution, the world was trapped in darkness and oppression. Philosophers imagined a just society, in which ordinary people enjoyed the blessings of liberty. But no such society existed anywhere in the world—a world ruled by kings and emperors and czars—monarchs who claimed to rule by the will of God. No one was truly free.

Then on the very edge of the Atlantic world, here in thirteen thinly populated British colonies, people rose up to secure their rights. Their revolution was preposterous. There were only a few thousand of them, facing the might of one of Europe’s greatest powers.

The revolutionaries had few guns and no armories to make them. They had little gunpowder and no factories to make it. They faced the world’s greatest naval power, but had no navy at all. They had no army. They had made no friends abroad. At first they fought alone.

Their greatest ally was distance. The British had to bring their armed might to bear across thousands of miles of ocean. Yet the British were determined. They sent to America the largest military expedition a European power had ever sent overseas to crush the American rebellion before it attracted the support of France.

It was all the Americans could do to keep their revolution alive. They were driven from New York, and across New Jersey. The British took New York City and the next year they took Philadelphia. The revolutionaries refused to stop fighting. Sometimes they went into battle with only a few rounds of ammunition. Some men went into battle with none. They were sustained by determination to secure their independence and to create a republic.

The French were skeptical at first, as well they might have been. But they were impressed by our determination. They began sending arms and ultimately they sent ships and men—forces that made it possible to face the British army on equal terms, and vindicate the ideal of liberty in a great military victory.

We are gathered today on the final great battlefield of that war—a battlefield where dedication and perseverance were finally rewarded. There can be no better place to dedicate ourselves to renewing understanding and appreciation of our Revolution.

The Revolution gave us our independence, our republic, our national identity, and dedicated us to ideals of liberty, equality, natural and civil rights, and civic responsibility. Those ideals have shaped our history. The revolutionaries imagined a just society built on those ideals. Their republic was far from perfect. Great injustices remained. But they laid the strong foundation on which we have been building for nearly 250 years.

Today we celebrate more than a military victory in a long-ago war. Today we celebrate the promise that victory offered our world—the promise of a society dedicated to liberty and human rights.

The victors did not imagine what Americans would make of that promise. The victors did not imagine a world in which people of all races, men and women, of all faiths, would one day live in freedom and justice. They made it possible for us to imagine such a world—a world where the ideals of our Revolution are the ideals of all mankind.

That possibility is the promise of Yorktown.

Join us to ensure that young Americans embrace that promise.

Join us to ensure that they take pride in our past, and even more pride in the great future we can build.