This post is by Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress 2013-14 Teacher in Residence.
George Washington is hailed for his leadership in the American colonies’ struggle for independence, and a key trait for any leader is the ability to build strategic alliances. France was an important ally for the colonists in the American Revolution, offering assistance at first in the form of ammunition, and weapons, and later by sending troops and ships. As the celebration of Washington’s birthday draws near, primary sources from the Library of Congress can support explorations of the role of the French in America’s victory, along with reactions to their assistance by government and military leaders, by the American people–and by Washington himself.
The painting Washington Before Yorktown (1824), by Rembrandt Peale, depicts Washington preparing for battle. Invite students to speculate on the people Peale chose to include in the picture with Washington. Appearing to Washington’s left, according to a summary of the item, are the Marquis de Lafayette and behind him, the Comte de Rochambeau, Henry Knox, and Benjamin Lincoln. To Washington’s right, on a horse, is Alexander Hamilton. Allow time for students to research each man’s role in the war.
Ask students to speculate:
- Based on this painting, what do you think Peale thought of the role France played? What details in the painting illustrate a particular view of the role of the French in the Revolution?
- Peale painted this many years after the end of the war and Washington’s death. How might the distance of time have shaped his view of the leadership of George Washington and the role of the French?
Contrast Peale’s depiction of French leaders with this cartoon of Count de Rochambeau, published during the war, in 1780.
Use questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Political Cartoons to prompt discussion about the portrayal of the French in the cartoon. Students may record their thinking on the Library’s primary source analysis tool as they observe the item, reflect on its significance, and then form questions to prompt further inquiry on the topic. Ask students how the context of the cartoon informs its perspective on the French troops and Rochambeau in particular.
Next, present students with items from The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress 1741-1799.
- In volume three of Washington’s diary in the entry for October 6, 1782, Washington details the movements of both the American and French militia during the Siege of Yorktown. To take a deeper look, use historical thinking methods to consider the significance of both the source and context of the diary entries.
- This letter, from Washington to the Comte de Grasse, invites him to meet with Washington and Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis of the British Army to negotiate the treaty. What evidence in the letter explains Washington’s rationale for the invitation?
- Closely read details in both items to answer the question: How did Washington’s position as Commander of the Continental Army inform his view of French involvement?
How does comparing these primary source items help to answer the essential question: Why is it important to consider the perspective of the creator of a primary source item?