Like much of our revolutionary experience, the story of Yorktown is full of fascinating details, plots and sub-plots. There's Washington's masterful concentration of the Continental Army in Virginia. He brought together elements of the army across significant distances while deceiving the British into thinking he was planning an attack on New York, and even managed a short visit to his home at Mount Vernon on the way to the fight. There's the timely arrival of the French fleet, which not only delivered key reinforcing troops, but also defeated a British fleet and blockaded the besieged garrison from the sea. There's even some Spanish gold finding its way into the pockets of American soldiers to keep them moving towards their final battle. But the real magic of our revolutionary story lies in the broader tapestry: who we were then, who we are now, and the unifying political philosophy that provides the connective tissue between past and present.
My son was about twelve when his elementary school curriculum turned to a comprehensive block on the American Revolution. Over spring break that year, he and I went on a special father-son trip: we flew to Boston and spent a day touring the battlefields at Lexington and Concord, where the Revolution began in April of 1775, then drove to Philadelphia and spent several hours touring Independence Hall, then drove to Yorktown and spent some time on the Yorktown battlefield and at Colonial Williamsburg. If you asked my son, he would probably have told you the best part of the trip was the two days riding roller coasters at the Busch Gardens near Yorktown.
But my agenda was simply to impart to him a visceral understanding of the physical geography of three key locations from the American Revolution, the time and distance relationships between those locations in the revolutionary era, and the relationships between the battles and the major political documents that shaped our country. I wanted him to know that, even though we could drive the 308-ish miles from Concord to Philadelphia in about 6 hours today, it would have taken a week or more for news of the fighting there to reach Philadelphia in 1775. Likewise, it would have taken a similar time for news of the victory at Yorktown to reach Philadelphia in 1781. I wanted him to understand that the fighting at Lexington and Concord started the war a full fifteen months before the Continental Congress published the Declaration of Independence. I wanted him to know that the significance of the military victory at Yorktown was magnified by the fact that the colonies had just ratified the Articles of Confederation seven months earlier, in March of 1781. I wanted him to understand that the United States Constitution was not drafted and signed until September of 1787, a full six years after Yorktown and four years after the end of the Revolutionary War. I wanted him to understand that, because it took so long for information to travel a few hundred miles in those days, the world was a much bigger place then, at least in terms of the kind of human contact that makes governments necessary.
Think about it. In the Revolutionary War / Articles of Confederation / Constitutional Convention era (1776-1787) it took 7-10 days to travel the 308 miles from Lexington and Concord to Philadelphia, depending on whether you rode a horse or rode in a carriage. Let’s take the low end of that range: 7 days is 168 hours. So the speed of information was roughly 2 mph. There were about 3 million colonists and slaves living under the 13 colonial governments, which controlled at most an area of about 200,000 square miles, for a population density of roughly 15 people per square mile. Without any technology for communication beyond the printing press, you could pretty much only communicate with the people within earshot. Compared to the world we inhabit today, it took a long time to communicate with any significant percentage of the population.
Today, information travels at the speed of light: roughly 671 million mph. Our country is much bigger, but so is our population, with an average density of something like 82 people per square mile, 5-ish times what it was in the revolutionary era. But modern communications and transportation technology makes a huge difference. Quite literally, we can communicate with all 310 million of our fellow citizens nearly instantaneously via television and the Internet. There are a lot more of us, and there is a much higher concentration of interactions per unit of time--the kind of interactions that make government necessary.
When the founders did get around to writing the Constitution, they listed six purposes for that Constitution: to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. After their experiment with the Articles of Confederation, they incorporated a national executive in the Constitution even though they were all wary of the notion of executive power. It is worth considering how well the government we have today achieves the purposes set forth in the Constitution, and how the evolution of that government over the past 232 years reflects the changes in communications technology, transportation technology, and population.