This article is about the year 1781.
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1781 (MDCCLXXXI) was a common year starting on Monday (dominical letter G) of the Gregorian calendar and a common year starting on Friday (dominical letter C) of the Julian calendar, the 1781st year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 781st year of the 2nd millennium, the 81st year of the 18th century, and the 2nd year of the 1780s decade. Note that the Julian day for 1781 is 11 calendar days difference, which continued to be used from 1582 until the complete conversion of the Gregorian calendar was entirely done in 1929.
- July 27 – French spy François Henri de la Motte is hanged and drawn before a large crowd at Tyburn, London in England for high treason.
- July 29 – American Revolution – Skirmish at the House in the Horseshoe: A Tory force under David Fanning attacks Phillip Alston's smaller force of Whigs at Alston's home in Cumberland County, North Carolina (in present day Moore County, North Carolina). Alston's troops surrender after Fanning's men attempt to ram the house with a cart of burning straw.
- August 30 – American Revolution: A French fleet under Comte de Grasse enters Chesapeake Bay, cutting British General Charles Cornwallis off from escape by sea.
- September 4 – Los Angeles is founded as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciuncula ("City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula") by a group of 44 Spanish settlers in California.
- September 5 – American Revolution – Battle of the Chesapeake: A British fleet under Thomas Graves arrives and fights de Grasse, but is unable to break through to relieve the Siege of Yorktown.
- September 6 – American Revolution – Battle of Groton Heights: The British army attacks a fort in Groton, Connecticut.
- September 10 – American Revolution: Graves gives up trying to break through the now-reinforced French fleet and returns to New York, leaving Cornwallis to his fate.
- September 28 – American Revolution: American and French troops begin a siege of the British at Yorktown, Virginia.
- October 12 – First bagpipes competition in the Masonic Arms, Falkirk, Scotland.
- October 19 – American Revolution: Following the Siege of Yorktown, General Charles Cornwallis surrenders to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, ending the armed struggle of the American Revolution.
- October 20 – A Patent of Tolerance, providing limited freedom of worship, is approved in the Habsburg Monarchy.
- November 5 – John Hanson is elected President of the Continental Congress.
- November 29
- December – A school is founded in Washington County, Pennsylvania that will later be known as Washington & Jefferson College.
- December 12 – American Revolutionary War – Second Battle of Ushant: The British Royal Navy, commanded by Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt in HMS Victory, decisively defeats the French fleet in the Bay of Biscay.
- January 26 – Achim von Arnim, German writer (d. 1831)
- January 30 – Adelbert von Chamisso, German writer (d. 1838)
- February 17 – René Laennec, French physician and inventor (d. 1826)
- March 4 – Rebecca Gratz, American educator and philanthropist (d. 1869)
- March 13 – Karl Friedrich Schinkel, German architect and painter (d. 1841)
- April 2 – Swaminarayan,Reformer in modern Hinduism, later accepted by followers a Deity. See Swaminarayan Hinduism. (d. 1830)
- June 9 – George Stephenson, English engineer (Locomotion No. 1 & Rocket) (d. 1848)
- June 21 – Siméon Denis Poisson, French mathematician and physicist (d. 1840)
- July 6
- July 27 – Mauro Giuliani, Italian composer (d. 1829)
- September 3 – Eugène de Beauharnais, French nobleman, son of Napoleon's wife Joséphine (d. 1824)
- September 5 – Anton Diabelli, Austrian music publisher, editor, and composer (d. 1858)
- October 1 – James Lawrence, U.S. Navy officer (d. 1813)
- November 6
- November 20 – Karl Friedrich Eichhorn, German jurist (d. 1854)
- November 29 – Andrés Bello, Venezuelan poet, lawmaker, teacher, philosopher and sociologist (d. 1865)
- November 30 – Alexander Berry, Scottish adventurer and Australian pioneer (d. 1873)
- December 11 – Sir David Brewster, Scottish physicist (d. 1868)
- January 12 – Richard Challoner, English Catholic prelate (b. 1691)
- January 15 – Infanta Mariana Victoria of Spain, queen regent of Portugal (b. 1718)
- February 15 – Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, German author and philosopher (b. 1729)
- February 23 – George Taylor, American signer of the Declaration of Independence
- February 24 – Edward Capell, English critic (b. 1713)
- March 17 – Johannes Ewald, Danish national dramatist and poet (b. 1743)
- March 18 – Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, French statesman and economist (b. 1727)
- April 23 – James Abercrombie, British general (b. 1706)
- April 28 – Cornelius Harnett, American delegate to the Continental Congress (b. 1723)
- May 8 – Richard Jago, English poet (b. 1715)
- May 16 – Giacomo Puccini (senior), Italian composer (b. 1712)
- May 18 – Túpac Amaru II, rebel (b. 1742)
- May 27 – Giovanni Battista Beccaria, Italian physicist (b. 1716)
- July 18 – Padre Francisco Garcés, Spanish missionary (killed) (b. 1738)
- July 23 – John Joachim Zubly, Swiss-born Continental Congressman (b. 1724)
- September 12 – Peter Scheemakers, Flemish sculptor (b. 1691)
- September 28 – William Nassau de Zuylestein, 4th Earl of Rochford, British diplomat and statesman (b. 1717)
- October 16 – Edward Hawke, 1st Baron Hawke, British naval officer (b. 1705)
- November 4 – Johann Nikolaus Götz, German poet (b. 1721)