By the end of 1776, the American Revolution seemed doomed after just a few months. Washington’s militia-based Continental Army had failed its critical first test, fleeing from the British after the Battle of Long Island. The army itself was short of men, training and equipment; its officers were inexperienced in combat and unable to implement orders; and because most men had enlisted for just a 12-month period, their term of service had almost expired. The Declaration of Independence and the arrival of the British invasion force had not caused support for the revolution to skyrocket, as many had hoped. Loyalist sentiment, on the other hand, seemed to be strong. When the British army took New York City, they were welcomed with parades and cheering, and it was the revolutionaries who were taunted and jeered.
Thomas Paine was travelling with the Continental Army at the time, so he was witness to their struggles and deprivations. In between the army’s retreats from Long Island, Paine began work on the first of four new pamphlets; rumour has it that he wrote his drafts using the skin of a military drum as his desk. These pamphlets were eventually titled The American Crisis. Though presented as a commentary on the ongoing situation in America, it was really a rallying cry for the revolution. Written in Paine’s inimitable style, with its catchy slogans and appeals to sentiment and patriotism, The American Crisis suggested that no matter how desperate the situation, the benefits of victory and liberty would outweigh the cost of the struggle. It began with one of the era’s best-known epithets: “These are the times that try men’s souls”. Paine suggested that those who battled on in support of the revolution were heroes; those who abandoned it now were “summer soldiers” and “sunshine patriots”, as the opening lines explain:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
A historian’s view:
“Initially the Americans seemed outnumbered, undertrained and poorly equipped. Paine told them that God took the side of those who tried to avoid war, and reminded them that the British had been beaten by lesser numbers before (and these led by a woman: Joan of Arc). He praised Washington highly while heaping disgrace upon the slavishly servile American Tories.”
While Common Sense had been a persuasive document, intent on undermining faith in colonial ties to England, The American Crisis had an inspirational function. It aimed to rally Americans to war and to persevere with the fight, even though their cause seemed hopeless. George Washington was so impressed with Paine’s words that he ordered the first pamphlet to be read to his soldiers on Christmas Day, 1776, prior to the Battle of Trenton. Along with victory in that battle and other signs of changing fortune, the stirring language of The American Crisis helped fortify those engaged in revolution, as well as solidifying Paine’s reputation as a propagandist.