Beginning with the immortal line, “THESE are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis, No. I” holds a revered place in American History. Composed as a patriotic rallying cry for a weary army, and to reject and refute British arguments for American surrender, Paine published the first pamphlet in the series on December 19, 1776.
His timeless words hold a lot of wisdom for us today.
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 his 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
When these phrases appeared for the first time, General Washington’s troops were encamped at McKonkey’s Ferry on the Delaware River opposite Trenton, New Jersey. In August, they had suffered humiliating defeats and lost New York City to British troops. Between September and December, 11,000 American volunteers gave up the fight and returned to their families.
Washington knew that without an upswing in morale and a significant victory, the Revolution would come to a swift and humiliating end.
Paine, as he did in January of that year with the publication of Common Sense – once again rose to the historic task.
He reminded the people that even if British offers of some concessions seemed reasonable in the face of such difficult circumstances, they still claimed total power over the people and the states:
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.
Paine certainly acknowledged a lot of the difficulties they were facing – and then went into some details of the retreat to the Delaware – he saw things first hand since he was at Fort Lee under Nathanel Greene. He then ripped into the Tories – American colonists who were staying loyal to the Crown.
a noted one, who kept a tavern at Amboy, was standing at his door, with as pretty a child in his hand, about eight or nine years old, as I ever saw, and after speaking his mind as freely as he thought was prudent, finished with this unfatherly expression, “Well! give me peace in my day.” Not a man lives on the continent but fully believes that a separation must some time or other finally take place, and a generous parent should have said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace;”
He then made the case that part of the reason they were having trouble is that the Patriots actually didn’t want war in the first place.
America did not, nor does not want force; but she wanted a proper application of that force. Wisdom is not the purchase of a day, and it is no wonder that we should err at the first setting off.
He continued with what I think is one of the greatest quotes in history – a rare thing today, being both antiwar and in support of the right to take up arms in self-defense.
My own line of reasoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light. Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to “bind me in all cases whatsoever” to his absolute will, am I to suffer it?
Paine concluded with a few paragraphs of encouragement and a vivid description of what would happen if colonists acted like cowards and gave up.
But for us today, this next quote is really a great reminder. Since whenever we take a position that doesn’t fit with the establishment line, we’re attacked and called things like “racists” or “commies” or “neoconfederates!” They call us anti-government, dangerous and radical. Paine, of course, received the same kind of treatment:
Let them call me rebel, and welcome, I feel no concern from it
Like Paine – we welcome their attacks, because you don’t catch flak if you’re not over the target.
At the end of the day – we’re facing the largest government in the history of the world, as Paine was in his day. So the message remains the same: The road is going to be bumpy, but stay the course!
Please do check out this Path to Liberty Podcast from our archives for a deeper dive into this essential history. There, you’ll find both video and audio versions of the show – and if you prefer reading – there’s a bunch of original source documents so you can read and learn more – in context – on your own time.
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