Portrait of Thomas Paine by Laurent Dabos
Thomas Paine, in his Will, speaks of this work as The American Crisis,remembering perhaps that a number of political pamphlets had appeared inLondon, 1775-1776, under general title of “The Crisis.” By the blunderof an early English publisher of Paine’s writings, one essay in theLondon “Crisis” was attributed to Paine, and the error has continuedto cause confusion. This publisher was D. I. Eaton, who printed asthe first number of Paine’s “Crisis” an essay taken from the Londonpublication. But his prefatory note says: “Since the printing of thisbook, the publisher is informed that No. 1, or first Crisis in thispublication, is not one of the thirteen which Paine wrote, but aletter previous to them.” Unfortunately this correction is sufficientlyequivocal to leave on some minds the notion that Paine did write theletter in question, albeit not as a number of his “Crisis “; especiallyas Eaton’s editor unwarrantably appended the signature “C. S.,”suggesting “Common Sense.” There are, however, no such letters in theLondon essay, which is signed “Casca.” It was published August, 1775,in the form of a letter to General Gage, in answer to his Proclamationconcerning the affair at Lexington. It was certainly not written byPaine. It apologizes for the Americans for having, on April 19, atLexington, made “an attack upon the King’s troops from behind walls andlurking holes.” The writer asks: “Have not the Americans been drivento this frenzy? Is it not common for an enemy to take every advantage?”Paine, who was in America when the affair occurred at Lexington, wouldhave promptly denounced Gage’s story as a falsehood, but the facts knownto every one in America were as yet not before the London writer. TheEnglish “Crisis” bears evidence throughout of having been written inLondon. It derived nothing from Paine, and he derived nothing from it,unless its title, and this is too obvious for its origin to requirediscussion. I have no doubt, however, that the title was suggestedby the English publication, because Paine has followed its scheme inintroducing a “Crisis Extraordinary.” His work consists of thirteennumbers, and, in addition to these, a “Crisis Extraordinary” and a“Supernumerary Crisis.” In some modern collections all of these have beenserially numbered, and a brief newspaper article added, making sixteennumbers. But Paine, in his Will, speaks of the number as thirteen,wishing perhaps, in his characteristic way, to adhere to the numberof the American Colonies, as he did in the thirteen ribs of his ironbridge. His enumeration is therefore followed in the present volume, andthe numbers printed successively, although other writings intervened.
The first “Crisis” was printed in the Pennsylvania Journal, December19, 1776, and opens with the famous sentence, “These are the times thattry men’s souls”; the last “Crisis” appeared April 19,1783, (eighthanniversary of the first gun of the war, at Lexington,) and opens withthe words, “The times that tried men’s souls are over.” The greateffect produced by Paine’s successive publications has been attested byWashington and Franklin, by every leader of the American Revolution,by resolutions of Congress, and by every contemporary historian of theevents amid which they were written. The first “Crisis” is of especialhistorical interest. It was written during the retreat of Washingtonacross the Delaware, and by order of the Commander was read to groups ofhis dispirited and suffering soldiers. Its opening sentence was adoptedas the watchword of the movement on Trenton, a few days after itspublication, and is believed to have inspired much of the courage whichwon that victory, which, though not imposing in extent, was of greatmoral effect on Washington’s little army.
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and thesunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of theircountry; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of manand woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have thisconsolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious thetriumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearnessonly that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a properprice upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial anarticle as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army toenforce 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 thatmanner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery uponearth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power canbelong only to God.
Whether the independence of the continent was declared too soon, ordelayed too long, I will not now enter into as an argument; my ownsimple opinion is, that had it been eight months earlier, it would havebeen much better. We did not make a proper use of last winter, neithercould we, while we were in a dependent state. However, the fault, if itwere one, was all our own ; we have none to blame but ourselves. Butno great deal is lost yet. All that Howe has been doing for this monthpast, is rather a ravage than a conquest, which the spirit of theJerseys, a year ago, would have quickly repulsed, and which time and alittle resolution will soon recover.
I have as little superstition in me as any man living, but my secretopinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give upa people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish,who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamitiesof war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent. Neither have Iso much of the infidel in me, as to suppose that He has relinquished thegovernment of the world, and given us up to the care of devils; and as Ido not, I cannot see on what grounds the king of Britain can look upto heaven for help against us: a common murderer, a highwayman, or ahouse-breaker, has as good a pretence as he.
’Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run througha country. All nations and ages have been subject to them. Britain hastrembled like an ague at the report of a French fleet of flat-bottomedboats; and in the fourteenth [fifteenth] century the whole English army,after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrifiedwith fear; and this brave exploit was performed by a few broken forcescollected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc. Would that heaven mightinspire some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fairfellow sufferers from ravage and ravishment! Yet panics, in some cases,have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration isalways short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmerhabit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are thetouchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men tolight, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact,they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginaryapparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out thehidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world. Manya disguised Tory has lately shown his head, that shall penitentiallysolemnize with curses the day on which Howe arrived upon the Delaware.
As I was with the troops at Fort Lee, and marched with them to the edgeof Pennsylvania, I am well acquainted with many circumstances, whichthose who live at a distance know but little or nothing of. Oursituation there was exceedingly cramped, the place being a narrowneck of land between the North River and the Hackensack. Our forcewas inconsiderable, being not one-fourth so great as Howe could bringagainst us. We had no army at hand to have relieved the garrison, hadwe shut ourselves up and stood on our defence. Our ammunition, lightartillery, and the best part of our stores, had been removed, on theapprehension that Howe would endeavor to penetrate the Jerseys, inwhich case Fort Lee could be of no use to us; for it must occur to everythinking man, whether in the army or not, that these kind of field fortsare only for temporary purposes, and last in use no longer than theenemy directs his force against the particular object which such fortsare raised to defend. Such was our situation and condition at Fort Leeon the morning of the 20th of November, when an officer arrived withinformation that the enemy with 200 boats had landed about seven milesabove; Major General [Nathaniel] Green, who commanded the garrison,immediately ordered them under arms, and sent express to GeneralWashington at the town of Hackensack, distant by the way of the ferry= six miles. Our first object was to secure the bridge over theHackensack, which laid up the river between the enemy and us, about sixmiles from us, and three from them. General Washington arrived in aboutthree-quarters of an hour, and marched at the head of the troops towardsthe bridge, which place I expected we should have a brush for; however,they did not choose to dispute it with us, and the greatest part of ourtroops went over the bridge, the rest over the ferry, except some whichpassed at a mill on a small creek, between the bridge and the ferry, andmade their way through some marshy grounds up to the town of Hackensack,and there passed the river. We brought off as much baggage as the wagonscould contain, the rest was lost. The simple object was to bring offthe garrison, and march them on till they could be strengthened by theJersey or Pennsylvania militia, so as to be enabled to make a stand.We staid four days at Newark, collected our out-posts with some ofthe Jersey militia, and marched out twice to meet the enemy, on beinginformed that they were advancing, though our numbers were greatlyinferior to theirs. Howe, in my little opinion, committed a great errorin generalship in not throwing a body of forces off from Staten Islandthrough Amboy, by which means he might have seized all our storesat Brunswick, and intercepted our march into Pennsylvania; but if webelieve the power of hell to be limited, we must likewise believe thattheir agents are under some providential control.
I shall not now attempt to give all the particulars of our retreat tothe Delaware; suffice it for the present to say, that both officersand men, though greatly harassed and fatigued, frequently without rest,covering, or provision, the inevitable consequences of a long retreat,bore it with a manly and martial spirit. All their wishes centred inone, which was, that the country would turn out and help them to drivethe enemy back. Voltaire has remarked that King William never appearedto full advantage but in difficulties and in action; the same remark maybe made on General Washington, for the character fits him. There is anatural firmness in some minds which cannot be unlocked by trifles, butwhich, when unlocked, discovers a cabinet of fortitude; and I reckon itamong those kind of public blessings, which we do not immediately see,that God hath blessed him with uninterrupted health, and given him amind that can even flourish upon care.
I shall conclude this paper with some miscellaneous remarks on the stateof our affairs; and shall begin with asking the following question, Whyis it that the enemy have left the New England provinces, and made thesemiddle ones the seat of war? The answer is easy: New England is notinfested with Tories, and we are. I have been tender in raising thecry against these men, and used numberless arguments to show them theirdanger, but it will not do to sacrifice a world either to their follyor their baseness. The period is now arrived, in which either they orwe must change our sentiments, or one or both must fall. And what is aTory? Good God! what is he? I should not be afraid to go with a hundredWhigs against a thousand Tories, were they to attempt to get into arms.Every Tory is a coward; for servile, slavish, self-interested fear isthe foundation of Toryism; and a man under such influence, though he maybe cruel, never can be brave.
But, before the line of irrecoverable separation be drawn between us,let us reason the matter together: Your conduct is an invitation to theenemy, yet not one in a thousand of you has heart enough to join him.Howe is as much deceived by you as the American cause is injured by you.He expects you will all take up arms, and flock to his standard, withmuskets on your shoulders. Your opinions are of no use to him, unlessyou support him personally, for ‘tis soldiers, and not Tories, that hewants.
I once felt all that kind of anger, which a man ought to feel, againstthe mean principles that are held by the Tories: a noted one, who kept atavern at Amboy, was standing at his door, with as pretty a child in hishand, about eight or nine years old, as I ever saw, and after speakinghis mind as freely as he thought was prudent, finished with thisunfatherly expression, “Well! give me peace in my day.” Not a man liveson the continent but fully believes that a separation must some time orother finally take place, and a generous parent should have said, “Ifthere must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may havepeace;” and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient toawaken every man to duty. Not a place upon earth might be so happy asAmerica. Her situation is remote from all the wrangling world, and shehas nothing to do but to trade with them. A man can distinguish himselfbetween temper and principle, and I am as confident, as I am that Godgoverns the world, that America will never be happy till she gets clearof foreign dominion. Wars, without ceasing, will break out till thatperiod arrives, and the continent must in the end be conqueror; forthough the flame of liberty may sometimes cease to shine, the coal cannever expire.