Written in 1776, at a time of extreme change in both Great Britain and America, “The Crisis” is a perspective on the morale in the United States during the time of the Revolutionary War, written by a man transposed from London to the United States, Thomas Paine. Paine’s insightful, yet disarmingly and painfully honest, writings would garner him the attention of men as great as George Washington, but ultimately would cause him to lose all but his closest friends. “The Crisis” is compellingly written with Paine’s attempt to improve morale in his country through brutal honesty.
Paine begins with the poetic truth – that “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The war was among them, and every citizen was feeling the ravages that come with battle, through loss of loved ones or personal property, or both. However, he reassures the reader, there is the consolation that “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph,” a phrase still often used today to buffer spirits in times of despair. Paine continues his attempt at assurance by reaffirming to a very religious population that God would not allow His people to be destroyed by military, or leave them to perish, because they had tried everything they could to avoid the war. He even goes as far as to insult his old country by saying that the king of Britain has no grounds to ask for help from the heavens, as he was a murderer and pretender.
Using a personal memory to make a point, Paine reflects on an instance in London when he saw a man who owned a tavern standing with his young son, said to be about eight or nine years old. The man remarked on the circumstances occurring between Britain and America by declaring that he wished for peace while he was alive. Paine notes that he originally felt angered by this comment, as any good parent would prefer that if there must be trouble, it would occur during their time so that their children would have peace in theirs.
However, he determined that “A man may easily distinguish himself between temper and principle,” and that temper would not help America be happy. He reasserts that if America were simply free of foreign control, she would be a happy place, free from the affairs of other countries except for trade. This, again, was his attempt to persuade American citizens to stay positive; there was hope to come if they simply kept their tempers in check and stood by their principles.
With the religious discipline of proving faith in something by action, not word, Paine implores the reader to think of what is right and what is wrong. He wants them to realize that they have a duty for the future generations to fight for what is right. His hope is to appeal to those readers who are considering seeking peace with Britain rather than continuing to fight for freedom and independence. He says, “..lay your shoulders to the wheel; better to have too much force than too little, when so great an object is at stake.” This is his plea for the common ground, for people to work together in this crisis because something so important was the ultimate prize. His next sentence, again poetic in nature, resonates as not only a plea but a dare to the people: “Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”
To ease the minds of those who felt strongly against war on the grounds of the deaths it would cause, Paine discusses the difference between a war initiated through murder versus a war begun through principle. He states that nothing, not even all the treasures in the world, could induce him to support a war begun through offensive means, but a war begun to protect his property and his people would have his full support. There is no difference in whether this is a single common man threatening him, or a king; the end result is the same. Giving allegiance to one without morals – the devil, as Paine declares – would be akin to selling your soul.
His feelings on this issue are intense and obvious, as his language turns here from academic and philosophic to vulgar and severe. “…but should I suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one, whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.” He goes on to imply that America will defeat the king and have him run, “fleeing with terror from the orphan, the widow and the slain of America.”
Finally, Paine acknowledges, with his trademark style of honesty, that there are people who are going to keep their heads in the sand and just pray that, if the enemy wins, they will be merciful. He addresses this by reminding them that one can’t expect mercy from an enemy who has proven that they aren’t even just and fair, and are willing to win through trickery and scheming. “The cunning of the fox is as murderous as the violence of the wolfe; and we ought to guard equally against both.” He again implores the citizens of America to use reason to make their decision, to remember the events of the past and the times that the king and Britain made threats and promises, terrified and seduced, and delivered only their version of peace. Concluding his essay, Paine leaves with reminders of recent victories for America and the encouragement to have hope, not fear. “By perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious issue; by cowardice and submission, the sad choice of a variety of evils…” With this, he leaves a picture of despair if the reader does not work together with the country to fight for freedom.
Paine’s essay delivered a poignant and impactful punch to the citizens of America at a time when morale was low and giving up was on the immediate horizon. Because of his revolutionary writings, many people chose to stay and fight for freedom. His honesty was sharp and painful, but exactly what America needed, and barely months later, America was signing her declaration of freedom from Britain.
About: Thomas Paine was an English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he authored the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, and he inspired the rebels in 1776 to declare independence from Britain. His ideas reflected Enlightenment-era rhetoric of transnational human rights. He has been called “a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination.”
Born in Thetford, England, in the county of Norfolk, Paine migrated to the British American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin, arriving just in time to participate in the American Revolution. Virtually every rebel read (or listened to a reading of) his powerful pamphlet Common Sense (1776), proportionally the all-time best-selling American title, which crystallized the rebellious demand for independence from Great Britain. His The American Crisis (1776–83) was a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series. Common Sense was so influential that John Adams said, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
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