A Tale of Two Fathers
“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
The American Crisis by Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine was born in England and emigrated to America in 1774, a time of turmoil in the colonies. Due to oppressions of King George III, or, as I like to call him, KG3, there was much unrest, and the possibility of war would soon be looming upon the horizon like the dark and ominous clouds of a hurricane.
Like many of those who preceded him, Paine was not a nobleman. Even though it was not required, he attended and graduated from grammar school and then became apprenticed to his father, a stay-maker (he made corsets). In succeeding years, young Thomas engaged in various occupations and businesses, none of which proved of much success. While in his thirties, Paine became interested in civic matters, and, in 1772, he penned his first essay, entitled “The Case of the Officers of Excise”, which advocated better pay and benefits for excise officers.
In September of 1774, Paine was introduced by a friend to Benjamin Franklin, who suggested that Paine go to America. In October, Paine, carrying a letter of introduction from Franklin, did just that, arriving in Philadelphia on November 24.
In January of 1775, Paine leveraged his ability to write by becoming editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine. By now, opposition to various British acts of oppression had risen to a high level, but it seemed disorganized, like a ship with no compass and map. Thomas Paine provided that compass and map when he wrote the pamphlet, Common Sense, which made the case, in logical and patriotic terms, for the independence of the colonies. The pamphlet was an instant success, both financially and in every other conceivable way, and it is this work that might allow Paine to lay legitimate claim, should he choose to do so, to being “the father of the American Revolution.”
Common Sense is not, however, the only writing of Paine’s that had an important impact upon the course of the Revolution. Just two days before Christmas, on December 23, 1776, Paine wrote the pamphlet, The American Crisis.
It was Christmas day in the year 1776. General George Washington and his rag-tag army was encamped on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Across the river, and down a ways, was the city of Trenton, New Jersey. The previous August, British and mercenary Hessian troops had taken the area, routing the colonial army and driving them out of the state. Now, Washington was planning to mount an assault to retake the city, but all was not well. Under Washington, the colonials had yet to win a single victory. The winter had been bitterly cold, and supplies were scarce. It is reported that some of the troops were even without shoes. There was much suffering and sickness, and morale was so low as to almost be immeasurable. To make matters worse, the enlistment terms of many of Washington’s militia members would be up in just a few days, and hope was slim that they would return in the spring.
Washington wanted to lead his men across the Delaware and into Trenton and believed that, with the element of surprise working for them, they would have a good chance to take the city, but the wind was strong, the river icy and rough, and any attempted crossing would be fraught with peril. The general was not at all sure that his men would even follow him. How could he convince them to put aside their suffering yet again and embark with him upon this perilous journey?
Then, he remembered something that had only just recently come into his hands, so he reached into his pocket and retrieved his folded and wrinkled copy of Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis and began reading. As he read the first line yet again, he knew instantly what he must do. So, he called his men together so that he could address them. They gathered ’round as best they could and then watched as Washington lifted that which he had in his had and began to read. Those who were close enough so that the wind did not drown out his voice heard their general read the following words, and I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit that I still get chills every time I read them:
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 by 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 every thing 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 . . .
Afterward, the men did, indeed, follow Washington and all loaded into frail wooden boats for the dangerous journey across the icy and angry river. During the course of the evening, 2400 men would cross the river and then assemble on the other side to begin the nine mile march to Trenton. The rest is, as they say, history. Led by Washington, the colonials retook the city of Trenton with relatively light casualties on both sides.
As victories go, this one was minor, but it was huge in the sense that it provided the spark of inspiration that had been so badly needed. Many militia would return in the spring, and some would even sign up for longer terms. The colonists had at last headed down the road toward victory in the war for independence.