No Paine, No Gain
Thomas Paine’s reputation preceded him. His father was a corseter in Thetford, England, Paine’s birthplace. After flunking out of school at age twelve, young Thomas apprenticed with his father, but failed at that, too. If a twentieth century man, Thomas Paine might be known as a “loser.” Thus, Paine was a corset maker’s disappointment. While still residing in England and making his way as an excise tax officer, young Thomas, at the tender age of nineteen, crossed paths with Benjamin Franklin, who brought him to Philadelphia, where he set out on the journalistic path. The rest, as they say, is history. Paine became a prolific essayist, and author of The Crisis and Common Sense.
The relevance of The Crisis is rooted in Paine’s Common Sense. The essay was the equivalent of modern day “grass roots” movement in that its circulation reached many, and the body of it penetrated the fence-sitters who waffled between loyalty to, or independence from, England. It helped them embrace the reality of the situation. Perhaps its language seemed powerful, but the power belongs to the writer. Paine worded the essay simplistically; it “spoke to the common people.”
In Common Sense, Paine reminded the colonists that monarchy equals tyranny; that although England’s form of government appeared to include checks and balances, it didn’t include input by the people. So to comment on Paine’s The Crisis, it’s prudent to consider Paine’s meaning as conveyed to the colonists in Common Sense. The pamphlet “nudged” the people into considering what they had to gain through independence from England.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” accurately depicts the inner struggle of the colonists in that they had much to consider. During the salutary neglect, colonies formed their own government and enjoyed the autonomy, yet when England reminded itself of their moneymaker across the pond, they reasserted their authority in the form of taxation. England unilaterally levied taxes on the colonists without warning. This left a bad taste in the colonists’ mouths. When the idea of separation from England spread, it created more inner turmoil. How could young America expect to defeat a country with the most powerful military in the world? What if they broke away from England only to be swallowed up by Spain or France? Some still had familial ties back in England; others felt an economic strain, particularly in the southern colonies where people actually stuck to England’s mercantilism.
There was much to consider. Would it be worth it? Paine said, “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” This served a reminder that they’ve slay the dragon previously, and survived to fight another. “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly,” meaning that accepting defeat without a struggle is a worthless endeavor. The colonists had already spread their independent wings and managed to endure to fight another. They already had proven their mettle in previous battles, having fought and captured British forts in New York, Virginia and Canada, as well as at Concord when they forced the British to retreat, and Bunker Hill, which encouraged more colonists to join the fight. Colonial women took a stand, boycotting tea drinking and the wearing of British goods, utilizing homespun cloth. Those boycotts instilled self-sufficiency; they proved that the colonists could, and would, stand on their own.
The colonists knew that what they accomplished was worth fighting to maintain. Although initially, the Continental Congress sought “a peaceful resolution” by exhibiting to George III, via the “Olive Branch Petition,” that they meant to remain loyal to the crown. However, the King’s opinion remained steadfast, that the colonists were subordinates. Parliament acted, formally declaring the colonies “in open rebellion.” England blockaded American ports, seized American ships and cargo, inadvertently leaving the colonists with little choice but to revolt.
Gen. George Washington ordered his officers to read The Crisis to their troops on the night of December 25, 1776. Under fierce weather conditions, troops stood armed and ill clothed while listening to Paine’s essay. I imagine sounds of coughing and feet stomping while clouds of frigid breaths filled the air. The essay, read in its entirety, was meant to inspire troop morale, perhaps in the sense of Bob Hope Christmas Shows of modern times. On December 26, 1776 the Continental Army went on to defeat both the British and Hessian troops, Paine’s essay purportedly written on the back of a drumhead.
At the time Washington’s job security was in question. Troop morale dwindled. The defeat at Trenton wasn’t considered a significant win, but in the end Washington continued in charge of the troops, and the Continental Army morale reinvigorated.
The power of Paine’s pen proved strong and vibrant.
Paine is my Revolutionary War hero, a man who never saw battle but proved beyond words the power of the pen.