Blast from the Past: Thomas Paine on the American Crisis

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In this series, we take a look back at news coverage from the early days of the Historic Triangle.

In this essay, printed in the Virginia Gazette on Jan. 10, 1777, American author and patriot Thomas Paine writes about the crisis facing the American Revolution after George Washington’s campaigns had mostly faltered. Revolutionaries across the thirteen revolting colonies were concerned that if they failed in the attempt for liberty they would be faced with outright oppression. 

We cannot be certain that Thomas Paine or the editors at the Virginia Gazette knew of General Washington’s crossing of the freezing cold Delaware River less than three weeks before on Christmas Day. Washington’s retreat over the Delaware River is widely considered one of the most daring and brilliant strategic moves in his military career. 

the-american-crisisThe AMERICAN CRISIS

NUMBER I.

By the author of COMMON SENSE.

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. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly — ’Tis dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to set a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. 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 on earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.

Whether the independence of the continent was declared too soon, or delayed too long, I will not now enter into an argument; my own simple opinion is that it had been eight months earlier, it would have been much better. We did not make a proper use of last winter, neither could we, while we were in a dependent state. However, the fault, if it were one, was all our own; we have no one to blame but ourselves. But no great deal is lost yet; all that Howe has been doing for this month past is rather a ravage than a conquest, which the spirit of the Jersies a year ago would have quickly repulsed, and which time and a little resolution will soon recover.

I have as little superstition as any man living, but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupported to perish, who had so earnestly and so repeatedly fought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent. Neither have I so much of the infidel in me, as to suppose, that he has relinquished the government of the world, and given us up to the care of devils; and as I do not, I cannot see on what grounds the King of Britain can look up to Heaven for help against us: A common murderer, a highwayman, or a housebreaker, has as good a pretence as he.

It is surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. All nations and ages have been subject to them;  Britain has trembled like an ague at the report of a French fleet of flat bottomed boats; and in the fourteenth century the whole English army, after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrified with fear; and this brave exploit was performed by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc. Would that Heaven might inspire some Jersey maid to spirit up her countrymen, and save her fair fellow sufferers from ravage and ravishment! Yet panics in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon goes through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light which might other wise have lain for ever undiscovered.

Source: Virginia Gazette, Dixon and Hunter, Jan. 10, 1777.