What does Paine mean when he refers to "the summer soldier" and "the sunshine patriot"?
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Basically, what Paine is referring to here is what we would call "fairweather friends" or people who like to hop on bandwagons. He is referring to people who would only support the patriots' cause if that cause seemed to be winning. Otherwise, such people would abandon the cause.
This meaning can be seen from the context in which these words are written. Paine starts this particular piece by saying
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.
What he is saying is that there are many people who will "shrink" because the patriot cause is not doing well. He is saying that these hard times will make many give up (this is in December of 1776 and the war is not going well). He contrasts those people with the true patriots who continue to support the cause even when things look bad.
So, the phrases you use are meant to denigrate people who are not really dedicated to the cause of independence--those who only support it in good times (summer and sunshine).
The previous post was quite lucid. I would only like to add that the idea of the “bandwagon” soldier, as seen in the “summer soldier” and “the sunshine patriot,” is meant almost as a challenge to the Colonial soldiers in the most challenging of circumstances. Paine is attempting to bring out the idea that struggle, pain, and sacrifice are almost inherent in the fight for Colonial freedom. The ease with which many thought that the war would have success was rebuked harshly in the early days. In differentiating between the “true” soldier and the more “phony” one, Paine is able to make the argument that the fight for freedom has to come at great cost and great sacrifice, justifying the struggle of the early days of the war. When Washington decides to read excerpts of Paine’s work to the soldiers at night, he is doing so for this purpose. In critiquing the soldiers who wish to abandon the cause of freedom as labeling them as “summer soldier” and “sunshine patriots,” Paine seeks to forcefully make his point to the soldier who is sitting in Trenton on a cold winter night struggling to keep warm. Paine is speaking to this soldier, telling them that they are the “real deal” and not inauthentic, hoping to provide some comfort in this time that “try men’s souls.”
Perhaps Paine was one of the few people in the revolutionary period who understood what sacrifices were going to be required if they were going to successfully pursue independence. Most of Paine's writings at this time were trying to clarify the revolutionary cause and to prepare people for what was expected and necessary to follow it to its conclusion.
He means the people who don't lose anything in following the crowd as long as everything is rosy and uneventful. The minute something goes wrong and events go south where risks are involved, these "summer soldiers" run for the hills (or Canada) and the "sunshine patriots" fade into the woodwork and fly under the radar so no one notices them. Not the kind of folks that you can count on to have your back in a pinch.
Yes, these terms refer to the kind of people who are happy to stand for something and be counted as believing in it as long as they have no personal price to pay themselves. As soon as their position results in sacrifices having to be made or a cost needing to be paid, they are quick to desert that position.
As The Crisis was written in December 1776, there is also a very literal sense in which Paine means the "summer soldier" and "sunshine patriot." The American soldiers were poised to battle through the long and bitter Northern winter months. It would prove to be gruelling with shortened food supplies and inadequate gear of blankets, clothing and shoes. The "summer soldier" and "sunshine patriot"--those who favor a convenient war that is fought quickly and with little or no personal discomfort--would have neither the heart nor fortitude to undergo and withstand what Paine envisioned was about to come. Paine's aim was to rally the forces to withstand the times ahead for the cause that was before them--independence. For this reason Paine also wrote "those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it"--they must be winter soldiers and snowfall patriots in order to attain freedom.
Since I have little to add to the splendid answers given above, I thought I'd do some digging around on the internet and see how this phrase has been discussed by others. Below are some shortened links that may be useful to you.
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Interestingly, this passage from Paine is more often quoted than analyzed. The link above is one of the few analyses of it I could find, and in that case it is analyzed rhetorically.
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