What is Thomas Paine saying in The American Crisis?

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Paine published The American Crisis No. 1, by far the most famous of the pamphlet series, in December of 1776, a time in which American fortunes in the Revolutionary War were at a low ebb. This was the time when the Americans had been driven from the vicinity of New York City after the campaign on Long Island, a campaign from which George Washington and his forces narrowly escaped total destruction. Additionally, the enlistment terms of many in the Continental Army were up on January 1, which meant that Washington's army, already outmanned, was threatened with disintegration with morale very low. So Paine's American Crisis was intended to be a sort of rallying cry for the Americans, both on the home front and among the Continental Army especially, to whom Washington had it read aloud.

Paine is basically urging Americans to continue fighting the good fight against the British. He opens by acknowledging that "these are the times that try mens' souls," and urges Americans to regard this as a challenge to be overcome rather than a source of disillusionment or despair:

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.

He goes on to argue, basically, that the Americans cannot lose, because they are in the right, and God favors the right. But the fight will be long and difficult, because "tyranny, like Hell, is not easily overcome." To demonstrate that Providence is in favor of the Americans, he offers the Continental Army's narrow escape from Long Island as an example, praising the army's "manly and martial spirit" in the retreat, conducted by Washington, who he compares favorably to great European military leaders.

The last part of the essay is somewhat less uplifting. In it, he urges firmness in dealing with the many Loyalists that populate Pennsylvania and the South. He points out that the war could be financed by confiscating their property and states his wish that these enemies of the Revolution should be expelled from the continent. Finally, after restating his belief that the Americans will, in the end, win independence, he offers a nightmarish alternative, predicting that, if they win, the British will not deal mercifully with American rebels. Even ordinary Americans will find their homes and families ravaged by the British and their Hessian allies.

In short, Paine seeks to steel the American people for the sacrifices he knows are coming soon. The American Crisis is a famous piece of wartime propaganda by a master of the art.

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Thomas Paine's major goal in writing the pamphlets that make up "The American Crisis" was to increase the colonies' chances of winning the war and becoming an independent country.  In pursuit of this goal, Paine appealed to the patriotism of the colonists, to their belief in God and to the British people as well.

To the Americans, Paine was encouraging people to stand up...

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for what he saw as their country.  He starts in on this theme from the very start of the first pamphlet where he says

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 it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Here, he tries to shame people into supporting the revolution by denouncing " the summer soldier" and "the sunshine patriot."

At other points, Paine tries to paint the actions of the British as evil and offensive to God.  He says, for example, that

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 house-breaker, has as good a pretence as he.

Here, he tries to make the British look bad by saying that they are like common criminals who cannot hope for God's support.

Overall, then, Paine is trying to rally support for the colonists' cause in the Revolution.  He is trying to get Americans to hate what the British government is doing and to participate in the war effort.

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