In the series of sixteen essays now known as THE CRISIS, Thomas Paine, called by Benjamin Franklin “an ingenious worthy young man,” emerged as the ablest propagandist of the cause of liberty during the American Revolution. The first CRISIS essay appeared during the darkest days of December, 1776, after Washington’s forces had retreated from Fort Lee down through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. Not only the army but the Continental Congress had been forced to flee before the advancing forces of General Howe. Many people believed that conditions had become so bad that Washington’s army could be liquidated and the revolt suppressed before the end of 1776.
Paine, who had attached himself to the Continental Army as a civilian aide, was free to mix among the officers and enlisted men during the retreat, and he was well aware of the dire situation in which the new nation found itself. In the midst of those troubled times the military situation received another blow by the plotting of the Conway Cabal, which threatened to remove Washington from the post of commander-in-chief and place the army under the direction of General Gates. It was under these conditions that Thomas Paine, America’s first great propagandist, entered the struggle as a writer to defend the honor of Washington and to advance the cause of the Revolution among the people. The first and best-known of the sixteen pamphlets appeared on December 19, 1776; it was signed “Common Sense.”
The characteristics and style of Paine’s writings may well be compared to those of Rousseau and Marx, for like them, he could electrify his audience with the written word. Also, he possessed the gift of using key words and phrases which had a magnetic effect upon those who read him. Nor have the words of Thomas Paine been forgotten. When the United States faced the great crisis of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt constantly turned to the words of Paine to express his thoughts. The two opening sentences of THE CRISIS offer excellent examples of Paine’s ability to use key phrases and catch words:These are 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 men and women.
Paine in an effort to bolster the sagging morale of the Americans made light of British successes, declaring that Howe was ravaging the countryside as a brigand and not as a successful invader making a lasting conquest. The withdrawal of Washington was considered by Paine to be a strategic retreat and the promise of victory, not disaster, was imminent. He was positive that final victory could be achieved, but he declared that a greater effort was needed, that “those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it.” In his opinion, a regular army was essential since the militia was unequal to the task at hand. He added to the hatred for the Tories by describing them in the most uncomplimentary manner in an effort to effect an irreconcilable breach between this group and the patriots. He defined Tories as being cowards with “servile, slavish, self-interested fear” and added thatthe Tories have endeavored to insure their property with the enemy, by forfeiting their reputation with us; from which may be justly inferred, that their governing passion is avarice.
Some students of the American Revolution are of the opinion that catch phrases such as “summer soldier” and “sunshine patriot” were important in igniting the spark which enabled Washington to cross the Delaware River and fall upon the British forces in a limited offensive at Trenton and Princeton before going into winter quarters.
As conditions began to improve, Paine pointed out the hopeless position of the British by stating that General Howe’scondition and ours are very different. He has everybody to fight, we have only his one army to cope with, and...
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