Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1432
First published: 1776-1783
Type of work: Political essays
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 that
the 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...
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"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's
condition and ours are very different. He has everybody to fight, we have only his one army to cope with, and which wastes away at every engagement: we can not only reinforce, but can redouble our numbers; he is cut off from all suppliers, and must sooner or later inevitably fall into our hands.
Continuing his argument, Paine wrote that "if Britain cannot conquer us, it proves that she is neither able to govern nor protect us. . . ." Any victories for the British were interpreted as defeats because "it is distressing to see an enemy advancing into a country but it is the only place in which we can beat them, and in which we have always beaten them, whenever they have made the attempt." The losses of Philadelphia and Charleston were considered unimportant; those cities could be liberated in a matter of hours should the inhabitants decide to rise up against the enemy.
With the British armies growing weaker, in his opinion, Paine constantly urged the people to make sacrifices and to become active in their support of the movement for liberty: "The nearer any disease approaches a crisis, the nearer it is to a cure. Danger and deliverance make their advances together, and it is only the last push, in which one or the other takes the lead." The essays, since they were intended for propaganda purposes, by necessity had to be written in a simple, clear, and forceful style which could be completely understood by all who read them or heard them read. They were read to the pitifully small army; they were posted on trees and in taverns in the hope that they would inspire all who read them to a more strenuous effort for the cause of liberty. An example of the simple and direct approach utilized by Paine is shown in the following passage:
Our support and success depend on such a variety of men and circumstances, that every one who does but wish well, is of some use: there are men who have a strange aversion to arms, yet have hearts to risk every shilling in the cause, or in support of those who have better talents for defending it. Nature, in the arrangement of mankind, has fitted some for every service in life: were all soldiers, all would starve and go naked, and were none soldiers, all would be slaves. As disaffection to independence is the badge of a Tory, so affection to it is the mark of a Whig; and the different services of the Whigs, down from those who nobly contribute every thing, to those who have nothing to render but their wishes, tend all to the same centre, though with different degrees of merit and ability. The larger we make the circle, the more we shall harmonize, and the stronger we shall be. All we want to shut out is disaffection, and, that excluded, we must accept from each other such duties as we are best fitted to bestow. A narrow system of politics, like a narrow system of religion, is calculated only to sour the temper, and be at variance with mankind. All we want to know in America is simply this, who is for independence, and who is not? Those who are for it, will support it, and the remainder will undoubtedly see the reasonableness of paying the charges; while those who oppose or seek to betray it, must expect the more rigid fate of the jail and the gibbet.
The true value of the essays to the reader of the present generation is to clear up the misconception of earlier historians who were of the belief that the Revolution had the almost universal support of the population. Also, the essays serve as a chief chronicle of events as they were occurring. It must be remembered, however, that Paine wrote favorably toward the American cause and that the true picture may not have been presented in every case.
Paine saw much of the actual fighting and perhaps understood the war more clearly than anyone else who wrote as the events occurred. He was a master at summing up the situation and then interpreting it as he would have liked it to have been. As an interpreter of changing events, he must be ranked among the outstanding interpreters of any period of history.
During the years of the Revolution, Thomas Paine was a widely read and highly influential propagandist. It was after the French Revolution, in which he participated, that he came to be considered a radical and a dangerous revolutionary. For a more complete understanding of the American Revolution one should read THE CRISIS pamphlets in their entirety.