“…the acts and choices of ordinary people…”

One reason I love history so much is its stories of courage and perseverance by men and women in the face of disaster. When you read the history of our country, you see this again and again. You also see something else. You see timings and deliverances that can only be called miraculous—when the disaster of one day is turned around by events of the next.

In Washington’s Crossing David Hackett Fischer gives us the circumstances of the writing and impact of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, The American Crisis. After George Washington’s debilitating military defeats in New York from August to November 1776, described by Fischer as a “A Cataract of Disaster,” Washington retreated across New Jersey into Pennsylvania as Cornwallis pursued him. Thomas Paine had previously joined the army in July of that year. In his chapter, “The Crisis: Thomas Paine and the Black Times of 1776,” Fischer writes:

…The army was shrinking before his eyes, and the people of New Jersey were not turning out to support it. Paine concluded that something had to be done. “It was necessary,” he decided, that “the country should be strongly animated.”

On November 22, when the army was crossing the Passaic River, Paine came to a decision. He resolved to write another pamphlet, like Common Sense but with a different message….

A rough draft was more or less complete by the time he crossed the Delaware River. He carried it to Philadelphia, but when he reached the city, he was shocked to find the houses shuttered, the streets deserted….The air of panic in the town increased Thomas Paine’s sense of urgency. He remembered, “I sat down and in what I may call a passion of patriotism, wrote the first number” of his new pamphlet in a final draft.

He called it The American Crisis. The first sentence had the cadence of a drumbeat. Even after two hundred years, its opening phrases still have the power to lift a reader out of his seat. “There are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine began. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it NOW deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

…Such was the panic and chaos in Philadelphia that it took Thomas Paine ten days to get his essay into print. Finally, the first number of The American Crisis appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal on December 19, 1776. Four days later it was published as a pamphlet. Paine insisted that it be sold for two pennies, just enough to pay the printer’s expenses. The author asked nothing for himself and encouraged printers everywhere to copy it freely. It traveled through the country as fast as galloping horses could carry it.

Within a day of its first publication it was circulating in the camp of the Continental army along the Delaware River. Even Paine’s bitter political rival James Cheetham testified to its impact. Cheetham wrote that The Crisis was “read in the camp, to every corporal’s guard, and in the army, and out of it had more than the intended effect.” The troops used its first sentence as a watchword and later as a battle cry….

There is an old American folk tale about George Washington and the Crossing of the Delaware. It tells us that the new American republic nearly failed in the winter of 1776, that George Washington crossed the Delaware on Christmas night, and that his victory at Trenton revived the Revolution. All of this story is true, but it is not the whole truth. There was more to it. The great revival did not follow the battles of Trenton and Princeton, important as they were. It preceded them, and made those events possible (though not inevitable). Further, the revival did not rise solely from the leadership of George Washington himself, great as he was a general and a man…it emerged from the efforts of many soldiers and civilians, merchants and farmers, leaders in the army and members of Congress. Most of all it rose from the acts and choices of ordinary people in the valley of the Delaware, as Thomas Paine’s American Crisis began to circulate among them.

This great revival grew from defeat, not from victory. The awakening was a response to a disaster. Doctor Benjamin Rush, who had a major role in the event, believed that this was the way a free republic would always work, and the American republic in particular. He thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible. “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity,” Rush wrote “We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.”1

On December 18, 1776, George Washington had written to his brother, John A. Washington, and to another relative, Samuel Washington. This is the letter to his brother. The bracketed phrase within it was part of his letter to Samuel Washington.

I have no doubt but that General Howe will still make an attempt upon Philadelphia this Winter. I see nothing to oppose him a fortnight hence, as the time of all the Troops, except those of Virginia (reduced almost to nothing,) and Smallwood’s Regiment of Maryland, (equally as bad) will expire in less than that time. In a word my dear Sir, if every nerve is not strain’d to recruit the New Army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty near up, owing, in a great measure, to the insidious Arts of the Enemy, and disaffection of the Colonies before mentioned, but principally to the accursed policy of short Inlistments, and placing too great a dependence on the Militia the Evil consequences of which were foretold 15 Months ago with a spirit almost Prophetick….

You can form no Idea of the perplexity of my Situation. No Man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them. However under a full persuasion of the justice of our Cause I cannot [but think the prospect will brighten, although for a wise purpose it is, at present hid under a cloud] entertain an Idea that it will finally sink tho’ it may remain for some time under a Cloud.2

Those letters were written the day before The American Crisis was published in the Pennsylvania Journal and five days before it was printed as a pamphlet for widespread distribution. Washington did not know the events that would follow in the days after he wrote those bleak words. But that great man persevered.

Paine opened his December Crisis by writing, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Today again our souls are tried and tested, and who will we discover that we are? I don’t know. I cannot tell you the extent or depth of the character of our country or if the acts and choices of ordinary people of today will fare well. Our souls are tried individually, but our acts and choices always affect and influence others.

Is the game pretty near up for us? Again, I don’t know. But I encourage and exhort you not to mire yourself or others in cynicism or contempt, but within your own realm of influence to speak the truth, to build up others, and to consider the task that with your soul and your skill you should do.

Remember what I wrote earlier about timings and deliverances in our nation’s history that can only be called miraculous—when the disaster of one day was turned around by events of the next? I would also encourage and exhort you to pray. Some of you who read this may not share my faith, but for those who do, remember to seek God’s mercy and help for our nation. When Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of prayer and fasting in 1863, he wrote, “We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own…3 Read Lincoln’s words. May God grant us to turn back to Him, for the results of the poverty of our lack of a deep and abiding faith in God is seen everywhere.

These are the days of the acts and choices of ordinary people. Of grit and endurance. Of everyday exasperation and depressing setbacks. Whether the game is up for us or not, remember the courage and faith of those who preceded us. Be worthy of them, and leave the results in the hands of God.
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Thomas Paine, The American Crisis: The first page of the original printing of the first volume. {{PD-US}} – published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.
1David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, New York): 80, 127, 138, 140-143.
2The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799: Library of Congress. Thanks to Stacey McCain for his post, ‘I think the game is pretty near up,’ that I found after my initial writing of this post. The phrase caught my eye, and I tracked it down to these letters of Washington.
3Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day: Abraham Lincoln Online.

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