[On December 19th, 1776 Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The Crisis was published in Philadelphia. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy The Crisis and other American Revolutionary writings, leading up to a special weekend wish for the AmericanStudies Elves!]
On the importance of contexts, and what they can help us see in a crucial historical text.
The December 19th, 1776 first number of Thomas Paine’s (eventually) sixteen pamphlets titled The Crisis begins this way: “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 his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ‘Tis dearness only that gives everything its value.” As I transcribe those words I’m looking at them in the same place I imagine most of us students of American literature and history have encountered and read them: an anthology. In this particular case, the Norton Anthology of American Literature Shorter Eighth Edition, where Paine’s words and excerpted pamphlet sit between excerpts from his other famous pamphlet “Common Sense” and the start of Thomas Jefferson’s entry.
We’ve got to read historical texts somewhere (especially in the pre-intertubes days of my high school and college education), and anthologies are a handy place to do so. But it’s not always easy, when encountering them in that way, to think sufficiently about the contexts of their publication. In the case of Paine’s text, he had a very specific such context for “these are the times”: the ongoing defeat of George Washington and the Continental Army in the New York and New Jersey campaign. By early December, 1776 Washington had lost a number of engagements with the forces of British General William Howe, and the American troops had withdrawn across the Delaware River, leaving New York and New Jersey in mostly British hands. Congress had even withdrawn from the city of Philadelphia, and it seemed quite possible that both the Continental Army and the Revolution itself would not survive this first post-Declaration winter. Certainly not a time or place when summer soldiers and sunshine patriots could hope to find much warmth, and certainly a particularly fraught moment that makes clear why Paine capitalizes “NOW” in his first paragraph (his only such capitalization there).
It’s not just that Paine’s pamphlet was so directly inspired by its historical context, though—it also quite possibly influenced that unfolding context. A few days after the pamphlet’s initial publication, Washington may have read a reprint aloud to his men, with whom he was camped in Pennsylvania (the historical record is ambiguous on this score, as this article traces, but Washington and the army at least knew of the pamphlet soon after its publication). On the night of December 25th, Washington led many of those troops in the famous crossing of the Delaware, a surprise attack on the British forces at Trenton that significantly shifted the course of not only this campaign but the whole early Revolutionary conflict. It’s easy to see such historical moments as inevitable in hindsight, but of course it was anything but, just as the outcome of the Revolution was far from certain in December 1776 (and would remain far from certain for many years to come). Those uncertainties help us understand the existence and tone of Paine’s pamphlet—and also help us see recognize the role that Paine’s inspiring words played in helping carry those Revolutionary efforts forward.
Next writing tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Revolutionary writings or writers you’d highlight?
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