Two-hundred and thirty-five years ago today, Thomas Paine published a pamphlet known as The American Crisis, No. I. There’s no reason you would recall the pamphlet’s rather humdrum title. But you probably have heard its opening lines once or twice before.
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: It is dearness that gives every thing its value.
Paine was well-known to Americans at the time he wrote these lines. Eleven months earlier he had written Common Sense, a rousing call to American independence. At a time when the population of the thirteen colonies numbered about 2.5 million, Common Sense sold several hundred thousand copies in just a few months.
But as the opening lines of The American Crisis, No. I make clear, Paine wrote it amidst a very different political climate than the one that shaped Common Sense. Gone was the euphoria of demanding independence. In its place were the bitter hardships of achieving it. The colonials had lost several battles to the British, and they had been in retreat since the fall of Fort Washington in New York a month earlier. The independence movement that began with such promise looked headed for collapse.
The words of The American Crisis, No. I moved many Americans, perhaps none so much as General Washington himself. On Christmas Day, just six days after the pamphlet appeared, he ordered it read to his troops. That night they crossed the Delaware and defeated the British at the Battle of Trenton the next morning. The victory quieted talk in the Continental Congress about relieving Washington of his command, and it quite possibly kept the American Revolution from coming to an ignominious end.
Would Washington have won at Trenton even without the stirring words of The American Crisis, No. I? Perhaps. But it may just be that the inspiring words of a man who came to America to escape two failed marriages and several failed businesses changed the course of history.