“These are the times that try men’s souls.”
To know where you’re going, it helps to know from where you came. We’ve made a practice of taking that journey in this space each Fourth of July. We trace pieces of our beginning to give context to who we are; who and what shaped us; and how this unique trait, the Spirit of America, came to be.
This year, we gravitated to Thomas Paine, often regarded as a leading father of the American Revolution. Paine wrote the italicized statement above. It was the opening to his “The American Crisis,” a series of 16 pamphlets he wrote in 1776, the first of which he hoped would inspire our fledgling nation’s struggling troops. Gen. George Washington had Paine’s essay read to the Continental Army on Dec. 23, 1776, two days before the Battle of Trenton as a pep talk to spur them on.
“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 by 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 only that gives everything its value.”
Paine’s words still reverberate today. While they can bring to mind the images of the incredible struggles our forebearers endured to establish this free, independent nation 234 years ago, Paine’s writing is as relevant to our nation’s struggles today as it was then.
These indeed are times that try men’s souls in America. Yes, of course, there are big differences between now and then. Our present-day government isn’t murdering American citizens, or ransacking, looting and burning our homes and confiscating our property as the king’s soldiers did in the 1770s. But few Americans now would deny that our federal government today has taken on similarly tyrannical qualities and parallels, though without the violence.
Historian Thomas Dilorenzo, like Jefferson writing of the king’s offenses in the Declaration of Independence, enumerated some of these federal usurpations that have occurred in the past 18 months in an essay on “Despotism Then and Now”:
“… Trillion-dollar bailouts of failing corporations that will create moral-hazard problems the likes of which have never been seen; an escalation of the money supply that dwarfs the monetary inflation of the Greenspan Fed; the Soviet-style nationalization of automobile companies, banks and much of the healthcare industry; government regulation of executive compensation; the appointment of dozens of dictatorial ‘czars’ with unaccountable power to regulate and regiment myriad industries; trillion-dollar-a-year deficits; an expansion of the powers of the Fed (!); and a president who believes he has the power to fire corporate executives, nationalize industries and send unmanned ‘drone’ bombers to any country in the world on a whim. Washington, D.C., no longer recognizes any limits at all to its powers to ‘socially plan’ all aspects of American life.”
There’s an eeriness to then and now.
Common sense for common man
Paine first roused American colonists in January 1776 with his pamphlet-treatise known as “Common Sense.” He struck their nerve centers because he wrote common sense for the common man. His writing was in a language the average colonist could understand; it was not the Latin-filled, erudite writings of more learned men.
In his opening paragraph, Paine wrote: “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments and common sense…” Indeed, that was Paine — a common man.
To an extent, he was a Glenn Beck of his day. Paine failed in the family corset-making business in England, was let go from a government tax-collecting job there for missing work and had a failed marriage. Little occurred in Paine’s early adult life to indicate he would become one of Colonial America’s most influential philosopher-journalists. (Beck had similar beginnings — alcohol and drug addictions, no college education, a failed first marriage.) Thanks to the beneficence of Benjamin Franklin, Paine emigrated in 1774 to Philadelphia.
Like many colonists, Paine was appalled at how England’s monarchy ruled the colonies. Eight months after the British delivered the shot heard round the world on April 19, 1775, in Concord and Lexington, Paine published “Common Sense.” You could sense his outrage.
“Men of passive tempers look somewhat lightly over the offences of Britain, and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, ‘Come, come, we shall be friends again, for all this.’ But examine the passions and feelings of mankind, bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature, and then tell me, whether you can hereafter love, honour and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land? …
“… If you say you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, Hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, and still can shake hands with the murderers, then you are unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward and the spirit of a sycophant …”
Best-selling book of all
Paine’s essays worked. Though published anonymously, “Common Sense” became the most popular book in America. It sold 500,000 copies and went through 25 editions in its first year. So committed to the cause, Paine donated the royalties from Common Sense to the Continental Army.
But Paine’s arguments against British rule and for American independence went beyond the emotionalism of British savagery inflicted on the colonists. The heart of Paine’s arguments were … well … common sense.
• He rejected the idea that England was America’s mother country. (And even if it were, Paine said, “Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families.”
“Europe, and not England,” Paine wrote, “is the parent of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from EVERY PART of Europe.”
• The best interests of the colonists were commerce and free trade with the world. Britain, Paine said, wanted to rule America for its own benefit. But Paine contended: “It is in the interest of all Europe to have America a FREE PORT.” Trade, he said, would secure peace and friendship.
• Paine said it made no sense for a small island to govern a huge continent. “In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet.” England and America, he said, “belong to different systems: England to Europe, America to itself.”
• In a similar vein, the mere distance between the two countries made subservience to the kingdom impractical and unworkable. “To be always running 3,000 to 4,000 miles with a tale or petition, waiting four or five months for an answer, which when obtained requires five or six more to explain it in, will in a few years be looked upon as folly and childishness,” he said.
• Finally, Paine despised monarchies. There is “no truly natural or religious reason” for creating “the distinction of men into kings and subjects,” he told his readers. “As exalting of one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty … expressly disapproves of government by kings,” Paine wrote.
“In England, a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation … Of more worth,” Paine wrote, “is one honest man to society and in the sight of God than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
A call for freedom
Paine’s common sense may seem almost two-and-a-half centuries away from modern America and scarcely relevant. We aren’t at war with a brutish, absentee monarch trying to milk us for all we have. But we are at the mercy now of a president and Congress bent on expanding their powers to, some would say tyrannical, levels.
This makes Paine’s “Common Sense” an allegory for us, a reminder, as he put it, “not to exhibit horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumbers …”
Just as there were Tories and loyalists in the Colonies who sided with King George in 1776 and thought that essayists such as Thomas Paine were treasonous quacks, today we have the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs. They draw the scorn of Americans who support and defend centralized control and the expansion of Washington.
But if you look at the broader message of Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, he used what was then elementary common sense to argue for a cause for which he became single-mindedly impassioned: He was not just against the king and British rule; Paine argued for independence and freedom. And in so doing, he planted a seed that grew into the Spirit of America. Called Paine:
“O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!”