Thomas Paine

The American Crisis

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The American Crisis Summary

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Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis (known also as The Crisis) comprises a series of sixteen pamphlets published between 1776 and 1783. With The American Crisis, Paine aimed to stir up  colonists’ disillusionment with rule by England. Paine had earned enormous popularity for his pamphlet, Common Sense, in which he argued for the independence of the thirteen colonies. The American Crisis is Paine’s emotional appeal to his fellow citizens’ patriotism and even religious faith to support the revolution.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” famously begins Paine’s first pamphlet (released in December of 1777). Paine explains why the colonists ought to have an interest in the Revolutionary War. Paine encourages the colonists to consider the injustice of England’s stranglehold over the colonies. Not only does England tax the colonies, but it effectively claims power over all colonial affairs, which Paine contends is proper only for God.

Paine acknowledges that war inspires fear in people, citing the historical example of Joan of Arc. He hopes that the colonies will produce a similarly inspiring figure. The first pamphlet discusses Paine’s own experience at Fort Lee. Despite the battle ending in a colonial retreat, he explains that all officers (including Generals George Washington and Nathanael General ) and soldiers behaved with dignity. Paine concludes the first pamphlet by reaffirming the stakes of the war: a glorious result if victorious, and the sad circumstance of a ravaged country and a condition of slavery if they do not resist. Paine signs his pamphlets “Common Sense.”

In the third pamphlet (released in January of 1777), Paine declares that it is the prerogative of a writer to concern himself with the affairs of mankind. Paine addresses Lord Howe (British Commander-in-Chief), stating that there is nothing for the colonists to fear from his vacuous proclamations. He tells Howe that, if he had been as observant of God as to the king, God would not have forsaken him. Paine questions Howe’s character for using surprise military tactics. Howe is, according to Paine, a commissioner without authority. Paine asserts that General Washington will be remembered as a more distinguished man than Howe. The United States of America will prevail, as they have the blessings of God.

In the next several pamphlets in 1777, Paine claims that that the Revolution represents England’s final attempt in a losing game. In addition to being unjust, England is too far away to govern America properly, and Americans are finally standing up for their rights so that they may finally be called a free country (as no country that does not have free trade could rightly call itself free). Paine considers all officials sent by representatives as English spies. He suggests that America’s association with England alienates America from the rest of Europe, and notes that Britain is a historically bellicose country. Paine likens the Quakers’ penchant for supporting the connection between America and Britain to tying Hector to the chariot of Achilles. As of April 1777, Paine observes that, slowly, all classes and types of men (except the scarcely valuable and misguided Quakers) have come over to the side of independence.

In September of 1777, Paine seeks to inspire his audience with renewed vigor by avowing that fighting for freedom is enervating but worth the fight. Paine also encourages his fellow citizens to recognize that, though the British have enjoyed military successes, their power has been reduced with each subsequent success.

In March of 1778, Paine once again addresses himself to General Howe, who has countenanced the forging of continental bills. In any other country, Howe would be promptly executed. Paine mocks Howe mercilessly, pointing out that forgery is the nefarious sort of crime that is always used against those who have taught it. He also points out that forgery is particularly disreputable for an Englishman, as the English use printed money almost exclusively, and so is most vulnerable to such a crime. Paine closes his attack on Howe by remarking that America is not incurring the debts that the British must assume to wage the war as their army is composed of recruits.

In November of 1778, Paine addresses the people of England, encouraging them not to mistake national honor as a just cause of war. He adduces the recent American successes of Burgoyne, and accuses the English of having a false sense of national honor and behaving like bullies.

In March of 1780, Paine (addressing the people of England again) remarks that the war has been going on for five years, and that England has asked for all of the distress to which the war has subjected the country. He hypothesizes that, if France had treated the colonies in the same way that England has, the English people would deride France. He also wonders whether the circumstance of living on a foggy island have made the English constitution impersonal, mercenary, and resistant to friendship.

In a pamphlet addressed to America in October of 1780, Paine reinsures Americans amid the lengthy war by publishing a list of taxes levied by the British. In a separate pamphlet dated to March of 1782, Paine accesses a speech by the King of England to be delusional and insincere. He remarks on the irony that the war is costing the British people so much when it could have been avoided by simple foresight. In May of the same year, Paine suspects that the British might be thinking of negotiating, but assures readers that the Americans are honorable as well as brave and will not be enticed by unfavorable alliances.

In October of 1782, Paine addresses the Earl of Shelburne, who proposes peace with America. Here, too, Paine mocks England for childishly despairing over the imminent loss of America. In the final pamphlet (released in April of 1783), Paine declares that the “times that tried men’s souls…are over,” and calls the American Revolution the greatest revolution known to history. This pamphlet is largely a celebration of America, whose greatness, Paine claims, inspired him to become a writer.