December 25, 1776
On the night of December 25, 1776, with the winter wind whipsawing the water, with waves ripping across the bows of their leaky boats, and sheets of ice impeding their path, American soldiers rowed across the merciless river, from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. The city of Trenton was their objective….
…In the months prior to Trenton, Washington, and his troops had forlornly retreated across New Jersey following their devastating defeat in New York City by a combined British naval and land force under the command of Admiral Richard Howe and his brother, General William Howe. This infamous, dark period in the Revolution elicited Thomas Paine’s rallying cry in pamphlet form, The American Crisis, published in December 1776. The American Army eventually secured a temporary foothold on the western shore of the Delaware River, but its situation remained precarious until Washington turned the tide on the night of December 25, 1776.
For Christmas this year I received David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing. As I’ve skimmed through it there are two things I want to share tonight: the circumstances and impact of Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis.
…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 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 republics 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 event 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.”
Earlier this year one of our commenters said that we are pamphleteer patriots, and so we are. We have come to our own valley of Delaware. Let our words, our acts, our choices, bring revival and awakening in our Republic. Let us remember these words of Thomas Paine from The American Crisis:
…”If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace;” and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man to duty.
God bless you this Christmas night, and may God bless America in the coming year.
UPDATE: Stacy McCain put up a post on the Delaware crossing early Saturday morning: ‘I think the game is pretty near up’. The quote is from letters that George Washington wrote on December 18, 1776; one was to his brother, John A. Washington, and the other to another relative, Samuel Washington. This quote is from the letter to his brother. The bracketed phrase within it was in 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.
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. Do you see the importance of words and their providential timing?
H/T: National Review; David Hackett Fischer,Washington’s Crossing (140-143), ushistory.org, The Other McCain, Library of Congress.