Thomas Paine s CRISIS 1 and the Comfort of Time

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1 The Explicator, Vol. 68, No. 2, 87 89, 2010 Copyright C Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: print / X online DOI: / EDWARD J. GALLAGHER Lehigh University Thomas Paine s CRISIS 1 and the Comfort of Time Keywords: Crisis Papers, propaganda, Revolutionary War, Thomas Paine In late December 1776, Philadelphia and the entire rebel American cause were on the verge of defeat. The British under General William Howe enjoyed a series of victories in New York and New Jersey and now, at Trenton, were poised to take the colonial capital. Philadelphia was under martial law; Congress had fled; the people were in panic and confusion. Enter Thomas Paine. Paine s obvious purpose in his first Crisis paper, published December 19, is to enable this distraught people (and all patriots) to stand, to persevere, to have fortitude, and to fight. The positive impact of the essay was immediate. English spectator Nicholas Cresswell reported that the lately despondent populace became liberty mad again (Anderson 210). And legend has it that General Washington had Crisis 1 read to the troops before crossing the Delaware on Christmas day and, against all odds, defeating the Hessians in what was the first patriot victory and an early turning point in the war. We know, then, that Crisis 1 was successful, but in reality we know next to nothing in detail about how this indisputable classic did its indispensable work. From such older works on a wide range of authors as Stephen E. Lucas s Portents of Rebellion, to such recent works focused just on Paine as Edward Larkin s Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution, one looks in vain for a comprehensive analysis of Paine s rhetorical strategies in Crisis 1. For instance, no one has noted that Paine structures the body of his essay to examine and reject four alternative positions for hanging tough against the British: acquiescing to British military superiority (pars. 5 6), remaining loyal to the king (pars. 7 10), maintaining neutrality (par. 11), and banking on mercy (par. 12). 87

2 88 The Explicator Likewise, no one has noted how fully Paine begins his essay precisely in the moment, recognizing the emotional needs of his audience. References to the introduction to Crisis 1 rarely (but no doubt understandably) move beyond gestures toward and genuflections before the undeniable verbal brilliance of These are the times that try men s souls and the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot (170). But, as an American army officer graphically reported, despair was seen in almost every countenance (Gifford 33), and Paine s audience could not be counted on to listen to his arguments in the body without some sort of effective transition. Thus, the four-paragraph introduction serves the crucial function of settling down his panic-stricken readers by redefining time present, time past, and time future thereby giving the audience stabilizing coordinates that quell anxiety and foster clarity. Paragraph 1 is about the present. The present is a good time, a time to secure the celestial article of freedom and merit the honor of communal appreciation. These may be the times that try men s souls, but Paine marshals three homely clichés in a row as commonsense reasons to value the conflict: the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph ; What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly ; it is dearness only that gives every thing its value (170). Paragraph 2 is about the past. The past has had no irremediable effect on the present and is not worth fretting over. Paine implicitly addresses the natural question asked by those caught in a crisis: Is there anything we could have done to avoid it? However, now is the time for unity and looking forward, not going over old ground, Paine says, and in a concise sweep he absolves the past of any meaningfully negative effect on the present: First, there simply may not have been any fault in the past; but if there were, it was our fault and therefore, by implication, in our power to correct; and, second, properly viewed and then re-named through judicious wordplay, all that the British have done thus far is superficially ravage rather than definitively conquer (171). Paragraph 3 is about the future. The future is secure because God is in heaven and all s right with the world. Paine s God is a God of justice. A God who acts on grounds. This God will favor us because of what we did seeking to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent (171). This God will not favor the British king because of what he did murder, robbery, house-breaking. Crisis is not chaos. Order still exists. God has not relinquished the government of the world (171). Moral values, not earthly, power will determine the outcome of this war. In the future, justice will prevail. Paragraph 4 is about past, present, and future. Paine s readers can be cheered knowing that in the past their oppressors have also been the victims of panic; in the present, panic will have the beneficial use of exposing enemies; and in the future they ll see their enemies suffer as they themselves do now. Panics are

3 Thomas Paine s CRISIS 1 and the Comfort of Time 89 nothing special: All nations and ages have been subject to them and history (the past) shows us that the British were themselves panicked by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc (171). Moreover, this panic is a present means of outing the enemy in our midst: Many a disguised Tory has lately shown his head (171 72). And, finally, panic is a precursor to punishment of our enemies: In the future, these outed Tories shall penitentially solemnize with curses the day on which Howe arrived upon the Delaware (172). In fact, Paine structured his conclusion (par. 13) with the exact same comprehensive time pattern: in the past, we sustained an orderly retreat for near an hundred miles and the sign of fear was not seen in our camp ; in the present, our new army at both ends of the continent is recruiting fast ; and, in the future, we have the prospect of a glorious issue (178). Paine s framing strategy for the entire Crisis 1, then, is to wrap people in the comfort of time, something that panic and confusion had robbed them of. A generation ago, A. Owen Aldridge, reviewing the state of Paine scholarship, formulated a series of questions designed to prompt future work, one of which was What were the precise elements in Paine s literary style which enabled him to become the foremost propagandist of the American Revolution? (143). As David C. Hoffman has recently charted in great detail, scholars have diligently pursued that question in regard to Paine s Common Sense but, surprisingly, not the Crisis papers. Perhaps this analysis of the introduction of Crisis 1 might suggest the kind of greater general understanding and appreciation of Paine s conscious art that a close reading of the entire series will reveal. Works Cited Aldridge, A. Owen. The Problem of Thomas Paine. Studies in Burke and His Time 19 (1978): Print. Anderson, Troyer Steele. The Command of the Howe Brothers during the American Revolution. New York: Oxford UP, Print. Gifford, Edward S. Jr. The American Revolution in the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Society of the Sons of the Revolution, Print. Hoffman, David C. Paine and Prejudice: Rhetorical Leadership through Perceptual Framing in Common Sense. Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9.3 (2006): Print. Larkin, Edward. Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution. New York: Cambridge UP, Print. Lucas, Stephen E. Portents of Rebellion: Rhetoric and Revolution in Philadelphia, Philadelphia: Temple UP, Print. Paine, Thomas. Crisis 1. The Writings of Thomas Paine. Vol. 1. Ed. Moncure Daniel Conway. New York: Burt Franklin

4 Copyright of Explicator is the property of Taylor & Francis Ltd. and its content may not be copied or ed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or articles for individual use.

5 Copyright of Explicator is the property of Taylor & Francis Ltd. and its content may not be copied or ed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or articles for individual use.

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