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The Crisis: Thomas Paine

Winter 2017

Every revolution needs at least one plume to feather the nest of rebellion. For the rebellion known as the American Revolution, it was the pen of Thomas Paine that needled enough people, colonists and otherwise, to satisfy in this man the feeling of rabble-rousing that seemed innate to him. Born in Thetford, Norfolk, England in 1737, Thomas Paine was a bit of a pain in the neck to whoever hired him, and there were many, on two continents. His seasons of discontent were also many, but they permitted him to write scathing tracts of thoughts that, to this day, can inspire and fire up any libertarian, or lover of liberty. When he died in Greenwich Village, in New York City, America in 1809, only six individuals attended his funeral. Paine had managed to get himself ostracized because of his pointed ridicule of Christianity. He was an irascible soul, always in search of an object to mock due to any hypocrisy; overweening restraint of liberty; repression of expression, particularly of the written kind; and because of the gaping hole that can, and so often does, chronically exist between saying and doing. Paine found plenty of material to work with on those fronts, in England, France, and the United States. He seemed to have done his best writing while in prison and while on the run, from one crisis to another, from one political fury to another.

He played a glorious role, indeed, in fomenting the dissension of enough colonists to fire up the American War for Independence from Great Britain. It must be stated, however, that only a minority of the colonists were in ardent support of declaring this independence from the Mother Country. Perhaps the reticence of the majority toward overt rebellion irked Paine, but he lived with those results. Those results were enough to get the results that he, and other Founding Father Revolutionaries, sought: a war to win freedom of the colonies from a tyrannical King. With this success under his firebrand belt, Thomas Paine then journeyed to France, hungry for a role in another revolution in 1789. The French accommodated him, going so far as to grant him honorary French citizenry. With Paine, this honor may have been going one step too far. This man consistently found ways to bite the hand that fed him rebellion. After having assisted in the French Revolution and in the end of the monarchy in France, Thomas Paine then took the side of the doomed Louis XVI. He staunchly argued that the deposed king should be exiled to the United States. Maybe Paine felt a bit queasy about revenge killings. Or he might have simply preferred the underdog or a hopeless case. In any case, Robespierre took exception to his exception. Paine was arrested and tossed into a French prison in December 1793.

It was at this point that Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and The Crisis, two of the finest pamphlets of true propaganda ever written (during the era before propaganda took on the seedy syntax of The National Enquirer), claimed that U.S. President George Washington had conspired with Robespierre to imprison him. Conspiracy theories are evidently nothing new in the world of politics or history. Thomas Paine crafted some of the more eloquent ones. James Monroe used his political influence to spring Paine from prison but to no avail in terms of stopping the poisoned pen from issuing more words of wrath. Paine penned a letter of grievance, true grievance, to President Washington, accusing him of all sorts of betrayal. Monroe, however, convinced the hothead not to send the fiery missive.

Paine trashed that piece of paper, but he soon sent an even more incendiary letter to the military man he’d once deemed a hero. This bitter old revolutionary, himself a Founding Father, sought to besmirch the reputation of the Founding Father-elected-President of the United States. The smear attack would be achieved through publication of this vicious letter. Paine did succeed in attaining publication of the attack letter, but he failed in his attempt to tarnish the reputation of George Washington. The letter had been, nonetheless, an honest and direct attempt by Paine to express his overwrought feelings toward Washington. It was the sort of written invective for which this man had become famous, although his earlier penned attacks had found a much more fitting target. At this stage of his life, Paine’s problem had become when to quit both propaganda and rebellion. I highly doubt that anyone could have convinced this man that his time had passed him by, that there would be no more bloody revolutions worth fighting for, until another fifty years passed by and the American Civil War would be bloodily fought among Americans for the liberty of all men and all women in this nation. Somehow the spirit of Thomas Paine lived on at Gettysburg and throughout the raging fires of the great divide that threatened the Union of the States.

His rhetoric was the stuff of political poetry, his rebellious nature the stuff of liberty that often led to charges of libel. The man did not have the internal editor that would have cautioned him: “Throttle back, Thom. Take it easy.” Thomas Paine took very little easy. His love of freedom, and of the quest for that freedom, came with a very high price, a very dear price. He died without the due that was due him. He alienated the very people whom he had worked to liberate from their own chains of caution. The American Revolutionary, Founding Father, and future-President John Adams wrote: “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” The pen is often mightier than the sword, but it must be shielded by the scabbard of self-discipline. At a minimum, self-restraint would have greatly aided this furious defender of liberty who reviled restraint of any liberty. Moderation is a word that did not easily enter the vocabulary of Thomas Paine.

He wrote toward the end of his life: "I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.” Methinks he found it, though not without a fight! The Crisis by Thomas Paine was written during the darkest days and darkest nights of the American fight for freedom, when the rights of man, and of woman, were yet to be affirmed in blood, and wrestled away from tyrants. This beautiful first paragraph sets the elegant yet compelling tone that shows Paine at the peak of his dramatic writing powers.

December 23, 1776 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 their 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 every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.


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