Edward J. Gallagher
Dept of English
Lehigh University
Bethlehem, Pa 18015


 Tom Paine’s American Crisis: Some Unfinished Business

            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?” (“Problem” 143).  As David C. Hoffman has recently charted in great detail, scholars have diligently pursued that question in regard to Common Sense but, surprisingly, except for an unpublished dissertation by Charles J. Norman, not the Crisis papers.  “At every critical point during the war,” writes Paine editor Philip S. Foner, “a new article came from his pen, written in language the plain people in the Continental Army and on the home front could understand, to bolster the Patriot forces, to explain the reasons for defeat and to rally the Americans for the next battle” (I: 48).  One would think that by this time each of the sixteen papers would have been set precisely in its historical crisis moment and exhaustively explicated in detail.  We “know” Paine was successful.  We “know” the Crisis papers were instrumental in American victory.  But in reality we know next to nothing in-depth about how Paine’s essays did their indispensable work.  Even Edward Larkin’s recent book about Paine and – promisingly -- “the literature of revolution” is totally silent on the Crisis papers.  This omission is especially egregious in regard to the first Crisis paper, an indisputable classic of American literature, whose full contents seem only partially known, and which hasn’t received much more than patriotic gesturing.  My purpose here is to look closely at the rhetorical strategies of the first Crisis paper and thereby to suggest the valuable work yet to be done (and long overdue) across the whole series before we can truly understand Paine’s skill in matching method to the moment.     
The Black Times of Seventy-Six     

            First, however, let’s rehearse the background information we need to know.  What precisely was the crisis Paine was addressing in the first paper?  In early July 1776, right after independence was declared, Paine went to Amboy and joined the troops as secretary to General Daniel Roberdeau at the time the British were preparing to invade New York.  In that capacity he experienced the defeats at Long Island on August 27 and at New York City September 15 and later in September became an aide to General Nathanael Greene, commander of Fort Washington and Fort Lee.  In addition, Paine also functioned as a war correspondent, sending eyewitness accounts to the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, writing, as he tells us in his own account of the defeat at White Plains on October 28, with a wooden pen on a drumhead – the stuff of legend (Hawke 58).  Shortly after the loss at White Plains, Fort Washington and Fort Lee fell in quick succession, November 16 and November 20 respectively, and Paine joined Washington’s demoralized army on the “dismal retreat” resembling “a rout” that would end up at Trenton several weeks later (Lundin 144; Keane 142).

            Paine tells us that, “on the advice of several principal officers,” he left the army at Trenton sometime after December 8 for Philadelphia “in order to get out some publications, as the printing presses were then at a stand and the country in a state of despair” (Keene 142).  These were the “black times of Seventy-Six,” Paine was to write Samuel Adams in 1803, and “it was necessary the country should be strongly animated” against the impression that the cause was lost and therefore sink into “despondency” (Foner, Writings I: 1434).  “I had begun the first number of the Crisis while on the retreat, at Newark” (that is, around November 28), Paine wrote two years afterwards in the Pennsylvania Packet (Conway, Life 34), but he finished it in Philadelphia, where, “in a rage when our affairs were at their lowest ebb and things in the most gloomy state” (Foner, Writings I: 1133), “I sat down, and in what I may call a passion of patriotism, wrote the first number of the Crisis.  It was published [in the Pennsylvania Journal] on the 19th of December, which was the very blackest of times, being before the taking of the Hessians at Trenton” (Foner, Writings I: 1164).  Pamphlet publication followed on December 23.

            The succession of defeats was bad enough, but now the British were on the brink of taking Philadelphia, in effect, the capital of the new nation, an act of vastly symbolic if not military importance.  “Upon the salvation of Philadelphia,” said Washington, “our cause almost depends” (Hill 213).  Philadelphia was in panic, to use Paine’s key term in the opening of Crisis 1.  The people were in a “deplorable and melancholy condition,” he said, and, since the printing presses were shut down, there was “nothing in circulation but fears and falsehoods” (Foner, Writings I: 1164).  “There is very good intelligence that the British intend to make a push for Philadelphia,” the Pennsylvania Journal had reported on November 27, and, as a consequence, Philadelphia was put under martial law on December 8 and the Continental Congress exited the city on December 12.  The departure of Congress, which had gamely recommended an old-fashioned “day of solemn Fasting and Humiliation” to spur repentance and reform, understandably “struck a damp on ye spirits of many” (Ketchum 208, 212).   

            The populace in December 1776, then, indeed needed some animating.  In the blunt words of one of Washington’s generals, New Jersey was “totally deranged” (Lundin 158).  And the sack of Philadelphia was imminent.  The word for the day was “confusion.”  “All things in this city remain in confusion,” bluntly wrote another of Washington’s generals (Ketchum 208).  Philadelphia citizen Sarah Logan Fisher confided to her diary “the town in very great confusion.  A party of armed men went about the city to shut up the shops, & break up the schools” (414).  Likewise, Christopher Marshall recorded, “Drums beat: a martial appearance: the shops shut: and all business except preparing to disappoint our enemies laid aside . . . . all in hurry and confusion” (105, 107).  The activity for the day in Philadelphia was movement, or desire for it, or the consequence of it, as these comments by beleaguered inhabitants indicate: “Many people moving out of town” (Fisher 415); “Today many conveyances went by filled with household goods and people in flight” (Muhlenberg II: 762); “Where shall we go; how shall we get out of town?” (Fischer 136); “Philadelphia seemed almost deserted & resembled a Sunday in service time” (Allen 195).  An American officer graphically reported that “A thick cloud of darkness and gloom covered the land and despair was seen in almost every countenance” (Gifford 33).  “I tremble for Philadelphia,” said Washington, I fear “the game” is “pretty well up” (Conway, Life 35). 

            Crisis.  Panic.  Confusion.  Pessimism.  This was the situation in mid-December Philadelphia when, he tells us, Paine “gave [Crisis 1] to the printer gratis, and confined him to the price of two coppers, which was sufficient to defray his charge” (Foner, Writings I: 1164).  Following publication, legend, perhaps based in the following remark by James Cheetham, has it that Washington had the essay read to his troops at Trenton before their surprising victory, but Cheetham notes that its impact was felt politically and socially as well:

The number 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 convention of New York, reduced by dispersion, occasioned by alarm, to nine members, was rallied and reanimated.  Militiamen who, already tired of the war, were straggling from the army, returned.  Hope succeeded to despair, cheerfulness to gloom, and firmness to irresolution.  To the confidence which it inspired may be attributed much of the brilliant little affair which in the same month followed at Trenton.  (Cheetham 56)

Indeed, on December 25-26, a week after the first Crisis appeared, Washington engineered that “brilliant little affair” of crossing the Delaware and defeating the Hessians in what was the first patriot victory and an early turning point in the war.  Virtually immediately English sojourner Nicholas Cresswell noted the buoyant mood of a people relieved from panic and feeling, in a wonderful phrase, “liberty mad again”: 

The news is confirmed.  The minds of the people are much altered.  A few days ago they had given up their cause for lost.  Their late successes have turned the scale and now they are all liberty mad again.  Their recruiting parties could not get a man, except he bought him from his master, no longer since than last week, and now men are coming in by companies . . . . They have recovered [from] their panic and it will not be an easy matter to throw them into that confusion again.”  (Anderson 210) 

It is impossible, of course, to gauge the direct influence of Crisis 1 on the military victory -- and some, in fact, doubt that it had any (Fast 78; Aldridge, Man 49) -- but perhaps some recognition of Paine’s pervasive rhetorical power at that cultural moment lies in Charles Biddle’s remark that the opening lines of the first Crisis paper “were in the mouths of every one” now flocking to join the army (Aldridge, Man 49).

            With that background in the background, then, let’s begin to look at the internal dynamics of Crisis 1.  Despite the conjunction of its publication with the victory at Trenton and despite the legend that it was read to the troops, Crisis 1 was not aimed solely at the soldiers.  It is no philippic against an evil enemy; it is no harangue to go out and kill.  Paine’s audience was all Americans who are facing crisis, suffering panic, and plagued by confusion – and we would do well to remember Cheetham’s assessment noted above that Crisis 1 had great effect on those “in the army and out of it” [my emphasis].  Thus, after an introduction in which he marvelously redefines the instant moment (paragraphs 1-4), Paine considers and drains of validity four alternate positions to hanging tough against the British: acknowledging British military superiority (paragraphs 5-6), remaining loyal to the king (paragraphs 7-10), maintaining neutrality (paragraph 11), and banking on mercy (paragraph 12).  In his conclusion, then, there are no other tenable positions in this crisis time except moving forward with “perseverance and fortitude.”  Paine is able to state with rational confidence “that I fear not.  I see no real cause for fear.  I know our situation well, and can see the way out of it” and to legitimately curse any obstinate, obtuse “thoughtless wretch” who persists in acting otherwise (paragraph 13).

The Comfort of Time    

            Let’s postpone for a moment the tendency to genuflect before the absolute brilliance of Paine’s famous opening sentences about the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot and look at the equally brilliant but totally unremarked overall rhetorical strategy of his introduction (paragraphs 1-4).  Intriguingly, Paine’s immediate cure for panic and confusion involves redefining time present, time past, and time future – thereby giving his audience stabilizing coordinates that quell anxiety and foster clarity.  The present is a good time, a time to secure the celestial article of freedom and merit the honor of communal appreciation (paragraph 1).  The past has had no irremediable effect on the present and isn’t worth fretting over (paragraph 2).  And the future is secure because God is in heaven and all’s right with the world (paragraph 3).  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 like they do now (paragraph 4).  In fact, we find Paine structuring his conclusion 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” (paragraph 13).  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.

            “THESE are the times that try men's souls” names the present moment with bumper-sticker efficiency (paragraph 1).  Paine’s bullet-like opening phrase faces negative facts unflinchingly.  It must have stirred a shock of recognition.  But, though it ruthlessly captures a trying reality, the phrase also immediately starts to spin a new interpretation of that present reality.  For it is souls that are being tried.  In this opening paragraph Paine develops a sustained religious analogy that offers consolation as it normalizes the struggle (conquering tyranny is like the universal fight for personal salvation over the forces of hell), spiritualizes the goal (freedom is God’s article), and satanizes the opposition (British law is impious). 

Not, however, that Paine overdoes the religious dimension.  For he leaves silent the blistering and blasphemous contrast between the 1766 Declaratory act that indeed “declared” British right “to bind the colonies and people of America . . . in all cases whatsoever” (Commager 61) with Peter’s legitimate earthly powers conferred by Christ and familiarly recorded in Matthew 18.18: “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  And instead of invoking Soldier of Christ imagery or some similarly potent religious basis to justify war with hellish tyranny, Paine marshals three (three!) homely clichés in a row (“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”) as commonsense reasons to value conflict.  And even the crucial present choice in this crisis between shrinking and standing is embodied in a sentence that offers earthly, not heavenly reward (“the love and thanks of man and woman”) and owes its rhetorical power to Paine’s artful phrase-making (like “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot”) and the beautifully balanced sentence construction (note, for example, the three coordinate pairings) rather than any religious resonance.

            Paine’s tack in regard to religion seems to be to use it enough to tap fundamental beliefs in his Christian audience but not enough to have them depend on their faith rather than their works for victory, a point he subsequently makes explicit (paragraph 11).  Though Paine will later ascribe providential causation to actions by Generals Howe and Washington, it is literally the last word in those paragraphs (paragraphs 5-6), and there is really no significant appeal, for instance, to anything like the notion of a Chosen People who enjoy a unique relationship with the Almighty.  Here in the introduction, in fact, Paine describes himself as barely religious (“I have as little superstition in me as any man living”) and even part infidel (paragraph 3).  Rather, Paine’s God simply 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.”  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.”  Moral values not earthly power will determine the outcome of this war.  In the future justice will prevail. 

            Speaking of maintaining an emphasis on works, here in the introduction Paine also implicitly addresses the natural question about the past by those caught in a crisis -- is there anything we could have done to avoid it (paragraph 2)?  In my opinion, we did make a mistake in not declaring independence earlier, Paine says, a belief he holds strongly and forthrightly makes known but – and here is the key point -- declines to argue.  In a very interesting move, in fact, he dramatizes his voluntary unwillingness to foreground an “I told you so” by relegating to a footnote – the only one in the essay -- a particularly vicious quote about delaying independence from Common Sense, his January 1776 pamphlet.  Now is the time for unity and looking forward, not going over old ground, infers Paine, and, moreover, 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 (the first of several such re-labelings in this essay), all that the British have done thus far is superficially “ravage” rather than definitively “conquer.”  So that – eyes forward now, everybody – time is actually on our side.

            Paine opens the last paragraph in his introduction the way he does the first, facing reality, accepting pervasive “panic” as the appropriate descriptor for the condition of the country (paragraph 4).  His tone, however, is calm, unexcited, matter-of-fact.  So we are in a panic, so what?  First, relax, we are nothing special, “All nations and ages have been subject to them,” and, in fact, take heart, History (the past) shows us that our very oppressors were themselves panicked “by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman.”  (Something a “Jersey maid” like Joan of Arc could repeat – an obvious dig at the failure of the Jersey militia to turn out during the retreat.)  So, be calm – remember there is nothing unique or irreversible in our situation.  Moreover, second, this panic in the present, is a means, a tool, a weapon, if you will, of “outing” the enemy in our midst: “Many a disguised Tory has lately shown his head.”  So, be advised – know we are better off because of the panic.  And, third, this 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.”  So, be patient – imagine the joyful payback coming.  Thus, Paine ends his introduction by wiping the smear of abject weakness and defeat off the very term “panic” that the rebels themselves were no doubt using to describe their own desperate situation.

News from the Front             

            Under cover of providing first-hand news about recent events in the war for “those who live at a distance,” Paine opens the body of his essay with a brief report of events from the fall of Fort Lee on November 20 through about November 28 and the retreat to Newark (paragraphs 5 and 6).  This retreat, Paine says in a later account, “was censured by some as pusillanimous and disgraceful” (Conway, Writings I: 382), and his purpose here is obviously to dampen legitimate apprehension about the fall of Philadelphia by putting the proper propagandistic spin on disheartening facts about American military prowess.  For “On the appearance of our troops, the rebels fled like scared rabbits,” said a British soldier at Fort Lee (Moore 350).  The disconcerting report about news from the front in upper Jersey that Josiah Bartlett heard was that “The Regulars drive our army before them like a parcel of sheep” (Ketchum 151).  A British officer likewise observing what famed artist Charles Willson Peale described as “the sick and half naked veterans [streaming] past” (Lefkowitz, title page) sneered that “No Nation ever saw such a set of tatterdemalions” (Fischer 125).  And Washington himself described his troops as “much broken and dispirited” (Lunden 143).  The outlook in December 1776, then, was grim, to be sure.  So, what therapeutic strategies can we parse out of this one section in the essay in which Paine deals directly with the military menace on the Philadelphia horizon?

            The first thing to note, perhaps, is that in relaying bad news in this time of crisis Paine adopts a straightforwardly journalistic tone and manner.  The opening part of this section is grounded in facts, in concrete details: the exact date, the relevant mileage between actions, the precise time it took Washington to arrive, the narrow neck of land, the temporary nature of field forts, three ways the troops crossed the Hackensack river, the location of a mill on a small creek, ground that was marshy, the specific duration of time spent at Newark, and so forth.  Through this densely realistic approach, Paine, without seeming to push an agenda of his own, deflects attention from the current grim interpretation of events and establishes a “trust me” kind of attitude toward the past in his readers that, in a subtle way, also lays the foundation for later seeing the future through his eyes as well. 

In addition, this low-key approach, together with his judicious selection of facts, is meant to have a calming effect, a point easily seen by comparing this section with an account of the same events – even using some of the same language – written after the victory at Trenton and printed January 29, 1777.  Once the first great rebel victory of the war has occurred, Paine’s purpose is to excite his readers: “posterity will call [the retreat] glorious – and the names of Washington and Faubus will run parallel to eternity,” he trumpets, pillorying the “consummate wretchedness” of the enemy whose “rage and lust . . . avarice and cruelty, knew no bounds,” and for whom “murder, ravishment, plunder, and the most brutal treatment of every sex and age were the first acts that signalized their conquest” (Conway, Writings I: 382-83).  There is no such pulse-pounding rhetoric in this first Crisis essay.  Rather, the stately pace of the six clauses of this section’s topic sentence --  perhaps the longest independent clause in the entire essay -- the even keel created by four coordinate pairs or series (on this stylistic element, see Ginsberg 32), and the sonorous final alliteration perfectly capture the controlled dignity of Paine’s patriots in his vision of their analogously long retreat: “suffice it for the present to say, that both officers and men, though greatly harassed and fatigued, frequently without rest, covering, or provision, the inevitable consequences of a long retreat, bore it with a manly and martial spirit.”  Paine’s periodic sentence travels a long way with considerable grace to its “manly and martial” conclusion just as Paine’s retreating rebels did!  

   A second strategy to note in this section is the way Paine undercuts Howe, the mastermind of the British army.  In keeping with the low-key tone and manner of the section, Paine pins Howe with a simple declarative sentence: “Howe, in my little opinion, committed a great error in generalship in not throwing a body of forces off from Staten Island through Amboy.”  Indeed, Paine is not the only one to question Howe’s New Jersey strategy, for it was even the subject of a parliamentary inquiry after the war (Anderson 193ff, 322; Ford) and has been thoroughly examined and even defended by modern scholars (Anderson,  Gruber).  However, accusing Howe of a “great error” suggests that the British general is not super-human, not invincible – not a bad thing to do at this time.  But, in addition, though less successfully, Paine indicates that Howe is not unopposed.  Paine introduces Washington as a foil, a general at this moment still untested, still unsuccessful, and still not respected, even by his own subordinate generals (Fischer 146-47).  In the later piece, Paine will compare Washington with Faubus, that is, Quintus Fabius, the Roman who earned the esteemed title “The Delayer” for his successful tactics in the Second Punic War, but the best that Paine can do here is compare Washington for secret fortitude, through a Voltaire allusion, to King William III, a learned reference, one suspects, that would have gone over the heads of the plain people in his audience (and a reference that I have not been able to identify) – the only weak note, it seems to me, in the entire essay.  

Integrally related to Paine’s handling of Howe and Washington, however, is the third and most important strategy of this first section, yoking God to the action.  We noted above in the discussion of the introduction Paine’s avowal, especially in paragraph 3, that God’s in charge of the world and divine order is operative, and the two paragraphs in this section both end with invocations of that divine agency.  God is on our side.  God is in play.  God is the reason for both Howe’s great error and Washington’s mental firmness, the two factors comprising the ironic rebel “victory” in retreat here.  The bottom line – literally – is that Howe, like all devils, was limited by “providential control” and that, conversely, Washington was “blessed . . . with uninterrupted health, and given . . . a mind that can even flourish upon care.”  Shunning the zealot’s fanfare that might tempt too much dependence on spiritual intervention, Paine simply taps the basic belief shared by every Christian, no matter what sect he or she belongs to.  God is with us.  Providence is a patriot. 

Tarring the Tories

            The second body section of this first Crisis essay is also focused on knowing the enemy, but not Howe and the invading army this time, the battlefield enemy, but, rather, the Tories, the neighborhood enemy, the enemy who lives down the street (paragraphs 7-10).  In this time of crisis, how should Paine’s readers feel about them?  In a delicious opening gambit, Paine literally blames the Tories for the present crisis!  He faces his panic-stricken audience with probably the most obvious questions on their minds.  What did we do to deserve this mess we’re in?  How is it that the British army shows up on our doorstep?  And the answer Paine gives is that this region is “infested with Tories”!  This answer is probably a fabrication.  I have found nothing to suggest the presence of a particularly higher percentage of Tories in the middle states than New England, and, moreover, it is clear that Howe was pursuing a sensible policy of dividing the rebel forces in two by capturing the “keystone” area in the colonies.  But fabrication or not, Paine’s assertion effectively puts a Tory face on the wolf at the door.  And thus generates hatred of Tories and resolve against them in this time of crisis.

A related dig at the Tories – for cowardice -- is surely a fabrication.  In a mock-address to the Tories, Paine accuses them of subverting Howe’s plan by refusing to fight, thereby, regardless of their neighborhood numbers, erasing the military threat to the patriot cause from the enemy in their midst.  This is obviously too rosy a claim.  There is substantial evidence that the Tories were willing to fight and did fight.  For example, “From the beginning of November, when it became clear that New Jersey was to be invaded,” writes Leonard Lundin, “Loyalists had been forming associations to join the British as fighters upon their arrival” (162).  Even Tories who did not enlist as regulars with the British formed militia that, “receiving arms and ammunition from the royal forces,” set to work “with a will disarming Whigs and settling old grudges” (162).  In fact, Washington had to dispatch troops to quell a “Tory uprising” in Monmouth County during this very period (Lefkowitz 75).  But, fabrication or not, this Paine assertion adds yet another telling piece to the developing anti-Tory mosaic.  The big, bad wolf may be at the door, but these pathetic cubs within have not the courage to help open it.      

This charge of cowardice is a direct answer to the rhetorical question “what is a Tory?”  Initially, Paine straightforwardly defines a Tory as a coward – the technique he uses is verbal, the appeal to his readers intellectual.  For instance, double alliteration heightens the impact of the serial invective of “for servile, slavish, self-interested fear is the foundation of Toryism.”  In addition, the specific elements of the invective are consciously chosen to resonate both inside and outside the essay.  “Servile” and “slavish” as markers for the enemy are especially meaningful contrasts for rebel partisans in a war for independence, in a war precisely to escape slavery.  And the marker “self-interested” resonates meaningfully as well for unselfish patriots whose reward, Paine tells us in the opening lines of the essay, is “the love and thanks of man and woman.”  Finally, re-labeling Tory behavior as “cruel” rather than “brave” is another example -- like substituting “ravage” for “conquest” previously -- of Paine’s penchant for strategic word play.  Paine lets stand the fact of the Tory commitment to their cause – something his audience could readily see and thus could not be denied -- but through the new adjective puts a completely different interpretation, a very negative interpretation on the quality of that commitment.  In this first answer to the question “what is a Tory?” Paine, then, aims at his readers’ minds.  He would have them know Tories.

But complementing and perhaps even trumping this first answer, Paine’s second answer to the question of what is a Tory – the anecdote of the Amboy tavern keeper and his child – aims at the readers’ emotions, at having them feel and feel about Tories.  The Tory tavern keeper is a self-interested parent relishing peace in his day rather than a “generous parent” insuring his child’s future welfare.  Paine presents himself as a family man judging another family man. The “mean principles” that damn the Tories are not political but parental and thus cut to the core of their humanity.  Toryism is not simply one option on a political spectrum, not some adopted doctrine that one can co-exist with, tolerate, or forgive.  No, Toryism is an evil way of life.  This representative Tory is a bad father, a bad man, a bad human being.  This representative Tory is a man you can hate; this is a man whose actions are “sufficient to awaken every man to duty”; this is a man you should fight with clear justification.  The anecdote is, of course, no doubt another Paine fabrication for strategic effect, for it is directly based on, and gains added power from, the biblical story of the unbelievably insensitive Hezekiah, who, after hearing from Isaiah that his sons and his son’s sons would be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon as partial punishment for his indiscretions, answered complacently, “Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken . . . . For there shall be peace and truth in my days” (Isaiah 39.1-8; 2 Kings 20.12-19).

Paine completes his sweep of the Tories in this second section of the body with a plan for disposing of them, one way or another, after Howe’s likely “attempt on this city.”  Paine builds up to this plan with a series of no doubt overly optimistic observations about the military situation: the militia was effective, but we are wiser now about the need for an army; even if Philadelphia falls, “our cause is not ruined”; and “Howe [is] the greatest enemy the Tories have.”  The noteworthy strategy of Paine’s post-siege plan for handling the Tories, however, is his overt self-identification as a Christian.  If Howe loses, Paine wishes “with all the devotion of a Christian” that ideological differences disappear – that is, the Christian patriot will hold no grudge.  Divisive labels will no longer be heard from him.  We’re even.  Quits.  Peace in the Delaware Valley. 

But, on the contrary, ominously, “should the Tories give [Howe] encouragement to come, or assistance if he come, I as sincerely wish,” says Paine, “that our next year's arms may expel them from the continent, and the Congress appropriate their possessions to the relief of those who have suffered in well-doing.”  Expulsion.  Appropriation.  Paine turns tough.  There will be reckoning.  The Tories will pay.  But the toughness is Christianly tempered (one would like to think with tongue-in-cheek) by at least the third major instance of the Paine word dance we have noted before, this time in one of the most noble sounding sentences in the whole piece: “Say not that this is revenge, call it rather the soft resentment of a suffering people, who, having no object in view but the good of all, have staked their own all upon a seemingly doubtful event” [my emphasis].  Label it “soft resentment” not “revenge” – is that not to make such extreme nastiness toward this despicable enemy more palatable to a Christian audience characterized as often subject to “an excess of tenderness” and who “repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war”?  For the bottom line is that Paine deems the Tories unsalvageable: “nothing can reach the heart that is steeled with prejudice.”  

Bashing the King

            It would be interesting to know specifically who those were “stand[ing] the matter out” Paine was addressing in the third section of the body of this first Crisis paper (paragraph 11), for in obvious contrast to the Tories addressed above and those holding the mercy position next, he says he finds their stance noble and approaches them “with the warm ardor of a friend.”  The central strategy in this section, however, is bashing the king, so it is tempting to speculate that Paine was addressing those following the old European tradition of “passive obedience” even to an evil monarch, a position concisely captured in colonist John Ross’s “Let who will be king, I well know that I shall be the subject” (Fischer 165). 

            But, first, the specific purpose of the friendly ardor is to raise an army, which everybody realized was the absolute key to rebel success, from this pool of non-combatants.  Paine is recruiting here, asking those who have not yet laid “your shoulders to the wheel” to “up and help us,” and to up and help us big time, not just -- gaining a nice bounce from the allusion to I Samuel 18.7 -- like a Saul (with his thousands) but like a David (with his tens of thousands).  Paine is extremely oratorical here, tending toward the pompous, in fact (“Let it be told . . .” and “Say not that . . .”), and, without some better dramatic reason why these passives should feel emotionally guilty, the play on dead hearts and children’s curses tends toward the bombastic.  Even the biblically-backed call for action that merits God’s good attention (James 2.18: "show your faith by your works") seems motivationally soft, since simple assertions like “It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all” are not likely in themselves to immediately engage people living out of harm’s way.  So far, then, I’m not sure I see anything here but rather flashy rhetorical flourishes -- nothing that would generate shouldering or soldiering.

            But if the audience here is the passively obedient American who is umbilical’d intellectually to rigid identity as the king’s “subject,” then Paine’s strategy in the latter part of this section not only makes sense but is really quite striking.  For Paine uses himself to make the case for precisely being a rebel, famously proclaiming (turning his usually vicious name calling around on himself this time!) “Let them call me rebel and welcome.”  Paine deftly reduces continental war to a home invasion for maximum personal impact.  And the straight line of his reasoning is that he would not participate in an offensive war, but that he would not be a man if he did not react to a string of serious domestic injuries, and that rank and nativity are no moral sanctuaries for the perpetrators of those injustices.  Therefore, a thieving, housebreaking king – “a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man” – has himself severed the sovereign/subject relationship by initiating this war.  So, and one should imagine the smile, Paine’s response to this crisis is free embrace of the term “rebel,” publishing, as it were, his own epitaph (it was Washington who said “we fight with halters around our necks”), and thereby by his very audacity stirring, permitting, authorizing, lubricating the release of heretofore repressed “revolutionary” sentiments in passive others.

            But Paine goes well beyond simply bashing the king with criminal epithets and  serial invective in the powerful climax of this section.  “If we reason to the root of things” [my emphasis], Paine says, we will see that the king deserves to be punished for his manifest and manifold iniquities, but by evoking the Book of Revelation’s “great day of wrath” at the end of human history, Paine shows that the king himself also will see his just deserts – and try to flee them, “shrieking to the rocks and mountains to cover him.”  In full, the richly dramatic Revelation 6.15-17 that Paine is drawing on here reads: “And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?”   Ever augmenting the innate power of his allusion, moreover, Paine even customizes the biblical scene, adding the king’s revengeful war victims -- “the orphan, the widow, and the slain of America” – as agents of his impending dissolution.  Sub specie aeternitatis, then, allegiance to the king is simply absurd.  On the Last Day he will not stand.  Therefore, on this day it makes no sense to stand out because of him.

Mercy Killing

In the fourth section of the body, Paine specifically addresses those who find “solace” in this time of crisis in the expectation that the British will be merciful (paragraph 12).  Such response was, of course, a goal of the Howe plan for reconciliation.  On November 30, in fact, after the string of resounding military victories, Howe issued a proclamation offering “a full and free pardon of all treasons and misprisions of treasons” to anyone signing a declaration that “I will remain in a peaceable obedience to his Majesty, and will not take up arms, nor encourage others to take up arms, in opposition to his authority” (Stryker 315).  “No one man in the continent is to be denied [Howe’s] mercy,” wrote patriot James Caldwell, adding sardonically, “The Lord deliver us from [it]” (Stryker 24); and similar rebel scorn was evident in a vigorous Boston Gazette piece that called the offer “a puff in the place of victory” and “the most consummate arrogance and folly” (Moore 354).  Paine himself directly tees off on this proclamation in the second Crisis essay, dated January 13, 1777.

But this Howe proclamation achieved significant results.  Within a short period of time over 3000 people in New Jersey alone came forward to take an oath of allegiance to King George III and receive protection papers (Fischer 161-62).  On Long Island the number was 1900, and “a very considerable Number” of New Yorkers also responded as well (Gruber 149).  On the eve of the anticipated siege of Philadelphia, then, the British pacification program was enlisting recruits.  Large numbers – “rebels and loyalists alike” – were seeking mercy (Gruber 149).  On December 18, the day before this first Crisis paper appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal, Washington complained that Jersians “are making their submissions as fast as they can” (Mitnick 48).  Even Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, turned coat after suffering ill treatment and gave “his word of honor that he would not meddle in the least in American affairs” (Fischer 163-64).

Paine’s three-part attack on this attractive mercy position is crisp, calculated, and comprehensive: he discredits the bestower, dramatizes the consequences, and denigrates the recipients.  To begin with, Howe is hammered by a stinging cluster of three of Paine’s best one-liners densely packed for maximum clout into a single sentence and appealing for reader acceptance in various “common sense” ways: “It is the madness of folly, to expect mercy from those who have refused to do justice; and even mercy, where conquest is the object, is only a trick of war; the cunning of the fox is as murderous as the violence of the wolf, and we ought to guard equally against both.”  Most obviously, perhaps, Paine’s equation of fox and wolf in proverb or aphoristic form has the immediate instinctive cachet of universal folk wisdom so recently well known and popular among all levels of society in Franklin’s Poor Richard sayings.  Maybe more telling, though, Paine masterfully couples mercy with justice, its virtual twin in Christian consciousness, tapping their co-existence in the universal drama of individual salvation, and giving mercy a context, a frame of reference.  For a Christian, to think of mercy is naturally to think of justice.  And to think of justice is to think of He who is justice.  Now, Paine suggests, where does that leave your relationship with the British, already characterized early in the essay as led by a common murderer, a highwayman, a house-breaker?

Paine’s dramatization of the destructive consequences of the mercy position involves a harsh dose of realpolitik introduced by the ironic use of the Bible.  Playing wryly off Philippians 4.7 (“and the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus”), Paine asks his readers to compare God’s unbelievably beautiful peace with the British peace that simply can not be believed.  But his strategy here does not involve indirection or innuendo as above.  Instead, based on the grimly realistic doctrine that “mutual fear is the principal link in the chain of mutual love,” Paine starkly evokes an inevitable future course of internecine warfare among regions of a state and between states if parts break “the compact.”  In addition to fighting the British, then, the ultimate consequence of the mercy position in Paine’s scenario is that Americans would also be fighting each other – truly a peace which passes all understanding, indeed! 

Climactically, those who choose to hold the mercy position are roundly denounced as either “rogues or fools.”  Paine has engaged in negative name calling before – against the king in paragraphs 3 and 11 and against the Tories in paragraph 7.  But the noteworthy point here is the use of this tactic against a class of people who at the outset don’t seem so deserving of scorn.  The clear bottom line in this harshness is that there is no acceptable position in this crisis moment except one of active enmity against the British and British sympathizers and except active support for, if not engagement in the revolutionary cause.  Paine is obviously exasperated by the manifest irrationality of the rogues and fools, and his conclusive response, characteristically, is an aggressive, almost bullyish assertion (I dwell . . . I bring . . . I hold) of his unquestioned objectivity.  In addition, however, Paine’s depiction here of a strong, brash, confident “I” who is understandably deeply frustrated at this willful suspension of common sense models the condemning response to the mercy position he wants from his readers.

The Heinous Hessians

Paine begins Crisis 1 by posing a choice – his readers may shrink or they may stand.  And Paine begins Crisis 1 by redefining his readers’ time coordinates to alleviate their panic.  He does the same things in his conclusion (paragraph 13).  As I indicated above while discussing the introduction, the final paragraph presents an optimistic reading of time past (“None can say that our retreat was precipitate”), time present (60,000 troops seems wildly exaggerated), and time future, and now the choice elaborated is between a “glorious issue” if we stand with “perseverance and fortitude” and a “variety of evils” if we shrink with “cowardice and submission.”  So, Paine ends as he begins.  Except.  Except that the negative option is handled quite differently in the conclusion.  The variety of evils is spelled out in a way designed to be particularly heinous: “a ravaged country -- a depopulated city -- habitations without safety, and slavery without hope -- our homes turned into barracks and bawdy-houses for Hessians, and a future race to provide for, whose fathers we shall doubt of” [my emphasis].  Starkly, the climactic choice is between a glorious issue and a bastard issue.  Ironically, the section that begins with Paine saying “I see no real cause for fear” employs fear – and fear of rape and sexual pollution particularly -- more forcefully than anywhere else in the essay.  The key word in this strategy is “Hessian.”  It’s like the tip of an iceberg.  Let’s look at the critical mass underneath.

 The Hessians, of course, were German mercenaries hired by the British (Fischer 51-65), and they have a special place in the American Hall of Infamy.  The Hessians are cited in the Declaration of Independence as transported here “to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny.”  Their callous money-grubbing was the subject of the brutally satiric “The Sale of the Hessians,” an essay ascribed to Ben Franklin.  The Headless Horseman at Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow was a Hessian.  And we also know that Southerners in the Civil War cursed Northern soldiers as Hessians.  It was a Hessian force at Trenton, to be sure, but, in general, Hessian is a code word for wanton cruelty, for mindless terror.  The Hessians had no stake in the outcome of the war, they had no historical relation with the Americans, plundering was “their way of making war” (Moore 320), and, since they did not always understand the language, even those who had received written pledges of safety after accepting Howe’s offer of protection were not always spared their rapacity.  “Rebel good for Hesse man,” was how one newspaper quoted a ruthless Hessian in October 1776 (Moore 320). 

Not that the Hessians deserved all the blame for exacting the spoils of war.  “Upon crossing the Passaic River, the invaders” – both British and Hessian, writes Leonard Lundin – “found themselves in a promised land, where everything they could desire was theirs for the taking,” and the truth was that “the two in combination brought ruin and misery to a prosperous countryside” (173).  But soldiers on both sides testify to the truth of the dire fate Philadelphia might expect from the Hessians bivouacked at Trenton.  British Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Kemble wrote in his journal October 3, 1776, that “The Ravages committed by the Hessians, and all ranks of the Army, on the poor Inhabitants of the Country, make their case deplorable; the Hessians destroy all the fruits of the earth without regard to Loyalists or Rebels” (91).  And in early January 1777 American Army surgeon James Thacher remembered that “In their march through Jersey [the British and Hessians] have committed such licentious ravages and desolation, as must be deemed disgraceful by all civilized people; an indiscriminate robbery and plundering mark every step of their progress; rapine and murder, without distinction of friend or foe, age, or sex, has been put into practice with an inexorable spirit” (71).    

To give one more example of what fearful images in the mind of his audience Paine was tapping when he gave climactic emphasis to the Hessians, listen to the Governor of New Jersey:

The rapacity of the enemy was boundless, their rapine indiscriminate, and their barbarity unparalleled.  They have plundered friends and foes.  Effects capable of division they have divided; such as were not they have destroyed.  They have warred upon decrepit age; warred upon defenseless youth.  They have committed hostilities against the professors of literature and the ministers of religion; against public records and private monuments; against books of improvement and papers of curiosity; and against the arts and sciences.  They have butchered and wounded asking for quarter; mangled the dying weltering in their blood; refused the dead the rights of sepulcher; suffered prisoners to perish for want of sustenance; violated the chastity of women; disfigured private dwellings of taste and elegance; and in the rage of impiety and barbarism profaned edifices dedicated to Almighty God.  (Stryker 25-26)  

            But it is specifically the dead-certain Hessian violations of chastity that Paine – who earlier has indicted the king as a home invader and who has attacked the Amboy Tory as a family man – singles out for special alarm.  Unsurprisingly, first-person accounts of rape are rare, probably primarily because, as one reporter on the “horror of war” declared in the winter of 1776, of our unfortunate tendency to blame the victim: since “We despise these poor Innocent Sufferers in this Brutal Crime Even as long as they live . . . I am of the Opinion That many honest virtuous women have suffered in this Manner and kept it Secret for fear of making their lives miserable” (Collins 3, 14).  But this writer recounts the vivid story of two soldiers who took a young woman to a barn on the pretext of searching for rebels:

[She] Went to the Barn with them to show them that no body was there.  And when they had got her there, one of them Laid hold on her Strangled her to Prevent her crying out while the other Villain Ravisht her, and when he had done, he Strangled her Again While the Other Brute Repeated the horrid crime Upon her again.  (Collins 15)

And then there is the account of thirteen-year-old Abigail Palmer to a committee of the Continental Congress investigating such crimes.  A soldier asked to speak with Abigail in another room, and when she refused, he “dragd her into a back Room and she screamed & begd of him to let her alone . . . her Grandfather also & Aunt intreated  . . . telling them how Cruel & what a shame it was to Use a Girl of that Age after that manner, but finally three of the Said Soldiers Ravished her” (Mitnick 149).  Other incidents in the “epidemic of rape” documented by this committee included a woman “five months and upwards Advanc’d in her pregnancy,” “an old woman nearly seventy years of age . . . abused in a manner beyond description,” and the gang-rape of a ten-year-old (Fischer 178-79).

            Stories of such vicious sexual misconduct as these – which the reporter of the barn episode above called “Worse in this Respect then an Indian War” and who believed were so numerous because the “Unnatural Miscreants are sure of getting of[f] with impunity” (Collins 14-15) -- must have been circulating, and Paine broadened the fear of such individual fate to fear of a massive alteration of the nature of the entire city for his powerful last act.  He closes Crisis 1 more like a fierce prophet challenging his auditors to curse the impending darkness of most intimate domestic violation, to rue the abomination of a permanent visible “Other” adding to the insult of their submission, and therefore to choose the path of “perseverance and fortitude” now – or else!  Hessian muskets and bayonets aren’t the only weapons we have to fear.  Rape is an instrument of war, and Paine suggests that the victorious Hessians, consciously or not, would implement what we would now call a program of ethnic cleansing (his use of the word “race” is especially pointed here), demoralizing and deconstructing a culture in ways far more hideous than simply military defeat.  Weep over Philadelphia as Jesus wept over Jerusalem.  He that hath ears to hear let him hear.  

“Defeat wants a deal of explaining”           

            Paine had no easy task in Crisis 1.  “Defeat wants a deal of explaining,” deadpans Harold D. Lasswell in his book on war propaganda, adding “One of the questions which rises in the conduct of [a] War is how to handle the news of losses” (102, 109).  Crisis creates the need for propaganda.  People need outside help to be able to face their dire condition.  People need to be armed psychologically (Ellul 138, 160).  Paine’s purpose here is to enable a people facing defeat to stand, to persevere, to have fortitude, and, as we have seen, there is much to say about how he goes about achieving that purpose.  Paine at once meets and “settles down” his panic-stricken readers with a refurbished sense of time, then examines and rejects four routes of submission available to them, finally punctuating his common sense with a highly motivating dash of fear, and throughout it all he employs a medley of such rhetorical devices and strategies as different shades of narrative voice, direct address, anecdotes, religious analogy, journalistic detail, one-liners, divine providence, biblical allusions, word play, name calling, serial invective, family values, selecting facts, fabricating facts, rhetorical questions, coordinate constructions, and alliteration (even down to fussing over two abba schemes in the penultimate sentence).

            As I mentioned at the beginning, I would like to see this kind of close analysis done for each of the Crisis essays, not just what for now is the most well known one.  “Between 1776 and 1783 Paine published thirteen numbered essays and three extra numbers of The Crisis papers,” says Paine editor Philip S. Foner, and “All were perfectly timed and perfectly adapted to the needs of the time” (I: xvi).  Now that’s a claim that needs testing.  Who knows what rhetorical gems we would find among the other essays, what better understandings we would have of Paine’s techniques, what deeper insights we might have about propaganda in general?  In fact, it might be valuable as well, as Moses Coit Tyler suggests, simply to read the “history of this long war . . . in the blazing light of these mighty pamphlets” (2:42).        

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