At the darkest moment of the War for Independence, Thomas Paine penned a trenchant pamphlet which helped inspire George Washington’s Christmas attack on Trenton. Brion McClanahan tells his story for the December issue of Townhall Magazine.
On December 24, 1781, George Washington wished Gen. William Heath to “spend a happy and merry Christmas, a thing that has not happened for some years past.” Christmas had been an unpleasant time for the American soldier during the American War for Independence and in the dark year of 1776, the season almost signaled the end of the cause. Washington certainly thought so.
He wrote just a week before Christmas in 1776 that if he failed to receive reinforcements, “I think the game will be pretty well up, as from disaffection and want of spirit and fortitude, the inhabitants, instead of resistance, are offering submission and taking protection from Gen. Howe in Jersey.”
For Washington’s ill-equipped, poorly clothed, and dispirited men, malaise and fear, rather than hope and confidence marked the hour. It had been many months since the American cause seemed bright.
1776 began promising enough. In February, colonists in North Carolina won a decisive victory at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge near Wilmington. This helped check British incursions into the state and rallied many wavering supporters of independence. Just one week later, Gen. Henry Knox began a siege of Boston with captured cannons from Fort Ticonderoga. The bombardment had the desired effect. Within two weeks, the British evacuated the city and New England was freed from British control.
When the British army again attempted to invade the South in June 1776 at Charleston, S.C. the intrepid and enterprising South Carolina militia, led by Col. William Moultrie, repulsed the larger force and destroyed or damaged every British ship in Charleston Harbor. The American colonies began declaring their independence in June, and the Second Continental Congress approved Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in July, a task made easier with military success, though not without resistance. Morale was high and military enrollment surged regardless of poor provisions and uncertain pay.
One such volunteer was the famous 39-year-old pamphleteer Thomas Paine. Paine was a recent citizen of Pennsylvania, having only arrived from London at the insistence of Benjamin Franklin in 1774.
He was intense, brilliant, and passionate, but prone to laziness. One historian even referred to his life as “bohemian.”
Paine, though, was selflessly dedicated to the cause of independence. His “Common Sense,” published in January 1776, is often regarded as the singular tract that pushed a majority of Americans to support separation from Great Britain. More than 500,000 copies were printed and the pamphlet was read in taverns and homes, as well as by the leading members of American society. Everyone, both friend and foe of independence, knew it and read it.
Washington wrote that “Common Sense,” was “working a wonderful change...in the minds of many men.” John Adams believed that, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” He later wrote to his wife Abigail, “I could not have written any thing in so manly and striking a style.”
And Paine did not simply give lip service to the cause. He donated his meager profits (most of the copies were published without Paine receiving any proceeds) to help supply American troops, and joined the army in 1776, at a rank no higher than junior officer. The most famous writer in America put aside his fame and joined the masses in the cause of liberty.
A Turn for the Worse
Paine was with the army when the military effort rapidly deteriorated in the summer of 1776. After British Gen. William Howe evacuated Boston in March, he took aim at New York, and consolidated forces there for a frontal assault against George Washington and the main body of the Continental Army.
Concurrently, Howe offered an “olive branch” to wavering Americans and ensured that the British martial display outshined anything the Americans sent to the field. The British, in their bright red uniforms, shiny accoutrements, and rousing drum processions, outclassed the American army of rag-tag militia dressed in homespun cloth. The British looked and acted as professionals. Some American soldiers lacked boots. This dichotomy caused some Americans to rethink their support for separation.
British military success in the late summer and early fall of 1776 made the choice easier still. Howe began punishing the American army in New York, winning the Battle of Long Island and dislodging the American army from New York City, which promptly suffered a great fire. Washington lost again at the Battle of White Plains and was forced to retreat and split his army.
The Other Benedict Arnold
Some members of the Continental Congress grew restless as intrigue and insubordination from American Gen. Charles Lee weakened Washington’s effort. Though virtually unknown to the American public, Charles Lee should be placed in the same category as Benedict Arnold. The short, unclean, narcissistic general believed he should be commanding the Continental Army, not Washington. His military reputation was built on falsehoods, fairytales, and legend. Lee took credit for the victory at Sullivan’s Island, though if his orders had been followed the outcome would have been different. He refused to come to Washington’s aid and wrote letters to high level American officials complaining of Washington’s leadership.
In November 1776, the Continental Army lost Fort Washington on the Hudson River, and in the process one British soldier said, “the rebels fled like scared rabbits,” and left behind artillery, small arms, “some poor pork, a few greasy proclamations, and some of that scoundrel ‘Common Sense’ man’s letters, which we can read at our leisure now that we have got one of the ‘impregnable redoubts’ of Mr. Washington’s to quarter in.”
The Hessian mercenaries who marched with the British fumed over American resistance during the battle, and afterward went to work beating American prisoners and stealing their belongings. Of the 2,800 men captured by the British at Fort Washington, only 800 would survive. Washington openly wept for his men while watching the carnage from the opposite bank of the Hudson. Washington had no choice but to retreat, and the American public grew restless, calling his moves “pusillanimous and disgraceful” in the press.
Charles Lee was captured by the British in early December, and Washington faced an enrollment crisis. The one year enlistments for several companies began to expire, and the army was running out of men, money, material, and most importantly, hope. Lee’s capture was regarded as a disaster at the time, but this event rid the army, at least temporarily, of a scurrilous mischief-maker and forced Washington to retreat across the Delaware River, a move that ultimately saved both the army and perhaps the cause.
Paine’s Gut Check Gift
Paine had marched with the army through these tense months. He had knowledge of the problems of command and the miseries of the common soldier, felt the hunger pains, the bite of the crisp fall weather, the weariness of the cause.
Independence was hanging by a thread. Washington thought he could lose his army either to battle, desertion, or both. The British assembled an impressive force across the Delaware, and Lord Charles Cornwallis had already made plans to be back in England by 1777. Impending doom seemed to be the order of the day. It was at this point that Paine presented his greatest gift to the American cause, perhaps even more pronounced than “Common Sense,” and it arrived just a few days before Christmas 1776.
Paine began writing what was later titled “The American Crisis” while trudging through the blood, mud, and disappointment that was the New York campaign of 1776. He had served as Gen. Nathanael Greene’s aide-de-camp since September, and according to Paine, had been asked to shore up sagging morale with a spirited evaluation of the American cause. He wrote by firelight using a drumhead for a desk, and as one historian wrote, the “winter storms” and “the Delaware’s waves…mingled with his ink; the half-naked soldiers in their troubled sleep dreaming of their distant homes, the skulking deserter creeping off in the dusk, the pallid face of the heavyhearted commander…” added depth, texture, and passion to his work.
He left the army at Trenton shortly before Washington crossed the Delaware and arrived in Philadelphia while the city was in a state of confusion and panic. Some leading members of the city sought protection from the British and renounced the patriot cause. Others sent their wives, children, and valuables to the country and hunkered down for what they believed was imminent invasion. Congress fled the city, worrying that their necks would be stretched by British nooses. Paine was shocked. He later wrote that, “The deplorable and melancholy condition the people were in, afraid to speak and almost to think, the public presses stopped, and nothing in circulation but fears and false hoods,” led him “in a passion of patriotism” to quickly publish his American “Crisis.”
The first copies were printed on December 19, 1776 and arrived at Washington’s camp within a day or two [the official publication is December 23, 1776]. Paine, a man who rejected Christianity and favored deism, had given the American soldier a perfect Christmas present. Huddled together in groups, the beleaguered patriots listened to the famous series of opening sentences:
“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 his country; but he that stands 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 everything 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.”
These well-known and oft repeated lines are typically all that anyone remembers about the Crisis, but Paine used his pen as a wrecking ball against Tories, King George III, and those who had lost faith in the cause.
Paine admitted he harbored a secret in the essay by suggesting that Divine Providence was needed at such a time. He believed that “God Almighty” would not “give us up to the care of devils," nor would He leave Americans “unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent.” The American cause was a just one that deserved His protection.
At the same time, Paine condemned the traitorous Tories. “Every Tory is a coward,” he wrote, “for servile, slavish, self interested fear is the foundation of Toryism; and a man under such influence, though he may be cruel, never can be brave.”
Paine declared that he could not betray his principles, nor should any American patriot. George III, he thundered, should fear the patriot:
“Let them call me rebel and welcome, I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man. I conceive likewise a horrid idea in receiving mercy from a being, who at the last day shall be shrieking to the rocks and mountains to cover him, and fleeing with terror from the orphan, the widow, and the slain of America.”
One historian wrote that his conclusion was “such a battle call as might almost have startled slain patriots from their new graves under the frozen clods.”
Paine was unequivocal in his prediction that should the patriot cause falter, pestilence, rape, murder, and destruction would follow. “By perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious issue; by cowardice and submission, the sad choice of a variety of evils—a ravaged country—a depopulated city —habitations without safety, and slavery without hope—our homes turned into barracks and bawdyhouses for Hessians, and a future race to provide for, whose fathers we shall doubt of. Look on this picture and weep over it! and if there yet remains one thoughtless wretch who believes it not, let him suffer it unlamented.”
A Call Heeded
The impact was immediate. Men who thought of leaving signed on for another year. Washington’s ranks stabilized, and the zeal for victory returned. Even Paine’s archenemy, James Cheetham, realized the value of his work. “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.”
Whether “The American Crisis” gave Washington the needed morale boost to attack Trenton is unknown. He never mentioned it. But his men needed it, and Washington capitalized on the revitalized army. On Christmas Day, 1776, Washington led his men on a daring attack. They crossed the ice-choked Delaware during a blizzard in the middle of the night, marched in knee-deep snow to Trenton—many without shoes—and routed the slumbering Hessian mercenaries billeted there. They fought in desperation to save hearth and home; they fought like patriots. America had again awoken.
The patriot historian Mercy Otis Warren wrote in 1805 that, “Perhaps there are no people on earth, in whom a spirit of enthusiastic zeal is so readily enkindled, and burns so remarkably conspicuous, as among the Americans.” Paine inspired action twice as a pamphleteer, the first bringing “common sense” to the American mind, the second animating a sleeping giant.
Perhaps Americans today would be well to heed his warnings. The principles of ’76 are not lost, and Paine’s Christmas gift still rings true today. It is the legacy of the War for Independence. As he wrote that December, “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.” These words ring as true today as they did in 1776. The American Crisis has not waned. Perhaps we need another Thomas Paine.
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