“These are the Times that Try Men’s Souls”

Today, we begin a series of #TrentonTuesdays. Every Tuesday for the next few weeks we’ll highlight interesting stories related to the Battles of Trenton and Princeton as we approach the inaugural Emerging Revolutionary War bus tour in November. Today we look at the story of Thomas Paine.

As Washington and his army marched quickly across the state of New Jersey from Fort Lee to Trenton in November and December of 1776, they were joined by a young writer. His name was Thomas Paine, and he was well known as the author of the famous patriot pamphlet “Common Sense” that was published earlier in 1776.

Statue of Thomas Paine writing the American Crisis (revolutionarynewjersey.com)

Paine, watching the American army melt away from more that 23,000 men in August of 1776, to less than 5,000 men by December, seemed to be witnessing the destruction of the nascent American nation. During the retreat Paine put quill to parchment to write another pamphlet that he would have published that December, titled “The American Crisis.” With Washington’s army on the verge of dissolution, it was an apt title. He started with a phrase that duly summed up the situation: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

He goes on to exhort Americans to rally for the cause of liberty in spite of the hardships they faced, an exhortation that still evokes a sense of patriotism hundreds of year later. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their 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.”

In addition, Paine urges New Jersey men to rise up in opposition to the Crown. With many Loyalists in the mid-Atlantic, Paine pleaded with Americans to throw off the chains of British tyranny. He wrote that he thought the British invasion was “murder” and questioned whether he owed allegiance to a nation that committed such crimes. “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.”

Paine had his pamphlet published in Philadelphia on December 23, 1776. While it is debated whether Washington and his men read the pamphlet before the epic crossing of the Delaware River and battles of Trenton and Princeton, the beleaguered Continental soldiers undoubtedly took great solace from the stirring rhetoric at some point that dark winter.

Paine’s words continue to live today as a reminder of how close the United States of America came from being snuffed out just six months from when they were declared. They are words that Americans have returned to time and again when faced with difficult situations. Paine’s words remind us that in order to live up to the ideals laid out in founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, sacrifice and hard times must often be confronted, but that “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”

This November, Emerging Revolutionary War is offering a bus tour of the military campaign that turned the tables of the war and breathed life back into the cause of American independence. To stand in the footsteps of Washington’s men and listen to Paine’s immortal words is an experience unlike any other.

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