“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

In recent years, these words have ascended almost to the same heights of recognition as the iconic war cry: “Give me liberty or give me death.” Yesterday, we discussed the cinematic-like qualities of Patrick Henry’s iconic allocution to the Second Virginia Convention; today, we will look at another rousing call to arms from the Revolution Era. As I wrote yesterday, both of these speeches were like seeds of liberty to the American colonies and gave new life to liberty’s worthy cause.

The American Crisis – Thomas Paine

It must first be acknowledged that Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis” did not start off as a speech. Paine was a noted author and his now-famous words first appeared in print in Philadelphia. Distributed as a pamphlet, the revolutionary’s wake-up call to the American colonies quickly caught fire. By December 24, 1776, five days after “The American Crisis” was first published, the pamphlet had reached the hands of George Washington. The Commander in Chief, an admirer of Paine’s work, devised a plan to use “Crisis” to boost his men’s morale.

On Christmas Eve, the day before the Continental Army would embark on one of history’s most daring military escapades, Washington ordered that the pamphlet be read to his troops.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” they heard. “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 every thing its value. Heaven knows how to set a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed, if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”

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Paine’s subsequent words were almost prophetic: “Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it. Say not that thousands are gone, turn out your tens of thousands; throw not the burden of the day upon Providence, but “show your faith by your works” that GOD may bless you.”

“It matters not where you live or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all,” he continued in reproval of the cowardly. “The heart that feels not now, is dead: The blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole, and made them happy. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ’Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.”

It was with these words fresh on their minds, burning in their hearts, that Washington’s men crossed the Delaware. It was with these words that they won the Battle of Trenton, changing the course of the war, and indeed, the world. One can only imagine how these words must have echoed in their minds that cold, winter night. Crossing the Delaware, they would prove to history, once and for all, that they were neither summer soldiers nor sunshine patriots. Even “in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive” they would meet danger. They would meet it and repulse it.

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As Paine wrote, these heroes who bought us a free country by their valor deserve our love and thanks.

And, for his part, Paine deserves our love and thanks, too. Speculation is futile, but it is nevertheless staggering to imagine where we might be if not for his fiery pen.

Centuries later, his antecedent tribute to the courage of those who crossed the Delaware rings true of all who answer freedom’s call. Even today, “we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” And those who stand firm in the service of this country, rain or shine, are true patriots, indeed.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.

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