The Quotable Thomas Paine
by Charles Lemos, Tue Jan 20, 2009 at 03:00:14 PM EST
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. President Barack Obama quoting Thomas Paine, The American Crisis #1, December 23, 1776
Not bad for a man that Teddy Roosevelt once described as "that filthy little atheist." The line that President Obama quoted today at the end of his Inaugural Address is from Thomas Paine's The American Crisis #1, the first in a series of 16 essays written between 1776 and 1780. Most Americans know the opening line "These are the times that try men's souls." Beyond that, most Americans are less aware of the circumstances or the rest of the contents of the American Crisis though it is perhaps the second most important piece of political essay writing, because of its immediate impact, in American history. It can be said that it saved the Revolution. The only other work of greater importance in the annals of American political essay writing is also from Paine. Common Sense stands apart in the annals of American political essays for the forty-seven page pamphlet published in January 1776 presented the argument for independence from British rule at a time when the question of independence was still undecided.
Washington's army was in the midst of the bitter retreat chased by Lord Cornwallis from New York across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania in the Fall of 1776. The Continental Army had dwindled from 19,000 men to fewer than 5,000 men fit for duty, and would be soon reduced to 1,400 after enlistments expired at the end of the year. Congress had abandoned Philadelphia though the British did not occupy it. Thomas Paine had joined the Continental Army in its flight across New Jersey and wrote the first American Crisis on December 23, 1776 and then gave it to General Washington. Washington found it so moving that he had it posted and read aloud to all his troops to inspire them and motivate them. Days later, Washington would strike at the Hessians in Trenton and then outmaneuvered Lord Cornwallis to take Princeton in early January. By then an irregular militia would harass the British regulars so that by the end of the month, Cornwallis would sulk back to winter in New York. Washington would winter in Morristown and the Continental Army would live to fight another day.
As a side note, it should be noted that Ronald Reagan too quoted Thomas Paine--"We have it in our power to begin the world over again"--in his acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention in the summer of 1980. Fitting then that Paine should be resurrected yet again now by a Democrat as we close this awful chapter in American history and begin the world all over again.