Barbara Clark Smith: To Be a Paine Patriot

Roundup: Talking About History

[Barbara Clark Smith is a historian in Washington. She is the author of, most recently, "The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America."]

In light of our nation's current divisions, and in honor of Thomas Paine's birthday on Jan. 29, let us revisit the great man's extraordinary rhetoric. "These are the times that try men's souls," Paine famously wrote. "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."

Those words are from the first of more than a dozen articles in Paine's "Crisis" series, published between 1776 and 1783, each addressing the American Revolution's changing tide.

When that first one was published in December 1776, America was at war, its existence was on the line, and yet the vision of a united republic was beginning to fade.

The battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775 had shaken the colonists to their core. Americans' first response had been an impressive unity. "Pity for the sufferers, mixed with indignation at the violence, and heightened with apprehensions of undergoing the same fate, made the affair of Lexington the affair of the continent. Every part of it felt the shock, and all vibrated together," Paine later wrote. Americans had rallied. They had taken an expansive view of national loyalty, as "the whole country flew to the relief of Boston, and, making her cause, their own, participated in her cares and administered to her wants."...

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