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The Crisis
Thomas Paine's American Ideology. University of Delaware Press, 1984. p240-253. Rpt. in
Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Gerald R. Barterian and Denise Evans. Vol. 62. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Research, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
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[In the essay that follows, Aldridge reviews the series of pamphlets collectively titled the Crisis, which Paine published during the course of the Revolutionary War and which, consequently, reflect the array of issues and ideas that then permeated American thought.]

Much less has been written about Paine's Crisis than his Common Sense, probably because it concerns it-self primarily with events and circumstances in the military and diplomatic struggle and devotes relatively little attention to ideology.

Its title, like that of Paine's first publication, had previously been used in England. An anti-administration periodical entitled simply The Crisis flourished in London throughout 1775 and 1776. A total of ninety-one numbers were published, as well as one Crisis Extraordinary, a title which Paine also later adopted.1 The London Crisis vigorously supported the colonies in their struggle for liberty and after July 1776 for independence, and it was widely circulated in the colonies. As a matter of fact, many more separate reprintings of this work throughout America in the one year 1775 are known than of all of Paine's more famous Crisis throughout the eight years of the Revolution. Even the London Crisis Extraordinary had an American reprinting. If one were to judge by these individual issues alone, one would be forced to conclude that the London. Crisis had a much greater vogue in the thirteen former colonies than had Paine's The American Crisis. This conclusion would be faulty, however, since it would fail to take into consideration newspaper printings. Nearly every number of Paine's Crisis, including the first, was reprinted in at least one newspaper, and most of them were reprinted in newspapers all over the continent.

Paine added the adjective American to the title of his first five numbers to distnguish them from the London work. These were printed originally as pamphlets or broadsides; later numbers were newspaper articles, some labeled simply The Crisis and others having nouniform title.

Although Paine gave the number 13 to his last Crisis, symbolizing the number of states in the union, several more than thirteen essays had been published, including some described as “ Supernumerary” or “Extraordinary.” Paine himself did not assign the numbers 10 or 12 to any of his articles, and to this day one cannot be absolutely sure of what pieces he felt should be included in the complete text of The Crisis.

Paine recalled that he wrote Crisis No. 1 in “a passion of patriotism,”2 and like the rest of the series it reflects fervor and propaganda much more than argument and ideas. It opens with one of the most inspiring sentences in American literature, “These are the times that try men's souls,” and concludes with one of the worst jokes, the grim prediction that if the colonists do not resist British troops and German mercenaries, they will see their homes “turned into barracks and bawdy-houses for Hessians, and a future race to provide for, whose father we shall doubt of.” Paine, nevertheless, portrays the military situation from an optimistic perspective. He scornfully rejects “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” and exhorts his loyal fellow citizens to patriotic dedication, hard work, and sacrifice.

Subsequent numbers of the Crisis maintain this tone of cheerful gloom, portraying actual and potential hardships, disadvantages, and defeats as near disasters, but assuring his readers that American right and reason will triumph in the end. As a group, the Crisis papers have more in common with exhortatory sermons than with political essays, but they nevertheless embody some segments important in themselves or relevant to Paine's other writings.

Paine embroiders the theme introduced in Common Sense of the uniqueness of America and its favored status in the divine dispensation. The theme remains somewhat subdued in Common Sense by virtue of the title-page statement on the second and subsequent editions, “Written by An Englishman,” and by Paine's insistence that he is writing for all mankind. In the Crisis, however, Paine writes as a full-fledged American and addresses himself to particular problems and policies of his country and his countrymen.

He is deliberately ambivalent concerning the extent to which divine providence is entering the military campaign, aware as he is that deciding between the role of the Almighty and that of human enterprise had been a constant dilemma in colonial America. He solemnly affirms that God will not allow a peaceful people to be destroyed and adds even more dramatically, “Neither have I so much of the infidel in me, as to suppose that HE has relinquished the government of the world, and given us up to the care of devils.”3 At the same time he calls upon all America not to throw “the burden of the day upon Providence.” He exhorts his readers in proverbial language to “lay your shoulders to the wheel” (Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, part 2, sec. 1, memb. 2). And in biblical style, he urges them to “show your faith by your works.”4

In Crisis No. 8, Paine introduces the theory that the physical size of America exercises a kind of metaphysical influence upon the inhabitants of the country by endowing them with sublime thoughts and superior abilities, a theme which he later developed in Rights of Man and which became celebrated in the bombastic phrases of his admirer, Walt Whitman. Paine suggests that “there is something in the extent of countries, which among the generality of people, insensibly communicates extension of the mind. The soul of an islander, in its native state, seems bounded by the foggy confines of the water's edge, and all beyond affords to him matters only for profit or curiosity, not for friendship. His island is to him his world, and fixed to that, his every thing centers in it; while those who are inhabitants of a continent, by casting their eye over a longer field, take in likewise a larger intellectual circuit, and thus approaching nearer to an acquaintance with the universe, their atmosphere of thought is extended, and their liberality fills a wider space.”5 In 1789, Paine wrote in similar vein to Sir Joseph Banks: “Great scenes inspire great Ideas. The natural Mightiness of America expands the Mind and it partakes of the greatness it contemplates.”6 In almost identical terms, he maintains in Rights of Man that the scene which America “presents to the eye of a spectator, has something in it which generates and encourages great ideas.... The mighty objects he beholds, act upon his mind by enlarging it, and he partakes of the greatness he contemplates.”7

The notion of the strong effect of sublime natural scenery on the emotions is a commonplace in European aesthetics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but Paine was the first to give the notion a political connotation, that is, to associate the influence of the landscape with the destiny of a particular nation. It is significant that neither he nor the many Americans after him who exulted in the uplifting effect of the topography of the New World gave any thought to the landscape in South America, the Caribbean, or Canada on the Spanish and French populations in these areas or, perhaps an even greater omission, on the indigenous ones, the Indians. Paine in later works continued to stress the salubrious environment of America with such insistence that one of his critics remarked caustically that he tries to make his readers believe “that every thing began the other day in America, and that nothing really had ever existed before.”8

In Crisis No. 10, Paine affirms that the advantages of America are as much material as spiritual; he initiates, in other words, the myth that the American standard of living is the highest in the world. In his words, “There are not three millions of people in any [other] part of the universe, who live so well, or have such a fund of ability.”9 We have seen that in Common Sense, Paine launched another myth associated with America—that of its eternal youth. In Crisis No. 5, he interprets the youth or newness of America as aggravating the heinousness of Britain's crime in attacking her. “America was young, and compared with other countries, was virtuous. None but a Herod of uncommon malice would have made war upon infancy.”

Paine's obsession with newness and modernity presents a paradox when compared with his rhapsodic portrayal in Crisis No. 3 of the pleasures and advantages in the contemplation of history, which he defines as looking back “even to the first periods of infancy,” and tracing “the turns and windings through which we have passed.” The historical retrospect in America leads to the conclusion that the business of an age has been crowded into a few months. “Never did men grow old in so short a time!”10 Too little attention to the past, according to Paine, interferes with our judgment, and the act of comparing the present with the past frequently imparts wisdom. In very modern terms, Paine explains that “it is a kind of countermarch,” by which we get into the rear of time, and mark the movements and meanings of things as we make our return.” He suggests that a pattern exists in human events; at least explanations are always available if events are properly studied. In reference to “sentimental differences,” by which he presumably means the syndrome of romantic love, however, Paine admits that logic is not always effective. Frequently “some striking circumstance, or some forcible reason quickly conceived, will affect in an instant what neither argument nor example could produce in an age.”

We have already noticed Paine's early statement concerning the superiority of the moderns over the ancients in the Pennsylvania Magazine. He recurs to the theme in Crisis No. 5, where he seems to be attempting to overthrow the entire European tradition of historical writing, which uniformly portrays classical antiquity as a kind of golden age. Montesquieu in France and Bolingbroke in England are good examples of this historical classicism, in which, in Paine's words, “the wisdom, civil governments, and sense of honor of the States of Greece and Rome, are frequently help up as objects of excellence and imitation.” Paine observes that “mankind have lived for little purpose” if it is necessary continually to go back two or three thousand years for lessons and examples. In his opinion, “could the mist of antiquity be taken away and men and things viewed as they then really were, it is more than probable that they would admire us, rather than we them.”11 The short period of American settlement, Paine maintains, has furnished the world “with more useful knowledge and sounder maxims of civil government than were ever produced in any age before.” For this reason Paine refuses to yield “the palm of the United States to any Grecians or Romans that were ever born.” He particularly seeks to take away from the ancients the universal acclaim which had been generally accorded to them for cherishing freedom. According to Paine, “the Grecians and Romans were strongly possessed of the Spirit of liberty, but not the principle, for at the time they were determined not to be slaves themselves, they employed their power to enslave the rest of mankind.” This concept was soon versified by David Humphreys, in a brief poem “On the Love of Country.”

Perish the Roman pride a world that braves,
To make for one free state all nations slaves;
Their boasted patriotism at once exprest,
Love for themselves and hate for all the rest.12

Paine not only denies liberty to the ancients, but actually maintains that “had it not been for America there had been no such thing as freedom left throughout the whole universe.” Here we see a further stage of his survey of the progress of freedom. In his poem “Liberty Tree” he had hailed the appearance of the Goddess of Liberty “In a chariot of light, from the regions of day.” In Common Sense, he had described Freedom as being “hunted round the globe,” and had called upon America to “receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”13 Now, in the Crisis, he proudly affirms that the present era in America, in contrast to the ancient world, “is blotted by no one misanthropical vice” and the revolution in progress may be styled “the most virtuous and illustrious ... that ever graced the history of mankind.”14

Paine echoes his ethical indictment of the ancients in a letter to Henry Laurens in the next year, affirming that “all the histories of ancient wars ... promote no moral reflection, but like the Beggar's Opera renders the villain pleasing in the hero.”15 In similar vein, he charges in Crisis No. 13 that “Rome, once the proud mistress of the universe, was originally a band of ruffians” and that her wealth came from plunder and rapine and her greatness from the “oppression of millions.” By contrast, everything in America bears the mark of honor, including her birth and the stages by which she has risen to empire. While not discounting the inspirational value of “the remembrance ... of what is past,” Paine calls upon America to look to the future in order to add to “the fair fame she began with,” to let the world witness “that she can bear prosperity: and that her honest virtue in time of peace, is equal to the bravest virtue in time of war.”16

In Crisis No. 10, Paine repeats from Common Sense the argument that the geographical location of America is a major justification for its independence, suggesting that the eventual military triumph of America over any attempt by an island to conquer her “was as naturally marked in the constitution of things, as the future ability of a giant over a dwarf is delineated in his features while an infant.”17 As British visions of totally subjugating America had been dissipated by military-topographical reality, Paine in Crisis No. 12 ridicules the inconsistencies of parliamentary speeches which on one hand boast of the superiority of the British forces and on the other declare that without the economic riches of America the empire is nothing. “Was America, then, the giant of the empire,” he taunts, “and England only her dwarf in waiting! Is the case so strangely altered, but those who once thought we could not live without them, are now brought to declare that they cannot exist without us?”18

In Crisis No. 6 Paine refutes another geopolitical concept, the notion that geographical location in itself inevitably makes certain nations mutually antagonistic. The idea was generally attributed in the eighteenth century to the French writer Mably, who asserted in 1757 that “neighboring states are naturally enemies one to the other.”19 The notion had been introduced into the American context in 1778 by British peace commissioners who attempted to insert a wedge between the Americans and their French allies by issuing a proclamation to the American people describing France as “the late mutual and natural enemy” of both Britain and America. Going back to the concept of the state of nature, Paine vehemently denies that there exists such a principle as natural animosity. “The expression is an unmeaning barbarism, and wholly unphilosophical, when applied to beings of the same species, let their station in the creation be what it may.”20 Paine justifies this assertion on primarily theological grounds, appealing to doctrines which have more in common with Christianity than with deism. Indeed, if his principles in this place can be considered as anything other than Christian, they are pure Manichaeism. “We have,” according to Paine, “a perfect idea of a natural enemy when we think of the devil, because the enmity is perpetual, unalterable, and unabateable.” But men “become friends or enemies as the change of temper, or the cast of interest inclines them. The Creator of man did not constitute them the natural enemy of each other.” Expanding his doctrine to include animals in the chain of being, Paine closes with the statement, “even wolves may quarrel, still they herd together.” Here he comes close to repeating an argument which Shaftesbury had used against Hobbes: “Wolves are to wolves very kind and loving creatures.”21

Readdressing himself to all of the commissioners, Paine condemns England as a barbarous nation the conduct of which is unworthy of comparison to the civilized behavior of France. He closes with a customary barb at the American Tories, whom he dismisses as “a set of wretched mortals, who having deceived themselves, are cringing, with the duplicity of a spaniel.”

In the introduction to Common Sense, Paine had declared the cause of America to be in great measure the cause of all mankind. In keeping with this pronouncement, he suggests in the opening lines of Crisis No. 2 that his remarks there are meant for the world at large even though his subject matter is mainly local. “Universal empire is the prerogative of a writer. His concerns are with all mankind, and though he cannot command their obedience, he can assign them their duty.”22 Several years previously Gibbon had prescribed that “he who writes for all mankind should draw his imagery only from sources common to all, from the human heart and the spectacle of literature.”23 Paine's ability to probe universal experience explains the success and enduring popularity of his writing. As he sees it, “what I write is pure nature, and my pen and my soul have ever gone together.”24 He therefore expresses confidence that this Crisis, like Common Sense, will make its way to England and inform its people of the design of the Americans to help them.25

He affirms that it would be easier for the Americans to bring about a revolution in England than for the British to conquer America, for military expeditions sent to England “with the declared design of deposing the present king, bringing his ministers to trial, and setting up the Duke of Gloucester in his stead, would assuredly carry their point.” Paine came back to this notion of an invasion of England many times throughout his career, particularly during and after the French Revolution. It is significant that in the Crisis he does not suggest erecting a republican government for the English people, but merely effecting a change in rulers. In other words, he was at this time committed to republicanism in America, but not in Great Britain. His universalism, in other words, did not embrace republicanism. In Crisis No. 2 he also touches upon two of his other recurrent themes, British cruelties in India, the Caribbean, and Africa, and the imminent bankruptcy of the British government.

Paine says little in the Crisis about the operation of the human intellect except for echoing from Common Sense his belief that reason strikes the mind with automatic conviction. He tells his readers in Crisis No. 2 that “what I write is pure nature,” and in No. 5 he observes that “what we now have to do is as clear as light, and the way to do it is as strait as a line.”26 Paine is almost Cartesian in the metaphors he uses to describe the operation of reason and the beauties of method. According to Paine, the intellectual realm reacts upon reason as the world of objects reacts upon the eye. Reason seems to have visual force as knowledge is imparted with clarity, directness, and distinctness. In Crisis No. 10, Paine, with his customary cheerfulness, affirms that “misfortune and experience have now taught us system and method; and the arrangements for carrying on the war are reduced to rule and order.”27 Shortly after this he adds, “I love method, because I see and am convinced of its beauty and advantage. It is that which makes all business easy and understood, and without which everything becomes embarrassed and difficult.”28 In a newspaper article supporting Crisis No. 10, Paine repeats his prescription of “order, system and method.” “Method,” he says, “is to natural power, what weight is to human strength, without which a giant would lose his labour and a country waste its force.”29 These passages share the rapture concerning order of a more famous one in The Age of Reason on the attributes of God. “Do we want to contemplate His power? We see it in the immensity of the creation. Do we want to contemplate His wisdom? We see it in the unchangeable order by which the incomprehensible whole is governed.”30 It is not surprising that one of Paine's pseudonyms should be “A Lover of Order.”

Paine's political theory, although expressed only fragmentarily in the Crisis, is by and large identical with that in Common Sense. In Crisis No. 3, he suggests that his “creed of politics” is purely pragmatic, embodying a divorce between government and politics. In his words, “if an English merchant receives an order, and is paid for it, it signifies nothing to him who governs the country.”31 This is not quite the same as the dichotomy between government and society, but rather one between government and economic activity. In a newspaper letter following upon Crisis No. 10, he makes the assertion, which we have discussed in chapter 4, that “Government and the people do not in America constitute distinct bodies.”32 By this he means merely that the members of Congress and the state governments are drawn from the people and do not lose their identity as citizens by becoming lawmakers. In Crisis No. 10, moreover, he describes the war of America against Britain as “the country's war, the public's war, or the war of the people in their own behalf, for the security of their natural rights, and the protection of their own property. It is not the war of Congress, the war of the assemblies, or the war of government in any line whatever.”33 This is certainly a reaffirmation of the principle that government and society are separate.

In his letter following upon Crisis No, 10, Paine introduces a concept equivalent to Rousseau's theory that sovereignty in a nation is the expression of the general will. Referring to members of the Congress and the Assembly, Paine explains that they are “the representatives of majesty, but not majesty itself,” and that the latter power exists in the “universal multitude.” Paine uses the term majesty instead of Rousseau's sovereignty; otherwise the the theories are the same. In his later Dissertations on Government, 1786, Paine adopts the word sovereignty in essentially the same context and explains it in some detail.34 In 1782, however, when Paine was intent mainly upon persuading his readers that increased taxation was the vital need for the survival of the nation, he did not develop the abstract significance of his theory of sovereignty but used it merely to establish a sentiment of national identification or homogeneity.

In Crisis No. 7, Paine expands his theories of national honor, perhaps in response to the various references to honor in the polemics over Common Sense. He associates personal and national honor by means of his maxim: “That which is the best character for an individual is the best character for a nation.”35 Yet on an international level, according to Paine, mankind seems not to have developed from its primitive origins but to have retained “as nations all original rudeness of nature.” Here, it will be noted, primitive times are not portrayed as being quite so salutary as they seem in Common Sense. The British as individuals, Paine maintains, judge other people on the basis of their national origins, their religion, and their wealth. Collectively, they seem to consider honor as consisting in “national insult” and in threatening with the rudeness of a bear and devouring with the ferocity of a lion. Paine completely demolishes the concept of a mother country in reference to Britain's relations with America. Instead of conforming to the natural direction suggested by this image, consisting of “everything that is fond, tender and forbearing,” Britain, he says, has intruded its false notions of national honor revealing “the violence of resentment, the inflexibility of temper, or the vengeance of execution.” All this is, of course, a repetition of the argument from Common Sense that Britain cannot be appropriately termed the parent country since even “brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families.”36 In further expanding the connotations of the political term “mother country,” Paine observes in the Crisis that the metaphor should have taught the necessity of independence, for all children eventually grow into adults and set up for themselves. “Nothing hurts the affections both of parents and children so much, as living to closely connected, and keeping up the distinction too long.”37 Paine states that the natural and the most beneficial policy of Britain would have been to maintain good relations with America and in this way to have preserved her reputation of military strength, which was rapidly being eroded by her impotence in the American campaign. Paine refers to “this method of studying the progress of the passions in order to ascertain the probable conduct of mankind” as a philosophy of politics which the British ministry have no conception of.38

Turning to the question of finance, Paine argues that England is so ridden by obligations that the interest on the national debt is almost equal to annual income. In seeking to demonstrate that British financiers count their debt as part of their national wealth but that it is actually a drain on the country which will bring the whole financial system to eventual collapse, Paine anticipates the argument of one of his later pamphlets, The Decline and Fall of the English System of Finance (1796). America, unlike England, could easily pay the expenses of the war, Paine maintains, since it has no debt of any kind other than its non-interest bearing paper currency.39

In reference to the internal political structure of the British nation, Paine draws attention to a conflict of interest between Parliament and the Crown which would have come to a head had Britain won the war. The fundamental question concerned which political segment could be considered responsible for such a victory and which should reap the benefit. As Paine explains the situation, Parliament claimed a legislative right over America, but the army presumably belonged to the Crown; in the event of subduing the colonies, it would not be clear whether Parliament or the Crown would then be in control. This situation, hypothetical as it is, leads Paine to ask among a series of questions whether the people are not the source of the power and honor of any country, whether there is any such thing as the English constitution, and “whether a congress constituted like that of America, is not the most happy and consistent form of government in the world.”40 Answers to these queries had already been suggested in Common Sense, and they were to be further developed in the pages of Rights of Man.

Paine addresses the last part of Crisis No. 7 to the “mercantile and manufacturing part” of the English nation, for whose benefit he had already observed that it is never worth while to go to war for profit's sake. Attempting to win over this segment of his readers by describing them as the “bulwark of the nation,” he embroiders the theme introduced in Common Sense that trade is more profitable with an independent nation than with a subjugated one. Since a treaty of alliance had already been concluded with France, Paine warns the English merchants against allowing their government to provoke France into a declaration of war. Having already pointed to a conflict of interest between the Crown and Parliament, Paine now maintains that both forces are inimical to the welfare of the business community. “Your present king and ministry will be the ruin of you; and you had better risk a revolution and call a congress, than be thus led on from madness to despair, and from despair to ruin.”41 In addressing as a final note the ministry and the merchants collectively, Paine characteristically reduces politics to a “simple thought” and describes his own prescription of applying “the domestic politics of a family” to the national scene as an “easy and natural line.”

We have already pointed out that Paine in 1776 in his Four Letters expressed the doctrine of the supremacy of the union over local governments; the concept is suggested also in Common Sense by his warning that “the continental belt is too loosely buckled”42 and his axiom, “'tis not in numbers but in unity that our great strength lies.”43 Paine further insisted on the supremacy of the union in his newspaper essay related to Crisis No.10 (Pennsylvania Gazette, 3 April 1782) in order to persuade his readers that the central government must maintain its autonomy in financial matters, in other words, that “the expenses of the United States for carrying on the war, and the expenses of each state for its own domestic government” must be kept separate and distinct. In Paine' s realistic terms, taxes levied for national defense are “properly our insurance money.” To establish the principle, Paine declares that “the union of America is the foundationstone of her independence, the rock on which it is built, and is something so sacred in her constitution, that we ought to watch every word we speak, and every thought we think, that we injure it not, even by mistake.” This warning was needed to avert conflicts between loyalty to state and loyalty to the union, psychological divisions made particularly acute because some states were still bearing the brunt of British attack while others were remote from it. Paine solemnly affirms, therefore, that “with respect to those things which immediately concern the union, and for which the union was purposely established, and is intended to secure, each state is to the United States what each individual is to the state he lives in. And it is on this grand point, this movement upon one centre, that our existence as a nation, our happiness as a people, and our safety as individuals, depend.”

Throughout The Crisis Paine expounds the primary theme of Common Sense, the moral justification of the war of independence. In Crisis No. 3, he summarizes the principal arguments in support of independence and concludes that it is “the moral advantages” which weigh most with all men of serious reflection.”44 In this section, however, he concerns himself with only one moral issue, that it is wrong for America through its colonial status to be involved in British wars. In Common Sense, he had framed the argument in political terms, affirming the principle of isolation from the political affairs of Europe.45 In Crisis No. 3, he stresses ethical considerations: in Paine's words, “America neither could nor can be under the government of Britain without becoming a sharer of her guilt, and a partner in all the dismal commerce of death.”46 According to this train of thought, Britain has a dishonorable record of international belligerence going back for centuries, and the lot of America were she not set free would be to a bet in every quarrel. “It is a shocking situation to live in, that one country must be brought into all the wars of another, whether the measure be right or wrong, or whether she will or not.”

In Crisis No. 11, Paine defends the alliance between America and France on ethical grounds, specifically arguing that “the United States have as much honor as bravery” and that their conduct is based upon firm principle, not hazard or circumstance.47 At least two years previously, Paine had suspected that the British were considering the notion of abandoning prosecution of the war in favor of seducing America to abandon her alliance with France, and he had written a paragraph denouncing this tactic as revealing “such a disposition to perfidiousness, and such disregard of honor and morals, as would add the finishing vice to national corruption.” But Paine held back the paragraph because of the arrival of news indicating British determination to continue with military operations. He later inserted the paragraph in the eleventh Crisis, however, because of hints in the New York Tory press that the scheme of dividing America from her allies was reviving in British strategy. He thereupon provides evidence of peace gestures which had been made by the British to the courts of France and warns America to be on guard against the same insidious arts should they be used with her. The mere suggestion of coming to a separate arrangement, he denounces as an insult to America. In a realistic metaphor, he observes that no man attempts to seduce a truly honest woman; the very thought of it is a defamation of her good name.

In a passage highly revealing of his own moralistic mode of thinking, Paine affirms that he will not use the argument of selfish interest to defend the alliance but “go a step higher, and defend it on the ground of honor and principle.”48 Paine argues that since the French have treated America with the same respect which they would have shown to an old, established country, America cannot do less than fulfill her obligations. “Character is to us, in our present circumstances, of more importance than interest.” Paine somewhat weakens the nobility of this sentiment by adding that since America is a young nation the rest of the world is observing its behavior to see whether it is worthy of trust. Also he uses a phrase which he had earlier ridiculed as stale and hackneyed, “the eye of the world is upon us.”49 He returns to high morals and vigorous style, however, by affirming that Britain and the world must be shown “that we are neither to be bought nor sold; that our mind is great and fixed; our prospect clear; and that we will support our character as firmly as our independence.”

Paine summarizes the moral argument in his Crisis Extraordinary of 1782, joining it with the theme of youthfulness. “America is a new character in the universe,” he maintains. “She started with a cause divinely right, and struck at an object vast and valuable. Her reputation for political integrity, perseverance, fortitude, and all the manly excellencies, stands high in the world; and it would be a thousand pities that, with those introductions into life, she suffered the least spot or blow to fall upon her moral fame.”50

The thirteenth Crisis, symbolic of the number of states in the American union, is dated 19 April 1783, eighth anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Last of the series which Paine himself considered to constitute the Crisis, it begins with the triumphant declaration “`The times that tried men's souls,' are over—and the greatest and completest revolution the world ever knew, gloriously and happily accomplished.” This is the first time Paine uses the word revolution to describe the events which had been taking place, although he is equally hyperbolical in Common Sense in his reference to beginning the world over again. At the end of the war, he says, America has earned the honor and “power to make a world happy, to teach mankind the art of being so,” and “to exhibit on the theatre of the universe, a character hitherto unknown.”51 Echoing the language of the Scriptures, he describes the pastoral scenes now opening for America, comprising not the “cypress shade of disappointment,” but “the sweet of her labors, and the reward of her toil” in “her own land, and under her own vine” (Apocrypha 1 Maccabees 14: 12) In this situation, Paine declares, acquiring “a fair national reputation, is of as much importance as independence.” A few paragraphs later he observes, “Character is much easier kept than recovered, and that man, if any such there be, who, from any sinister views, or littleness of sold, lends unseen his hand to injure it, contrives a wound it will never be in his power to heal.”

Liberal thinkers throughout Europe, particularly in France and England, had supported the cause of the American colonists, but their adherence had been in the main emotional and humanitarian rather than ideological, comparable to the rhapsodic sponsorship which Boswell and Rousseau had accorded to Paoli in the latter's efforts to bring about a new regime in Corsica. There had been little said on ideological grounds about the ramifications of American independence, and one of the most daring depositories of advanced ideas, the abbé Raynal's Histoire philosophique des deux Indes, even reflected some doubts concerning the principles which were motivating the American “insurgens.” Paine published in 1782, as we shall see later, a reply to Raynal consisting of a detailed vindication of the moral integrity of the American independence movement. The thirteenth Crisis offered Paine an additional opportunity of reasserting its ideological significance. He roundly affirms, therefore, that the revolution must be “an honor to the age that accomplished it” to “the end of time” and that it has “contributed more to enlighten the world, and diffuse a spirit of freedom and liberality among mankind, than any human event (if this may be called one) that ever preceded it.”52 Noteworthy in this proclamation is the suggestion of divine guidance or supervision, a religious attitude which conforms to both Common Sense and Age of Reason.

In a kind of balance sheet for America at the close of the war, Paine finds only one item on the debit side and two on the credit. The single liability consists in the national debt, which he considers as hardly worth mentioning in comparison with the compensating advantages. The two great assets consist of gaining complete freedom in the economic realm and of acquiring an ally, obviously France, “whose exemplary greatness, and universal liberality,” according to Paine, “have extorted a confession even from her enemies.” In a footnote supporting a principle originally presented in Common Sense, that the struggle “never could have happened at a better time,” Paine affirms that “the great hinge on which the whole machine turned is the UNION OF THE STATES.” Observing that no single state or combination of single states can equal in strength “the whole of the present United States,” he stresses the advantages and necessity of “strengthening that happy union which has been our salvation, and without which we should have been a ruined people.” Finally, in this footnote, Paine quotes from Common Sense the passages concerning the appropriateness of the timing of the struggle for independence—“THE TIME HATH FOUND US”—and the indispensable nature of the glorious union—“It is not in numbers, but in a union, that our great strength lies.”53

All this is introductory to a forceful argument on the continued necessity of union after America had become a nation and achieved sovereignty, an argument foreshadowing the influential Federalist papers to be published a few years later in favor of the new constitution. Paine's major principle is based upon the relationship of the United States to the other nations in the world. The individual states lack the wealth and resources to function by themselves; only as the United States, conceived as a wisely regulated and cemented union, can they obtain the respect of other nations, make treaties, protect their commerce in foreign ports, and provide their security at home. Some measure of local autonomy must in the process be sacrificed. Echoing his Four Letters, Paine observes, “It is with confederated states as with individuals in society; something must be yielded up to make the whole secure.” Citizenship of a particular state is merely a local distinction, but “citizenship in the United States is our national character.... Our great title is, AMERICANS—our inferior one varies with the place.”

In the remainder of his remarks, Paine makes a number of personal revelations. In characterizing and vindicating his individual conduct throughout the war, he once more foreshadows a political attitude which became of great consequence in the early years of the republic—the view that political parties are harmful in a nation by fomenting irrational divisions and should, therefore, be avoided if at all possible. This opinion, prevalent in the speeches of George Washington, with whom it is generally associated, is clearly portrayed in Paine's summary of his own political career. “So far as my endeavours could go, they have all been directed to conciliate the affections, unite the interests and draw and keep the mind of the country together; and the better to assist in this foundation work of the revolution, I have avoided all places of profit or office, either in the state I live in, or in the United States; kept myself at a distance from all parties and party connections, and even disregarded all private and inferior concerns: and when we take into view the great work we have gone through, and feel, as we ought to feel, the just importance of it, we shall then see, that the little wranglings and indecent contentions of personal party, are as dishonorable to our characters, as they are injurious to our repose.”54 This statement, apart from its ideological reflection on party divisions, must be considered in the nature of a political appeal and as such interpreted in a very broad sense. In actuality, Paine had served as secretary to the committee on foreign relations of the Congress and as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and he had several times before the writing of Crisis No. 13 appealed to various national leaders to be reimbursed for his services.

Paine reveals his pride of authorship by adding that if he has served the cause of America in the course of more than seven years by opposing “an unnatural reconciliation” with Britain, he has “likewise added something to the reputation of literature, by freely and distinterestedly employing it in the great cause of mankind, and shewing there may be genius without prostitution.” He formally takes his leave of the subject—and in a sense of America—speculating upon “whatever country I may hereafter be in”—affirming that “I shall always feel an honest pride at the part I have taken and acted, and a gratitude to Nature and Providence for putting it in my power to be of some use to mankind.”


1. Paul Leicester Ford, “The Crisis,” Bibliographer 1 (1902): 139-52.

2. Writings [of Thomas Paine, ed. by Moncure D. Conway (New York: Putnam, 1894-96), 4 vols.],

3. Writings, 1:51.

4. Writings, 1:55.

5. Writings, 1:164.

6. A. O. Aldridge, Man of Reason: The Life of Thomas Paine (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1959), p. 109.

7. Writings, 1:354.

8. William Lewelyn, An Appeal to Men against Paine's Rights of Man (London, 1793), p. 43.

9. Writings, 1:203.

10. Writings, 1:74.

11. Writings, 1:123.

12. Miscellaneous Works (New York, 1804), p. 132.

13. Writings, 1:30-31.

14. Writings, 1:123.

15. Writings, 2:1179.

16. Writings, 1:231.

17. Writings, 1:193.

18. Writings, 1:224.

19. Des Principes des négociations in Collection complète des oeuvres (Paris 1794-95), 5:93.

20. Writings, 1:136.

21. Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (London, 1711), 2:320.

22. Writings, 1:58.

23. “The Study of Literature,” in J. W. Spadden, ed., Miscellaneous Works (New York, 1907), p. 10.

24. Writings, 1:72.

25. Writings, 1:71. As a matter of fact, the first four numbers of the Crisis appeared in Almon's Remembrances ... For the Year 1778, and later issues of this periodical published the rest of the Crisis with the exception of Nos. 10, 11, and 12.

26. Writings, 1:125.

27. Writings, 1:195.

28. Writings, 1:205.

29. Pennsylvania Gazette, 3 April 1782.

30. Writings, 1:483.

31. Writings, 1:72.

32. Pennsylvania Gazette, 3 April I782.

33. Writings, 1:198.

34. Writings, 2:369....

35. Writings, 1:147.

36. Writings, 1:19.

37. Writings, 1:154.

38. Writings, 1:148.

39. Writings, 1:149.

40. Writings, 1:152.

41. Writings, 1:155.

42. Writings, 1:44.

43. Writings, 1:31.

44. Writings, 1:81.

45. Writings, 1:20.

46. Writings, 1:81.

47. Writings, 1:209.

48. Writings, 1:214.

49. Writings, 2:65; 1:215.

50. Pennsylvania Gazette, 6 April 1782. This paper, which was intended as a continuation of Crisis No. 10, has never been republished. See A. O. Aldridge, Man of Reason, pp. 92-93.

51. Writings, 1:231.

52. Writings, 1:232.

53. Writings, 1:232-33.

54. Writings, 1:234-35.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Aldridge, A. Owen. "The Crisis." Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, edited by Gerald R. Barterian and Denise Evans, vol. 62, Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 24 June 2019. Originally published in Thomas Paine's American Ideology, University of Delaware Press, 1984, pp. 240-253.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420017239