J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

“Behold the Crisis Read by Every Corporal”

Back on Inauguration Day, I noted how President Obama had invoked the story of “the father of our nation” ordering Thomas Paine’s Crisis to be read to his troops. Boston 1775 reader David Churchill Barrow wrote to me of his fondness for that historical picture, yet astutely added: “But do we have solid historical evidence for this, or is it merely a satisfying myth?”

Certainly the story of Gen. George Washington having the army read Paine’s words in December 1776 is well established. In fact, publishers have been using it to sell reprints of the Crisis for well over a century. In 1861, J. P. Mendum of The Boston Investigator was advertising “The Crisis; being a Series of Pamphlets, in sixteen numbers, by Thomas Paine, written during the American Revolution, and, by the orders of General Washington, read to each regiment of the army as they were published (clothbound, price 40 cents).” Here’s an 1877 edition of The Crisis published with that blurb right on the title page.

But where did that story come from? I couldn’t find anything earlier than George Lippard’s Washington and His Generals, published in 1847. And let’s just say that book didn’t attempt a scholarly tone:

Yes, in the dark days of ’76, when the soldiers of Washington tracked their footsteps on the soil of Trenton, in the snows of Princeton—there, first among the heroes and patriots, there, unflinching in the hour of defeat, writing his “Crisis,” by the light of the camp-fire, was the Author-Hero. THOMAS PAINE!

Yes, look yonder—behold the Crisis read by every Corporal in the army of Washington, read to the listening group of soldiers—look what joy, what hope, what energy, gleams over those veteran faces, as words like these break on their ears:

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

Do not words like these stir up the blood?

Yet can you imagine their effect, when read to groups of starved and bleeding soldiers, by the dim watch-fire, in the cold air of the winter dawn?

Such words as these stirred up the starved Continentals to the attack on Trenton, and there, in the dawn of glorious morning, George Washington, standing sword in hand, over the dead body of the Hessian [Col. Johann] Ralle, confessed the magic influence of the Author-Hero, Thomas Paine!
Furthermore, George Lippard, a fan and protégé of Edgar A. Poe, is one of the great mythologizers of the Revolution. He loved to write about Washington’s experiences in and around Philadelphia—even experiences that Lippard imagined as happening after Washington had died. But some of Lippard’s fiction wasn’t recognized as such by later readers. For example, he’s mostly responsible for the Revolutionary associations of the Liberty Bell, since he wrote that it cracked in 1776 as people rang it to signal the Declaration of Independence.

I couldn’t find any mention of The Crisis in Washington’s general orders, much less instructions for it to be read to the whole Continental Army.

So, I began to wonder, had Lippard made up this scene of “the Crisis read by every Corporal in the army of Washington, read to the listening group of soldiers”? And had that scene duped one later generation after another until the story came from the mouth of Washington’s latest presidential successor?

TOMORROW: Asking an expert.


Rob Velella said...

Ah, Lippard - still one of my favorites. I don't believe Lippard intended most of his Washington lore to be assumed as the truth, but that might be giving too much credit to his intended audience (certainly, this was not high-end literature). I know Lippard also once had Washington rise from the dead, but I can't recall the title of the book/tale.

J. L. Bell said...

My suspicion is that the nineteenth-century authors of “legends” expected their readers to understand that they weren’t telling the truth, but rather mixing historical fact and inspiring fiction.

In some cases, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, those authors remained famous enough that Americans remembered them as fiction writers. Nobody takes Hawthorne’s “Legends of the Province House” as history.

But other writers, such as Lippard and Charles W. Alexander, were forgotten. So people coming across their tales in a library or bookshop could convince themselves that those authors were historians recording stories they had heard from actual war veterans.

Rob Velella said...

I agree! There are other writers who complicate things too. Washington Irving is clearly a fiction writer, but his biographies of both Washington and Columbus are intended to be factual (even with some romantic personal interpretations). His "History of New York" was a strange mix of both fact and fiction, and that makes everything much more confusing.