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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Saturday, May 23, 2009

“The Number Was Read in the Camp”

As I described yesterday, back in January I started poking around for the source of the statement from many authors over many decades that Gen. George Washington ordered the start of Thomas Paine’s American Crisis to be read to the whole Continental Army shortly before the Battle of Trenton. The earliest description of that event that I found came from George Lippard, who was far from a reliable source. But I didn’t feel confident about labeling the whole story a myth because I don’t know the sources on Paine well.

So I called in a favor from the expert on Revolutionary America’s response to Paine’s writing, Ken Burchell. Pickering & Chatto is about to publish his six-volume series on just that topic. Ken directed me to James Cheetham’s 1809 biography of Paine, which has this to say:

When the colonists drooped, he [Paine] revived them with a Crisis. The first of these numbers he published early in December, 1776. The object of it was good, the method excellent, and the language, suited to the depressed spirits of the army, of public bodies, and of private citizens, cheering.

Washington, defeated on Long-Island, had retreated to New York, and been driven with great loss from Forts Washington and Lee. The gallant little army, overwhelmed with a rapid succession of misfortunes, was dwindling away, and all seemed to be over with the cause when scarcely a blow had been struck. “These,” said the Crisis, “are the times that try mens’ 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; what we obtain too cheap we esteem too lightly.”

The number was read in the camp, to every corporal’s guard, and in the army and out of it had more than the intended effect. The convention of New York, reduced by dispersion, occasioned by alarm, to nine members, was rallied and reanimated. Militia-men, who, already tired of the war, were straggling from the army, returned. Hope succeeded to despair, cheerfulness to gloom, and firmness to irresolution. To the confidence which it inspired may be attributed much of the brilliant little affair which in the same month followed at Trenton.
That passage seems reliable for a couple of reasons. First, it was well within the lifetime of men who had served in the Continental Army in 1776. Second, Cheetham wasn’t a fervent admirer of Paine—not anymore. He’d come to hate the man’s religious writings, and, as Appleton’s Encyclopedia said, his Paine biography was even “inspired by enmity.” So his praise for Paine’s contributions to American independence fell into the category of “reluctant testimony.”

I therefore think it’s safe to say that a lot of the Continental Army under Washington read the American Crisis in late 1776. Furthermore, Cheetham’s statement that those words were heard by “every corporal’s guard” implies that there were orders from the top. Certainly lots of later authors assumed that meaning. But I know of no documentation for such an order. And Cheetham may have written with a bit of exaggeration to paint a picture of how many soldiers read the Crisis.

The retelling of this story by later authors follows the same path as the development of a far more outlandish legend about how Paine wrote Common Sense. Starting from the testimony of Dr. Benjamin Rush (another early admirer of Paine who came to dislike his religious writings), that tale diluted evidence that Americans were already talking about independence in favor of a story of Continental Congress delegates and eventually Washington himself asking Paine to lead the people to their idea.

In the case of the Crisis, lots of soldiers probably took it upon themselves to read and discuss the essay. They were, after all, a big part of Paine’s intended audience, and some must have known him personally since he’d just traveled with the army through New Jersey. But by the mid-1800s the standard American history depicted Gen. Washington pressing Paine’s writing onto the common soldier.

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