Thomas Paine: The American Crisis

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Thus, 18th century author Thomas Paine begins the first pamphlet of his series titled The American Crisis. Paine wrote the series in the midst of the American Revolutionary War fought between the American Colonists and the British Empire. Colonial General George Washington regarded the first pamphlet to be so inspiring that he had it read to his troops at Valley Forge. In this video, we will analyze the rhetorical strategies Paine employs to strengthen the morale of the American Colonists and to publicly condemn the Tories, who are colonists loyal to Britain.

Paine begins his pamphlet by denouncing Britain. “Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth.” He characterizes Britain as a tyrant wishing to enslave America because he knows that his audience highly values its freedom. His description of Britain and its intentions evokes feelings of anger and indignation in the Colonists.

Next, Paine turns to the question of Justice. “I cannot see on what grounds the king of Britain can look up to heaven for help against us: a common murderer, a highwayman, or a house-breaker, has as good a pretence as he.” The American Colonists are a predominantly Christian group; and therefore, Paine appeals to their religious sentiments. If the colonists accept Paine’s argument that Britain’s King is no better than a murderer, then they will feel confident that God is on their side.

After reassuring the American Colonists of the rightness of their cause, he sharply criticizes the Tories. “Every Tory is a coward; for servile, slavish, self-interested fear is the foundation of Toryism; and a man under such influence, though he may be cruel, never can be brave.” He uses strong and passionate language because he wants to emphasize that there is no uncertainty about whether remaining loyal to Britain is the right thing to do. He effectively instills a strong aversion towards the Tories in his audience. No one likes a coward.

Then, Paine contrasts the cowardice of the Tories with the bravery of the Colonial soldier. “I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.” He lists the virtues of a brave man in order to inspire the Colonists to adopt those qualities. With a vivid goal in mind, his readers feel as if they can achieve the honorable title of ‘brave men’ that Paine sets before them.

Establishing credibility is an effective rhetorical strategy, and Paine utilizes this technique by demonstrating that he has faced the enemy himself. “I was with the troops at Fort Lee, and marched with them to the edge of Pennsylvania… We staid four days at Newark, collected our out-posts with some of the Jersey militia, and marched out twice to meet the enemy, on being informed that they were advancing, though our numbers were greatly inferior to theirs.” His personal anecdote illustrates that he is not urging the readers to do anything that he has not done himself. Thus, Paine gains the respect of the audience.

A writer will often reserve his most persuasive statements for the end of his essay; Paine is no exception. He offers a grim vision of the future if the Colonists yield to Britain. “By perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious issue; by cowardice and submission, the sad choice of a variety of evils — a ravaged country — a depopulated city — habitations without safety, and slavery without hope — our homes turned into barracks and bawdy-houses for Hessians, and a future race to provide for, whose fathers we shall doubt of. Look on this picture and weep over it!” Fear is a powerful motivator, and this bleak vision of the future elicits that emotion in the reader. The Colonists feel that they must defy Britain, lest they suffer the atrocities enumerated by Paine.

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