Tom Paine: More times that try men’s souls

In December 1776 the American War of Independence was going badly for the rebel Continental Army. Led by a seemingly incompetent commander (George Washington) and in apparently endless retreat, morale was fast draining away. To raise spirits for the struggle ahead the leadership turned to one of the greatest political pamphleteers in history. Tomas Paine published his work The Crisis (or The American Crisis as it came to be known) on 16th December and it was read aloud to the assembled soldiers of the Continental Army on 23rd December. It commences with one of the most famous lines in the history of political activism:

These are the times that try men’s souls

Much of the pamphlet is a rallying cry against British tyranny and bullying. In most respects our modern world bears no similarity to the one Tom Paine inhabited, yet the spirit he invoked is not so very different. Today the would-be tyrants wear business suits, display serious concerned expressions and speak in deceptively comforting terms. Now, corporations have largely replaced monarchs (except here in the country of his birth where both entities have merged). Ironically many of the dangers originate from the nation he fought hard to establish, a fact which somehow might not have surprised him as events unfolded. The threats frequently appear as acronyms (TTIP, IS etc) or presented as fait accompli (austerity, too big to fail) but Paine would have identified the various dangers they pose to our liberty. Over two centuries later he still has the ability to lift spirits and stir hearts. How we need Tom Paine’s eloquence today.

…if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to “bind me in all cases whatsoever” to his absolute will, am I to suffer it?  What signifies it to me, whether he who does it is a king or a common man; my countryman or not my countryman; whether it be done by an individual villain, or an army of them?

There are persons, too, who see not the full extent of the evil which threatens them; they solace themselves with hopes that the enemy, if he succeed, will be merciful. It is the madness of folly, to expect mercy from those who have refused to do justice; and even mercy…

The Crisis, Tom Paine

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