This is an entry from our Saturday “Off the Clock” edition — a little something that lands somewhere between Timeless & Timely.
“These are the times that try men's souls.” – Thomas Paine, 1776
As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend in the United States, I’m reminded that the American Revolution was a war that was fought not only with weapons, but with words.
It was early in America’s struggle that Thomas Paine, newly arrived from England, realized that the public needed a little guidance and clarity of thinking. And his writing began to do that in the essay “Reflections on Titles”:
“When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”
Thomas Paine was only in America for two years when he penned Common Sense (1776) at the encouragement of Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush (that’s a lot of Benjamins!).
The Enlightenment-inspired pamphlet showed reluctant Americans that they had a unique opportunity to change the course of history by creating a new sort of government in which people were free and had the power to rule themselves:
“Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.”
But it was The American Crisis (1776) that gave George Washington and his undernourished army the resolve to push on. Washington’s troops were on the verge of quitting when, on December 23, he had the pamphlets read to his men at Valley Forge, including that unforgettable opening line “these are the times that try men's souls.”
Paine’s writing fortified their resolve when he reminded them:
“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
But even after Americans successfully defeated the British, established a government, and elected their first president, Paine felt it necessary to remind his fellow citizens that they ought to engage in critical thinking. In The Rights of Man (1791) he wrote:
“Reason obeys itself; and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”
Three years later in The Age of Reason (1794), Paine observed the damaging nature of widespread lies, in a prescient reflection of our own post-truth era:
“It is an affront to treat falsehood with complaisance.”
As George Washington neared the end of his second term, Thomas Paine, then in France, recognized that the country was split. In 1795, he argued in A Dissertation on the First Principles of Government that there are rights that are due to every human, even our adversaries:
“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”
And in 1797, Paine published the pamphlet Agrarian Justice, making the case that communities should partially benefit from cultivated land, since the earth was the common property of the human race. He backed up his claim with moral authority, stating:
“An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot.”
So, on this 4th of July, consider the powerful and timeless words of Thomas Paine, who reasoned with moral clarity and stirred the souls of Americans, simply through the power of the pen.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.