Thomas Paine’s American Crisis Makes the Albany News
“These are the times which try men’s souls…” so begins Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis, arguably his second most famous work. Tomorrow, in our annual fall Americana auction, Swann will offer a first edition of the extremely rare collection of essays that helped turn the tide of the Revolution in 1776. And, the eloquence of those opening lines continues to resonate. Paine wrote the first American Crisis in spare moments while serving in the Continental Army as aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene. He later recalled, “I began the first number of the Crisis … at Newark upon the retreat from Fort Lee, and continued writing it at every place we stopt at.” It was published in the Philadelphia Journal on 19 December 1776, and then in pamphlet form four days later.
Its bracing rhetoric was a much-needed jolt to the demoralized American army. As his contemporary James Cheetham wrote, “The number was read in camp, to every corporal’s guard, and in the army and out of it had more than the intended effect. . . . 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” (Life of Thomas Paine). Within a week of the pamphlet’s publication, Washington’s night crossing of the Delaware turned the fortunes of the American army. Paine issued several later numbers of the American Crisis, but some of them appeared only in newspapers. These first three are generally found together, when they are found at all. This copy narrowly escaped destruction earlier this year. It had belonged to a collector from upstate New York. During the sorting of his estate, the American Crisis was placed in a box intended for the dumpster, but one of the heirs spotted it at the last moment.