The American Crisis


My 2016 “Mindful Living” calendar tells me today is the International Day for Tolerance. Yep, November 16, 2016. I’m good with that.

I could afford a little tolerance for myself. Because I’ve been kicking same self over my naiveté. For most of this year, I’ve been looking forward to this election just being over. For all the acrimony, discord and vitriol to dissipate. To return to the more temperate level of anxiety most of us modern citizens are accustomed to.

Yeah, so much for that. The discord continues; now instead of it being concentrated between two individuals, it’s steeping to the far corners of our Republic.

The morning after the election, I awoke with a phrase in my head: These are the times that try men’s souls. After a quick search for the source, I’ve developed a new appreciation for the revolutionary Thomas Paine.

My memory of Thomas Paine from school days consists of five words, in no particular order: Common Sense, pamphlets, American Revolution. If I thought a little harder about it, I could probably come up with “he was the guy who wrote stuff that inspired the revolutionaries back in 1776.” I always got stuck on the word “pamphlets,” though. My experience with pamphlets up to that point in my schooling was limited to “Here are some new books from Scholastic.” Or, in more somber moments, “What is Spina Bifida?”

Yet, in my middle age days, here is that phrase: These are the times that try men’s souls. It’s the opening to Paine’s series of articles collected under the title The American Crisis. Apparently, George Washington was so inspired by the first essay, he ordered it read to the troops at Valley Forge.

Here’s an excerpt I found particularly salient:

‘Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country. All nations and ages have been subject to them. Britain has trembled like an ague at the report of a French fleet of flat-bottomed boats; and in the fourteenth [fifteenth] century the whole English army, after ravaging the kingdom of France, was driven back like men petrified with fear; and this brave exploit was performed by a few broken forces collected and headed by a woman, Joan of Arc….

Yet panics, in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact, they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginary apparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world. Many a disguised Tory has lately shown his head, that shall penitentially solemnize with curses the day on which Howe arrived upon the Delaware.

I had to look up ague (it’s a fever or shivering fit); and I left out something about a Jersey maid, because it seemed to me like Paine was looking for a New Jersey version of Joan of Arc. And I don’t have it in me to delve deeper into that concept.

But I really like what Paine wrote about the mind “acquiring a firmer habit.” And “panics bringing things to light.” Because I do feel like all the warts, all the ague-inducing maladies of our 200+ year-old American Experiment have been laid bare. I hope once we pick ourselves up, and clothe our naked self, the collective mind of our Republic will be a little clearer, a little sharper.

Thomas Paine’s ability to craft words that have inspired through the centuries was enviable. But I don’t envy his life. It seemed he just couldn’t get enough of Revolution, went to France and became deeply involved in their revolution. He wound up getting in trouble (seditious libel, that kind of stuff) and was imprisoned in Paris. James Monroe, who would later become our fifth PotUS, used some connections to get him released. Paine returned to America, where I think he continued to piss people off. The Internet tells me only six people attended his funeral.

My plan in these times is to continue to write. Any maybe one day inspire someone, maybe even more than one someone, to their own positive revolution. Be it personal or otherwise. And, hopefully, have more than six people show up for my funeral.

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