“These are the times that try men’s souls,” pamphleteer and wordsmith Thomas Paine declared five months after the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence 238 years ago. The war against Britain looked bleak even though the Declaration was a radical not a revolutionary document. Written principally by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration set forth the reasons for Americans to separate from the British Empire, but it did not advocate the overthrow of King George III or Parliament. Still, the odds were against the Americans: Britain possessed the most formidable, professional military force in the world.
Skirmishes between the Americans and British had already taken place, notably in Boston on Breed’s Hill (often confused with Bunker Hill). Paine went on, “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Many Americans had been debating the issues, especially whether Parliament had the authority to tax Americans when they were unrepresented there. Others had simply tossed out local British officials and set up their own town governments. Yet, no one set out the argument as sparklingly as Paine did. “’Tis time to part,” he proclaimed in Common Sense. The Americans have the power “to begin the world over again.” They have the opportunity “to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth” because “the birth-day of a new world is at hand.”
Historians remind us that only about one-third of the Americans favored independence. Another third wanted to reconcile all differences with Britain. A final third waited to see which side would win. One theme that Paine set out was the importance of American unity.
“Independence,” he wrote, “is the only Bond that can tye [sic] and keep us together.” But unity was a scarce commodity in 1776.
The Declaration declared that states have the right “to be free and independent,” not only from the empire, but from each other. They “have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.” It was no wonder that the Americans called their individual political entities “states,” a term then and now that means a nation-state.
When the Continental Congress named George Washington commander in chief, he worked hard to build a true national army, but he had to rely on the states to send men and money. When he asked New Jersey militiamen to pledge their allegiance to the new United States, they agreed on condition that they first pledge their allegiance to their “nation of New Jersey.” States contributed money to the war effort only as gifts. Congress had no authority to tax any entity. He complained that he had insufficient funds to pay his men or for supplies.
Washington worked out a military strategy known as “a war of posts,” meaning he avoided direct encounters with the enemy unless he knew he had the upper hand. On Christmas night, 1776, he crossed the Delaware to defeat sleeping Hessian troops, whom Washington called “base hirelings and mercenaries.” They might have been recovering from too much Christmas revelry.
At the end of the following year, the American General, Horatio Gates, defeated the British at Saratoga, demonstrating to the French that the Americans had a chance to win. France, Britain’s traditional enemy, soon sent money, men, ships, and weapons to support American independence. Victory would not have occurred without them. We ought not to forget that more French soldiers and sailors than Americans were present at the final battle at Yorktown in 1781.
After the war against Britain, states continued to behave like mini nation-states, carrying out their own foreign policies, entering into border disputes with each other, and even having separate currencies. The original U.S. constitution, the Articles of Confederation, established an alliance of states, held together only by the glue of war. Once the Treaty of Paris formally ended the war in 1783, a few Americans, led principally by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, set out to form “a more perfect Union,” as the preamble of the Constitution declared. It was not easy to persuade the state conventions to ratify the new document.
Today, Americans face their own “times that try men’s souls.” We constantly hear echoes of too many federal taxes, too much federal snooping into our affairs, too much federal regulation of business, too much federal involvement in foreign wars. American politics has now become so politically polarized that the current Congress may have the worst record for passing laws. Its poll numbers are below 25 percent approval rating, and the president’s are hardly much better at 41 percent.
President Obama, in his 2012 inaugural address, drew inspiration from Thomas Paine by quoting his words: “Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.” The president, though in vain, attempted to spur Americans to unite so they might confront the many problems they now face.
A seasonal resident of Aquinnah, Jack Fruchtman teaches constitutional law and politics at Towson University in Maryland. He is the author of several studies of 18th-century figures, including books on Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin.