The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. American Political Writing, 1760–1789

§ 15. The Crisis

Of the war-time pamphlets, the most important are the series to which the author, Thomas Paine, gave the title of The Crisis. The first issue of the series had its origin in the gloom and despondency occasioned by Washington’s famous retreat across New Jersey, in the fall and early winter of 1776; a retreat which to many seemed to presage the speedy collapse of the American cause. On 18 December, Washington, irritated and alarmed at the rapid dwindling of his army under the operation of short-term, enlistment, wrote to his brother:

  • Between you and me, I think our affairs are in a very bad situation; not so much from the apprehension of General Howe’s army, as from the defection of New York, Jerseys, and Pennsylvania… In a word, my dear Sir, if every nerve is not strained to recruit the new army with all possible expedition, I think the game is pretty near up.
  • The next day there issued from the press the first number of The Crisis, with its ringing call:
  • These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman… Up and help us; lay your shoulders to the wheel; better have too much force than too little, when so great an object is at stake.… The heart that feels not now, is dead.
  • Sixteen of these stirring pamphlets, produced as the hopes and fears, the successes and failures of the war gave occasion, were issued down to the end of 1783, when the series ended.

    With the surrender of Cornwallis (October, 1781), the active military and naval operations of the war practically ceased. Nearly two years were to elapse before the treaty of peace (September, 1783) formally recognized the independence of the United States; but independence had been achieved in fact, and the way was now open for the discussion of new political problems. A frame of government, the Articles of Confederation, had gone into effect in March, 1781; and when fighting ended, Congress and the country turned their attention to the pressing questions of finance, the development and administration of the West, the restoration of normal conditions in industry, commerce, and social life, and the perfection of the Federal union. It is not without significance that, among the statesmen whose defence of colonial rights had developed both the theory and the practice of revolution, there were many who were now to set the United States forward in the next stage of its career.

    For the replacement of the Articles of Confederation by the “more perfect” union of the Federal Constitution, private correspondence, as in the case of the Revolution, did much to prepare the way. Jefferson and John Adams were absent from the country on diplomatic service, the former in France, the latter at the Court of St. James; and Franklin, prince of American diplomatists, was not, in the larger field of government, a constructive statesman. But Washington, Madison, Jay, Hamilton, Patrick Henry, and other leaders were busy with their pens, discussing with one another, particularly in the interval from 1785 to 1787, the defects of the Articles, the need of a firmer national organization, and the practical possibilities of united action. Prominent in this epistolary discussion were such questions as the protection and encouragement of American commerce, retaliation against England for its imperfect observance of the terms of peace, the adjustment of the opposing interests of large and small states, and the provision of an adequate revenue for the payment of the revolutionary debt and the maintenance of the Federal establishment.