To be a Paine patriot
Barbara Clark Smith
[Reprinted from the
Bulletin of Thomas Paine Friends, Vol.12, No.3, Fall 2011,
p.6. Barbara Clark Smith is a historian who works in Washington,
D.C. She is author of many articles in scholarly journals and the
popular press. "To be a Paine patriot" was an op-ed in the
Los Angeles Times, 30 January, 2011. This article is
reprinted with permission of the author]
In light of our nation's current divisions and in honor of Thomas
Paine's birthday on Jan. 29, let us revisit his extraordinary
rhetoric. These are the times mat try men's souls," Paine
famously wrote. "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
Those words are from the first of more than a dozen articles in
Paine's "Crisis" series, published between 1776 and 1783,
each addressing the American Revolution's changing tide. When that
first one was published in December 1776, America was at war, its
existence on the line, and yet the vision of a united republic was
beginning to fade.
The battles of Lexington and Concord hi 1775 had shaken the
colonists to their core. Americans first response had been an
impressive unity. "Pity for the sufferers, mixed with
indignation at the violence, and heightened with apprehensions of
undergoing the same fate, made the affair of Lexington the affair of
the continent Every part of it felt the shock, and all vibrated
together," Paine later wrote. Americans had rallied. They had
taken an expansive view of national loyalty as "the whole
country flew to the relief of Boston, and, making her cause their
There was an outpouring of enthusiasm for military service, while
those who could not fight contributed arms, clothing or financial
aid. The members of his generation would defend one another's lives
and relieve one another's distresses. When they called themselves "Sons
and Daughters of Liberty," they imagined themselves linked as
by the bonds of family.
By the time Paine started writing the "Crisis" papers,
conditions had changed. Everyone realized that the war would be
hard-fought, long and expensive. The nation needed more than
short-term militia service; it needed long-term enlistments. It
needed more man one-time generosity; it needed ongoing support.
Besides Tories, mere were people of uncertain loyalties who held
aloof from the contest And even some self-proclaimed patriots would
contribute little to the war effort unless it brought them profit
Merchants and dealers overcharged army agents for food, transport
and materiel. Some hoarded necessary commodities until desperate
civilians and soldiers were forced to pay outrageously high prices.
With the prospect of building one's own fortune, the sufferings of
other Americans suddenly became less pressing.
In this situation, Paine believed, the chief measure of Americans'
patriotism was their willingness to sacrifice in proportion to their
means and abilities. A patriot would forgo maximizing profits-even
forgo profits altogether-if they came at the expense of the
soldiery, the poor, or the national debt.
Paine was adamant that propertied men should contribute a fair
share of their wealth to keep the country solvent "Those who
expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the
fatigues of supporting it."....[Crisis IV, 1777].....
Is it hard to remember mat patriotism used to mean putting a
collective good before private profit? That it meant refusing to
leave the burden to those who served in arms, or to other states, or
to those who were most defenseless hi hard times?
Today, some Americans call themselves patriots even as they offer a
paltry unity, declining a connection with any they deem unqualified
as "real Americans." Some spread disinformation to divide
the nation, believing that their partisan purposes outweigh the goal
of solving our country's actual, substantial problems. With America
at war, private interests again grow wealthy on the taxpayers' dime.
And, white many Americans are without jobs, homes, or health
insurance, the richest are excused the burdens of even trivial
Paine's Crisis papers echoed the vision of 1776, urging
Americans to make the sustained commitment called patriotism. "I
call upon not a few, but upon all; not on this state or that state,
but on every state; up and help us, lay your shoulders to the
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
repulse it" [Crisis I, December 1776] Paine's
generation rose to that challenge. Will ours?