In light of our nation's current divisions, and in honor of Thomas Paine's birthday last week, let us revisit the great man's extraordinary rhetoric. "These are the times that 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 woman."
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 was on the line, and yet the vision of a united republic was beginning to fade.
The battles of Lexington and Concord in April 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 own, participated in her cares and administered to her wants."
There was an outpouring of enthusiasm for military service, while those who could not fight contributed arms, clothing or financial aid. The members of this 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 than one-time generosity; it needed ongoing support.
The crisis was moral as well as military: Tories did everything they could to bring down the new Revolutionary governments. They spread disheartening rumors about the course of the war in order to discourage enlistments. They refused the paper currency issued to pay for the war and even counterfeited patriot bills to undercut their value.
Besides Tories, there 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 seized opportunities to overcharge 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 government solvent. "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it," he wrote in 1777. It was vital to counter the imminent danger that Americans might lose faith in one another.
Is it hard to remember that 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 in 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, while many Americans are without jobs, homes or health insurance, the richest are excused the burdens of even trivial patriotic sacrifice.
Paine's Crisis papers echoed the vision of 1776, urging Americans to make the sustained commitment called patriotism. "I call not upon 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 wheel. … 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."
Paine's generation rose to that challenge. Will ours?
Barbara Clark Smith is a historian in Washington. She is the author of "The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America." She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
© 2011, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.