Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence Day

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 their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
When Thomas Paine wrote those sentences to open his pamphlet The American Crisis in December of 1776, the prospects for the rebellious American colonies looked bleak. Mere weeks before, General Washington and his Contintental Army, smarting from a string of defeats in New York and New Jersey, had been driven across the Delaware River, leaving much of New England undefended. New York City had fallen to the British. As the ragged Contintental Army entered winter quarters, the men and women who had risked their lives and livelihoods on the prospect of independence were deeply--and quite rightly--worried.

Legend has it that Paine's pamphlet was read to the army in camp that bitter December, lifting their flagging spirits. An enemy of Paine, James Cheetham, said that the reading "rallied and reanimated" both the army and the public. It's important of course to not give too much credit to mere words--Washington's spectacular successes at Trenton and Princeton following his daring crossing of the Delaware River later that month surely did more to reinvigorate public support for the war. But Paine's words--elegant yet straightforward, like all his prose--were powerful at the time, and they have served for more than two hundred years as both an emblem of the bravery and determination that animated our founders and a reminder of the duty we all still have to ensure that their democratic experiment continues to succeed.

But while those opening lines are familiar, there is an aspect of The American Crisis that is less remarked upon these days, yet seems essential. While the pamphlet was intended as a rallying cry, and Paine did put a good face on the dire situation, he at the same time didn't hesitate to explain, in detail, the calamities that had recently befallen the Contintentals. He told of the retreat, lamented the losses and failures, and openly wondered about the future.

At a time when we as a nation are just beginning to emerge from a period in which our leaders--with the help of the mainstream media--made every effort to shame and demonize anyone who spoke honestly about our military failures in Iraq, Paine's essential straightforwardness is a refreshing reminder that truth and openness should be bedrock American virtues. Despite a real existential crisis--not overhyped threats of terror, but an actual, devastating war whose outcome was clearly in doubt--Paine knew better than to sacrifice those virtues. Would that we had leaders of the same caliber today.

I'll close this Independence Day post with Paine, too, a few lines from Common Sense. Published in the summer of 1776, Common Sense saw Paine, with the thoroughness and brutality of a street fighter, laying waste to the pro-reconciliation arguments of Loyalists and waverers--and leaving the colonists no reasonable choice but to support the war that was already underway. Under Paine's assault, the whole concept of hereditary monarchy is revealed as unreasonable, illogical, and unacceptable, and while from our vantage that may seem obvious, it's important to remember that the more egalitarian and democratic world we live in was made possible, in part, by those very words--and by the words and actions of Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, and the officers and enlisted men of the Continental Army.

Given the revelations of recent months about the Bush administration's thorough corruption of the previously honorable Department of Justice--and especially Bush's craven action this week in commuting the sentence of Scooter Libby--I think you'll understand why I chose the following passage.

From Common Sense:
But where says some is the King of America? I'll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve as monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.

In the face of Bush and Cheney's depradations, our job as citizens is to fight for the rule of law. Only by doing that will we enure that America will see the better days appropriate to the descendants of Paine and the Revolutionary generation.

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