The American Crisis

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“These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Thomas Paine wrote this in December 1776, the beginning of his essay entitled The American Crisis.  Paine was embedded with Washington’s troops, and his analysis of their demoralized state of affairs in late 1776 continued:

“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.”

George Washington, encamped with his troops at Valley Forge, ordered his commanders to read this essay to the troops on December 24th, the night before they launched a surprise offensive against the British and won the Battle of Trenton, which proved to be a crucial psychological victory for the Americans early in this struggle.

Paine had already established a name for himself earlier in 1776 with the publication of his Common Sense pamphlet, which clearly explained the reasons Americans should seek independence from the British in the American Revolution.  He continued his writing with The Rights of Man during the French Revolution.



Abigail Adams’ letter

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“It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed.”

Abigail Adams is well known for the letters she exchanged her husband John, the second president of the United States.  These 1100+ letters are available at the Massachusetts Historical Society and come from an era when people cherished letter writing.  Probably one of her best known missives came in 1776 when she wrote to him,

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency — and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.  Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.  Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.  If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”

But the quote that I chose for today comes from a letter that Abigail Adams wrote to her son, John Quincy Adams, on January 19, 1780.

“These are times in which a Genious would wish to live.  It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. . . .  The Habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties.  All History will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruits of experience, not the Lessons of retirement and leisure.”

Abigail wrote this letter while John Quincy was traveling with his father and brother to Europe.  His father was sent during the American Revolution to negotiate peace with Britain, and the 12-year-old John Quincy accompanied him.

John Quincy Adams used his early exposure to foreign affairs to prepare for his own later government service, including:

  • Secretary of State for President James Monroe (1817-1825)
  • U.S. President (1825-29)
  • U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts (1831-48)

Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural address

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“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln’s birthday seems like a good time to consider the context of his second inaugural address.  Lincoln was re-elected in November 1864 during the only U.S. presidential election contested during a civil war.  The Democrats had nominated George B. McClellan, the former commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, and Lincoln’s re-election was by no means guaranteed.  On August 23rd, he wrote what became known as the blind memorandum because it was signed by his Cabinet without being read:

“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.  Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President-elect as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”

This provides a stunning recognition of the transitions that are a part of American politics and an indefatigable determination by Lincoln to end the Civil War.  Yet in the fall of 1864, the stalemate of war began turning in favor of the Union, with General Sherman taking control of Atlanta.  Of course, the Confederate states did not participate in this election, but Lincoln won handily, including winning the majority of votes from Union soldiers.

He did not devote time in his address to discussing the war effort, instead acknowledging the public was aware of the “progress of our arms.”  He did, however, assert slavery as a causal factor in the war, contrary to the battle cry of states’ rights that so many put forth.  He recognized that both the Union and Confederate sides believed God to be on their side and quoted from Matthew 18:7,

“Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.”

Lincoln made it clear slavery was the offense but also intimated Northerners could claim no moral high ground over Southerners, alluding to Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”  Sticking with the theme of judgment, he quoted from Psalm 19:9, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The conclusion of the speech is the excerpt with which I began — and which provided a clear indication of how President Lincoln intended to handle the period of reconstruction after the Civil War.  He did not provide many details because he had already done so in his December 1863 Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, which was appended to his annual message to Congress.  Unfortunately, we were never able to see his vision fully realized because he was assassinated within six weeks of his second inauguration.

Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 Democratic Convention speech

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“What counts now is not just what we are against, but what we are for.  Who leads us is less important than what leads us — what convictions, what courage, what faith — win or lose.”

I read this quote on my page-a-day calendar on November 8, 2016.  The sentiment resonated with me at the time, and I put it in my stack of quotations whose context I want to investigate.

Adlai Stevenson, as governor of Illinois, delivered a welcome address to the Democratic convention held in Chicago in July 1952.  Although there had been a months-long campaign to draft Stevenson as the Democratic candidate for President, he repeatedly refused the entreaties.  Nonetheless, he wound up winning the nomination on the third ballot — the last candidate to win a nomination but not win the first ballot of the convention.  He faced Dwight D. Eisenhower in the general election, losing 442-89 in the Electoral College vote.  This speech is a part of the book In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century.

Stevenson followed up the excerpt above by saying:

“I hope the spirit of this convention is confident reaffirmation that the United States is strong, resolved, resourceful, and rich; that we know the duty and the destiny of this heaven-rescued land; that we can and we will pursue a strong, consistent, and honorable policy abroad, and meanwhile preserve the free institutions of life and of commerce at home.  What America needs and the world wants is not bombast, abuse, and double-talk, but a sober message of firm faith and confidence.”

A few days later in his acceptance speech, Stevenson said:

“I would not seek your nomination for the Presidency because the burdens of that office stagger the imagination.  Its potential for good or evil now and in the years of our lives smothers exultation and converts vanity to prayer . . . that my heart has been troubled, that I have not sought this nomination, that I could not seek it in good conscience, that I would not seek it in honest self-appraisal, it is not to say that I value it the less.  Rather it is that I revere the office of the Presidency of the United States.”

With a nomination he did not seek, facing a World War II hero, and carrying the mantle for a party with an unpopular sitting president, Stevenson accepted an insurmountable challenge.  The country was also mired in Cold War fears, fueled by the conflict in Korea.  And he was weighed down by a press that nicknamed him an “egghead.”  Yet Stevenson found a way to maintain his optimism and his commitment to American ideals.