The American Crisis Before Crossing the Delaware?

Critical Thinking

February 25, 2015
by Jett Conner Also by this Author


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Does saying so make it so? Perhaps, if said convincingly and repeatedly. But sometimes it’s fair to ask: Who says so? And how do they know?

It is said that George Washington ordered the first number of Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis series to be read to his ragged troops before boarding boats to cross the Delaware on the eve of the Battle of Trenton. Inspired by Paine’s words, so the story goes, the suffering soldiers marched through that cold and stormy night and achieved a much-needed victory the next morning at Trenton.

The details of Washington’s success at the first battle of Trenton are well known and documented, but what about Paine’s role in the affair?

Paine published The American Crisis, No. 1, the first of thirteen numbered pieces in the series written during the course of the Revolutionary War, just a few days before the crossing, in December 1776.[1] Biographies, history books, and synopses found in many writings, at historical monuments and on multiple websites, tell the story of Paine’s famous words, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” and the remarkable effect they had on Washington’s regiments. But not everyone repeats the story.

Reading Paine’s opening lines of Crisis No. 1,[2] it is not hard to imagine soldiers listening to Paine’s provocative rebuke of “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot,” and exhortation that “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph,” then mustering the courage to row across the ice-clogged river and surprise the Hessian garrison at Trenton. It is a dramatic element entwined with the story of Washington’s Crossing. But neither Washington nor Paine ever described the scene.

Though he acknowledged in his writings the positive effects the Crisis series had on morale and events—“His writings certainly have had a powerful effect on the public mind…”—nothing in Washington’s published general orders or accounts of the battle in his letters to the Congress, or to military subordinates or friends or family members, links Paine or his words to the Battle of Trenton.[3]

For his part, Paine never mentioned that Washington ordered his first American Crisis to be read to the troops in any of his accounts recalling the writing and publishing of the piece, and he certainly was not there in person to do the reading himself or witness first-hand what happened. Paine had volunteered as aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene on Washington’s retreat across New Jersey and the Delaware, reported on much that he had seen on that march, but he then took leave of Washington’s troops to go to Philadelphia in early December 1776 to finish writing Crisis No. 1 and get it published.

Thomas Paine's The American Crisis, Number I, as it was sold at auction November 24, 2014. Source: Swann Auction Galleries
Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis, Number I, as it was sold at auction November 24, 2014. Source: Swann Auction Galleries

So, then, who told this tale about Paine’s role on that Christmas night, 1776? And who continues to tell it today?

It seems that Paine’s arch-enemy James Cheetham originated the story. In an early biographical sketch entitled The Life of Thomas Paine, published soon after Paine’s death, Cheetham—acknowledging the uplifting effect that Crisis No. 1 had on troop morale and Revolutionary events—wrote that prior to Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware, “The number was read in the camp to every corporal’s guard….”[4] But Cheetham, who was not an eyewitness to the event, provided no source for the assertion, and at least one researcher who has tried recently to confirm it could not.[5]

Nevertheless, over time the story continued to build and gain gravitas. The following serves as a representative sample.

Moncure Conway, writing in his four-volume collection of Paine’s works in the 19th Century, said of Crisis No. 1, “It was written during the retreat of Washington across the Delaware, and by order of the Commander was read to groups of his dispirited and suffering soldiers.” Conway drew on Cheetham for the source.[6]

Phillip Foner, in his two-volume collection The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, wrote of Crisis No. 1: “The soldiers who heard the words of Paine’s great document—Washington ordered it read to his men—were inspired to face the floes, a blizzard and the swift current of the Delaware River on Christmas Eve and achieve the victory at Trenton which gave the Americans new courage.”  And he repeated the statement later: “Before the soldiers embarked to battle the floes, a blizzard, and the swift current of the river, they listened, at Washington’s command, to a reading of Paine’s new pamphlet.” Foner mentioned Cheetham.[7]

Howard Fast: “Washington had the first Crisis paper in the morning [December 19] and read it through at luncheon on the same day. There is evidence that Washington was thrilled with what Paine had written, for he immediately ordered copies of the Pennsylvania Journal distributed up and down the river to every brigade, with instructions that it be read aloud at each corporal’s guard.” Fast offered no source or evidence.[8]

Eric Foner said that “In what he called a ‘passion of patriotism,’ Paine composed The American Crisis, which Washington ordered to be read to the troops on Christmas Eve shortly before the crossing of the Delaware.” Foner cited Phillip Foner and David Freeman Hawke’s biography Paine as sources, but Hawke did not mention Washington’s orders to have Crisis No. 1 read to the troops.[9]

Scott Liell wrote that “At 2 A.M. on December 26, upon the banks [of] the Delaware River, Washington ordered that copies of Paine’s new pamphlet be distributed throughout the ranks and that these words be read to his men as they were packed into the flat-bottomed Durham boats that would take them across the river to the Battle of Trenton.” Liell cited Phillip Foner.[10]

Harvey Kaye stated: “Washington himself recognized the inspirational power of Paine’s newest work and as part of the preparations for his now-famous Christmas Night attack on Britain’s Hessian mercenaries occupying Trenton, he ordered his officers to read it to their troops.” Kaye cited Richard Ketchum (see below) and David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, both of which relied on Cheetham.[11]

Craig Nelson described the publication of the first Crisis in his biography of Paine, and said: “One pamphlet made its way back to the very source of Paine’s inspiration—the banks of the Delaware River. At dusk on December 23, 1776, General Washington ordered his officers to gather their men into small squads and read aloud what Paine had written.” He gave no source for the story.[12]

On Washington’s side of the story-telling, several works mention his orders to read Crisis No. 1 to the troops. For example, Richard Ketchum asserted that the number “was read to Washington’s troops on the west bank of the Delaware River, while they waited for the boats….” But he offered no citation. And in The Winter Soldiers Ketchum continued: “All that Washington’s men had to elevate their spirits were the words of Thomas Paine’s Crisis 1 which had been published a few days earlier in Philadelphia and which Washington ordered read to them while they stood quietly in the cold waiting to move down to McKonkey’s Landing.” Again, no evidence was provided.[13]

And Ron Chernow’s Washington, A Life made this puzzling assertion about Paine’s Crisis: “…he published thirteen essays in a collection entitled The Crisis…. These essays appeared in pamphlet form on December 23 and Washington had them read aloud to small clusters of men up and down the Delaware.” All of them? Chernow cited Nelson’s biography of Paine as a source.[14] Several histories of the Revolution also mention Crisis No. 1 and the role it played at the Crossing.[15].

Not all biographical studies or historical accounts of the Crossing mention Washington’s orders to have Crisis No. 1 read to the troops. Two early works, David Ramsay’s The Life of George Washington[16] and Washington Irving’s The Life of Washington,[17] did not mention Paine in association with the event. Neither did Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency, George Washington.[18]. David McCullough’s 1776 did not repeat the story of Paine and Washington’s orders, either.[19]

Absent Cheetham’s account there might not be a story, if the brief survey of the literature above is any guide. Historical evidence to back up Cheetham’s assertion is lacking. Historians who tell the story have leaned on Cheetham, or those before them who did so, as their only source, if they give a source at all. Maybe those choosing not to repeat the tale are uncomfortable because of this. But thinking there must be a basis somewhere for such a story, I tried to discover it.

My search of eyewitness accounts or of those who wrote about those with direct knowledge of the crossing yielded no evidence for Cheetham’s assertion. For example, research on several soldiers who participated in and described the crossing turned up nothing about Crisis No. 1.[20] In addition, a search of published papers, autobiographies and biographies of some of the most notable participants who either crossed the Delaware to fight at the first battle of Trenton, or who were in Washington’s camp at some point just before the crossing, revealed nothing about Washington’s orders and the first Crisis.

The latter include Nathanael Greene (Paine’s commanding General), Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, Henry Knox and John Glover, all participants, and Joseph Reed and Benjamin Rush, who were in the camp prior to the Crossing.[21] There is, as noted above, no written order in the Library of Congress’ George Washington Papers pertaining to Crisis No. 1.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the first Crisis circulated and was read in Washington’s regiments up and down the banks of the Delaware prior to the crossing. It certainly was published and in circulation prior to the event. Nelson stated that 18,000 copies of Crisis No. 1 were printed in a first run, but offered no source. Other accounts stated that at least three editions of the pamphlet were published immediately after the first printing on December 19.

The Library of Congress has an original broadside of The American Crisis No. 1 that appeared in Boston, in early January, 1777.[22] And Cheetham did describe in The Life of Thomas Paine the positive effect the pamphlet had on nine New York Convention members (“they were rallied and reanimated”) though he doesn’t say exactly when it appeared in that city.[23] Still, it is reasonable to assume that Paine’s pamphlet traveled fast and was likely read in Washington’s camp.

But a reasonable assumption is not evidence. I am unable to find anything that supports Cheetham’s assertion about Washington’s orders and Crisis No. 1. Perhaps the story is true, but in this case saying so apparently makes it so. Chalk it up to tradition then, because after generations of historians telling it, the story by now is woven into the fabric of the history of the American Revolution. It’s a good old story.


[1] The first American Crisis did not first appear in the Pennsylvania Journal as is often claimed, but instead was first published on December 19, 1776, as a pamphlet. The Journal suspended publication in early December, given the British threat to Philadelphia, and did not resume publication until late January 1777. The first half of Crisis No. 1 did appear in the newspaper Pennsylvania Packet on December 27, 1776, with the second half published on January 4, 1777. For a review of the publication history of the pamphlet, see The Library of America, “Note on the Texts,” Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, accessed January 17, 2015.

[2] Philip Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols. (New York: The Citadel Press, 1969), 1:50.

[3] Library of Congress, “George Washington to James Madison Jr., June 12, 1784,” George Washington Papers, accessed, January 16, 2015.

[4] James Cheetham, The Life of Thomas Paine (New York: Southwick and Pelsue, 1809), 32; also online, accessed, January 20, 2015.

[5] William Dwyer, The Day is Ours! (New York: The Viking Press, 1983), 399n.

[6] Moncure Conway, The Writings of Thomas Paine, 4 vols. (New York: AMS Press, 1967), 1:169.

[7] Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 1:xvi; 1:49. Curiously, Foner gets the date of the crossing wrong, twice, saying “Christmas Eve.” It was Christmas night, 1776.

[8] Howard Fast, The Crossing (Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1984).

[9] Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 139; David Freeman Hawke, Paine (New York, Harper & Row, 1974).

[10] Scott Liell, 46 Pages (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003), 143-144.

[11] Harvey Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 58.

[12] Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Penguin, 2007), 301.

[13] Richard Ketchum, The World of George Washington (New York: American Heritage Publishers, 1974), 136; The Winter Soldiers (Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1973), 295.

[14] Ron Chernow, Washington, A Life (New York: Penguin, 2010), 271.

[15] See, for example, William Stryker, The Battles of Trenton and Princeton (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1898), 80-81; and Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters (New York: Penguin, 2006), 212.

[16] David Ramsay, The Life of George Washington (London: Cadell and Davies, 1807), a very early biography of Washington that does not mention Paine in its account of Washington Crossing the Delaware.

[17] Washington Irving, The Life of Washington, 5 vols. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1857).

[18] Joseph Ellis, His Excellency George Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

[19] David McCullough, 1776, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005).

[20] Among writings of soldiers reviewed for this article are those of John Fitzgerald, Elisha Bostwick, John Trumbull and John Greenwood, the latter who was 16 or 17 at the time of the crossing and who provides a most vivid and literate account. “Over the River,” John Greenwood, The Revolutionary Services of John Greenwood, Isaac Greenwood, ed. (New York: De Vinne Press, 1922).

[21] A sample list of sources includes Richard K Showman, The Papers of Nathanael Greene (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976); Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004); Daniel Preston and Marlena DeLong, The Papers of James Monroe, 5 vols. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003); North Callahan, Henry Knox, General Washington’s General (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1958); George Athan Billias, General John Glover and his Marblehead Mariners (New York: Holt, 1960); William Reed, Reprint of The Original Letters from Washington to Joseph Reed During the American Revolution, accessed, January 19, 2015; David Freeman Hawke, Benjamin Rush: Revolutionary Gadfly (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971), 139. Hawke quotes Rush on Paine’s Crisis: “I believe his ‘Crisis’ did as much mischief to the enemy and as much service to the friends of liberty as has been in the power of any one man to render this country with any other weapons short of the sword.”

[22] Library of Congress,, accessed, January 21, 2015.

[23] Cheetham, The Life of Thomas Paine, 32, accessed, January 20, 2015.




  • Another great example of why it is important to question secondary sources! As you point out, sometimes the stories are better than reality. Maybe in this case, it is not surprising. Who would want to stand still in the dark and cold and listen to a political speech – especially when you are executing an extraordinarily complex battle plan and behind schedule.

  • I’ve looked into this question and am pleased with this article’s conclusions. The army reading of the “Crisis” looks like an example of what I call “memory creep.” Cheetham’s “read in every camp” might have been rhetorical hyperbole, but then other authors in the early 1800s interpreted that literally and credited Washington with ordering the essay to be read. By the late 1800s, editions of the “Crisis” were published with a statement on their title page describing Washington’s order—for which no documentation exists. That incident became a standard part of the American origin story, offering a neat cause-and-effect tale linked to a turning-point in the war. The statement was repeated so often and in so many places that new authors assumed there had to be evidence behind it.

    1. David Hackett Fischer’s book quotes Cheetham in saying The Crisis was “read in the camp, to every corporal’s guard….”–but does not mention any order from Washington. Fischer had previously stated that the American army was literate for those days, had already read Thomas Paine–& that The Crisis was distributed quickly after having been printed.

      I’m surprised to see a citation of Howard Fast. I haven’t read his novel on the Crossing but did see the movie. Very bad history….

  • Excellent article!

    I also agree with you Gene. I’ve come across one case in particular, in a project of mine, where a secondary source needed to be challenged and it was not. The writer put their own words into the mouth of a commander.

    Sadly, this assumption was repeated again and again throughout other books of the same topic as being historical fact when it was far from it.

  • It’s a good thing there aren’t threshing machines for historical research. Historians might be out of business and legislators trying to mess with teaching would have to look to other things to screw up. Frankly, reliance on credible sources is one of the more important attributes a writer and reader of history have to separate the wheat from the chaff. As with other articles in this Journal, the author has undertaken a primary source investigation to confirm or deny but we’re only left with inferences. Cheetham may have, indeed, been told the story by an eyewitness (earwitness?) and accurately passed it along. Why, though, would Paine’s “enemy” report a story that was more likley to bring praise to Paine’s prominence? In law, it’s tantamount to an admission against interest, admissible as against the ‘hearsay’ rule. That’s one for arguing the legitimacy of Cheetham’s statement. However, as against the weight of that evidence, there’s nothing written by actual participants (especially Washington it appears) that supports the event. One would have to infer that if the reading of Crisis 1 was as momentous as historians have reported, it would have been written about by early chroniclers. In any case, if one want to rely on possibly unreliable history, the author should lay out the arguments pro and con via footnote. Jett Conner has done an excellent job of doing that here.

  • Well done, Mr. Conner. We are handed down all sorts of dubious stories from sources written long afterwards, so any time a researcher questions conventional wisdom with care, as you have done, it is a service to all historians.

  • Thanks everyone for your comments on my article on Paine’s Crisis and Washington’s Crossing.

    Whether it’s Pulitzer Prize winner David Hackett Fischer, or Howard Fast, a figure who has a less secure place among historians, both authors’ offer a version of Paine’s Crisis and the role it played at Washington’s Crossing based on a paucity of primary sources. As I pointed out in my article, many other authors have done the same.

    The reason I cited Howard Fast is that he stated there is “evidence” that Washington ordered copies of the Pennsylvania Journal printing of Crisis I to be distributed and read to the troops. But, of course, he offered no such evidence.

    For his part, Fischer seems to lean on the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as a source for writing that The American Crisis No. 1 was “first published in the Pennsylvania Journal on December 19, 1776.” The Society has been unable, at my request, to find any copies of the Pennsylvania Journal for the period in question.

    Fischer also wrote: “Within a day of its first publication [Crisis I] was circulating in the camps of the Continental army along the Delaware River,” and then goes on to quote Cheetham’s version of events, including the statement that the piece was “read in the camp, to every corporal’s guard.” Fischer writes of Paine’s “impact on the revival of the American cause the week before the Battle of Trenton.” But, aside from Cheetham, he offers no new sources for us to explore relating to the role Paine’s Crisis played at the crossing.

  • Great article. I’ve studied the Crossing period for years; as much as the reading makes great drama, it never made sense to me in terms of the secrecy and chaos of the day. So much about this critical event so familiar today is not secured by fact. Only the power and impact of the Crossing are undisputed.

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