A Brief Publication History of the “Times That Try Men’s Souls”

Arts & Literature

January 4, 2016
by Jett Conner Also by this Author


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Thomas Paine’s sensational pamphlet Common Sense, published anonymously in January of 1776, has a singular place of importance in the literature of the American Revolutionary era. So famous was the title that Paine would adopt it as a sobriquet when authoring future works. The publication history of that wildly successful pamphlet is well established.[1] But other than its famous opening lines, beginning with the words “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Paine’s American Crisis No. 1, published in December, 1776, is less remembered today and its publication history has been somewhat cloudy. Still, it was a terribly important and timely piece that appeared at a most critical moment of the Revolutionary War, one described by Paine as the “very blackest of times.”

Because the publication of American Crisis No. 1 (hereafter Crisis 1) is intimately tied through legend to Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and the first Battle of Trenton, it is time to put some light on the publication history of Paine’s first Crisis paper, so that the role it supposedly played in those events can more accurately be portrayed.

Common Sense and Crisis 1 serve as book ends for that remarkable year in American history, the first urging a declaration of independence and the second exhorting Americans to buckle down and achieve it.[2] As the title of Crisis 1 makes clear, things were not going well for Washington toward the end of 1776. Paine saw his call for independence in Common Sense achieved in July, but he also witnessed first-hand the near collapse of Washington’s army over the course of the late summer and through the fall. By early December, the army had been pushed west across New Jersey and the Delaware, and was encamped just beyond the reach of the pursuing British army on the west banks of the river.

Many biographies of Paine and historical accounts of his role at the time of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware and the first Battle of Trenton—stating that Crisis 1 either circulated among Washington’s troops or was read to them on Washington’s orders prior to the crossing—provide a limited publication history of the first Crisis paper. The most commonly repeated version of this history claims that Crisis 1 appeared first in the Pennsylvania Journal newspaper on December 19, and was published as a pamphlet four days later on December 23.[3] This is incorrect, because the Journal had suspended publication from December 4, 1776, until January 22, 1777.[4] In fact, most newspapers in Philadelphia suspended publication during much of this time, fearing an imminent invasion of the city by the British.[5]

But support for the newspaper origin of Crisis 1 gained traction over the years and was reinforced by descriptions adopted by several important library collections that repeat this version of the story, as we’ll see.

Interestingly, the first newspaper known to have printed Crisis 1 was the Pennsylvania Packet, which printed the first half of the piece on December 27, 1776, and the rest in its January 4, 1777, issue.[6] The Packet had resumed printing on December 18, 1776, sooner than the rest of the Philadelphia newspapers, but Paine’s Crisis 1 did not appear in that issue. That’s important because there’s no evidence that any newspaper printed Crisis 1 prior to Christmas or Washington’s crossing. If the piece circulated among the troops or was ordered by Washington to be read to the soldiers prior to crossing the Delaware, as is commonly claimed, then it had to have appeared first somewhere other than in the newspaper.

Publishing the first Crisis Paper, Paine’s Own Accounts

So what did Paine have to say about all of this? He provided several accounts of the publication history of the first American Crisis.

In a little over two months after Independence was declared, Paine was serving in the Continental army as a volunteer aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene and was sending dispatches, written on a drumhead in camp, to Philadelphia newspapers about events from the field.[7] He witnessed the fall of Fort Washington from across the Hudson at Fort Lee and soon after was retreating with Washington’s despondent army across New Jersey and toward Pennsylvania with the British in pursuit. The following are several of Paine’s accounts of publishing Crisis 1.

…I served as volunteer aid to General Greene at Fort Lee, and continued with him during the gloomy campaign of Seventy-Six ….The wretched and despairing condition of the Country occasioned me to publish the first number of the Crisis at a time when few would venture to speak and the printing presses had left off working. I began it at Newark on the retreat and got it printed in Philadelphia the 19th of Dec. 1776. But the printer did not choose to put his name to it.[8]

The last sentence is revealing. It confirms that Crisis 1 was printed on December 19 but not in one of Philadelphia’s newspapers. And it raises the question, who first published Crisis 1?

There are several other accounts by Paine. “’These are the times that try men’s souls.’” Crisis No. I, written while on the retreat with the army from Fort Lee to the Delaware and published in Philadelphia in the dark days of 1776 December the 19th, six days before the taking of the Hessians at Trenton,” Paine ended a letter to the mayor of Philadelphia, in 1806.[9] And there is this statement:

I began the first number of the Crisis, beginning with the well-known expression (‘These are the times that try men’s souls’), at Newark, upon the retreat from Fort Lee and had it printed at Philadelphia the 19th of December, six days before the taking the Hessians at Trenton, which, with the week after, put an end to the black times.[10]

The following account by Paine is probably the most important of all, one that again shows that Crisis 1 first appeared as a pamphlet and not in a newspaper:

A few days after our army had crossed the Delaware on the 8th of December, 1776, I came to Philadelphia on public service, and, seeing the deplorable and melancholy condition the people were in, afraid to speak and almost to think, the public presses stopped, and nothing in circulation but fears and falsehoods, I sat down, and in what I may call a passion of patriotism wrote the first number of the Crisis. It was published on the 19th of December, which was the very blackest of times, being before the taking of the Hessians at Trenton. I gave that piece to the printer gratis, and confined him to the price of two coppers, which was sufficient to defray his charge.[11]

Paine continued: “I then published the second number, which, being as large again as the first number, I gave it to him on the condition of his taking only four coppers each. It contained sixteen pages. I then published the third number, containing thirty-two pages, and gave it to the printer, confining him to ninepence.”[12]

Who was the “him” Paine mentioned? It was likely Melchoir Styner or Charles Cist.

The Publishers of Crisis 1

Because the first number of Paine’s American Crisis series lacked a date and publisher information, there has been uncertainty ever since about its publication history. The only thing certain about the first appearance of the piece is that it was written by “the Author of Common Sense,” because that appears on the earliest known, undated copies of Crisis 1.

But there is no doubt that Philadelphia printers Styner (sometimes Steiner) and Cist printed the first issue of Thomas Paine’s Crisis 1, as a pamphlet. The piece did not first appear in the Pennsylvania Journal and then as a stand-alone pamphlet, as is often claimed. On the contrary, the reverse is closer to the truth.   Crisis 1 appeared first in pamphlet form, undated and with no publisher information. Only later did it appear in newspapers, most likely for the first time in the Pennsylvania Packet, December 27, 1776, and, importantly, after the first Battle of Trenton. And while it is possible that other publishers pirated copies of the pamphlet soon after the first issue appeared, it is certain that Styner and Cist continued to serve as Paine’s primary publisher, at least for the first few numbers of the American Crisis series.

Interestingly, in 1956, the great-great-grandson of Charles Cist gave to the Library Company of Philadelphia a first edition of The American Crisis, Numbers I-III, published by Styner and Cist in 1776 and 1777. The Library Company of Philadelphia’s annual report describes that gift:

The first number of the Crisis, beginning with the famous sentence: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls,’ is of the edition with the date December 19, 1776 at the end. We already had a copy of the different printing without the date. For the sake of the bibliographically curious, we would like to point out that … this is the indication of edition, for the two variants represent completely different settings of the type.[13]

The donation to the Library Company of the copy mentioned here strongly indicates that Styner and Cist published the first Crisis without a date or publisher information, and then in subsequent editions began to include not only publisher and dates, but the date of the first Crisis as well, which it had first published on December 19, 1776.

American History on a Library Card

A search of holdings at two key institutions, the Library of Congress and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, shows that almost identical statements about the publication history of Crisis 1 appear on their respective library caption cards, cards that describe their rare, undated, copies of the pamphlet.

At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, a library caption card has this information: “[Philadelphia?: Styner and Cist?, 1776?]. Caption Title: without signature or date. First published in the Pennsylvania journal, Dec. 19, 1776, and reprinted as a pamphlet Dec. 23, 1776.”[14]

The same statement about the printing history of Crisis 1 appears on the library caption card at the Library of Congress, which can only be accessed at the library in the card catalog file drawers (yes, the wooden kind!). A note in their online catalog about their rare pamphlet version of Crisis 1 states that the record contains “unverified, old data” on the caption card. The cover of the pamphlet and description of this holding can be viewed online.[15] I have reviewed the caption card in the card files in the Library of Congress. The staff cannot determine when the printing history was added to the card.

Though both institutions acknowledge Styner and Cist as publishers of the pamphlet Crisis 1, both include information on their library cards indicating that the pamphlet was published after it had first appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal on December 19. Both are wrong. There is no record of that newspaper having printed anything on that date.

So, in spite of these library cards’ caution that they may contain “unverified data” or questionable dates, statements of publishing history on those cards nevertheless go beyond mere descriptions of library holdings: they convey, sometimes mistakenly, a context for an important moment in American history.


To the extent that Paine is widely given credit to this day for penning the famous words that were supposedly instrumental to the success of Washington’s crossing and the first Battle of Trenton (elsewhere in Journal of the American Revolution I have raised questions about the lack of direct evidence for that credit), the publication history of “These are the times that try men’s souls” is a critical piece of the story. How exactly Paine’s words circulated among Washington’s troops up and down the west bank of the Delaware, as some claim, and in what form if Washington indeed ordered them to be read to his soldiers prior to crossing the Delaware, as others assert, are necessary questions. And though some answers may remain elusive forever, inaccuracies in some accounts of the first appearance of Crisis 1 can certainly be revealed.


[1] See, for example, Scott Liell, 46 Pages (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003), 16-92, passim.

[2] Phillip Foner, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols. (New York: The Citadel Press, 1969), 1:3-57.

[3] See, for example, David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford, 2004), 141: “… the first number of The American Crisis appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal on December 19, 1776. Four days later it was published as a pamphlet.”

[4] Library of Congress, “Eighteenth-Century American Newspapers in the Library of Congress,” (http://loc.gov/rr/news/18th/pennsylvania.html), accessed November14, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For an example of the first part of Crisis 1 as printed in the Pennsylvania Packet on December 27, 1776, see: https://books.google.com/books?id=m8bmtJxvkCsC&pg=PA11&lpg=PA11&dq=Dunlap’s+pennsylvania+packet+december+27,+1776&source=bl&ots=tYKC0tKg7K&sig=5AQaE29Ry0aLgV140NHrBxRgQA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CDsQ6AEwBWoVChMIv7KH6fqSyQIVSeNjCh1iUAHe#v=onepage&q=Dunlap’s%20pennsylvania%20packet%20december%2027%2C%201776&f=false, accessed November 15, 2015. I am indebted to Todd Andrlik, Journal of the American Revolution, and the staff at the Library Company of Philadelphia for helping me to determine that the first newspaper printing of Crisis 1 likely was in the Pennsylvania Packet on December 27.

[7] Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, 138-39.

[8] Foner, Collected Writings, 2:1230.

[9] Ibid, 1480.

[10] Thomas Paine, “Reply to Cheetham,” https://books.google.com/books?id=b3E3AQAAMAAJ&pg=RA1-PA427&lpg=RA1PA427&dq=Reply+to+Cheetham,+Thomas+Paine&source=bl&ots=EDXK8hajv&sig=jk33RhqFPcxlobYVU7a3xSHR_U&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CEEQ6AEwCWoVChMIgIfD7YWTyQIVAcdjCh3xNANo#v=onepage&q=Reply%20to%20Cheetham%2C%20Thomas%20Paine&f=false, accessed November 15, 2015.

[11] Foner, Collected Writings, 2:1164. (Eric Foner argues that this passage proves that Crisis 1 appeared first as a pamphlet on December 19, and not first in a newspaper. See: http://www.loa.org/volume.jsp?RequestID=95&section=notes).

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Annual Report of the Library Company of Philadelphia for the year 1956 (Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia, 1957), 26: https://books.google.com/books?id=uWazu_m7xX0C&pg=PA3&lpg=PA3&dq=Annual+Report+of+the+Library+Company+of+Philadelphia+for+the+year+1956&source=bl&ots=HTBXvDGHZ6&sig=P94nTSPoQUruMtJUMx07cH3LWRQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAGoVChMI66crJWTyQIVVvRjCh33jwAM#v=onepage&q=Annual%20Report%20of%20the%20Library%20Company%20of%20Philadelphia%20for%20the%20year%201956&f=false, accessed November 15, 2015.

[14] Paine, American Crisis Number 1, http://discover.hsp.org/Record/marc-270052, accessed November 15, 2015.

[15] Paine, American Crisis Number 1, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005694599/, accessed November 15, 2015.


  • Jeff, very interesting research and cogent analysis!

    Also I find it hard to believe that officers would force soldiers to stand still in bitterly cold and snowy weather and listen to an oration, no matter how stirring. Given that the attack was well behind schedule, it was likely that every minute was used to complete the dangerous and incertain crossing. In the days leading up to Trenton, perhaps some of the troops read Common Sense or discussed its theses with Paine and this is the source of the oft told tale.

    All this is still speculation but your research makes it more plausible.

  • Thanks for your comments, Gene. It is possible that soldiers heard and discussed some of Paine’s writings on the retreat across New Jersey, perhaps some lines from Crisis I, as he was composing them during the retreat. British soldiers reported finding some of (that “scoundrel”) Paine’s writings abandoned at Fort Lee. But I’ve been unable to find any direct evidence that Washington ordered Paine’s Crisis I to be read to troops prior to the crossing.

  • Great work Dr. Conner and quite coincidental because I was researching the same topic and came to the same conclusions (to be included in my next book), though you had details I had not discovered (yet?). Please let me add a few other pieces of information:

    In his diary, Christopher Marshall wrote on December 21, 1776: “This day the American Crisis No. I, written by T. Paine, was published.” [https://archive.org/stream/extractsfromdia00duangoog#page/n116/mode/2up] Why the discrepancy? Hmm.

    The earliest mention of The American Crisis I could find in the newspapers was an advertisement on December 24, 1776, in The Pennsylvania Evening Post.

    Like Mr. Procknow and Dr. Conner both state above, I could find no evidence that the essay was read aloud to the troops.

    1. Christopher Marshall’s note that Crisis 1 was published on 21 December could be because he made the annotation in his diary long after that date. It seems unlikely that he’d record the publication of this pamphlet on or around the day it was published, before it’s significance was known. Given that the sentence is the very last thing to appear in the fairly lengthy entry for 21 December, my guess is that it was added later, perhaps years later, and entered on the wrong date. Examining the manuscript diary might confirm, or at least support, this possibility.

      1. Thank you Mr. Hagist for your insightful thoughts. It surely is possible that Marshall recorded this years later. It’s also possible that he first heard about the publication of The (American) Crisis on December 21 and recorded it on that very day. Thomas Paine was, of course, very well known and any new production by him would have been instant news (the quality of the work, however, could not be known until after its publication).

        But I will also point out (correct me if I’m wrong) that all of Thomas Paine’s statements were made years after the fact. His repetition of December 19 numerous times certainly gives it credibility, but it could be a date he fixed on later.

        Another possibility is that The (American) Crisis was printed/published (the words used by Paine) on December 19, but not for sale until December 21. But that is mere speculation.

  • Thanks gentleman for your informed comments. I am aware of the Christopher Marshall entry. It is intriguing. Some writers have also said there were several printings of Crisis I soon after it first appeared, so that is also a possible explanation for the date cited in Marshall’s diary, a date when he might have first seen the piece. Since it appears that the American Crisis Number I appeared first with no date, then Paine’s recollection of that date and the fact that Styner and Cist started using that date in their subsequent Crisis editions for the first Crisis number point strongly to a December 19 publication date.

    Mr. Newton, thanks for mentioning the December 24 Evening Post advertisement. I was not aware of that one.

  • Don’t think we should yet rule out that “Crisis” was or wasn’t read to the troops. The legend asserts that it was read on 23 Dec, three days before the actual attack on 26 Dec. According to several weather sources, the temperatures 21 to 23 Dec 1776 found daytime highs approaching 40 degrees. These are the temperatures that caused the ice to break up on the Delaware, causing the floating ice that complicated the crossing on the night of 25-26 Dec. Although temps dropped on the 24th, it was mild enough for the troops to form for a reading of Paine’s pamphlet on the 23rd. Certainly, there was unarguable need to incentivize soldiers to renew expiring enlistments and Paine’s opening lines that the “sunshine soldier and summer patriot would shrink from service to his country, but that “he who stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman” were powerful inducements for those about to depart at the end of their term.

    I do find it curious that the pamphlet was titled “number 1”. Nobody called “The Great War” WWI until WWII came along. Did Paine foresee writing further in this series, even as he mentally drafted “Crisis” during the retreat across New Jersey? In the compilation book published in 1819, “These are the times that try men’s souls” is listed as American Crisis #2. It makes me suspicious of images claiming to be of the first printing but which are actually subsequent printings marked with attribution.

    It would be wonderful to see an image of Marshalls actual diary entry to assess whether it evidences a later addition to the daily entry. Hopefully someone visiting LOC can check and report back!

    Happy New Year JAR community!

    1. I find that “legend asserts” two different things. One is that The American Crisis was read to the troops. That is surely possible as any general, colonel, or captain could have read the work to his division, brigade, regiment, or company. But I’ve also read that Washington “ordered” The American Crisis to be read to the men. For this, there is no evidence.

      The advertisement in the The Pennsylvania Evening Post of December 24, 1776, has the work as “THE AMERICAN CRISIS, No. I.” So the initial printing was indeed “number 1” at the time it was published.

  • Not everyone, of course, was enamored with Paine’s writings. A Philadelphia Loyalist wrote,
    “After supper my Tommy read me a paper called the American Crisis, a most violent, seditious, treasonable paper, purposely to inflame the minds of the people & spirit them on to rebellion, calling the King a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.”
    [January 1, 1777 entry in the diary of Sarah Logan Fisher, published as “A Diary of Trifling Occurrences,” Nicolas B. Wainwright, ed. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 82#4 (October 1958), 420.

  • Once again, thanks to all for your comments. Whether a plan was clear to Paine when he titled his first American Crisis, Number I, is unknown. But he had been told in his military unit that his pen was far more important than his soldiering abilities. So, whenever a crisis arose during the war, he was ready with another Crisis number. It has been noted that there were exactly 13 numbered papers in the Crisis series, one for each state (there were in addition three special, unnumbered papers in the series, as well). Crisis No. II did mention the United States of America for the first time. So, at some point it seems Paine did have a plan with all of them. He himself said so later on.

    Paine did not conceive, however, putting the Crisis series together as a book. Publishers did that later on. And it should be noted that a British edition included a “Crisis I” by mistake that was written by someone else.

    As to the legend of Washington ordering Crisis I to be read to the troops, there are other versions. Some say that Crisis I “circulated” among the troops prior to the crossing, for example. And as to when Paine’s words were read or heard, December 23 is mentioned, as well as Christmas Eve, Christmas Day/evening, and even at 2:00 in the morning on the 26th, the day of the attack on Trenton.

    I can find no direct evidence for any version, but again, that doesn’t mean there is no basis for the legend.

    Thanks Don, for your diary piece. Did not know of that. Yes, Paine’s writings certainly did not please many loyalists!

  • Jett,
    Very interesting piece. I’m working on a new biography of Dr. Benjamin Rush, and I’d be curious to know if your research on this piece of Paine’s suggests any role for Rush–who obviously arranged for the publication of Common Sense and, interestingly, was in Philadelphia around this time (he left on 12/20) and was with both Cadwalader’s troops and Washington’s troops during this last week in December. While Rush never would have admitted to this later (because much of what we know about his relationship with Paine comes from later writing after they had parted ways). doesn’t it seem possible that if a copy of this made its way to these troops, he might have brought it? Paine was still in Philly, right? I’d be interested in your opinion on this, and anything else interesting about Rush that you’ve come across.
    Stephen Fried
    adjunct professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

  • Thanks for your comments and query, Stephen. I do not know off hand of any Rush/Paine connection in relation to the publishing and distributing of The American Crisis, Number 1, but I also can’t rule it out (will have to double-check my notes, etc.). My instinct is that since Paine and Robert Bell, the first publisher of Common Sense and the person Rush found in Philadelphia who was willing to publish the first edition of that pamphlet, had a falling out soon after its publication, perhaps Paine had no need to turn to Rush again for help in finding a publisher for Crisis 1.

    Yes, Paine and Rush were both in Philadelphia at the same time during parts of December, 1776. And I am certain that Rush was also in Washington’s camp at some point prior to Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware. But since Paine found another publisher for The American Crisis, and neither he nor Rush mentioned the other in connection with this particular pamphlet’s publication (at least so far as I am aware), then I don’t know of any direct evidence that the two men worked together on getting this pamphlet published as they had done on Common Sense.

    However, consider this my “rush” to judgment answer on Rush! If I turn up anything else after reviewing my notes, I’ll post additional comments. In the meantime, I also suggest you look up Eric Foner who is on the faculty in history at Columbia. He is an expert on Paine. Perhaps he could help with questions about Rush and Paine. Feel free, also, to contact me through JAR. The editors would be happy to pass along my contact info.

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