[Editors' note: This article was originally published in June 2009]
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 by 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 everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. –Thomas Paine
So began the first of 16 pamphlets under the title “The American Crisis,” by patriot Thomas Paine. These very words were read aloud to General George Washington’s forlorn and bedraggled men on Christmas 1776, the night before the Battle of Trenton.
Consider the backdrop: For the six months since the Declaration of Independence, Americans had been in almost constant retreat. To a disinterested observer, the American cause must have seemed hopelessly quixotic. To many patriots as well, it appeared all but lost. But Paine’s stirring words helped give the troops the morale boost they needed. The next day they accomplished the impossible, capturing nearly the entire force arrayed against them. Desertions plummeted and reenlistments soared.
Lovers of liberty need a little Paine today in the face of all the pain around us. It seems at times that the world has gone mad. Companies that lose billions are being bailed out by a government that loses trillions. The same federal Leviathan that outlaws competition in first-class mail delivery but still can’t deliver letters at a profit now supposedly knows how to run auto companies, banks, and insurance firms. Debt, deficits, bureaucracy, regulation, government spending—the depressing stuff already in frightful superabundance pre-financial crisis—now threaten our diminishing liberties more than ever before. The cover of the March 15 issue of Newsweek proclaimed, “We Are All Socialists Now.”
No Sunshine Soldiers
Maybe we have good reason to feel like those dispirited troops on Christmas Day in 1776, but we should learn from what they did just a day later. We can either be summer soldiers and sunshine patriots, or we can let the very principles we profess be our rallying cry for the battles ahead.
Eternal optimist though I am, I admit that pessimism really tugs at me when I read the morning papers. At every speech I give these days, there’s a sizable portion of the crowd that seems ready to crawl under a rock and let the world go to a statist hell in a hand basket.
But then I ask myself, what good purpose could a defeatist attitude possibly promote? Will it make me work harder for the causes I know are right? Is there anything about liberty that an election or events in Congress disproves? If I exude a pessimistic demeanor, will it help attract newcomers to the ideas I believe in? Is this the first time in history that believers in liberty have lost some battles? If we simply throw in the towel, will that enhance the prospects for future victories? Is our cause so menial as to justify deserting it because of some bad news or some new challenges? Do we turn back just because the hill we have to climb got a little steeper?
Readers of this magazine should know the answers to those questions.
This is not the time to abandon time-honored principles. I can’t speak for you but someday I want to go to my reward and be able to look back and say, “I never gave up. I never became part of the problem I tried to solve. I never gave the other side the luxury of winning anything without a rigorous, intellectual contest. I never missed an opportunity to do my best for what I believed in, and it never mattered what the odds or the obstacles were.”
A Tradition of Courage
Remember that we stand on the shoulders of many people who came before us and who persevered through far darker times. The American patriots who shed their blood and suffered through unspeakable hardships as they took on the world’s most powerful nation in 1776 are certainly among them. But I am also thinking of the brave men and women behind the Iron Curtain who resisted the greatest tyranny of the modern age, and won. I think of those like Hayek and Mises who kept the flame of liberty flickering in the 1930s and ’40s. I think of the heroes like Wilberforce and Clarkson who fought to end slavery and literally changed the conscience and character of a nation in the face of the most daunting of disadvantages. And I think of the Scots who, 456 years before the Declaration of Independence, put their lives on the line to repel English invaders with these thrilling words: “It is not for honor or glory or wealth that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life.”
As I think about what some of those great men and women faced, the obstacles before us today seem rather puny. We just need to gird our loins. We have to get a lot smarter and better at reaching more fellow citizens with a compelling alternative to the dead hand of the corrupt and incompetent State. We need to put confident smiles on our faces and sally forth.
Time to Rally
We should not squander a second feeling bad for ourselves. This is a moment when our true character, the stuff we’re really made of, will show itself. If we retreat, that would tell me we were never really worthy of the battle in the first place. But if we resolve to let these tough times build character and rally our dispirited friends to new levels of dedication, we will look back on this occasion someday with pride at how we handled it. Have you called a friend yet today to explain to him or her why liberty should be a top priority?
Nobody ever promised that liberty would be easy to attain or easy to keep. The world has always been full of greedy thieves and thugs, narcissistic power seekers, snake-oil charlatans, unprincipled ne’er-do-wells, and arrogant busybodies. Sometimes they’re nattily dressed in custom-tailored, pin-stripe suits and give good speeches; sometimes they’re bedecked in jewel-studded robes and give lousy speeches; on yet other occasions they wear well-worn street clothes and don’t bother with a speech at all as they hold you up. It doesn’t matter how they’re dressed or what they say. No true friend of liberty should just roll over and play dead for any of them.
Wipe that frown off your face and get to work. Liberty’s future depends on you.