He was an obscure pamphleteer even then, a British-born immigrant to the Colonies, but an ardent American patriot. Yet, his little pamphlet, Common Sense, written in early 1776, stirred a continent to action.
His opening lines grabbed people where they lived, worked, relaxed, in homes and assemblies, in taverns and the shops of “mechanics,” in schools and churches, in public halls and the quiet times of private reading.
“These are the times that try men's souls,” he wrote, in a clear and direct language of the common speech of the day, with crisp analogies all could understand. “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.”
The writer was Thomas Paine, just shy of his 40th birthday, and his little essay on why America should be free of Britain helped galvanize the incipient revolution, pulled a group of disparate colonies to a cause and, not incidentally, lit the spark which founded a nation.
He did that with sentences so obviously true they were undisputed even by extreme Loyalists. “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.”
Are we not in such a time today, a time in need of common endeavor? A world gone seemingly mad, a pestilence disease sweeping over us as if a plague from the Middle Ages. An economy ground down with people hoarding, fighting over rolls of thin paper.
I don’t know about you, but this winter, and particularly this past week, I have seen a self-less president step up and take on some hard tasks, travel restrictions, shutdowns, directives. And lo and behold, his legion foes in Congress (yes, they’re still there.) saw the wisdom of working together for now as Americans, to fight and conquer something larger than each of us individually.
This is not to say he did these things alone, or “perfectly” as he likes to claim. There is a point of narcissism about him, a sometimes-insufferable self-importance. In that, he resembles two other presidents, Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, who also pushed the past’s barriers aside with verve, energy, fortitude.
There are many points of criticism about him which any journalist can quickly find. Yet, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Representative government is messy with lots of pitfalls, blind alleys, full of human avarice, greed and calumny. As we are told, no one, not one, is without fault.
Out of this medical, social and economic crisis has already come a determination of spirit and pulling together as a nation which we Americans haven’t seen since 9-11, almost two decades ago. We are all inhabitants of this bountiful and blessed land, on a planet not tumbling out of control, but created of God’s blessing and our hard work and free will.
Is it not particularly true in our remote, almost isolated Idaho, a swatch of the continent as fruitful a place as there is anywhere on Earth, full of industrious people, hard-working, committed to their families, communities, state and nation?
Even in the final days of a tumultuous week, we could see the common purpose, spirit, leadership; men and women in government and health care, pulling together. Wouldn’t both our American and Idahoan ancestors say, yep, hang tough? You’ve chosen well.
Sure, we’re isolated. Idaho was one of the final states to record a coronavirus case, not because we’re healthier than the others, but likely due to our isolation. Social distancing comes with living in Idaho; we don’t have to learn that, free and independent people that we are. You want us to keep our distances from each other ‘til this passes? No problem. Individual isolation is in our blood. Every one of us has some streak of special Western and American individualism.
But we also have common endeavor, common work, common pulling together, common sense. In that too, we are united. When our president calls us to pull together, when our governor echoes that call, we do so.
Social distancing? As in self-hermiting? That's the key to it. Just stay home. Just stay home. No bars, treeforts, sports crowds. God, we might even see a run on -- wait for it – reading. Take down a classic from your shelf and start on page one. There is wisdom from every age. Learn it.
Then, go out on the deck this next clear Idaho night when the wind is "up" and look at the stars; and think about the vastness of the universe, its Creator, our life on this planet, our front-line, health care providers. Think about how lucky and blessed we are. Say some prayers, in whatever form you like.
It is indeed a time which tries men’s souls. We’ll get through this. No doubt about that. We’re Idahoans. We’re Americans. That’s what we do.