Obama Inaugural: Paine, not Washington

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

Two things about this quote:

First, there seems to be some confusion about its use. These were not the words of George Washington. They were the words of Thomas Paine in The Crisis. Obama never says that it was Paine. He only says that “the father of our nation ordered these words to be read.”

Here is the extended quote from The Crisis (December 23, 1776).

Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it. Say not that thousands are gone, turn out your tens of thousands; throw not the burden of the day upon Providence, but “show your faith by your works,” that God may bless you. It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, will suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now is dead; the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole, and made them happy. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.

If this is indeed a reference to Washington’s troops on the Delaware in December 1776, then I am confused about the reference to “the capital” and its abandonment. While New York City had been abandoned by the Continental Army the previous month, one would be hard pressed to call New York “the capital.” If we could call any city a “capital” it would have to be Philadelphia, the place where the Second Continental Congress was sitting. Philadelphia would eventually be abandoned by Congress, but not until September 1777.

What am I missing here?

UPDATE: In the comments section Benjamin Carp of Publick Occurrences reminds me that the Continental Congress left Philadelphia for a brief period in December 1776. This clears things up. Thanks!

7 thoughts on “Obama Inaugural: Paine, not Washington

  1. As I understand it this quote is from the first essay of Paine’s in The Crisis. Washington was apparently so impressed that he had the essay read to the troops at Valley Forge. So the set up paragraph in Obama’s speech is referring to conditions that obtained at Valley Forge while the quote from Paine refers to the winter before.

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  2. Thanks for clearing this up–I’ll go with the Trenton explanation, but to me it seems like a mash-up of both of the winters of 1776-77 and 1777-78.I wonder why he/Favreau didn’t want to be more explicit? (“Winter of our Discontent” is a bit overblown for our moment, perhaps.) This historical reference would not pass muster in an essay submitted to me.

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  3. In my opinion, Obama is drawing a parallel between the struggles we faced in the Revolutionary War with the struggles we face now as a nation. Cold winter, common enemy, despair.

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  4. It’s seems to me that Obama is saying that Washington ordered these words of Paine read to the soldiers, to discourage them from leaving service. Is this how you take it? Is it true?

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  5. Congress abandoned Philadelphia for a brief time in < HREF="http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(dg005552))" REL="nofollow">December 1776, too.<> This was part of the Patriots’ strategy from the beginning–if things became too hot on the coast, just abandon the coast for safer parts of the country. Looks like we < HREF="http://www.common-place.org/pasley/?p=1164" REL="nofollow">blogged similarly today.<>

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