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WAR: 1775-1783

2. Committing to War



In 1776, the Patriots' vision of immediate and decisive victory faded as Continental troops suffered defeats, desertions, and woefully inadequate provisions. General Howe's forces had defeated Washington at Brooklyn Heights and chased him southward from New York City. Under the protection of British troops, Loyalist militiamen had rallied and begun to take control of northern New Jersey. Thousands of Americans accepted Howe's offer of pardon in exchange for a pledge of allegiance to the crown. If you were a Loyalist, it was time to capitalize on the Patriots' low morale. If you were a Patriot, it was a time to inspire your comrades.

Here we read the published appeals of a Loyalist, Peter Oliver, and a Patriot, Thomas Paine, to the Continental troops in 1776, perhaps the low point of the war for the Patriots. How does each man use the crisis of morale to drive his arguments? To what personal and national goals does each man direct his appeal? How does each characterize the other side? Which is the more successful appeal (based on what criteria)?

    Peter Oliver, letter to the Massachusetts Gazette PDF file
  • A Loyalist's address to the American soldiers: Peter Oliver, letter to the Massachusetts Gazette, January 1776, selections. A Boston-born Loyalist and Supreme Court judge in Massachusetts, Peter Oliver condemned the American rebellion as illegal, unfounded, and utterly self-destructive. For his staunch defense of British imperial authority, Oliver was harassed by Sons of Liberty and forced from his judgeship in 1774. In January 1776, he published this address urging Continental soldiers to consider their situation and abandon the Patriot cause. Two months later, he left Boston with the British as they evacuated the town, and he eventually settled in England. In 1781 he published an irate account of the pre-revolutionary period titled Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion.

    In this address (published as a letter to the Massachusetts Gazette in January 1776), Oliver is responding to a statement issued about two months earlier by the officers of the Continental Army to its soldiers, urging them to remain in the downsized army and stand resolute despite hardship. What is Oliver's goal in refuting the officers' plea? How does he work to turn the soldiers against their officers? How does he maximize the impact of his address? (6 pp.)

  • Thomas Paine, The Crisis PDF file
  • A Patriot's address to the American soldiers: Thomas Paine, The Crisis, #1, December 1776. As Patriot soldiers were contemplating the British offer of pardon in return for leaving the army, Thomas Paine—the renowned and notorious author of Common Sense—published in December 1776 the first of sixteen pamphlets entitled The American Crisis (or The Crisis). Paine had joined the Continental Army in July 1776, in time to witness Washington's retreat into Pennsylvania as the British occupied New York. With that experience in mind he crafted his direct appeal to the troops to resist the British and reject Howe's offer of pardon. So effective was his prose that Washington had The Crisis #1 read aloud to his army before the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776.

    Beginning with one of the most familiar quotations in American history, Paine explains that as a soldier himself he understands the plight of the troops. He presents the soldiers' steadfastness as a virtue. Our problems are caused not by weakness but by inexperience, which we are overcoming. Even if the British should win some battles, we will still have the advantage because other colonies will come to our aid. In retreat our forces were brave and orderly, and we have reassembled for a forceful resurgence. As Oliver claimed the allegiance of God for the Loyalist cause, Paine invokes it for that of the Patriots. Comparing these two appeals illustrates the extent to which the American Revolution was a battle for hearts and minds. (5 pp.)

Discussion Questions

  1. How did you respond to each address? Which held more persuasive and emotive sway for you? Why?
  2. How does each man use the crisis of morale to drive his arguments?
  3. To what personal and national goals does each direct his appeal?
  4. How does each characterize the other side?
  5. Which is the more successful appeal (based on what criteria)?
  6. Describe the tone and technique of each address. Among the possibilities, consider the use of earnestness, exaggeration, irony, and sarcasm. Note the appeals to honor, duty, self-preservation, history, doubt, distrust, indignance, and common sense. [Read the addresses aloud.]
  7. How does each man promote cohesiveness or divisiveness? To what end?
  8. How does each use the spectre of divine intervention and judgment to motivate his audience?
  9. How does Oliver portray the British government? Compare his portrayal with that in Myles Cooper's 1775 poem, The Patriots of North-America [REBELLION #1].
  10. Why does Oliver address the Continental troops as "fellow citizens" and "my countrymen" rather than as "soldiers"?
  11. What justifications does Oliver offer the soldiers for leaving the Continental army?
  12. What consequences of leaving the army does Paine predict?
  13. How does Paine characterize the Revolution as a defensive war?
  14. How does he use his personal experiences to inspire a rapport with his audience?
  15. What vision of a victorious America does Paine offer his audience? What is his vision of a defeated America?
  16. What is Oliver's vision of a victorious America?
  17. Oliver's address is in the second person (you), and Paine's is in the first person (I). How does this influence their appeals?
  18. Compare Oliver's portrayal of Patriot officers with Paine's portrayal of Tories (Loyalists).
  19. To what extent are these addresses exemplary of the Loyalist-Patriot divide throughout the Revolutionary period?

Framing Questions

  • How did Patriot leadership—military, diplomatic, and governmental—promote and hinder the war effort?
  • How did the war affect Patriots, Loyalists, Indians, African Americans, and women? How were power relationships changed?
  • How were decisions by Britain and France critical to the outcome of the war?
  • Was victory the last achievement of the thirteen colonies or the first achievement of the new nation?


Peter Oliver, Address to the Soldiers of Massachusetts Bay
Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, #1
 6 pp.
 5 pp.
11 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Timeline of the American Revolution (George Washington Papers, Library of Congress) The American Revolution: 1763-1783, primary documents from The Papers of George Washington (Library of Congress) "Was the American Revolution Inevitable?," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)

Teaching the Revolution, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)

General Online Resources

– Portrait of Peter Oliver by unidentified artist, oil on paper, ca. 1780s. Harvard University Portrait Collection, Gift of Mrs. Robert deW. Sampson to the Medical School, 1961, H583. Reproduced by permission.
– Portrait of Thomas Paine, lithograph by Henry John Bufford, ca. 1850. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, EM 2937.

Banner image: John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, oil on canvas, 1820 (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. Capitol, Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

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