'Common Sense' and its Meaning Today by Jack Fruchtman
by Jack Fruchtman Jr., Towson University
Prepared for Delivery to the Thomas Paine National Historical Association and the Thomas Paine Foundation, Philadelphia, Pa,, January 26, 2001 .
Americans like many other people are lovers of anniversaries, especially when there is a zero or a five at the end of the heralded date (which is maybe why we celebrated the millennium in 2000 rather than 2001). Thomas Paine's first real splash in the public eye occurred when his Common Sense appeared 225 years ago on January 10, 1776, a date which, we must remember, was nearly six months before Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. In many respects, Paine was ahead of his compatriots in demanding separation from Britain. In any case, it is easy to argue that while many Americans talked among themselves of independence, Paine was the first to write about it in clear, lucid, stirring terms that were immediately accessible to anyone who either read his pamphlet or had it read to them.
Now I have been accused of citing Paine too much to comment on modern social and political problems. Some folks hold that historical figures obviously lived in particular periods, spoke a language that was peculiar to their time and place, and that the role of the historian is to try to figure out the intentions and meaning of their language on their terms, not ours. In other words, they say, you cannot take a person from his historical context, move him into the twenty-first century and expect to have him say reasonable things about our problems and issues. Well, in fact, they are right: I have found what I claim to be "a usable Paine," as they charge, and will continue to use his wisdom, his observations, and his approach to problem-solving until they are no longer usable.
So what does Common Sense tell us today 225 years after its first appearance in this city-when America's relationships with Britain were seriously deteriorating? Certainly, we have no such problems with Britain today. Indeed, we have no such problems with any nation. There is no doubt that the United States of America (a term that I still say Paine coined in the second essay in his American Crisis series, despite the arguments by William Safire of the New York Times) is the strongest country in the world from an economic and military perspective.2 What we may not be is the most ethical, and this is the lesson we may first learn from Paine's work.
First. what is "common sense" and how do we know what it is when we see it (as Potter Stewart said of pornography in 1964)?3 Here's story that while Paine did not use it. He would have, had he known it. A knight was riding through a forest one day when he came upon an arrow right in the middle of bull's eye in a tree. Since this was not particularly unusual, he didn't think much of it, but he became increasingly astounded when he came across several of them. They must have numbered ten or fifteen, and each arrow was perfectly centered in the bull's eye. At last the knight came upon a young boy with a bow and arrow, and so he asked the lad whether he had been the one who had shot all those arrows. The boy answered, yes, it was he who had done the deed. But how did you learn to do it so well, asked the knight. The boy replied that he used common sense: he simply first shot the arrow into the tree, and then painted the target around it. . . . This is not because he was either lazy or unskilled, but that he just used "common sense."
If only everything could be so clear.
For Paine, one thing was in fact clear (and a reflection of common sense): he knew that human beings had a "natural love of liberty."4 And he knew too that people considered "freedom as personal property," property of which no person could deprive others without violating nature.5 These phrases are Paine's (though not from Common Sense, but rather from his later writings in 1778 and 1782). The problem for Americans in 1776 was how to capitalize on these two observations, which he drew from common sense? How should (or could) he make them realize that there really was no longer any alternative to separation?
His response was to figure out a way to tell them just that in irrefutable and indeed absolutist terms. He did just that by arguing in ways that immediately grabbed their attention. Fewer words during the revolutionary era are greater than these from his great pamphlet (though I'd argue that maybe some of Jefferson's in the Declaration come close): "We have it in our power to begin the world over again" and "now is the seed-time of continental union, faith, and honor."6 His intention was clear: to move America forward toward independence, and to do it now. More often than not, he thought that it took a great man, one actually like himself, Thomas Paine, to stimulate them to act. When this reawakening happened, they exercised "common sense."
Some commentators have defined common sense as being coequal with a person's moral powers.7 This interpretation, though essentially correct, is incomplete. Common sense was certainly part of human affections, our innate moral sensibilities. But common sense also included our ability to reason. Now, Paine was no epistemologist. He never set forth a lucid, cogent argument, as for example had Locke or Hume, to determine how the mind operated or how man knew anything at all. But he did have definitive ideas about how people knew how to conduct their lives. They do so through both their affections and their reason-through passion and reason.
Paine was not the first writer to use the phrase common sense as a faculty for understanding, nor was he the first to use it as a corollary to human moral sensibilities. Lord Shaftesbury though clearly an elitist, had, as did the eighteenth-century Scottish Common Sense philosophers, such as Thomas Reid. Although these philosophers' works were available to him, Paine probably never read Shaftesbury's Characteristicks (1711) or Reid's Inquiry (1764). Even so, common sense, as a sensory faculty, a kind of sixth sense, encapsulated his idea of what a natural human being was and ought to be.8 The term was well known and obviously in broad usage at the end of the eighteenth century, including America.
For Shaftesbury, Reid, and Paine, common sense was an all-encompassing faculty of mind and feeling that gave people the power of immediate discernment.9 The Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid observed that common sense forced him to "to take my own existence, and the existence of other things upon trust," and to believe that snow was cold and honey sweet.10 These things were knowable spontaneously when people first encountered them. For the skeptic to deny this phenomenon undermined the true basis of human knowledge.
But how did common sense operate? Although epistemologically vague, Paine used it to express both reason and sensibility.11 Common sense was the means by which the mind understood the way the heart felt about reality. It had nothing to do with abstract reasoning or metaphysical concepts. It was wholly empirical, since it was based only on sensory perceptions. After all, the Americans did not need abstract ideas of freedom to convince them that the British oppressed them. They needed only to listen to the dictates of their common sense. As Paine noted, "common sense will tell us."12 It will tell us because the powers of the mind and the heart are like lightning bolts of spontaneous discernment. The mind knew and the heart felt that "however our eyes may be dazzled with snow, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and our reason will say, it is right."13 To see how this works, it is imperative, in short, to analyze the linguistic and epistemological roots of the expression common sense.
First, common sense by necessity included a person's ability to reason. As Paine said in The Age of Reason, "the most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall."14 As for America's relationship to England prior to 1776, "it is repugnant to reason. . . to suppose that this continent can longer remain subject to any external power."15 Indeed, he once declared that the new era of politics in which he lived was "the age of reason."16 Paine did not say it was "the age of common sense!" And of course, he named one of his books with that very title. Common sense was, therefore, clearly a function of man's rational capabilities, his ability to reason.
But common sense included affection as well. It did not feel right to men, that relationship with Britain, because it violated their moral sensibilities. All one must do to gauge whether the colonies ought to remain linked to Britain was to judge the relationship by "those feelings and affections which nature justifies.. . . Examine the passions and feelings of mankind," he said, and judge that relationship by the standards that nature supplied.17 During the war with Britain, as the military situation deteriorated, "what we have to do," said Paine, "is as clear as light, and the way to do it as straight as a line."18 This light - this clarity - was what common sense provided to people. Such clarity, if one could follow one's true nature, gave them two options.
First, they could achieve positive political and social changes. They would know by both reason and affection, what was right, what was wrong in society and government. Second, common sense was the vehicle for people's inventiveness. As common sense informed them when and how to make or invent revolutions, by extension it was also the creative spark that moved them to enhance progress. Human inventions improved life for everyone. When Paine was struggling with the design of his iron bridge, he realized he had to moderate his "ambition with a little 'common sense' in order to make the necessary modifications."19 It was a powerful turn of phrase that Paine undoubtedly knew would deeply impress his wide American audience.
Every person, he taught, possessed common sense. The problem was that it became impaired when brute force enslaved the people, when kings and lords (ruffians and their banditti) made their subjects do their will.20 They deprived them of their freedom to choose, and they destroyed or badly compromised their sense of self. When that happened, common sense was distorted. People no longer thought straight (as a line), and nothing was clear (as light). Such force had a numbing effect on their minds and hearts. They might never even feel the pain of that force and might never be aware of it.
This state of affairs violated man's nature as a creature with the ability to reason. "Men," said Paine, "have a right to reason for themselves."21 When kings and their cohorts stole this right from their subjects, these subjects were no longer whole persons. They were slaves, the puppets of others who used them as they saw fit. They lost their sense of self and became objects-indeed, the property-of others. For Paine, human beings universally shared this same nature. How then did he explain that some men like himself were indeed different?
Here Paine used his natural vs. unnatural theme in a linguistically powerful way, convincing his readers, though with an argument less certain to persuade those more philosophically inclined. He defined the characteristics of the thieves of common sense and human freedom by virtually defining them out of humanity itself. These denatured creatures were usurpers, these kings, these aristocrats, their followers, and later the Federalists, too. They were unable to use their natural powers of common sense. Their desire for dominance and violence proscribed them from living a life of reason and moral affection. "A mind habituated to actions of meanness and injustice, commits them without reflection, or with a very partial one," he told the Abby Raynal just a few years later.22 They relied only on their basest instincts, not common sense, to seek power over others. Thus, base instinct (in this case, seeking power and dominion) opposed common sense (reason and sensibility).
The British government, especially George III (whom he never specifically named in Common Sense because his target was kingship generally and not individual kings), was such a creature. He once noted in regard to the king's cabinet that a universal human characteristic was the inability to change once intellectual patterns and habits were firmly set. "Once the mind loses the sense of its own dignity," he said to Raynal, "it loses, likewise, the ability of judging it in another."23 Several years later, while in France, Paine modified his view when he advocated that Louis XVI's life be spared. But in 1776, the Americans had no choice.24
The British government had failed to use its collective common sense to deal fairly with the Americans. Such a failure meant that Britain distorted America's well-being because the British viewed the Americans in Britain's own image. Addressing Raynal again, Paine wrote that "the American war has thrown Britain into such a variety of absurd situations, that, in arguing from herself she sees not in what conduct national dignity consists in other countries."25 For the same reason, the British wanted to plunder the Dutch. They figured that the Netherlands would never resist them, only to find themselves eventually at war anyway. Once a nation no longer used common sense, no matter what that nation did, its actions were illogical, wrong, and immoral. Its actions defied, in short, its natural inclination to do good. This was both affectively and rationally true.
Common sense was in part rooted in a person's affective nature because implanted in him were "unextinguishable feelings" to do good. These feelings, he wrote in Common Sense, "distinguish us from the herd of common animals," he said. "Otherwise, the social compact would dissolve, and justice be extirpated from the earth, or have only a casual existence."26 Man's affections drove him into the social realm in the first place. This was a result of common sense. He lived with his fellows in a cooperative arrangement for the benefit of all.
A social contract existed between men outside the realm of the sovereign and his lords. "There necessarily was a time when government did not exist, and consequently there could exist no governors to form such a compact with."27 Although Paine did not identify Locke explicitly, his language describing the social contract was Lockean, and he was never loathe giving a Lockean lesson.28 "The fact therefore must be, that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist."29 A man was fully conscious of the self in this decision-making so that he consciously came together with his fellows to form society for reasons having to do with his natural affections toward others.
As he wrote of these "unextinguishable feelings" and the historic ideal of the social contract, he knew full well that George III and his ministry did not possess such feelings and never would, nor would they ever fully understand the implications of the contract. They felt no sense of justice because they were in fact different. Common sense informed the Americans that a continued relationship with Britain was doomed. "To talk of friendship with those in whom our reason forbids us to have faith . . . is madness and folly", i.e., it was against reason and sensibility.30 The people themselves must use their common sense to assert their right to participate in governmental decision-making.
Monarchical government in England had distorted the proper relationship between the people and their government. This distortion arose because common sense was lacking. Kings and lords and people like them were inhuman. He avoided having to clarify why he thought human nature was universal by literally reading them out of the human race. It was a powerful argument to hear, one linguistically encapsulated in a highly didactic, imperative tone, even if it were logically bewildering to read of a human being who lacked human nature. Then again, Paine was not addressing an audience of philosophers, but rather an audience of lower and middle class Americans who, he thought, would respond to this imagery in a way that would convince them to support America's separation from Britain.
So now, what does all this tell us today? How does Paine's great pamphlet speak to us in the twenty-first century? The answer is not hard to fathom, and it will lead us directly to the reasons why Philadelphia should honor Thomas Paine. First, let's look at how he might evaluate the latest folly of the American people, the election of George W. Bush to the presidency of the United States. And we need not look far. Among the many famous lines in Common Sense appears these: "Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one."31 I think we may safely say that while we will not have the worst possible government for the next four years, we will have one that Paine would have absolutely adored because it would have given him such fodder for his literary cannon (and I do mean with the double "n") to attack for its misaligned policies. And to have a know-nothing president, a man who has probably never read a book much less a newspaper, and who has to rely on advisors to make decisions because his knowledge is so weak is something Paine would have found both amusing and maddening. Here is a president without common sense, without any understanding at all, and who could do only mischief in office.
Even worse is the mixture, or what he would have called the admixture, of politics and religion. John Ashcroft has told his audience at Bob Jones University that Jesus is the king of America. For Paine, this is pure arrogance (and of course absolutely wrong). Even in 1776 when we might say that there was a pinch of faith still ingrained in Paine's heart, he never argued, like Ashcroft, that Jesus is the king of America. In fact, it was the opposite: "the world may know, that . . . in American THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute government the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other."32 Ashcroft, who is to be the top law enforcement officer in the United States, hardly understands this when he proclaims that.Jesus is king of America. In the meantime, in his celebrated interview with the Southern Partisan Quarterly Review, a well-known racist journal (a "sick magazine", according to Bob Herbert of the New York Times), he proclaimed the fight against slavery as "the perverted agenda" of those who fought to end that horrid practice.33 He wants Americans to pray - privately and in all public institutions, including schools and other government buildings - but when he announces that the attempt to end slavery was "perverted," how can we possibly believe that he is a man of any faith at all? His attempts to convince us that he didn't know what Bob Jones University or the Southern Partisan were all about are pretty disingenuous. He is a man without credibility - how could he possibly be otherwise? If he were a man of principle, true principle, he would never have claimed that he would enforce laws that deny those principles. Like his president, he is an opportunist, one of those denatured creatures Paine attacked in Common Sense.
In the meantime, maybe we could say that Paine would favor President Bush's intentions to cut taxes, even if the vast majority of taxes go to the wealthiest eight percent. As a man of the eighteenth-century as we've indicated, he believed that the best government is that government which governs the least, it is but "a necessary evil." On the other hand, when he outlined in the Rights of Man a full-scale welfare program, including one of the first social security proposals ever set forth, it is clear that he thought there are lots of things a "good" government could do to help its people.34 He also must have known that government had to have the financial wherewithal to handle such major programs and that taxes would have to be levied on Americans. In fact, even those Americans who fought the imperial Britain for independence were not opposed to paying taxes in general - they thought that everyone should pay them, including the aristocracy (and certainly the Penns on their estates in America). Americans regarded taxes as voluntary gifts to the crown - they were not to be imposed by a distant Parliament, but levied on themselves to be sent to London because they, the Americans, wanted to pay them. So when taxes are cut, and they may well be soon, we can be certain that if the Bush administration has anything to do with it, the agencies that will be most hurt will not be defense, but the social programs that cannot stand up to the perils of "compassionate conservatism."
But should we be doing something about the surplus in terms of paying down the national debt, as the Clinton administration and Gore campaign had proposed? I should think that Paine would have thought that a debt the size of ours (nearing $5 trillion) would easily bankrupt the nation. It has always been a curiosity to many Paine observers that in Common Sense he actually advocated a debt. "Debts we have none," he wrote, "and whatever we may contract on this account will serve as a glorious memento of our virtue. . . . No nation ought to be without a debt. A national debt is a national bond."35 But Paine was talking about a new nation - one that needed the massive expenditures to insure that tyranny was not only to die, but would not revive. Thus it was that the debt was to stimulate, as he put it, a national bond: a unity of the people as they paid for their defense, especially, in his view, a navy. America in 2001 is not America in 1776. I suspect he would be horrified to see how the debt has gone way beyond creating national unity and leading to bankruptcy for any other country.
Finally, what would Paine have said about the fact that the United States has become one of the most regulated, if not over regulated, societies in the world? Again, we refer to his observation that government is a necessary evil. When power is concentrated in the hands of the few that, by very definition, is an example of tyranny. To allow, for example, oil companies, the trucking industry, or whatever to do whatever they want because we naively believe that they will always do the right thing is to fall into the trap of denying the reality of human nature. Already the trucking and oil industry has demanded the Bush administration relax, if not terminate, the strict clean air regulations the Clinton administration put in effect last year.36 And who has the president nominated to become the new Secretary of the Interiror, but none other than the chief non-regulator of the environment, Gail Norton, whose years as Attorney General of Colorado saw industry get away with just about anything and everything it desired. There is probably no law enforcement in America, past or present, who sought to undo the Endangered Species Act as much as she did while in Colorado. She would be expected to do as much as a protege of James Watt, who had been her boss at the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which sought to give industry a larger, if not complete, say over the disposition of public lands. Like John Ashcroft, however, she promised to enforce the very laws she opposed for so many years. Again, so much for principle.
I could go on and on, but I won't bore you with what I think you already know, even if you disagree with some of my observations. I will conclude by saying why I think Philadelphia should honor Thomas Paine. Just last October, a new biography of Benjamin Franklin appeared with the title "The First American."37 I don't wish to draw anything from Franklin, even if I possibly could, or to insult those among you who [are], as I am, a lover of Ben Franklin. But I have to say that I originally was going to title my Paine biography "the first American." I decided not to because I thought it had a bit of a racist ring to it in that the native Americans were really the first Americans, although someone argued that they were not Americans since that concept did not exist until the English first arrived on these shores. But just as Philadelphia and Franklin are so uniquely united in the imagination of most people so are Philadelphia and Paine. (And don't forget that Franklin was born in Boston and went to Philadelphia when he was seventeen.) Philadelphia without Paine is, to me, a hand without fingers: useless and ugly. I hope that the city honors him, and soon. Thanks for having me here tonight, and thanks so much for listening. I'll be happy to take questions.
- Many of the ideas in this presentation were first published in Jack Fruchtman Jr., Thomas Paine and the Religion of Nature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), chpt. two.
- Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, No. II (13 January 1777), in Philip Foner, ed., The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols. (New York: Citadel Press, 1945) ,I:59. For Safire's position, see William Safire, On Language: Name that Nation, The New York Times Magazine, 5 July 1998.
- Justice Potter Stewart made his famous remark, I know it [pornography] when I see it," in a concurring opinion in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio.
- Thomas Paine, Letter to the Abbe Raynal (I782), in ibid., II, 258.
- Thomas Paine, "A Serious Address to the People of Pennsylvania on the Present Situation of Their Affairs," Pennsylvania Packet (1 December 1778), in ibid., II,286.
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense, ed. Isaac Kramnick (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976),82, 120.
- See, for example, Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982),103,289,
- As is well known, Benjamin Rush took credit for suggesting the title of Common Sense for Paine's pamphlet. Said Rush in his autobiography, "when Mr. Paine had finished his pamphlet, I advised him to shew it to Dr. Franklin, Mr. Rittenhouse, and Saml. Adams, all of whom I knew were decided friends to American independence. I mention these facts to refute a report that Mr. Paine was assisted in composing his pamphlet by one or more of the above gentlemen. They never saw it till it was written, and then only by my advice. I gave it at his request the title of 'Common Sense."' George W. Corner, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948), ll4.
- Shaftesbury's elitism, which would have been wholly anathema to Paine, was outlined in Lois Whitney, Primitivism and the Idea of Progress in English Popular Literature of the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1934),33. For this reason, he receives but a mention here. For a revisionist view, see Michelle Buchanan, "Savages, Noble and Otherwise, and the French Enlightenment," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture,15 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986), 97-109. See also Lawrence E. Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourse and Cultural Politeness in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Robert Voitle, The Third Earl of Shaftesbury, I67I-1713 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984). For a useful, but somewhat dated work, see Alfred Owen Aldridge, Shaftesbury and the Deist Manifesto (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, TransactionsV, ol. 41, Pt. 2, l95l).
- Thomas Reid, An Inquiry into the Human Mind, ed. Timothy Duggan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970),19.
- For Rousseau's notion of common sense, which is quite close to Paine's, see the passage in Emile, where Rousseau recounted the "Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar." "I am not a great philosopher," the Vicar said, "and I care little to be one. But I sometimes have good sense, and I always love the truth. . . - Reason is common to us, and we have the same interest in listening to it. If I think well, why would you not think as do I?" "Bon sens" is indeed, for Rousseau here, reason as a universal attribute of men. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or On Education, Allan Bloom, trans. (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 266 (emphasis added). See the entire "Profession of Faith", 266-313.
- Paine, Common Sense, 105.
- Ibid., 68. When Fliegelman speaks of Paine's idea of sensibility, he relates it to nature by saying, "it is nature, not reason, that cannot forgive England." He thus makes clear the conjunction between nature and affection (in common sense), but he does not cite Paine's last quoted statement in full when Paine himself conjoined nature with both moral affection and reason. See Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims,103.
- Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, in The Complete Writings,I,463.
- Paine, Common Sense, 89 (emphasis added).
- Paine, Rights of Man,268.
- Ibid (emphasis added). See Wilson Carey McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 182.
- Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, No. V (21March 1778), in The Complete Writings, I, I25.
- Thomas Paine to Sir George Staunton, Etq., Spring 1789, in The Complete Writings,II, 1041.
- Paine used the term banditti when referring to William the Conqueror as that "French bastard landing with an armed banditti . . . is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original." Paine, Common Sense, 78.
- Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, No. VII (21 November 1778), in The Complete Writings,I, 143.
- Paine, Letter to Abbe Raynal, in The Complete Writings,Il, 252.
- Thomas Paine, "Reasons for Preserving the Life of Louis Capet," (16 January l793), in The Complete Writings, II, 551-55; "Should Louis XVI be Respited?" (19 January 1793), in The Complete Writings, II, 556-58 (the latter includes Marat's interruptions of Paine's speech). Paine's impassioned plea for the life of Louis XVI may be attributable to a number of things: Paine's maturity by 1793, his realization that the French under Louis were quite helpful during the American war against Britain, or perhaps his awareness that the revolution itself was potentially heading toward a negative end.
- Paine, Letter to Abbe Raynal, in The Complete Writings,II, 253.
- Common Sense, 99-100.
- ibid., 92.
- See Caroline Robbins,"The Lifelong Education of Thomas Paine,1737-1809: Some Reflections of His Acquaintance Among Books," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 127 (June 1983) : l4l-42.
- Paine, Common Sense, 92.
- 30 Ibid., 99 (emphasis added).
- Ibid., 98. Emphasis in the original.
- See the column by Bob Herbert, "Unseemly Alliances," New York Times, l8 January 2001.
- The program is to be found in the second part of the Rights of Man (see chpt. five, "Of Ways and Means" in that work).
- Paine, Common Sense, 10l-02.
- See Douglas Jehl, "Oil Industry Seeks Softening of Clinton Clean-Air Rules", in The New York Times,25 January 2001A 20.
- H. W. Brands, The First American:The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Doubleday, 2000).