For Memorial Day, Some Common Sense About Our Common Purpose

“Will our Republic survive?”

It is a fitting question for Memorial Day. For, as Abraham Lincoln noted in his Gettysburg Address, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” The work of preserving our freedom is never over and the best respect we can offer to those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” to preserve it is to dedicate ourselves to the task of making their sacrifice meaningful.

So, “Will our Republic survive?”

I’m guessing that when you read those words you did not think of the threat of Islamic jihad, or of Russia, or of China. I’m guessing that you, like Abraham Lincoln, thought first of the danger that we pose to ourselves. “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher,” said Lincoln, and he was right. When thinking of the terrible disorder within our borders and amongst ourselves today, I reflect that not since the days leading up to the Civil War has America been so divided. A great many Americans and many of the leaders of the Democratic Party utterly rejected the election of America’s first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln. And today, it seems, they utterly reject the election of this Republican President.  There has again been talk of secession, long considered a matter settled by the Union victory. It seems we are no longer “one Nation under God, indivisible.”

The 19th century secessionists openly rejected the Founders’ vision. The Declaration, they said and wrote, was simply wrong about equality. In contrast, our fellow Americans who reject the outcome of our recent election seem more unhappy with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Among other things, they reject the Electoral College and the 1st and 2nd Amendments.

Those who reject the Founders’ vision today are mounting a spirited challenge. Consequently, those who do not want to lose our Republic need to mount a spirited defense. But to do that successfully, a strong grasp of the Founders’ vision will be needed. To that end, I recommend three books which, taken together, will ground the patriotic citizen in the understanding they will need to defend the Founders’ gift to us. All three consider the same cast of characters, examining them from three different perspectives. The result is a remarkably robust, almost holographic, presentation of the Founders and of how their new thinking transformed the world in so many ways.

The Society of Useful Knowledge

Benjamin Franklin, of course, plays a central role in all three books. The Franklin we come to know in this one is the man who initiated an American project of harnessing mankind’s intellectual and creative powers for the common good. The author, Jonathan Lyons, tells the story of the birth of the American way of doing science. It turns out that the Founders, who originated a new way of thinking about political liberty, also originated a new way of thinking about the study of nature.

The book is replete with references to common sense, as well as to those other intriguing terms—“the common good,” “the commonwealth,” “the common people,” “common purposes,” “common interests”—that cluster around and help define common sense. If your interests run to science and technology, this might be the book for you to begin your exploration of the American Founding.

On Two Wings

Here are the first words of the Preface: “Most of us grow up remarkably ignorant of the hundred men most responsible for leading this country into a War for Independence and writing our nation’s Constitution…This is a scandal.” But the good news is that you can easily remedy this.

If you want to learn more about the importance of religious faith and religious learning to the American Founding, then this is the book for you. In the brilliant image offered by the author, Michael Novak, the American eagle took flight on two wings, religious faith and common sense. And both those wings were uniquely American. As Paul Johnson wrote in A History of the American People, “In the America of the Enlightenment . . . the specifically American form of Christianity—undogmatic, moralistic rather than creedal, tolerant but strong, and all-pervasive of society—was born.”

The religious wing of the American eagle gets the lion’s share of Novak’s attention. Despite the book’s acknowledgement of the importance of common sense and the reference to common sense in the subtitle, common sense does not get equal attention. Consequently, Common Sense Nation makes the perfect companion to On Two Wings.

Common Sense Nation

Will you kindly forgive me for recommending the third book? Although it is true that I wrote it, it is also true that its fit with the other two is remarkable, and that I hope justifies including it.

This is from Scott Segrest’s review in National Review: “Common Sense Nation makes the case that recovering the Founders’ American idea is vital to reestablishing political order…[The author] is concerned most directly, as the book’s subtitle indicates, with an “idea” that once inspired, and he hopes will inspire again, the American nation. In his careful treatment of the U.S. Constitution, his intent is to recover the understanding and logic underlying the system, to get at the reason for our constitutional arrangements. The “American idea” is both the source of American identity and the standard for what America should be…[the book] tells the forgotten story of the philosophy of common sense that the Founders embraced, a philosophy that in fact was central to their purpose…Curry’s ultimate mission is to reawaken the American citizenry to their heritage and identity and to show them the rational principles by which they can reestablish a sound political order. His book could not be more timely at a moment of massive public disorientation and discontent with our public institutions…”

Because we live in the country the Founders made and in the world they transformed, it is all too easy for us to overlook what an astonishing break they made with all that went before and how great were their achievements. If America had never happened, you and I would almost certainly share the fate of our remote ancestors; we would be living poor, hungry, and oppressed. The Founders’ gift of liberty made possible the abundant and expansive lives we lead, and which we sometimes thoughtlessly take for granted.

Wherever you start, please consider diving in. After all, the Founding was one of the most remarkable and interesting events in the history of the world, and learning about it is its own reward.


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