To the extent that America may be said to have a central idea, common sense is the key to understanding it.
America’s Founders used the term “common sense”with regularity, and common sense operated at every level during the Founding Era, starting with the American Revolution itself.
Indeed, Common Sense is the title of that famous book by Thomas Paine. It was so popular before that Revolution that it was read by virtually every literate American at the time, and it was read aloud to most of those who could not read. In the book, Paine subjected the idea of rule by monarchs to a common sense scrutiny, ridiculed monarchy, and convinced enough Americans they did not need a king—which made the Revolution a practical possibility. It is no exaggeration to say that without Thomas Paine, there could not have been an American Revolution because Paine uncovered that common sense sentiment in the hearts of Americans that yearns for and believes itself capable of self-rule.
And for all of our troubles and the problems that muddle our confidence, we Americans remain convinced of that today—thanks to Paine and to that spirit of self-government that has dominated the American narrative since the Revolution. Paine won that argument. It changed the way we think in America. If someone were to propose tomorrow that what America really needs is a king to substitute his judgment for our own about how we ought to be governed, ordinary American citizens would dismiss the idea as ridiculous and its proponent as some kind of an eccentric.
We wouldn’t give up our right to self-government to a king today, but perhaps we might still be deceived into giving away that power in other ways.
It is important to remember that, at the time, Paine could not have gotten away with publishing his book anywhere except in America. Monarchs in those days were accepted as a necessity, publishing a book that challenged the idea of monarchy could result in a separation of head from body.
The common sense idea that Americans are capable of self-rule, however, was something that Americans already felt in their bones and experienced on a daily basis before Paine articulated it. According to the Founders, the same common sense that Paine used to show we don’t need a king also made it clear that we can, and should (!), rule ourselves. The Founders put their faith in the common sense of their fellow Americans and in the proposition that we would continue to be a people who valued that sense and had pride in our ability to govern ourselves.
If we stop and think about it, we would realize that we constantly rely on our common sense to guide our actions and to make our choices every day. The same common sense that lets us function in everyday life also makes us capable of functioning as citizens. No human being is born so superior to any of us that he has a natural right to rule us. The best we can expect is the best that we can do. So in the American system citizens rule and we get the kind of government that we deserve.
Common sense was also was a key idea on the level of the formal philosophy that shaped the Founders’ thinking. Just as a book titled Common Sense powered the Revolution, the Founders’ understanding of common sense was formed by a brilliant philosophical tradition that also went by the name of common sense. It was called “common sense realism.”
According to that view, common sense is what enables us to make sensible decisions and take sensible actions in our daily lives, and it is also what allows us to know right from wrong. Reason sets us apart from the beasts and the gods. We are all equals before the one true God who is the only being superior to us, and equals in front of beasts who do not share in our capacity for reason. When we decide to put money aside for a rainy day or when we recognize a dishonest action for what it is, we are exercising common sense. Common sense, then, is the attribute of human nature that makes us capable of being rational beings and moral agents.
For the Founders it is self-evident that we have unalienable rights to life and liberty because we are rational beings and moral agents, beings that are capable of giving reasons and understanding reasons. Our unalienable rights are ours because those rights are part of what it is to be a rational and moral being. The argument is easy to follow: we know by common sense that murder is wrong. That means we have an unalienable right to life.
If by now you have guessed that the phrases “unalienable rights” and “self-evident truths” in the Declaration of Independence came from that philosophical tradition, you are right.
Because we have common sense, the Founders believed, we are capable of ruling ourselves and because of the kind of creatures we are, any other kind of government is illegitimate. Only a system of self-rule that recognizes our unalienable rights can be legitimate.
The Founders provided for self-rule by means of a government populated by fellow citizens we select with our votes. Those selected to serve are our agents, not our rulers.
“It is the plain dictate of common sense,” Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “and the whole political system is founded on the idea, that the departments of government are the agents of the nation.” Marshall nicely summed up the Founders’ view.
Our task as citizens is to select people for public office wisely. For the Founders, common sense is essential to that all-important task. Of course, we can make mistakes in the leaders we choose, but we make mistakes and we also make good decisions all the time in our daily lives. The Founders’ system is designed with this fact in mind. Elections to political office are for a limited and specified number of years so that we can correct a mistaken choice when we discover we have made one.
So, common sense shows up everywhere in the Founding and at every level; in justifying getting rid of monarchical rule; as the attribute which makes self-rule possible; and as the defining feature of the formal philosophy that guided the thinking of the Founders.
What has been forgotten is that common sense is the key to understanding the Founders just as it is the key to securing free government today. If we lose our belief in our capacity to govern ourselves and, instead, imagine that we need experts to replace the monarchs of old—people who “know better” about what our best interests are or should be—then we will be a long way toward rejecting the proud inheritance of our Founders. We should use our common sense to avoid that fate.