All Commentary
Saturday, November 1, 1975

Common Sense: Whatever Happened to It?

Mr. Bradford is well known as a writer, speaker, and business organization consultant. He now lives in Ocala, Florida.

Two years before the Declaration of Independence was adopted, an Englishman arrived in Philadelphia to begin a new life — and it was none too soon for him.

He had spent several years at sea, worked at a number of poorly-paid employments, held one or two minor civil service appointments, dodged importunate creditors, and struggled to supplement his meager grammar school education by attending lectures on science. He was nearing forty and badly in need of a change. Now, thanks to a meeting with Benjamin Franklin in London, he was about to get it.

His name was Thomas Paine, and with his arrival in Philadelphia he stepped into the pages of American history. Later he would find a niche in French history as well. Franklin, impressed by Paine’s potential, had given him a letter to his son-in-law, Richard Bache; and Bache, in turn, put him in touch with Robert Aitkin, who was about to found the Pennsylvania Magazine. Paine helped him with that project, and for nearly two years served as editor of the new publication. By that time it was January of 1776 — a fateful year for America, and for Paine.

The breach between England and her American colonies had been widening, due on the one hand to skillful agitation by such Colonial spokesmen as the Adamses in New England and Jefferson, Henry and others in the south, and on the other hand to the incredible stupidity of a succession of British ministers and Colonial governors. The governors, especially, have scarcely been given their due as creators of discord. Looking back from 1975, it is hard to believe the arrogance and ruthlessness with which some of them conducted their administrations. To be sure, it was an age of ruthlessness in the management of public affairs; but distance from London seemed to bring out the worst in certain types of magistrate. Sir Edwin Sandys in Virginia and William Bradford at Plymouth are examples of the best in early colonial leadership; Sir Thomas Dale of Virginia, with his record of shooting, breaking and even burning those who opposed him, was probably the worst.

But a lot of history is involved between the settlement of Jamestown and Plymouth and the tense period that climaxed in 1776. Distance tends to telescope the decades, and it is hard to realize today that 187 years of experience, good and bad, had gone into the making of colonial America. In that long time, almost without their being aware of it, literally anew race of people, the Americans, had been forged into being.

Ready for Independence

We are apt to think of what we now call “The Spirit of ’76” as a mood of fiery rebellion on the one hand and of ruthless repression on the other. And both attitudes were indeed present. But quite apart from the heat of grievance and dispute, there were thoughtful men on both sides of the Atlantic who realized that a permanent state of union was not likely to be maintained between an insular England and a remote group of colonies that were plainly destined for great development and ultimate nationhood. Such an idea, however, was anathema to the American loyalists, and was utterly repugnant to those shortsighted British leaders who were not concerned with a long-range view of empire, but were determined to bring the rebellious colonials to their knees.

All this, however, leaves out of a account the attitude of the average citizen of Massachusetts, or Delaware, or Pennsylvania, or Virginia. They were confronted with a wrenching problem of psychology and habituation. Despite the fact that by 1776 the colonies were by no means exclusively, or even predominantly, populated by people of British origin, England, by force of long usage, was still regarded as the “mother country;” and by both sentiment and inertia the colonists generally were reluctant to dissolve the union.

They were angry over the tax policies of their overseas government; they were ready to resist stoutly the indignities they had been made to suffer; they were even prepared, at cost of blood and life, to fight the hated “Redcoats” — as they had demonstrated at Bunker Hill and elsewhere. But they were not yet quite ready to face the ultimate issue of separation. Somehow, they felt, reason would prevail. The “bonds of consanguinity” would be stronger than the divisive influences. In some way the present troubles would be resolved, the wounds would be healed, and all would be well. Hope springs eternal; and in the large affairs of a troubled mankind it is well that this is so; but hope wasn’t doing much for the cause of American independence in the early weeks of 1776.

Controls Imposed

The situation, in brief, was this: Around 1764 the British parliament enacted a bill known as the American Revenue Act. It was the first effort at raising money for the Crown in the colonies, and it aroused much opposition. It was followed in 1765 by the Quartering Act, which required the colonies to find barracks and supplies for British troops. Next, in the same year, came the detested Stamp Act. It was intended to reimburse the British government for about one-third of the outlay for a colonial military establishment which was, ostensibly at least, to protect the colonies from the Indians, the French, and other dangers.

In a different atmosphere the colonials might have accepted this as a reasonable division of costs. But the act was passed in England and imposed on the colonies (“Taxation without representation;”) and it was constantly visible and irritating, because the stamps must be affixed to nearly everything the colonists used, even to dice and playing cards. It aroused great animosity, and it was repealed in 1766, partly through the efforts of William Pitt, but largely because of the devastating testimony given by the ubiquitous Benjamin Franklin, who appeared in London as an agent for Pennsylvania. But it left deep scars of resentment; and these were not healed by the Tea Act of April 1773, the additional Quartering Act of 1774, and the so-called Coercive Acts of the same year, which were designed to discipline Massachusetts by closing the Port of Boston.

All these and other grievances led to the calling of the First Continental Congress in September of 1774. Getting quickly down to business the Congress said (with 12 of the 13 colonies represented) that:

(a)      the Coercive Acts should not be obeyed;

(b)      Massachusetts should withhold taxes from London until those acts were repealed;

(c)      the people generally should arm and form their own militia; and

(d)      that stiff economic sanctions should be invoked against the British. 

But the Congress might have saved its breath and ink. Whitehall was obdurate… and so were the colonies. Lord North came forward with a Conciliation Plan, but the Lords would have none of it — and indeed, Parliament countered with the New England Restraining Act, which forbade first New England, and later New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina, to trade with any nation except Britain.

On February 2, 1775, the Second Massachusetts Provincial Congress met at Cambridge and framed measures that would prepare that Colony for war. On February 28 British troops landed at Salem to seize colonial military supplies. On April 18 some 700 British troops set out from Boston for Concord to destroy supplies known to be stored there; and that night three men — Dr. Samuel Prescott, Richard Dawes, and especially a silversmith named Paul Revere —galloped into immortality.

A Continental Army

Thereafter events moved with great speed. In May of 1775 the Second Continental Congress met and took a number of actions, the most significant of which was military — namely, to adopt the colonial forces (which by then were actually besieging the British in Boston) as a Continental Army; to authorize the raising of six companies of riflemen to march on Boston; and especially to elect George Washington as Commander in Chief of the American forces. Before he could get to Boston, however, the Battle of Breed’s Hill (to be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, the nearby eminence originally selected for the Colonial position) was fought, and Ethan Allen had seized Ticonderoga and Crown Point. An undeclared war was rapidly getting into gear.

But what was the issue? The colonists were angry about unfair taxes and discriminatory laws. They resented the highhanded methods of the “home government”— a government they had no part in electing and in which they had no representation. They personified these and other evils in the corpulent image of King George, and damned him roundly. But are these the sort of issues that men will die for? Will they fight a long and bloody war over a tax on tea? After Breed’s Hill — what? With perhaps a third of the colonists strongly opposed to any war, how could they be led to support one over a matter of quartering some red-coated troopers?

As for creating a New Nation, which would have been an imaginative and emotional issue big enough for blood, hardly anybody was even thinking about it, and those who did were not at all enthusiastic about the idea. Benjamin Franklin, though he had long before written a plan for a union of the colonies as colonies, had small confidence that they could be formed into a nation. Patrick Henry is known as a great patriot, and so he was; but his patriotism was centered in the sovereign state of Virginia, even though at Philadelphia he had declared to the First Continental Congress “I am not a Virginian, but an American.” But in the crunch he opposed the adoption of the Constitution because he thought the country was just too big for any one government to manage!

In short, what the colonial leaders needed was a gut issue —and they simply didn’t have it.

And so we come back to Thomas Paine. On the 9th of January 1776 he published at Philadelphia a little book — a pamphlet, really — with the title Common Sense. And in no time at all there was no longer any question about what the issue would be. It was Independence ! Not nationalism. Not nationhood —not yet, that is, except perhaps in the minds of a very few. Paine, indeed, came close to it in his “hints” on how to organize for independence, though even his concept seems to have been that of a federation of free colonies. No, not a new nation — not yet. That was something else. But independence! Just to be free of England and on their own!

American Independence: A Pearl of Great Price

Men saw at once that here was a value worth all it might cost. Paine put it clearly: “The object contended for ought always to bear some just proportion to the expense. The removal of North [then Prime Minister] or the whole detestable junta is a matter unworthy the millions we have expended…. If the whole continent must take up arms, if every man must be a soldier, it is scarcely worth our while to fight against a contemptible ministry only. Dearly, dearly do we pay for the repeal of the Acts if that is all we fight for.”

Paine’s little book was read everywhere throughout the colonies, and with tremendous effect. Washington wrote of it that it had “worked a powerful change in the minds of many men.” Paine was a master of biting invective, but he employed little of it in Common Sense. The argument for the most part (except when he paid his disrespects to kings in general and George III in particular) is calm, simple and effective. Nor did it lack passages of sardonic humor, as when he wrote: “Small islands… are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”

Some members of the New York Provincial Congress, still loyal to England, considered issuing a pamphlet to answer Paine’s thesis; but they finally decided that it was unanswerable, as indeed it was. In a short time the book had been read all over the colonies — and from that time on there was very little question as to what the Continental Congress would do when it met in June. Common Sense had furnished the answer.

And common sense—not the book, but the frame of mind and habit of behavior denoted by the phrase — supplied the people of the new country with many another answer. When the weary years had dragged on to Yorktown and the war was ended, common sense led them to adopt in earnest the idea of a strong central government to replace the sprawling and conflicting authorities of the several colonies.

Common sense instructed them to make it simple and close to the people, and to limit its authority.

Common sense, plus a hot memory of past injustices, led them to avoid too much central domination, and to reserve great power and autonomy to the states. They were not intent upon making a government that should dominate their lives and regulate their occupations, but in creating and defining the minimums of power and authority necessary to guarantee their freedom.

Common sense told them that men work best where there is the least restraint upon their activities, other than what is necessary for the enforcement of laws that were enacted for the protection and benefit for all.

Common sense, some 40 years later, would lead them and their political heirs to complete the break with England by fighting the War of 1812.

Trial and Error

During that period the new young nation was going through a time of trial and error. Its leaders were feeling their way into nationhood and international status. No doubt there were misjudgments and blunders, since they too were men of passion, prejudice, occasional ignorance, and fallibility, like their fathers and great-grandchildren. Some years ago it became a kind of literary fad to point out their errors and dwell upon them at wearisome length.

Some historians and self-nominated social critics have ridiculed Washington himself as being rather pettily concerned with titles and protocol. They forget that he was a trail maker, ever conscious of the fact that he was the first President of a nation destined for a great role in the drama of world history. If he fussed over details of etiquette he was also meticulous in his conduct as head of state; and in both his social and official deportment he was guided mainly by the dictates of common sense. He wanted the new nation to develop its agriculture, trade and industry with the least possible restraint and interference by the government. The plain common sense born of his own experience in manufacturing, farming and land development cautioned him to avoid the dangers of unrelieved public debt, and he wrote solemn warnings against it.

Other leaders were equally influenced by the canons of ordinary good judgment. They were in the main idealists, even visionaries, as to the future of their country; but they were quite practical and down-to-earth in the important matter of keeping the country solvent and making its institutions work. They accepted the idea of a public debt (even Paine wrote approvingly of it) as an ordinary and recurrent fiscal phenomenon in the life of a going concern; but nobody was willing to spend the nation to the verge of bankruptcy.

Franklin‘s oft-quoted reply to the lady who, when the Constitutional Convention adjourned, asked him “What have you given us?” supplies the clue to a very pragmatic attitude then prevalent. He said, as most people now know, “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.” Like most of his peers, he was well aware of the tendency people have always shown to load their governments down with adventitious paraphernalia — the machinery of special privilege, sumptuary regulations, social and political tinkerings, much of it haloed over with the aura of good intent, but all of it an ultimate tax burden on the average citizen and another handicap in his quest for human progress and freedom. If the Founders had needed an object lesson they had it glaringly before them in the worthless “Continentals” (paper money) they had been forced to issue in financing the war.

It Stands to Reason

Common sense! What a wealth of homely virtue the term implies! And what a service its exercise has been, in both great and small affairs. Let me recall a personal experience with it. Many years ago my wife and I were preparing to “restore” an old house we had purchased in northern Virginia. The memory of it fits into this article the more readily because we discovered that the place had actually belonged to George Washington at the time of his death. The house, which had become dilapidated, was in two sections. The two-story part, we knew from local records, had been built during the Civil War; but the lower log section was undoubtedly there when Washington owned the place, for in a careful listing of his properties attached to his will he mentioned that the place had “a good house” on it.

But I am reaching too far back. Our renovation, I assure you, was undertaken in fairly modern times, relatively speaking. Full of enthusiasm and good intent, we plunged into our project — and before we knew it we were up to our ears in blueprints, elevations, levels, heating systems, patios; all outside our expectations and certainly beyond our resources, which were slender. So we said woah-up, halted everything, caught our breath — and started over.

In our neighborhood there was a small-time house builder — a carpenter, in fact, who, with his two sons and a couple of neighbors, made a dependable construction team. He himself was a transplanted, twangy product of Maine, and he belongs in this chronicle because I am remembering two phrases he often used, both pertinent to our present discussion. With a yellow scratch pad and a stubby pencil, he went over the place with us, floor by floor and foot by foot, asking what we wanted, sometimes agreeing with our wishes by saying “Eyeh” (which is down-east for “yes”) but often saying “no” quite firmly, and explaining why, structurally, it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done. And over and over, in explaining matters to us, he made use of two phrases: (a) “it stands to reason” and (b) “it’s just common sense.” Before I leave him, let me record gratefully that his frequent appeals to reason and invocations of common sense saved us a great deal of money and finally gave us a house of real comfort, authenticity and beauty.

It stands to reason. It’s just plain common sense. Homely, potent phrases! When high-flown arguments load us down with rhetoric; when bureaucratic jargon confuses or misleads; then simple, common sense may well be the really dependable compass, in lieu of more sophisticated guidance. It is a safe rule, for statesmen as well as house builders. Indeed, it was often followed by the men who set the course of our country in its early days.

Nor was its use confined to the foundation builders alone. Towering figures of the later years, unversed in abstruse argument, resorted to its homely logic with great benefit to the nation. Writing of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Carl Schurz lamented that the President had been greatly underestimated. “He is a man of profound feeling, correct and firm principles and incorruptible honesty,” Schurz wrote; and he added that Lincoln “possesses to a remarkable degree the characteristic, God-given trait of this people — sound common sense.”

The Aging Process Brings Fears and Doubts

The decades have slipped by and the nation has aged and grown. From less than three million people on the edge of a vast world new to men, we have become a 210 million people giant, spanning a continent — a nation of vast wealth, importance and influence. We are rich in achievement, science, culture. We should be the envy of the world, and in some ways we are. Yet we are deeply troubled. The way ahead is obscure. We fear for the present; we are doubtful about our future. Once rich in minerals and fossil energy, we now lag far behind some less “advanced” countries, and we are dependents in the markets of the world for some of the rarer ores, and for liquid fuel.  More than all this, we are bewildered in a fog of pseudo-economics, and are being misled into disastrous experiments by the influential devotees of this or that sociologic or economic “ism.”

In the name of financial stability we have debased our money and cut in half at least, possibly to one-third, the buying power of the dollar holdings of our people — a bitter pill for those who possess some degree of wealth, but a disaster for those who do not. The process by which this is done is called “inflation” and it is made to appear as a whimsical kind of thing that just happens now and then, instead of the predictable result of certain actions — such as following a permanent policy of not paying our debts.

With a loudly professed interest in human welfare we have set up a governmentally operated old age pension system that has been broadened and extended until it now threatens to collapse unless further inroads are made into the earnings of everybody to support it. To the end of “protecting” consumers, we have passed regulatory laws and created enforcement agencies that have driven many producers frantic (and sometimes out of business) with nagging bureaucratic supervision and expensive, frustrating, duplicating paper work. Confronted with the greatest need we have ever known for energy in the form of fossil fuel, we have not only penalized the production of such fuels but have hampered the exploration necessary to find them.

All this at a time when we very badly need an active economy with high levels of employment, wages and corporate earnings.

Well… but these are themes for books, not paragraphs; and many books, indeed, have been written, and no doubt will be, about what happened to this country around the middle of the 20th Century. Perhaps it will be enough to pose here one or two questions in conclusion.

Act Responsibly

First, if the New York or Philadelphia or Boston of, say, 1800, had ever foolishly spent itself into bankruptcy, with no apparent regard for huge deficits annually incurred, — what would its leaders have done when finally confronted with fiscal reality? Run to Washington and beg a handout from the national government? Try to get the state legislature to bail them out? Cry to heaven that they were being mistreated by banks and other leaders? Or would they, like any sensible householder or any prudent housewife, face a few facts, cut out some frills, have a little less “fun” for a while, pay up their debts, balance their budget, and in general proceed like… well, like people of common sense?

Second, if the Federal government had failed for many years to live within its income, and if as a result it had accumulated a debt of some 500 billion dollars; and if the government had simply lost count of all the agencies and bureaus tucked away in its vast buildings in the Capitol and all over the country; and if the deficit for the current year was going to reach the staggering amount of sixty billion dollars….

Given such conditions, would President Adams or Monroe (or whoever) listen long to a lot of academic theoreticians and try out a number of time-worn expedients — or would they face reality, as ordinary people do in their affairs? Perhaps they might remember that Adam Smith had said, not long before, that “what is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarcely be folly in that of a great kingdom.” If so, would they go on spending and running up ruinous deficits, or would they sensibly cut out some unnecessary or less urgent things, spend less than is to be taken in, apply the excess to paying off the debt, and so restore the nation’s credit and the value of its money? That’s a great oversimplification of a complex problem, perhaps — but is it also, maybe, just common sense? And finally, in surveying the current scene and trying to understand the American situation, we encounter the following episode: In recent months one of the television networks ran a series in which a reporter each day would visit an average family and ask how they were being affected by the depression. One such visit included two parents — young people perhaps in their middle thirties, and two sub-teenage children. Home scenes were shown — an average, well-kept middle class dwelling.

But this was the clincher: The father said his regular job (at $14,000 a year) simply didn’t give them enough to maintain a proper standard of living; so he was moonlighting on a job that paid him an additional $10,000 a year. And they were still having trouble making out on the $24,000 because, for one reason, the two children kept asking him for things, and he was forced to tell them he just couldn’t afford to buy them!

So, all things considered, perhaps one more question is in order at the end, as it was at the beginning:

Common sense… whatever happened to it?

  • Mr. Bradford was a noted poet, writer, speaker and business organization consultant.