Why is Common Sense still important today? It was written over 200 years ago to address the issue of independence from Britain. Why would it still be important in American government and politics today?
Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense before we we’re even a country. At its core it was a call for independence from Britain, but it was also a book about freedom and the proper construction of government. It’s a philosophical debate. Because of that, not everybody’s going to understand or agree with it. But, it will expose the underlying problems that we see in politics today. To understand the relevance of Common Sense, it’s critical to understand why it was so important in the first place.
Hi, I’m Christopher Scott, author of the Book on Common Sense. I’ve talked about the importance of Common Sense and why it was written on previous podcasts. Today, I’m going a little deeper into the subject, adding details and comparing it to the events we see today.
Some of what’s shared here is from Common Sense by Thomas Paine. If you’ve ever tried to read it you know that it was written in Old English, and it’s nearly impossible to understand. Because of that, I’ll be reading from the translated version re-written in modern English. If you want to fully understand Common Sense by Thomas Paine the modern English version is by far the best way to read it. If you’re interested in the full text, it’s available in eBook, print or, if you prefer, audio book. You Can Get It HERE
There are endless reasons Common Sense is still important today. But, I want to focus on the three main reasons:
The country was very divided then in the same way it’s divided now. Actually worse, there was a war going on. What Thomas Paine did was validate the other side. Thomas Paine recognized that his fellow countrymen, despite their differences, weren’t the enemy.
Strength of Character
There’s an old saying, “Evil prevails when good men do nothing”. This is as true today as it ever was. Thomas Paine demonstrated strong character and a willingness to act on it. Using…
Logic and Reason
He used it as the path to peaceful conflict resolution. When Common Sense was originally written the Revolutionary War was well under way. The argument was for peace not war. This is an important reminder today. Peaceful conflict resolution, using logic and reason.
In 1776 the situation was dire. Things didn’t look good. At the time Common Sense was published the colonies were engaged in brutal fighting with England. Norfolk Virginia had been burned to the ground. Boston was under British siege. New York City was occupied by British troops.
There were restrictions on travel and water ways. Churches and building were being demolished for fire wood. Political opponents were rounded up and arrested by British troops. Young men were being drafted into the Continental Army.
There was fighting in nearly every colony. It was a brutal, chaotic situation. In Salem, North Carolina the Moravian’s described the situation as, “alarm and confusion”. Some of the opposition was from within. Meaning there were colonists who sided with Britain. They played the role of spies. This led to Americans being arrested because of their political beliefs.
Samuel Adams reported from Philadelphia that there was little enthusiasm for a fight with Britain. They couldn’t get young men to serve in the Continental Army. George Washington complained about enlistment problems. The governor of North Carolina even asked the king to intervene. He wanted British troops to put down the rebellion in his state.
Some areas were populated by Quakers. They felt war was a violation of their religious beliefs. And all through the colonies there was division. Pockets of fierce resistance but many people were siding and assisting Britain. In all over the half the population didn’t want independence. Imagine that, the country was at war, and half the population was supporting the other side. Thomas Paine couldn’t ignore this issue, and he addressed it head on.
The beginning of the book, the introduction, begins with a letter. He writes:
“To my fellow Americans:
Not everyone will agree with the principles outlined in this book. That may be because things have been wrong for so long that people have come to accept it as normal. Some people might be reluctant to accept these principles since it defies the “normal.” Eventually, however, the truth always prevails.”
He acknowledges the difference of opinion. True to his style he explains why. That things have been wrong for so long people have come to accept it as normal. He justifies the reasoning of the opposition. Key to opening a conversation so that people will have an open mind. He doesn’t point fingers or blame anyone. He justifies their reasoning as a means to create unity. He goes on state that he’s not attacking people. He says his argument is about principles. He writes:
“This book is about principles. Its purpose is not to attack or compliment any person or people. Wise and worthy people don’t need a book to support their beliefs, and those who lack a sense of justice or are unfriendly will remain unconvinced until the pain of their decision changes their mind.”
He’s appealing to the sense of good that every person has. He recognizes that people have different ways of looking at things. Then he appeals to their sense of justice, despite different opinions. He’s using a powerful method to create unity. He’s finding common ground in a desire for justice. He goes on state that he’s not affiliated with a political party. Political affiliation is “immaterial to the message”.
It’s fascinating when you look at how ideas are communicated today. Purposeful pitting of people against each other purely because of their political affiliation. There’s little attempt to understand the perspective of the other side. The result is the division we see today.
In today’s political arguments there’s no validation of the other side. There’s no desire to seek common ground. Name calling, labels, and finger pointing. It actually has the reverse impact because people get defensive. When people get defensive they become guarded. So instead of an open mind they actually work harder to defend their position. Thomas Paine wrote about this, he said, “Notwithstanding our wisdom, there is a visible weakness in the way we do some things that creates disagreement”.
The country has been divided before. The country was very divided during the Civil War. Americans we’re killing each other they were so divided, but we don’t say the Civil War was fought because the country was divided. One sided wanted freedom, the other wanted to preserve slavery.
Thomas Paine understood the nature of division. People were divided over principle. The issue to deal with wasn’t the division it was the principle of the matter. There were two sides to the argument. One wanting freedom and independence, another wanting safety and security through unity with Britain. He wrote on the issue of unity through a common cause.
“This is not inflaming or exaggerating the matter but trying to examine the situation from the perspective of those who’ve suffered. Otherwise, we are incapable of carrying out our social duties with proper appropriateness. I don’t mean to point out horrors for provoking revenge but to wake us up so that we can create a common goal. Britain and Europe don’t have the power to conquer America unless we continue to postpone taking action and accept a lack of courage. This winter is the perfect opportunity, but if we let it pass or neglect to capitalize on this opportunity, the whole continent will suffer the consequences. If that happens, there is not a punishment we deserve more because we sacrificed this opportunity.“
Here we are again and the country is very divided. How do we fix this problem? There is no them, it’s us. We have to begin the process. It begins with the individual.
“When people depart from moral values, they tend to make poor decisions. It’s evident from the way you have stayed out of this matter that politics is not your place. Whether or not you think of it as a jumble of good and bad put unwisely together, the conclusions you’ve come to are unfair and unjust.”
This is why strength of character is important. Thomas Paine realized this. He didn’t have a publisher. As a matter of fact he might have been the first viral self-publisher!
He knew there was a need to provide leadership in the form of a well-reasoned argument. He didn’t sit back complaining and pointing fingers. He took action. His strongest warning was to people who don’t take a stand. He said, “It’s the moderates, because of their lack of careful consideration, who will cause more harm to America than the other two kinds of men.”
He made two other points. Strength in unity and the sanctity of public service. He said, “Our strength lies in unity”. Regarding politicians he wrote,
“For any men elected in the future for this or some other similar purpose, I offer them the following excerpts from that wise observer on governments, Giacinto Dragonetti. In his “Treatise on Virtues and Rewards,” he says, “The job of the politician consists of focusing on the true point of happiness and freedom.” Those men would deserve the gratitude of ages who should discover a mode of government that contained the greatest sum of individual happiness with the least national expense”.
He’s making the same call of unity through principle to political leaders. We don’t see that today. Politicians, and government leaders, whether they deserve it or not, are morally crucified for everything they do and say. We wonder why we don’t have better leaders. Who would want to serve under these circumstances!
At its core Common Sense was about freedom, independence from Britain. But, he also wanted peace. He specifically said it, “Our desire has remained consistent to find endless and uninterrupted peace. This is why we look beyond the burdens of today”.
He knew he was asking people to make a sacrifice. He reasoned this by saying, “All that I have laid out will be difficult for some people to accept, but as with all the other steps we have taken, the discomfort will eventually pass. In time it will become comfortable, and when the we have our independence, the country will be glad we did what needed to be done”.
There’s a ton that could be said about logic and reason, common sense, critical thinking. It’s all philosophical. There’s a how detailed outline of the this philosophy in The Book On Common Sense. I’m not going to get into here, but there is one point worth mentioning. Throughout Common Sense, Thomas Paine explained why. He explained it with every point. He did it in simple terms people could understand. This was very powerful.
Today, how many times do we hear politicians say, “it’s very complicated”? As if the general public is too stupid to understand. This isn’t the case. It’s just that too many arguments have moved to a lever of complexity that doesn’t make sense.
It’s impossible to support what we don’t understand. Confusion creates conflict. Remember, wide men make complicated matters simple, and fools make simple matters complicated.
These are the reasons Common Sense is still relevant today. It addresses the issue of a divided nation. It calls on the strength and character of the people and leaders. And, it demonstrates logic and reason as the path to peaceful conflict resolution. These are timeless principles that are as important today as they’ve ever been.