Common Sense Transcends Circumstance

By Cameron Smith

This Fourth of July, as we celebrate our nation’s independence with flags and sparklers, families and friends will gather together, and many will fail to reflect on the importance of this celebration.

When the Revolutionary War began, many of the colonists opposed independence from Great Britain. In a very real sense, the Founding Fathers were considered radicals by their fellow countrymen. Without changing the hearts and minds of the colonists, these revolutionaries risked losing everything and vanishing into the history books largely unnoticed.

During the early part of 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, lit the spark that would ignite the push for independence and ultimately change the colonial culture. Common Sense aggressively challenged the control of the British Government and the merits of the monarchy. Paine’s plain language and direct approach were met with immediate success. About 120,000 copies were sold in the first three months and 500,000 in the first year and Paine donated the royalties to support the Continental Army. Arguably, without Paine’s “treasonous” pamphlet, American independence might well have been delayed or extinguished. John Adams claimed, “[w]ithout the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense’,” the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

But is Common Sense still a relevant factor in modern American government? At the inception of independence, there was virtually no federal government. Today, with a multitrillion dollar budget, more than 14 trillion dollars in debt, and more than 160,000 thousand pages of federal regulations, the government Americans live under is radically different that that experienced 235 years ago. Fortunately, Paine’s work is more than just a pleasant vestige of America’s historical past.

Common Sense resonated with the everyday man in his language, appealed to his values and gave him the goal of having a voice in his government. As the colonists recognized their increasing interest in independence, the willingness to fight for it grew as well. The colonial elites who sought to negotiate with Britain were quickly outpaced by those quite literally saying “liberty or death.”

Thanks to the electoral structures created by Paine and his peers, Americans need not revolt. But the percentage of Americans who did not even cast their vote in the most publicized Presidential election in recent history is shocking — forty-three percent of the current American population failed to vote in the 2008 presidential election. Moreover, less than 38 percent of the voting age population voted in the 2010 midterm election. Individual liberty and freedom from government without representation seems to be taken increasingly for granted and their erosion has gone progressively unnoticed. Americans witnessing this trend should readily relate to Paine’s calls for meaningful participation in government.

Unfortunately, the freedoms secured in the Revolution are no less fragile today than they were when first achieved. Executive agencies treat the Constitution as an antiquated suggestion while the judicial branch, through a radical reading of the Commerce Clause, is on the precipice of destroying the remaining vestiges of federalism and limited federal power. All this takes place while Congress piles mounds of generational debt upon our nation through a lack of fiscal discipline and political courage. These are not mere concerns of the politically active but viable threats to individual liberty and our founding notions of restrained government.

Common sense transcends circumstance and the passage of time. As our nation again celebrates its birth, Americans must consider their ability to participate in their own governance. These rights were created and protected by the blood of patriots and the sacrifice of their families. While reasonable minds may differ about specific policies, each generation must ask whether the current practices of government comport with their notions of common sense. Where the government fails to meet the expectations of the governed, each citizen owes those who have come before and those who will come after the duty to participate in the American democracy.

In justifying the need for the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson stated that “[w]e cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them if we basely entail hereditary bondage on them.” Whether that bondage comes in the form of an oppressive government, a legacy of debt or simply through a failure to teach the next generation about the price of liberty, this current generation must not ignore the real threats facing our nation.   (Emphasis by the editor)

Cameron Smith is General Counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

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