For retired folks such as me, most days feel like Saturday. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the latter end it means that the morning ritual often begins with the quest to find out what day it actually is.
As I peered at my Nature Conservancy wall calendar this morning, I saw 31 numbered squares. Three of those squares had words attached to them, an indication that there is something noteworthy about those days. Today’s date, January 10, was blank. So, nothing special about this day.
Or so it seemed, until while scrolling through emails I was reminded of an event that took place on this day nearly 2.5 centuries ago. Once one has an understanding of the true significance of this underappreciated day in American (and world) history, it makes little or no sense that it hasn’t been designated as a national holiday.
Two hundred forty seven years ago this auspicious day began with one man’s urgent appeal to common sense. The response to that appeal would soon become revolutionary. So, come along with me on a journey in pursuit of one common man’s rational and spiritual understanding of ‘common sense’ as it relates to democratic governance then and now. We’ll start our trip in 1776 and make our way back to the present.
It was on this 10th day of January in the year that was destined to birth a new nation that the initial 1000 copies of a diminutive forty seven page pamphlet appeared on the streets of Philadelphia. To the pleasant surprise of its relatively obscure author, Thomas Paine, the polemic which trashed the British Monarchy and called upon colonists of the British Crown to revolt sold out quicker than a modern day Philly Cheese Steak concession stand at the Phillies’ Major League ballpark. And that was just the beginning of a remarkable run. By the end of that monumental year, the printing presses had cranked out an astonishing 150,000 or so copies. In modern parlance it would make perfect sense to say that ‘Common Sense’ had ‘gone viral,’ and all without the aid of social media and the internet.
So influential was this down-to-earth, common sense treatise that spoke in the vernacular to the heart and head of the common man and woman that many historians see it as the driving force behind the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson’s biographer, Joseph Ellis has written of Common Sense that it “swept through the colonies like a firestorm, destroying any final vestige of loyalty to the British crown.” In the months following the publication, and in an act that set the colonies clearly on the path to declaring independence, the Continental Congress instructed each colony to draft new state constitutions. Then came the revered document that brought to fruition what Paine had been advocating for, a declaration of American’s independence from British rule. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Born and raised in Norfolk, England by a Quaker Father and Anglican Mother, Thomas Paine was to become the nut that actually did fall rather far from the tree. This ‘doubting Thomas’ went so far as to deny the divinity of Jesus and wrote polemics against Christian theology and the Bible. Still, he was no atheist, but rather a deist who believed in the existence of a God revealed in nature and based on rational thought without any reliance on revealed religions or religious authority. His advice would be something along the lines of, ‘get your head out of the clouds and go with your gut, but within reason.’ He once wrote, “The Almighty hath implanted in us these unextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes. They are the guardians of his image in our hearts.” And Paine was also a populist, advocating for democracy and against inherent monarchical rule.
This, then, was the down-to-earth, common sense, democratic world view that served as the foundation for the bomb shell publication that Paine had intended to title, The Plain Truth. It was only upon the urging of his editor that he ultimately went with Common Sense. So, what are the plain truths at the core of Paine’s common sense approach to the common good? According to Patrick J. Kiger writing for history.com they can be summarized in five key points:
- Government’s purpose was to serve the people. This meant being responsive to the needs of the people over and above self interest.
- Having a King was a bad idea. Paine wrote, “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
- America is the home of the free. “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe,” proclaimed Paine.
- America had a rare opportunity to create a new nation based on self-rule. Paine was convinced that now (1776) was the carpe diem (‘seize the day’) moment to take action to shake off the shackles of Monarchy and bring Democracy to the new world.
- A strong central government was needed. Paine envisioned that the new nation would have a strong central government, with a constitution that protected individual rights, including freedom of religion. [‘Freedom of religion’ meant no state sanctioned religion and no compulsory tax paid to the church.]
It is fitting today to recall Paine’s common sense approach to spirituality, religion and democratic governance at a time in American history when such sensibilities feel so out-of-whack. It is such a time as this that also benefits from another of Paine’s writings. Having served under General Washington’s command during the brutal winter of 1776, he later published a series of pamphlets that he titled The American Crisis. You may be familiar with the opening line even if you have forgotten the occasion and the author; “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
The full line reads, “These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” This is the ‘common sense,’ ‘plain truth’ deist at his wordsmithing best. He cuts right to the gut wrenching heart and soul of the moral moment, calling upon each citizen to dig deep into their very soul to bring the dream of true democracy into reality.
Today in the Ukraine and over the past 11 arduous months, the world has been witness to one of those ‘times that try men’s souls.’ We have seen the atrocities of an unjust war waged upon innocent citizens of a sovereign democracy by the military forces of a malignant autocrat. All people of good will and common sense living in democracies of the free world stand in awe and give thanks for a nation in crisis where one will find neither ‘summer soldiers’ nor ‘sunshine’ patriots.’
But not all crises are of military nature. Not all conflicts are waged with ammunition and machines of war. Here at home, this nation born of Thomas Paine’s and others’ vision of exceptionalism, this shining city set upon a hill, this beacon of democracy, this sweet land of liberty, this refuge for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is moving further from rather than closer to its aspirational rhetoric.
Four days ago we marked the second anniversary of a once unthinkable violent insurrection fueled by the ‘Big Lie’ of a stolen presidential election. And today that lie, refuted by hard fact and due process, lives on. And it lives on now not only at home, but also abroad as deceived Brazilians two days ago borrowed the same play book to stage their own insurrection. It is alive and kicking because it is still being promulgated and perpetuated by a cadre of nonsensical partisan politicians who are on this day walking the halls of the newly sworn in 118th Congress.
This swearing in of a working Congress was delayed four days while the majority party now managing a dysfunctional House squabbled over its selection of a petulant wannabe leader on a personal quest for the ‘holy grail’ (a.k.a. the Speaker’s gavel). So adamant was he about earning the title of ‘Mr. Speaker,’ that he ordered staff to refer to him by that moniker for days in advance of the vote. In like manner he had all his possessions moved into the Speaker’s office well in advance of the selection process.
Media coverage gave interested citizens a front row seat to this ‘theater of the absurd.’ The play proved to be a historic and histrionic performance the likes of which had not been seen since the post Civil War slavery and anti-immigrant brouhaha of 1856 that took two months and 133 ballots to choose a Speaker. When the dust and tempers settled in the early minutes of Saturday morning January 7 after four marathon days and 15 ballots, the victor finally got his spoils. And to win those spoils all he had to do was concede his soul to the ultra right wing faction of his tribe. Truly, it is times such as these that try men’s souls.
To his cheering MAGA loyalists (and those less enthusiastic) a grinning ‘Mr. Speaker’ once again quoted his Father, a quote that had served as his mantra and sound bite throughout the ordeal. “My father always told me, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” (This, of course, says nothing about how you choose to get to that finish line or what you are willing to concede/sell out to get there. And the ramifications of such personal concessions are but the tip of an iceberg that threatens to freeze the functioning of the body politic and hold it hostage in the weeks and months ahead.)
But, taken at face value, that advice can actually make sense, common sense. The authentic, common sense democracy that Thomas Paine wrote about and that he advocated and fought for is still a work in progress. And right now as we peer with wide open eyes at the hour glass of American history to see where we are, it appears that those grains of sand are not endless. It may even be that there is much more sand on the bottom than at the top.
The times in which we now live are still the times that ‘try men’s souls.’ But they also try the very soul of the nation. Two hundred forty seven years after the publication of Common Sense there is a battle being waged for the Republic’s soul. Those who are committed to restoring and reconciling souls created in the image of God and marching them down the paths of righteousness cannot merely be ‘summer soldiers.’ Those who are called to serve the common good upon which the Kingdom of God, that ‘Beloved Community’ is built,‘ must be more than mere ‘sunshine patriots.’
Because in the end it’s not how you start, but how you finish, let us finish strong. Let our minds and ears be open to hear those “mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land” that Lincoln evoked in his first inaugural address. Let us recall the noble vision of a Union dedicated to seeking out and bringing forth those elusive “better angels of our nature.” Such servants and ambassadors of the Deity have neither dominant ‘left wings’ nor ‘right wings.’ Rather they have complementary wings that work in unison to lift us up beyond petulant polarization of partisan politics and land us on common ground where together we pursue the common sense that furthers the common good that builds “a more perfect Union.”
And, of course, there is always this bottom line. As goes authentic democracy, so goes the best hope of fostering the abundant life that Christ envisions for all creation. As goes authentic democracy, so goes the best hope for restoring the planet’s biosphere that supports life as we know it. That only makes common sense.
“The Almighty hath implanted in us these unextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes. They are the guardians of his image in our hearts.”