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Common Sense

by Thomas Paine

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Many of my students question my patriotism, usually because I’m quick to point out that Thomas Jefferson was a Deist or that Andrew Jackson abused Native Americans. Don’t I love America? How dare I say bad things about our nation’s heroes?

As I’ve said elsewhere, our nation needs new heroes. Instead of exalting men like Jefferson or even George Washington, we should admire men like David Brainerd, John Woolman and John Jay. Better to be famous with God than famous with men.

I’m always happy to explain that to my students, but I rarely bother to explain to them how much I love America. Words seem inadequate. How can anyone fully articulate what makes America great?

Yes, America is a democratic republic—but it’s not the only democratic republic, or the only country that respects free enterprise. Yes, America is beautiful, but I’m sure Switzerland is, too. Yes, many Americans still follow Christ, but the perseverance of their faith is certainly not as astonishing as the perseverance of Christians, say, in China.

When I’m feeling facetious I say that it all comes down to cowboys. What makes America great is that we produced the cowboy—and there is some truth in that. But the real reasons I love America are very difficult to express and are only sketched out in even the most insightful books.

One of the best sketches is contained in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. But the first, and the best, sketch of the American ideal is provided by Thomas Paine in his call to arms, Common Sense.

I know what Paine went on to write. I know that he drank to excess and died unpopular. These things come after the fact. In Common Sense, Paine casts a vision for America that reverberated with the colonists and shaped the vision that they gave to their children. The impact of Common Sense on the American consciousness cannot be overstated: by some estimates, Paine printed 500,000 copies of this work in 1776 alone! With the possible exception of the New Testament, a greater percentage of Americans read Common Sense than any other book ever published—and at the inception of our country. Who we are today, even after the Civil War and Prohibition and Vietnam, is still due in part to what Paine called us to be in 1776.

by Jeff Baldwin