Com­mon Sense

The Covington News - - Opinion -

“Th­ese are the times that try men’s souls,” penned Thomas Paine in his es­say en­ti­tled, sim­ply, “Com­mon Sense.” Pub­lished in 1776, the es­say spoke to the com­mon man in the colonies, even as it chal­lenged the author­ity of the crown to rule. Paine’s trea­tise was the first plainly spo­ken call for in­de­pen­dence from Great Bri­tain.

I’m not sure, but that open­ing phrase most likely has been spo­ken by ev­ery gen­er­a­tion since 1776 as if it were writ­ten just for them, and their era. I used it in an es­say as a high school se­nior in the late 1960s to de­scribe the unimag­in­able decade in which I’d been lucky enough to spend my for­ma­tive years.

Think about it for a mo­ment. That amaz­ing decade be­gan with Amer­ica elect­ing the youngest pres­i­dent and first Catholic to hold that of­fice, John Fitzger­ald Kennedy. It saw his demise in the Dal­las as­sas­si­na­tion. The Viet­nam War es­ca­lated from an ex­er­cise in the pro­vid­ing of ma­teriel and ad­vi­sors into a full-fledged, all out war half­way around the world. Ford in­tro­duced, in my hum­ble opin­ion, the most sig­nif­i­cant model ever — the Mus­tang — which rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way Amer­i­cans looked at au­to­mo­biles. And, in that same decade, Amer­ica made good on an­swer­ing the slain JFK’s chal­lenge to land a man suc­cess­fully on the moon, and re­turn him safely to the earth.

Great Bri­tain, still seething o’er the out­come of the Revo­lu­tion­ary War and the War of 1812, in­vaded Amer­ica again in the early 1960s. The Bea­tles rev­o­lu­tion­ized rock-and-roll and took the USA by storm, lead­ing an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can par­ents who had to deal with floppy hair­cuts and loud mu­sic to re­visit, with feel­ing, that open­ing phrase from “Com­mon Sense.”

The Civil Rights move­ment swept to the fore­front amidst all of th­ese other is­sues, all of which in and of them­selves would be enough to oc­cupy the thoughts and ac­tions of ev­ery

I be­lieve Amer­ica is at the most cru­cial

junc­ture of my life­time, and that ev­ery last one us in this so­ci­ety has to turn to one thing to help guide us as we study, think, con­verse and pray about the di­rec­tion this na­tion is go­ing to take: com­mon


cit­i­zen. Fol­low­ing the six years in the Oval Of­fice of JFK’s suc­ces­sor, Lyn­don Baines John­son, the tur­moil in our so­ci­ety was near fever pitch af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of the Rev. Martin Luther King, 40 years ago this next week. As the 1968 Pres­i­den­tial race heated up, JFK’s younger brother, Bobby, was also as­sas­si­nated.

Look­ing back on the 1960s, the decade stands as a pris­tine ex­am­ple of how life, and truth, is of­ten stranger than fiction. Truly, those were the times that tried men’s souls.

Thomas Paine, in “Com­mon Sense,” called on the com­mon man to think log­i­cally through the sit­u­a­tion and, af­ter com­ing to a con­clu­sion, to take ac­tion. The com­mon man did just that, which led to per­haps the most amaz­ing event ever — the colonies mak­ing a break from the mother coun­try and be­com­ing an in­de­pen­dent na­tion. Even now, af­ter a whole lot of years con­sid­er­ing it, I’m ut­terly amazed when con­tem­plat­ing how it was that ex­actly the right group of peo­ple hap­pened along in ex­actly the right place at ex­actly the right time to make it hap­pen.

Nor­mally, when I’m in con­ver­sa­tion with oth­ers, this is the point where I start talk­ing about the fine line be­tween the phys­i­cal and the meta­phys­i­cal, how Amer­ica is a na­tion blessed by God, how the Found­ing Fa­thers put to­gether a Chris­tian na­tion — tol­er­ant of all faiths but guided by Chris­tian prin­ci­ples — and how this is self-ev­i­dent to any­one with a brain who is open-minded enough to dis­cuss it.

How­ever, to­day I’m not go­ing there.

I find my­self look­ing around and, as gas prices soar and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan con­tinue, as il­le­gal im­mi­grants con­tinue to pour into Amer­ica faster than we can de­port them, as the econ­omy takes a dive and the gov­ern­ment at­tempts to bail out not only home­own­ers who will­ingly en­tered into ad­justable rate mort­gages but the fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions that at­tracted those home­own­ers into their de­ba­cle as well, I find my­self re­peat­ing out loud as I drive to work:

“Th­ese are the times that try men’s souls.”

And, as Thomas Paine might say, I find my­self look­ing for a lit­tle revo­lu­tion to take place. And I’m so very, very grate­ful that the Found­ing Fa­thers pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for Amer­ica to re­volt peace­fully when­ever the need is felt, at the bal­lot box.

But the trick is this: the bal­lot box only works if ev­ery­one votes, and if ev­ery­one uses that most elu­sive of com­modi­ties called for by Thomas Paine — “Com­mon Sense.”

Those of us old enough to re­mem­ber when Harry Tru­man oc­cu­pied the Oval Of­fice also know that the very qual­ity of com­mon sense is among the most elu­sive of at­tributes. We all know peo­ple who are bril­liant schol­ars and who are quite good at “book learn­ing,” yet lack the abil­ity to make any com­mon sense de­ci­sions. Think tanks are pop­u­lated with ed­u­cated talk­ing heads pon­tif­i­cat­ing on ev­ery­thing that is wrong with the way Amer­ica does things, but who have ab­so­lutely no com­mon sense ideas about how to ad­dress and cor­rect the mal­adies.

Crit­ics all want to tear down what ex­ists, but have no idea what to put in its place. Fools rush in, in­deed, where wise men fear to tread.

I reckon that’s why Ho­race Gree­ley once said, “Com­mon sense is very un­com­mon.” And along those lines, Os­car Wilde penned, “Noth­ing that is worth know­ing can be taught.” Even Al­bert Ein­stein weighed in on the mat­ter by say­ing, “Com­mon sense is the col­lec­tion of prej­u­dices ac­quired by age eigh­teen.”

I was al­ways a late bloomer, my­self. So I hope it’s pos­si­ble for the es­ti­mate of years it takes one to ac­quire com­mon sense to vary with the in­di­vid­ual. I would love to sit down with Ein­stein and dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­ity that the time frame he men­tioned might be — rel­a­tive.

For­give me that one, please. I’m sure you saw it com­ing, but how could I re­sist? Alas, I di­gress.

The bal­lot box beck­ons to all Amer­i­cans as Novem­ber nears. Folks need to take a care­ful, in­di­vid­ual, stu­dious look at not only can­di­dates for of­fice, but what poli­cies and trends the par­ties those can­di­dates rep­re­sent his­tor­i­cally en­act and per­pe­trate.

You can’t just vote for John McCain be­cause he’s old, nor for Hil­lary Clin­ton be­cause she’s a fe­male, nor for Barack Obama be­cause he’s black. Well, I guess you can. But the point I’m mak­ing here is that a whole lot more is at stake than whether Amer­ica elects the old­est white guy ever, or the first fe­male, or the first African-Amer­i­can to the of­fice of pres­i­dent.

I be­lieve each and ev­ery re­spon­si­ble cit­i­zen has to turn out to vote in th­ese up­com­ing elec­tions. I be­lieve Amer­ica is at the most cru­cial junc­ture of my life­time, and that ev­ery last one of us in this so­ci­ety has to turn to one thing to help guide us as we study, think, con­verse and pray about the di­rec­tion this na­tion is go­ing to take: com­mon sense.

“God must love the com­mon man, for he made so many of them,” said none other than Abra­ham Lin­coln. And what he meant by that — I be­lieve — is that the soul of Amer­ica re­sides not in the halls of po­lit­i­cal power, nor in the par­lors of cor­po­rate greed, but in the hearts and minds of the com­mon man. And, con­gru­ently, I be­lieve Lin­coln knew that the com­mon man har­bors the great­est reser­voir of com­mon sense to be found any­where.

And so it is that when I look at is­sues and re­al­ize that my own un­der­stand­ing of them is want­ing, I turn to folks wiser than I am, folks whom I ad­mire and re­spect as hav­ing an abun­dance of that com­mon sense, and I plumb their opin­ions and thoughts to help me come to a deeper un­der­stand­ing.

It is my pro­found hope that all Amer­i­cans will do that very same thing, will turn to oth­ers whom they ad­mire and re­spect, and con­sider care­fully the weighty is­sues which face our na­tion. For, truly, my friends, th­ese are the times that try men’s souls. Let us re­turn to the ad­vice of­fered by the sage wis­dom of Thomas Paine some 232 years ago, and in our con­sid­er­a­tion of where Amer­ica goes, use some com­mon sense.

Nat Har­well


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