“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.