Politics & Policy

America Needs a Return to the Founders’ Philosophy of Common Sense

Detail of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence
Common Sense Nation makes the case that recovering the Founders’ American idea is vital to reestablishing political order.

The two most important questions for the people of any nation to ask themselves are, who are we and who should we be? These are the fundamental questions Robert Curry implicitly addresses in Common Sense Nation in reference to the American people. His choice of the word “nation” (as opposed, for instance, to “state”) is apt, for his address of American institutions or power structures is directed to the people they are meant to serve. He is concerned most directly, as the book’s subtitle indicates, with an “idea” that once inspired, and he hopes will inspire again, the American nation. In his careful treatment of the U.S. Constitution, his intent is to recover the understanding and logic underlying the system, to get at the reason for our constitutional arrangements. The “American idea” is both the source of American identity and the standard for what America should be, and it is, to borrow from Montesquieu, the spirit of our laws.

What is this American idea? It is suggested in the first words of the title: “Common Sense.” Most Americans have heard of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that most decisively galvanized colonial support for revolt against the British crown. Few Americans know, however, of the philosophical resonance the term “common sense” had in those days. And this is why Curry’s book is important: It tells the forgotten story of the philosophy of common sense that the Founders embraced, a philosophy that in fact was central to their purpose.

Most college-educated Americans know that John Locke was a major influence on the Founders’ thinking. Some who have dipped more than superficially into American-founding literature know of other important sources, such as Montesquieu. A few, really in the know, will be aware that the Scottish Enlightenment had an influence and might be able to point to David Hume’s political essays and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Extremely rare are those who suspect that, in terms of philosophical presuppositions, other Scottish thinkers of that period — in particular Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid — may have had the greatest influence of all. Hutcheson was the progenitor of what became known, in association with Reid, as “Scottish Common Sense” philosophy.

What?! These guys I’ve never heard of had the greatest impact? Why have I never heard of them? You’d better prove it! That Curry sets out to do, and he does the job impressively.

Curry argues that the key elements of American self-understanding are expressed in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration’s statement of principles together, as amplified by other parts of the document, compose “the American idea” as Curry understands it, centered around the notion of God-given natural rights. What may be more controversial for some, and surprising to most, is his claim that on the most fundamental points the Founders’ understanding was closer to Hutcheson’s and Reid’s than to Locke’s. The argument is not as far-fetched as it might at first seem.

Curry does not, and cannot, deny Locke’s influence. That influence is obvious from various linguistic formulations and concepts of Locke’s found in the Declaration, from equality of natural rights and the political requirement of consent to the echo of Locke in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Locke had ended the trio with “estate”) to the Declaration’s borrowing the phrase “long train of abuses” verbatim in explaining the conditions under which a (Lockean) right of revolution obtains. All this looks as if it were taken straight out of Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, and it is virtually certain that Jefferson had Locke directly in mind when he wrote this most famous portion of the Declaration.

In fact, Hutcheson had accepted all these points from Locke before the Founders did, and as scholars are beginning to realize, the architectonic Founders had studied their Hutcheson, too. But Hutcheson was only a middleman then, right? No. Curry makes the case that the Founders understood the principles Locke articulated in a distinctly Hutchesonian way. Hutcheson’s way was the way of “common sense,” which was a form of rationality closer to Aristotle’s than to Locke’s. Jefferson’s and the Founders’ idea of “self-evident truths,” for instance, was not the one Locke spelled out in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding but more like the one developed, more precisely than in Hutcheson, by Thomas Reid.

Why should we believe this argument? I leave it to the reader to follow the trail of Curry’s own systematic treatment of the Declaration’s principles, which alone is worth the price of the book. For the present, the plausibility of Curry’s case may be buttressed by pointing out that Jefferson was deeply schooled in the Scottish philosophy at the College of William and Mary and retained a high regard for Scottish Common Sense throughout his life. (Late in life he named Reid’s protégé Dugald Stewart as one of the two greatest philosophers then living.) When Jefferson spoke of the “moral sense,” which he said once was the source of our knowledge of natural rights, he understood the term precisely as Hutcheson did.

Curry’s case becomes increasingly compelling as he takes up the respective roles of those I have called the “architectonic” Founders — especially (in addition to Jefferson) Madison and James Wilson. Most scholars agree that Madison and Wilson were the greatest intellectual movers and shakers at the Constitutional Convention. What even most scholars don’t appreciate is how much the two men’s constitutional thinking was shaped and directed by Scottish philosophical assumptions. Madison had studied at Princeton under the tutelage of John Witherspoon, the most important American proponent of Scottish philosophy, and as Curry shows, Madison’s theory of social and political dynamics expressed in The Federalist Papers, most famously in Nos. 10 and 51, tracks closely with the views both of Witherspoon and of Adam Smith. Wilson’s political and (especially notable in this context) his legal theory were explicitly based on the moral epistemology of Thomas Reid. How Madison’s and Wilson’s Scottish theoretical perspective had its effect on the Constitution they helped construct readers can discover in Curry’s chapters on the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

It has often been suggested that America is a twin product of the Enlightenment and Christianity, and Curry does not neglect the role of religion at the Founding. His special historical point is to show that the Scottish influence was crucial on both sides of the equation: Scottish-derived Presbyterianism was a powerful religious force in the American revolutionary period, and the American Enlightenment was more in line with the Scottish than with the French, or even the English, Enlightenment.

Witherspoon was not only the great American proponent of Scottish Common Sense, but also the acknowledged leader of the socially activist American Presbyterian Church and a major political actor in his own right. He signed both the Declaration and the Articles of Confederation and served in the Continental Congress in addition to making Princeton an incubator for revolutionaries and future statesmen. In brief, his impact through educational, religious, and political channels was massive, and when an American Tory called the Revolution a “Presbyterian war,” or when British soldiers burned Witherspoon in effigy, people familiar with the scene could not have been too surprised. Witherspoon’s example illustrates the fact that the Scottish-inspired Founders were not religious skeptics of the Humean sort but closer in outlook to the openly religious if non-sectarian Hutcheson and Reid (non-sectarian in their philosophical arguments — both Hutcheson and Reid were ordained Presbyterian ministers). This fact is of course reflected in the Declaration of Independence itself, with its multiple references to God.

The Presbyterian influence may be found in the Constitution as well as the Revolution. One of a number of historical points I had not known before reading Common Sense Nation is that Madison’s Virginia Plan closely followed the pattern of the Presbyterian system of governance. Truly, the entrenched hostility to Christianity in our modern universities has made us blind to our inheritance.

Roughly three-quarters of Curry’s book is devoted to elaborating the “American idea” as understood by the Founders. The last quarter addresses what Curry calls the “turning away from the Founders.” He identifies the prime culprits behind this latter development as the American Progressives and, philosophically, the Pragmatists. (I myself would partially exempt Charles Peirce and William James from the list of Pragmatism’s chief offenders — their legacy is, I think, more complicated than Curry suggests; but the larger point is well taken.) The “turning away” was the progressive and pragmatist repudiation, or at least leaving behind, of the common-sense foundation Curry previously outlined. The progressives and the pragmatists in fact sometimes appealed to common sense, but theirs was a merely pragmatic, instrumental common sense without any grounding in permanent principles of the Hutchesonian or Reidian sort.

The political consequence was a loss of appreciation for the logic behind American constitutional principles and structures, above all of the natural rights underlying constitutional protections and the multiple divisions of power. We have seen the bitter fruit in the consolidation of power that Jefferson and Madison so feared and the ruthless imposition of the progressive agenda on the nation from the top down, through the U.S. Congress, the federal courts, and above all (with congressional and judicial enabling) the federal executive branch. The long-term solution to this subversion of American constitutional order, Curry believes, is a general recovery of the American idea he has so carefully explained and supported throughout his book.

Common Sense Nation is not a scholarly work — it is aimed for a general audience — but it is clearly based on profound study and scholarly understanding. Curry’s ultimate mission is to reawaken the American citizenry to their heritage and identity and to show them the rational principles by which they can reestablish a sound political order. His book could not be more timely at a moment of massive public disorientation and discontent with our public institutions. One thing American conservatives can agree on right now in a time of political disunity is that the Republic is at risk. With Common Sense Nation Curry provides vital clues for how to save it.

— Scott Segrest is an assistant professor of political science at The Citadel, and author of America and the Political Philosophy of Common Sense.

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