Both John Dickinson and Thomas Paine address what they believe to be the concept of “common sense.” However, the two political thinkers interpret the concept of “common sense” completely differently. First, it is important to understand the differing of both political thinker’s conceptions. Later, an analysis of both the advantages and disadvantages will be discussed.
Dickinson, wrote the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania where he discusses the grievances that were put on the American people. It should be noted that Dickenson opposed the constitution, but he did not oppose the right for independence. Dickenson emphasized tradition, and believed the notion of “common sense” was held in common law. Common law, according to Dickenson, is when a society, once it is formed, starts to develop various unregulated rules and customs and these rules do not need to be written down or signed into order by a king. Overtime, it was Dickenson’s belief that these rules would be practiced by generations and eventually, would become the force of law. Common law, in his view, is anything that is established by the majority of the people as a “norm.” Also, Dickenson specifies Ancient common law throughout his letters. Ancient common law has a similar meaning which are that institutions and practices of the king that have been sanctions throughout many ages and have been agreed to and accepted by the people as the law. For instance, one should not murder or steal could be instituted not by having to write it down but by practicing this rule over generations of people and having this rule applied and sanctified because it is a “norm” of the people and they know it is not tolerated in this society.
Common law thus applies to the traditions and practices of people throughout many ages and are accepted as the law just as a written constitution would be accepted. A fundamental assumption behind common law is that certain practices and rights have been asserted and if this is the case, it is probably because these practices and rights are important, so the people should always look to experience when knowing how to operate something or if they have a fundamental right to do something. For example, Dickenson writes in his letters that the people have a right not to be taxed without their consent. Dickenson justifies this statement by declaring, in history, “Sums [of money] were levied upon the people by virtue of their voluntary gift. Their intention was to support the national honor and interest” (Letter 4 page 32). Therefore, from the beginning, taxes in England were a voluntary gift from the people, so money was only collected if consent was given. Also, Dickenson addresses that the right of British Americans to tax themselves and not be taxed by parliament is evident because of the lack of a statute that declares Parliament has such a right (Letter 5 page 35).
Overall, Dickenson believes that the notion of “common sense” is rooted in the practice of common law which indicates that the rights and practices of the people come from history and when they are accepted by the people, they are then the law of the land. Dickenson, emphasizes the need to not change aspects of the government or order of people’s lives because we should give people what they are accustomed to. Furthermore, he was concerned with constitutional innovation because common law does not support the view of innovation because it will shift power and provide a bigger chance of tyranny and usurpation of power.
In contrast, Thomas Paine’s definition of “common sense” is not focused on the concept of tradition and what is done in history. Paine went against the established meaning of “common sense” which was the shared prejudges of a group of people also known as common law. Paine declares “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense: and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader than that he will divest himself of prejudice and prepossessions and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves” (page 13). In other words, Paine believes reason is our only guide, and experience, history, and tradition will only mislead the people. Thus, Paine emphasizes the idea that “common sense” is whatever is consistent with common logic and the world should be ruled in accordance to reason and reason means logic and there are simple truths that people can gain from logic.
Continuing on with this notion that “common sense” comes from reason, Paine then address his views on the constitution. For instance, Paine states “some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness” (Common Sense, 3). Paine thus believes in the state of nature; meaning, all individuals are free, independent and equal and no one is better than another, and the concepts of law and government are not necessary and everything is settled by reciprocal obligation. A government only becomes necessary when people forget that coming together and settling their issues is how a society is supposed to be governed. Paine believes in the concept of simple democracy where ever member has a right to vote, and when this concept becomes to big Paine urges the use of representative democracy where the people will have frequent elections to make sure no one gains too much power (Common Sense, 4). Paine also states, the constitution is too complex and the simpler something is the less likely it is to be disordered and corrupt. Therefore, his concept of frequent elections in order to build an assembly is the most reasonable and logical thing to do.
Overall, Dickenson supports the notion of common law in order to explain the concept of “common sense” which means Dickenson believes society should be ruled by practices and rights that have long been established by the people of the society. Dickenson, focuses on historical traditions and justifies keeping everything the same because in doing so, the people are comfortable. Paine on the other hand believes “common sense” comes for the notion of reason and simple logic. The constitution should be put in simple terms and organized into an assembly that will have the power.
There are of course, advantages and disadvantages to each of these notions of “common sense” as they relate to the project of establishing constitutional self-government in America. Dickenson’s notion of the concept has a few advantages when establishing self-government. Dickenson’s main advantage is consistency. For instance, by using history to establish the rights of the people, it allows for the people to understand their rights because “it is how it has always been done.” In addition, Dickinson believes the people have the right of Englishmen because they are still Englishmen and whatever the right appointed to Englishmen are the same rights they obtain, thus, supporting the notion that American rights have not changed. Also, the concept of “common sense” allows the people to govern themselves according to what they see fit. Common law is defined as various unregulated rules and customs and these rules do not need to be written down or signed into order by a king. Basically, common law is the principle of self-government because the people choose what aspects of the law are important and they do not need a powerful person to regulate these laws. Common law, therefore, allows for there to be no powerful assembly or oligarchy that forces rules and practices upon the people, instead, the people get to decide what is socially acceptable.
However, Dickenson does have a few disadvantages as well. The people of America have come to the New World in order to go away from the traditions of the English; therefore, why would the people want to continue with the traditions that were developed during the time in England? The American people need to have a constitutional self-government that does not invoke the traditions of the country in which they are trying to get away from. In addition, with no written accountability, there is no guarantee that the judiciary branch will not overuse their authority because one cannot rely on human nature to be equal. As John Adams explained in his text, human nature does not change and humans will strive to gain power and are selfish beings. Therefore, even though a practice or rule is accepted by the people, without there being some sort of written accountability, there is no guarantee that the people, mainly the judiciary, will not try to gain power and tear down the principals which are accepted by society because without the rules and rights written down who is stopping a person from taking over? Consequently, when it comes to change and progress with technology, common law cannot keep up. Due to influxes of different customs and cultures coming to join in a single country/nation via the migration of people, there will inevitably be a slight discrimination or preference in which set of customs is “right” and wrong.” Thus, common law would become inadequate when merging with different cultures that were not originally present in its establishment for that society.
Subsequently, Paine’s notion of simple logic relates to the project of constitutional self-government. Many people prefer and gravitate to simply worded laws, which are completed in a simple manner so everyone will understand what is allowed and not allowed. Using the concept of reason and logic over the concept of tradition allows the people to do what makes sense rather than what has always been done. Furthermore, Paine’s notion of common sense encompasses the task that frequent elections should be used in order to create an assembly. Frequent elections will allow a less chance of usurpation of power from one single person. Additionally, the purpose of a consistently fresh assembly will allow for the many differing ideas and views on legality from the people to be expressed in a timely manner without the perception of oppression. Relating “common sense” to reason is practical in the sense that using frequent elections and allowing simple logic to help in the understanding of government will allow for there to be a constitutional self-government because more people will understand the logic behind decisions and they will not question the motive behind the assembly. Furthermore, this view of simply worded “common sense” allows the most leeway for the progress of a society. Unlike Dickenson, a society will easily accept new changes to its laws as long as the methodology is explained in simple terms.
There is a disadvantage to Paine’s use of frequent elections to create one single assembly that contains all of the power. Paine did not believe in the checks and balance system because he believes one branch will eventually become dominate. However, as John Adam describes, without the use of checks and balances this single assembly is liable to the same vices as absolute monarch and having an assembly that consumes all the power is the same as having an absolute monarch who has all the power. The assembly would possible grow greedy and ambitions and want more power than what they already have and will vote themselves into a permanent and powerful position. Another point would be the disadvantage of Paine’s idea that history and tradition will mislead the people and should not be a factor in “common sense.” There is value to knowing the past because one cannot reach their goal if they do not know where they have been. Without having traditions, history and experience the people will not know how to develop a constitutional self-government. In addition, reason and simple logic cannot deal with everything and sometimes it is important to depend on the experiences of the people. How can one respond with reason and logic if they have no experience or history to show what has not work before? Therefore, the use of experience can help aid reason and logic.
Therefore, there are advantages and disadvantages to each notion of “common sense” however, I believe Thomas Paine’s notion of common sense is more justified than Dickenson’s notion. Constitutional self-government is the idea that the people have control to govern their own society. Dickenson did not convey that any form of accountability would be present which leaves the law subject to human nature, even though some practices of common law were disciplined by a judiciary this still does not stop the progressive need from human beings to have power. Using only traditions and history to form laws will not allow for the appropriate changes that a society will go through. Paine, even though not perfect, his concept allows for an assembly to represent the values, beliefs and ideas of the people and he does at least think having a simple logic will allow everyone to understand. Paine’s notion of “common sense” allows the society to have order and structure. Also, Paine’s use of an assembly permits there to be a body of government which represents the people. In fact Paine explains “And as this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this, (not on the unmeaning name of king,) depends the strength of government, and the happiness of the governed” (Page 4). Relating the notion of self-government to Paine’s use of common sense allows there to be an ordered assembly that is more likely to give America independence from England and allow them to run their country the way in which they see fit. In conclusion, “however our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and reason will say, ‘tis right” and thus reason and logic as it relates to the people’s constitutional self-government is the best choice (Page 4).