Common Sense: A Political History (review)
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Common Sense, Thomas Paine, Independence, Revolution, Monarchy

Common Sense: A Political History. By Sophia Rosenfeld. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. 337. Cloth, $29.95.)

Is common sense revolutionary? Sophia Rosenfeld’s rich intellectual history argues that it was in the eighteenth century and indeed may still be so. The career of the concept, as she presents it, also helps us understand one of the central dramas of early U.S. history: how a revolution led by a minority and marked by coercion and violence could so quickly become the basis for republican politics that eschewed internal violence and assumed that legitimacy flowed from the assent of the majority.

Rosenfeld’s story begins in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when common sense assumed two incommensurate meanings. In one version, advanced primarily by thinkers in Francophone Europe including Denis Diderot and the Baron d’Holbach, common sense referred to a practice of radical critical inquiry that entailed questioning all forms of received wisdom up to and including the sacrality of monarchy. Its proponents, aware that this skeptical stance was seditious and unpopular, framed critical common sense as primarily the province of the enlightened and initiated. Around the same time, a group of thinkers based in the Scottish provincial city of Aberdeen developed a very different account. For them, common sense meant that widely accepted propositions were virtually self-evident: Common sense thus actually affirmed the authority of kings, the existence of god, and many of the other ideas that were primary targets for the radicals. Seen in this way, of course, common sense was not only accessible to a wide public but actually derived from their shared beliefs.

Thomas Paine, Rosenfeld argues, effected a brilliant fusion between [End Page 747] these two seemingly opposed traditions. In Common Sense, he agreed with the Aberdonians that the essence of common sense was giving assent to universally accepted propositions. Yet in the manner of the radicals, he believed that these inherently true statements in fact called into question much that was common believed. The two most important targets of his pamphlet, Britain’s rule over its North American colonies and the principle of monarchy, both fell before this logic. Monarchy made no sense because why should the descendant of a long-ago hero be especially suited to rule? And the seemingly self-evident principle that a small thing should never rule over a large thing, in his view, made American independence inevitable.

In addition to contributing materially to the coming of American independence, this synthesis may also have marked an important step in the creation of modern politics. Rosenfeld argues that Paine’s approach was original in the sense that it permitted anyone, not merely the educated and instructed, to use folk maxims and logic to attack British government. American independence may have been the program of a relatively small group of elite gentlemen in 1776, but Paine’s argument grounded the decision to break away from Britain on principles and argumentation that were accessible to everyone. In this sense, the logic of Common Sense, by making political arguments subject to the judgment of all, may have opened one of the first theoretical paths toward the development of a modern, critical, and democratic public.

The final two chapters of Rosenfeld’s study briefly sketch the tragic history of common sense from the French Revolution through the twentieth century. Once the first steps had been taken away from the traditional order, she shows, the same searing appeal to first principles that revolutionaries had used so effectively to attack the old regime could be readily adapted into weapons of right-wing, counterrevolutionary, or conservative populism. Right-wing thinkers turned the folk logic of common sense against the revolutionaries themselves. That same critical, skeptical attitude could be used to attack the new “received wisdom” of kingless government and democratic politics. Common sense, Rosenfeld argues, thus encoded an uncomfortable paradox right in the heart of democratic politics: The same principles of critical engagement that are its foundation can also be used to undermine it from within.

Rosenfeld’s juxtaposition of the American and French Revolutions is one of the...