In 1776 Tom Paine titled his call to arms Common Sense. Why?
Like Thomas Jefferson, Paine believed that men are naturally meant to be free and have an innate sense of morality and brother – hood. Both men read Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke and the Scottish “Common Sense” school, who said that human reason could understand the universe. In his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, which came out just as the Second Continental Congress was meeting to consider forming a new nation, Paine started transforming those ideas into America’s can-do pragmatism.
He argued that a revolutionary government could be founded on rationally derived ideas—an ideology—not traditions or existing institutions. For the Founding Fathers, the role of government was only to insure that men would have the possibility of being free. Anything more was a form of tyranny that restrained human nature.
Man naturally desires freedom. The more leeway people have, the more they can implement their ideas, on a political or moral scale. So freedom implies change. The Puritans had their City on the Hill. Paine had his utopian vision. Some kind of rebirth—spiritual, political or personal—has always been a fundamental American idea.
How does that shape our history?
So many ways: religious revivals, reform crusades, the idea of Manifest Destiny and the frontier. One of the things that distinguished the North from the South was that the South was unchangeable. The only change they embraced was Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, and that was invented in New Haven, Conn. The South wasn’t refreshing itself: It was a culture of stasis, shaped by intellectuals like John Calhoun who removed themselves from what other Americans saw as the normal process of change. The result was civil war.
That sounds very abstract.
Well, intellectuals think abstractly about the culture and its needs as a whole, not just in terms of their own lives or immediate surroundings, the way ordinary people do. They are the professional worriers about the culture, so they can be a bit like the hired mourners at a funeral. But it’s a vital role. They question basic assumptions and make comparisons to see how and why things happen. They draw ideas from religion, philosophy, science, history and so on. They come from all kinds of backgrounds and often disagree. Their thinking is complex, so they’re seldom straightforwardly consistent. But they are useful guides.
Where did colonial America’s intellectuals come from?
In early colonial America, nearly all intellectuals were religious leaders. That changed just before the Revolution. The colonies had become prosperous thanks to trading and produced a class of people who could afford to pursue education. The Founders all read widely: ancient writers like Plato and Cato, French philosophes like Montesquieu, the Whig opponents of the British government. Benjamin Franklin was friends with Voltaire. They were cosmopolitan.
Why do you call America the first truly cosmopolitan culture?
Americans came from and traded all over the world. They built up their civilization from ideas they got from different cultures. This was something radically new.
Don’t all trading cultures exchange ideas?
Yes, but in more limited ways. Look at Britain. They took in some ideas from all their trading, but they’re very, very British. Besides the class structure, England was bound by the Church of England. Here, we had religious pluralism, which helped make Americans more receptive to ideas from elsewhere. The only thing close to that kind of open American exchange was what the ancient Greeks and Romans did.
What do you think about fencing out immigrants?
It would be self-defeating. Look at all we’ve taken from Mexico, besides the Southwest: horses, food, terminology, Catholicism, a whole new strain to weave into our cosmopolitan outlook. America is the first nation founded on ideas. Welcoming immigrants is a core idea, and part of how we grow. We need to stop building fences and build Ellis Islands across the South west. Rationally processing and educating immigrants instead of criminalizing them would do a lot of good.
Do you see a link between public education and citizenship?
The Founding Fathers, especially Jefferson, did. In the early 19th century Horace Mann made the idea reality. He was raised in poverty as a strict Congregationalist, won honors at Brown University and Litchfield Law School, and became a Massachusetts state senator. He agreed with Jefferson that an educated citizenry was essential to democracy. So he reformed the state school system, which became the model for the rest. He wanted the Bible read in school, but he wanted the schools secularized. He created mass public education and made it compulsory. He professionalized the role of the teacher. It changed America.
What did ordinary Americans want from schooling?
This was a get-ahead country without a formal class structure. No matter who you were or where you came from, you could improve yourself and your future via education.
How did this lead to new ideas?
Look at what happened in the last decades of the 19th century. The critics of American business, like Standard Oil and so forth, constituted themselves as an intellectual class: They knew the real secrets. Of course, some of them were right and some were wrong. But by designating themselves intellectuals, they carved out a public place for the group and its views. As education spread more widely, they created an intellectual class that for the first time was not tied to the monetary class. And they started the Progressive movement.
Why are intellectuals often labeled elitists today?
I don’t put much credence in that. Even people who talk that way want to send their kids to college.
What’s your view of the current education debates?
Few politicians seem to understand what education is. All they understand is testing. That’s juvenile; drop it. Education means learning about the world and how to relate to people, how to be successful at what one wants to be, and how to understand and respect what other people want to be. So it’s very broad, which is why it’s not a matter of testing.
How can we improve it?
By making students love learning and feel a sense of accomplishment. Too many people think acquiring credentials is education. That’s why Obama acted like he did in his first speech to Congress: cool and respectful, asking for parents’ help. Education is a two-way situation; parents can make it work better by overseeing their kids, reading to them and so on. What Obama was doing is what I call compromise by combination.
What does that mean?
It’s a basic American approach to problems. Someone has one idea, someone has another, and what they do is compromise by saying they’re both right. The vague language in the Constitution about slavery is an example. That was a big mistake, but they had little choice: They had to compromise, or else the South wouldn’t agree to form the new nation. Anyway, most of the Founding Fathers thought slavery would die out within a generation or two. Of course, they were wrong.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.