When Alexis De Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, was a young man, he visited the United States (1831-32). He was officially on a mission to examine the American penal system, but his interest extended to everything he encountered. The new nation, bursting with a fresh approach to freedom, fascinated him. On returning home, he wrote Democracy in America, in which he was able to catch in print some of the unique qualities emerging from the young country. The book, in two volumes, was soon a success and, although weakened by some hasty generalizations, still today provides valuable reflections on early America. He began his first chapter of the second volume with observations that, since they are on the subject of this inquiry, are worth quoting at length.

            “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them.

            Yet it is easy to perceive that almost all the inhabitants of the United States use their minds in the same manner, and direct them according to the same rules; that is to say, without ever having taken the trouble to define the rules, they have a philosophical method common to the whole people.

            To evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, class opinion, and in some degree, of national prejudices; to accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts only as a lesson to be used in doing otherwise and doing better; to seek the reason of things for oneself, and in oneself…-- such are the principle characteristics of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans.”(1)


In these statements there are four remarks of particular interest. To begin with, Tocqueville observed that there were rules and those rules formed a philosophical method. In the second place, he was of the opinion that the philosophical rules which formed a common method were not family maxims or habit of tradition, but rules of the mind that made it possible for each person to judge the reason of things for himself. In the third place, he observed that, generally, those rules were held in common. Lastly, he noted that rules, although held in common, were not philosophically defined. They were merely assumed. Each of these observations is worth a comment.

                                                            FAIR PLAY

            Without even saying what the rules were, the reality that there were accepted rules of reason creates a special condition that begins to define a specific and distinct meaning of reason. The very existence of rules of the mind implies that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to reason. Those who observe the rules, reason correctly or validly. Those who do not observe the rules, reason erroneously. It follows that an obligation is incurred, i.e., if there are rules of right reason, they ought to be followed. It is furthermore assumed that the following of the right rules will lead to truth, knowledge, and understanding. It will lead to a condition of the mind considered good and therefore those who follow the rules are virtuous.   

            By the same reasoning, it can be deduced that those who do not abide by the rules of right reason are wrong. Their reasoning is invalid. If they accidently infringe upon those rules they are either careless or shallow. If they deliberately violate the rules of right reason to obtain their own ends, their act is reprehensible and should not be condoned by society. In common terminology, they do not play fair.

            The idea of fair play in the exercise of reason is not new. It was developed over two thousand years ago by the Greek philosophers. Aristotle, in particular, was much concerned with the rules of right reasoning and made an attempt to study those rules methodically. He also maintained that abusing those rules was wrong. He said, “For just as a foul in a race is a definite type of fault, and is a kind of foul fighting, so the art of contentious reasoning is foul fighting in disputation: for in the former case those who are resolved to win at all costs snatch at everything, and so in the latter case do contentious reasoners. Those, then, who do this in order to win the mere victory are generally considered to be contentious and quarrelsome people, while those who do it to win a reputation with a view to making money are sophistical.”(2)

            Aristotle argues that contentious reasoning is foul fighting, It leads to only apparent wisdom and apparent knowledge. Whereas right reasoning according to valid rules is fair and leads to real wisdom and real knowledge. The valid reasoned plays fair and abides by the rules.

            Reasoning in this sense of fair play is, in all likelihood, what the Founding Fathers has in mind when they spoke of “reason”. The American experiment was not intended to be an experiment in the art of contentious or sophistical reasoning. Evidence indicates, rather, that it was intended to be an experiment in right reason conducted according to valid, well grounded rules. The clear and distinct idea of reason as understood by the early fathers assumed these conditions which, even without saying what the rules of reason were, defined a specific attitude toward reason. It is an idea of reason based on fair play and the American experiment was more than an experiment in “reason”. It was an experiment in the right and fair use of reason.

            The above idea of reason assumes that there are ‘rules of right reason” that can be consciously learned and observed by man. Not everyone is willing to concede that this assumption is valid.   Many philosophers theorize that the very idea of “rules of thought” that neatly divide “reasoning” into compartments of “right” and “wrong” is misleading. They conceive of “reason” as something over and above mere rules and look upon the division of reason into “correct” and “incorrect” as the projection of an immature mind. Rather than seeing virtue in following the rules, they see virtue, if there is such a thing, in rising above the rules.

            If there are no rules, there is no question of fair or unfair play. The relationship of persons in disputation thus takes on a different quality than a dispute conducted according to the rules of fair play. The art of contentious reasoning is no longer considered foul. It is more likely that all reasoning in disputation is looked upon as contentious.

            Here, from a somewhat different point of view than explored in the first chapter, is “reason” again split into two incompatible camps. An idea of reason based on fair play assumes that there are rules of correct reasoning, that these rules can be learned and used by people, and that once a person has become conscious of those rules, he can deliberately choose to observe them and refine their usage. Furthermore, it is assumed that such a course is virtuous. This is the old fashioned idea of reason and it is incompatible with the more sophisticated understanding of reason that resists attempts to subject reason to a code on the grounds that it limits and hampers the full and higher development of reason. What this does to the concept of “fair play” in the conduct of society has not yet been explored in depth.



            Every human society is not only plagued with problems, but it also plagued with the problem of how to solve problems. Communities with similar difficulties often achieve different results because their methods of problem solving are different. The problem solving method adopted by groups or by individuals will substantially influence the quality of solutions reached. When Tocqueville referred to a “philosophical method common to the whole people” he had probably noticed that Americans had a common method of solving problems.

            This common method, he further noted, was not the faithful living tradition handed down from generation to generation. Although they held a certain respect for tradition, they did not use tradition as their basic guideline but chose to seek the reason of things for themselves and in themselves.

            What they held in common was not a set of traditions, family maxims, class opinions, or systems of habit. Rather they had in common rules of reason which they considered virtuous to observe and which encouraged each individual to develop his own understanding and make his own decisions.

            Basic rules of the mind encouraging individuals to think for themselves rather than maxims of tradition are, to a large extent, what was then meant by “common sense”. John Locke, called by George Santayana the “father of the American Revolution”, believed the rules of common sense were innate principles, self evident once the terms were understood. You either accepted them for their own sake or you didn’t. If you didn’t, there was no use bothering with reason at all. To him, innate rules of common sense were distinct from principles of practical morality. In making this point in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke argues, “he would be thought void of common sense who asked on the one side, or on the other side went to give a reason why [his emphasis] it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be.  It carries its own light and evidence with it, and need no other proof; he that understands the terms assents to it for its own sake, or else nothing will ever be able to prevail with him to do it.”(3) Locke goes on to maintain that the precepts of morality are not innate in this manner, because one can, without violating common sense, ask for or give a reason to justify any such precept.

            Another often quoted definition that seems to have captured the idea of “common sense” popular in those days was coined by the namesake of Amherst College in Massachusetts, Lord Jeffery Amherst, an English general who helped win Canada for Great Britain. He wrote in 1762, “There is not (said a shrewd wag) a more uncommon thing in the world than common sense…By common sense we usually and justly understand the faculty to discern one thing from another, and the ordinary ability to keep ourselves from being imposed upon by gross contradictions, palpable inconsistencies, and unmask’d impostures. By a man of common sense we mean one who knows, as we say, chalk from cheese.”(4)

            The common sense philosophy of the Colonies, insofar as the above definitions were adopted, was a popularized understanding of the basic laws for thought. It referred to a natural ability to recognize the basic requirements of right reason and the urge to develop the habit of applying those rules to the problems of everyday life. This method often referred to as following the dictates of common sense.

            Although moral precept, such as the concepts of fair play, stemmed from these dictates, common sense was essentially a method of problem solving. Common sense, so defined, is the innate logical recognition that it is virtuous to exercise these laws and that deliberate misuse of the laws of thought or the rules of reason to further one’s fortune or to advance a particular cause is foul-fighting. Thus common sense and fair play go together. Where people will not follow the dictates of common sense, it becomes impossible to play fair. Conversely, where people will not play fair, common sense cannot be heard above the roar.

            The term “common sense” is not always used in the above manner. Sometimes it is used to refer to the common mores, prejudices, and superstitions of a sect or a culture. In this second use of the term, rather than encouraging an individual to think for himself, this jaundiced “common sense” is exactly what discourages him from thinking at all. He merely follows the ways of the tribe and justifies his unexamined conformity by calling it “common sense”.

            These two definitions of common sense (common sense-1- and common sense -2-), although quite the opposite of each other, are continuously confused in the popular usage of the term and make it difficult to defend the common sense philosophy of the Founding Fathers. This confusion is not new. Thomas Paine, and English agitator who came to the colonies just before the Revolution, made his reputation by publishing a pamphlet entitled Common Sense. His reasoning, at times brilliant and at times helplessly biased and opinionated, offers a contrast to the measured “common sense” of the Founding Fathers. It also illustrated how easily the dictates of reason are mixed with prejudice and why pejorative connotations are often associated with “common sense”. Common sense -1- disintegrates into common sense -2- and the difference is left unnoted.

            Throughout this inquiry the words “common sense” will refer to common sense -1- and will be defined as the innate tendency within an individual to recognize and adhere to the basic laws of thought and the rules of right reason. This recognition, although inherent, needs to be developed and educated in order to overcome other common inclinations toward prejudice, superstition and fashion (common sense -2-) which tend to dull the attraction of reason. In this usage of the term, common sense opposes bigotry and is not necessarily identical with public opinion. The term “educated common sense” will be used to refer to the refinement of this basic tendency into a developed habit, where the rules of reason, through exercise, training and practice, come to dominate other inclinations that tempt the mind to the path of least resistance.

            The clear and distinct idea of reason assumed by the Founding Fathers included both the ideas of educated common sense and fair play as defined above. Fair play is based on the assumption that there are “rules of right reason” and common sense is based on the assumption that individuals possess an innate tendency to recognize and adhere to those basic rules.



            From this observations Tocqueville concluded that almost all of the inhabitants of the United States had a “philosophical method common to the whole people.” In the free atmosphere of the Colonies, the basic rules of common sense had been encourages in the people to the extent where they became entrenched as a way of life and in the early years of the new country were noticeable to someone of another continent as a common philosophical method. Not only was this early American idea of reason and ethical rationality that assumed there were rules to distinguish “right” from “wrong” reasoning, but they also agreed, to a recognizable extent, on the basic nature of those rules. This meant that individuals, plus reasoning things out for themselves, could also reason together.

            The importance of this particular aspect of the original American philosophy is difficult to overemphasize. Because the Founding Fathers and many of their constituents consented to the same basic rules of reason, their understanding of rationality had a unique characteristic. They shared, in common, the dame basic rules and, therefore, they were able to use these rules as a common criteria of reason. This lifted “reason” to a realm that had rarely been realized before in history. When people are able to reason together according to a common criteria, then they are able to use reason as a means of arbitration in cases of dispute. When enough people can reason together in this manner, then reason can become an alternative to force and oppression as the Founding Fathers had hoped.

            This “common agreement” was neither complete nor universal by any standard. The point that needs making is that the early Americans agreed enough on the fundamental requirements of right reason to be able to function in an acceptable manner. They proved, at least to their own satisfaction, that a sound idea od reason, with sufficient backing, can absorb a fair amount of irrationality. The clear and distinct idea of reason being discussed here was influential because it was dominant. This does not mean it was the only idea of reason or that it at all times remained dominant in the generations that followed.

            The people Tocqueville observed agreed enough in the requirements of right reason to be able to reason together. This gave the American approach to problem solving some original features because reasoning together is a different kind of activity than reasoning alone. It implies a willingness to give reason for one’s opinions and a willingness to listen to the reasons of others. It requires openness and trust and assumes that others are basically honest, and willing to play fair according to the rules. 

            When such a condition exists, reasoning together can not only increase the knowledge of all concerned, but people can also resolve their conflicting wants and desires by appealing to reason and can work out solutions that are reasonably satisfactory to those involved. The ability of people to solve differences peacefully in a just manner is an integral part of the American Ideal. Because there was a commonly accepted idea of reason popular in early colonies, democracy in America began full of promise.

            One method of emphasizing the importance of reasoning together according to a commonly accepted basic criteria of fair and just reason is to study what happens when there is a no such criteria held in common. When this happens, attempts to reason together over serious differences of opinion inevitably disintegrates into verbal harassment. This in turn, unfortunately, is an instance after instance pushed into some form of exploitation of the strong over the weak, often resulting in actual physical violence. When people cannot reason together, in order for society to function at all, a different approach to governmental structure is necessary. A truly representative democracy cannot operate successfully under such conditions.

            The American democracy was an attempt to maximize the ability of people to solve problems through reason and to minimize the need for intrigue and circumventions. It is no wonder that Jefferson felt such antipathy for Machiavelli who advised the Prince, if he were to triumph, to be “… a great feigner and dissembler”(5) so as to be in a position to break faith and delude men when it was to his advantage but to do so in such a manner as to always succeed in his deceptions.

            Machiavelli advised, “Therefore, a prudent ruler out not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reason which made him bind himself no longer exist.”(6) He goes on, two paragraphs later, to say, “Thus it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that wen it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities. And it must be understood that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which are considered good in men, being often obliged, in order to maintain the state, to act against faith, against charity, against humanity, and against religion.”(7) He adds to this idea that nothing is more important than to seem to have religion, but he also advises, “A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore it is necessary for a prince, who wishes to maintain himself, to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not to use it, according to the necessity of the case.”(8) He continues, on another page, “…men love at their own free will, but fear it at the will of the prince, and that a wise prince must rely on what is in his power and not on what is in the power of others, and he must only contrive to avoid incurring hatred, as has been explained.”(9) Machiavelli sums up this argument with his famous dictum, “…and in the actions of men, and especially of princes, from which there is no appeal, the end justifies the means.”(10)

            Some scholars, who have studied the life and times of Machiavelli, believe that he intended The Prince to be a satire on the evil condition of politics in the small Italian states of his time. The purpose, these scholars maintain, was to criticize and expose the Medici family, under the appearance of praise and advice to Lorenzo, son of Piero Di Medici. Whether it was meant as a farce or was the result of bitter skepticism, The Prince, being based on many of the actual manuverings of Cesare Borgia, stated a type of political expediency that had often been practiced but never before extolled in writing. Because he was so candid in explaining the mechanism of despotism the name “Machiavelli” has come to stand for political intrigue and cunning. Many references in literature go so far as to connect him with the devil or the evil one. Although Machiavelli seemed at times, in his other writings, to favor the republican form of government, his love of irony and his skeptical habits have resulted in his name living on to epitomize political tyranny, the opposite of republicanism, and to stand in sharp contrast to the Jeffersonian idea of democracy based on reason, common sense, and fair play.

            Machiavelli advises the Prince to play foul on purpose because he is convinced that fair play will not work. He assumes people are too stupid and too evil rise to the level of virtue require for fair play to function. The Founding Fathers also recognized the frailty of mankind, but they held a different idea of man and a different idea of reason. They believed that man possesses in his nature an innate tendency toward truth, reason and justice and that, given the right conditions, can rise above the many stupidities and treacheries that have caused others to despair. This common faith encouraged early Americans to believe that reasoning altogether according to right rules would work.

            Now, after two hundred years, there are many ready to concede that the American Experiment has been a failure and to join Machiavelli in his skepticism. Christina Gauss was right in recognizing the “A reconsideration of Machiavelli and the steadily increasing favor with which The Prince is being regarded may therefore throw some light on the origin if not the solution of our major political problems.”(11)

            It is relatively easy to play fair when everyone is willing to abide by the same rules. This situation changes drastically when there is a dispute over the rules of when one or more factions chooses to get its own way by manipulating the honesty and goodwill of others. In this manner, deterioration sets into the best of societies because, when people of goodwill cannot agree on the basic rules of fair play, there is usually, human nature being what it is, an arrogator around to exploit the dilemma. Much of the pathos of society stems from the former difficulty and much of the evil from the latter.

            It follows that a government among people who agree on the basic criteria of reason and who are willing to abide by those requirements will be a different kind of government than one among people who cannot agree on the fundamental conditions of rationality. The first can hope to resolve their problems with a measure of congeniality. They can trust one another and work out compromises that often benefit all involved. The second will have to rely on force, chance, and manipulation. It will be society where success depends o cunning and subterfuge. The first is epitomized by the Jeffersonian idea of reason, the second by the Machiavellian method of gaining and maintaining power. Although most societies are a combination of both methods, the prevailing philosophy will determine which dominates and the quality of life will be strongly influenced by the extent of this domination.


 The End of Chapter II: For a copy of the footnotes please contact me directly.