History Stories

History can be crazy and complex. But sometimes, old-fashioned common sense can prevail. Here are some experts’ picks for history’s best common-sense moments:


School’s in Session: Compulsory Education Laws Debut
Kids, we’re sorry if you disagree, but this one makes all kinds of good sense. From 1852 in Massachusetts to 1918 in Mississippi every state enacted legislation that made it illegal to keep children home from school. Children used to be seen as useless until they could work, but in the late-19th century there was a cultural shift toward helping educate children, teaching them to pursue their own interests and not rushing them into adulthood. At the same time, this was a period of massive immigration that created a panic in American society. These new education laws came at a moment when there was a strong romantic ideal to better a child’s life and a desire to stamp out the “non-American” parts of immigrant children.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, historian of contemporary American politics and culture and Associate Professor at the New School

“Play Streets” Provide City Kids with Free Places to Play
There are a lot of poor and middle class kids who live in cities and have nowhere to play in warm weather. Beginning in 1914 (and reaching its height in the 1950s and 1960s), the Parks Department of New York City rolled out a plan to implement “play streets” on the Lower East Side. The first street they closed down was Eldridge Street. It was a brilliant common sense idea that didn’t cost anything.
David Nasaw, author, biographer and historian of the cultural and social history of early 20th Century America

A man and a woman overlooking an array of credit cards and money, 1979. (Credit: Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images)

A man and a woman overlooking an array of credit cards and money, 1979. (Credit: Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images)


Charge It!
Amazingly, women could be denied credit if they applied on their own until 1974. Prior to this banks could require women to bring a man with them, regardless of their marital status or income. In 1974, the feminist movement was already well underway, as was a broader cultural shift to allow all Americans to be full participants in the consumer economy. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act made it illegal to discriminate against anyone applying for a credit card based on their race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, or age. It was Representative Lindy Boggs that ensured that “sex” and “marital status” were included saying, “Knowing the members composing this committee as well as I do, I’m sure it was just an oversight that we didn’t have ‘sex’ or ‘marital status’ included. I’ve taken care of that, and I trust it meets with the committee’s approval.”
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Executive Order 9981: Desegregation of the Military in 1948
At a time when the U.S. military needed manpower, persistent racist beliefs kept African American soldiers from fully participating in the military. But at the end of World War II, the United States was looking for ways to distance itself from Nazi Germany, a regime that exploited and acted on racial hatred. But how could the U.S. claim to be the land of the free when African American soldiers could not equally serve in the military? The desegregation of the U.S. military made sense from both a pragmatic perspective of needing more men on the ground as well as a political need to prove they were different from Nazi Germany.
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

Woman holding her birth control pills, 1976

Woman holding her birth control pills, 1976. (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

“The Pill” is Repackaged in a Circular Case
When “the pill” was introduced in 1960, it promised to forever change the lives of American women. And it did. But initially there was one significant problem: women needed to take a pill every day, but they often forgot or had trouble remembering if they had. The problem was solved by a common sense decision: ask women about the problem. Interviews revealed that women wanted packaging that would help them remember to take their daily pill. The result was a design that replaced the pill jar with a flat circular package containing a one-month supply of pills, each in individual pockets.
Edward T. O’Donnell, Associate Professor of History at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA.

Abolitionists Change Their Strategy
The abolitionist movement in the 1830s faced a big problem: most Americans disagreed with their plan to abolish slavery. They weren’t pro-slavery, but they didn’t see African-Americans as their equals and they feared the social and economic consequences of freeing them. Many also believed Southern propaganda that slaves were treated humanely and that they were happy. So abolitionists had to find a way to convince their fellow Americans that slavery was evil. Initially abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison published newspapers, signed petitions, and held rallies. But in the 1840s they added a new tactic: getting escaped slaves to tell their poignant stories from the stage and to publish their accounts as books. Frederick Douglass is the best known of these former slaves turned abolitionists, but there were scores of others who shocked audiences and readers all across the North with their vivid accounts of violence, rape, family separation, and despair under slavery. This common sense approach helped move many Northerners to embrace the antislavery cause.
Edward T. O’Donnell


Dealing with the ex-Soviet Union’s Nuclear Weapons
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were nuclear weapons, submarines, warheads, and stockpiles of uranium in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Since there was no more Soviet Union, fear of whose hands the weapons would fall into grew. Senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) created the “The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program,” which was an amazing demonstration of common sense. This program allowed the United States to allocate resources to ensure the dismantling of 76 hundred nuclear warheads that would have no doubt fallen into the hands of the wrong people.
David Nasaw

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon exchanging smiles prior to beginning their 1st TV debate. (Credit: Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon exchanging smiles prior to beginning their 1st TV debate. (Credit: Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

JFK’s Decision to Wear Makeup
When Richard Nixon was preparing to take the stage for a historic televised presidential debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960, he was advised to wear some makeup to enhance his appearance on TV. Nixon balked at the suggestion (makeup, he said, was for women). But his rival JFK had enough common sense to recognize the power of image and appearance in politics in the new age of TV. Good looks mattered just as much as good policy. So JFK said yes to the makeup and when the cameras rolled, he looked like a movie star compared with Nixon. He won the debate and the election.
Edward T. O’Donnell

Unanimous Election of George Washington
Washington remains the only President to be elected unanimously, the common-sense choice who had been the leader of the Continental Army and president of the Constitutional Convention. When the Constitution was ratified, Washington was seen by all as the natural person to become the first president, and although he was reluctant to accept, Washington received every electoral vote and was able to keep the country together in the pivotal early years after the Constitution.
Gabe Fleisher, 15-year-old Editor-in-Chief, Wake Up To Politics

Abraham Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Henry Sheridan, and Ulysses S. Grant at General Grant's headquarters. (Credit: The Library of Congress)

Abraham Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Henry Sheridan, and Ulysses S. Grant at General Grant’s headquarters. (Credit: The Library of Congress)


Lincoln Chooses Ulysses S. Grant to Head the Union Army
On paper, it looked like the Union should win the Civil War quickly and without too much trouble. It had twice the population of the Confederacy, plus 85% of manufacturing (including 97% of arms production) and 90% of investment capital. But President Abraham Lincoln had one huge problem: a series of incompetent generals who, despite great advantages, lost battle after battle in the early years of the war. There was one exception: a scruffy, reserved, hard-drinking, and not particularly impressive-looking guy named Ulysses S. Grant. He just kept winning. But key political figures, as well as people in the War Department opposed Grant’s promotion. The guy was a drunk, they whispered, and he lacked political connections. Fortunately for the Union, Lincoln had enough common sense to promote Grant to command of Union forces based solely on performance. And it was General Grant, wearing a tattered private’s uniform, who defeated Lee and the Confederacy in 1865. (Side note: when someone complained to him that Grant was a drunk, Lincoln replied, “Find out what brand he’s drinking and send a case of it to all my generals!”)
Edward T. O’Donnell

If You Can Fight, You Can Vote: The 26th Amendment Lowers the Voting Age
Americans were fighting and dying for the United States, but did not have the right to vote and make decisions. The long debate over lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 began during World War II, and was finally ratified in 1971. People from across the political spectrum came together to “right” a blaring “wrong.” The amendment passed in Congress nearly unanimously and was approved by the states quicker than any other constitutional amendment in history, so clearly common sense prevailed.
Gabe Fleisher

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