To recapture a sense of the older notion of self-government, we need to go back to a time when Americans still maintained a clear conception of themselves as a people composed of individuals capable of self-government. The American Revolution was the dramatic culmination of just such a moment.
During the first four decades of the American Republic, the irascible William Findley was the leading state politician of the Western Pennsylvania backcountry. He had seen action as a captain in the American Army during the Revolution, was an outspoken Anti-Federalist during the state’s ratifying convention, and was a persistent critic of both state and national public finances. Many a high-born Philadelphian of the likes of Robert Morris and James Wilson, crossed swords with William Findley, only to come away with a healthy respect for his tenacity and shrewd political sense. It came as little surprise that Findley would write the definitive critique of the first administration’s handling of the western counties’ resistance to the federal excise tax on whiskey in the early 1790s. In that work Findley felt compelled to remind his readers that America was not great because of those in power or because of its “privileged orders,” but derived its “dignity and importance, through the natural and honorable channels of prudence and industry.” These were not political qualities, but social values of individual responsibility and integrity.
Government in America was not their source. They sprang from the people through their own private and civil associations. But when government exercised power badly it threatened to break up those “natural and honorable channels.” State and society were not the same. It was not so long ago that this distinction was still part of the American understanding.
In the earliest dictionaries of American English, the definition of self-government was not political, but reflected the same personal quality expressed by Findley—it was the “government of one’s self.” This remained true as late as 1959 when the Merriam-Webster dictionary defined self-government as “Self-control; self-command,” and self-control meant simply, “control of one’s self.” The second definition followed, and is the one usually expressed today as majority rule. What was unusual for a dictionary definition was that the second definition was made dependent on the first: “Hence, government by the joint action of the mass of people constituting a civil body; also, the state of being so governed; specifically, democratic government.” By the inclusion of “Hence,” the dictionary reflected the view that you could not have democracy or the rule of law without individuals capable of governing themselves. The present edition of the dictionary has dropped that beginning, and today, we appear to think primarily of the collective, governmental meaning of self-government. Indeed many current English dictionaries simply list majority rule as the only definition of the term. To recapture a sense of the older notion, we need to go back to a time when Americans still maintained a clear conception of themselves as a people composed of individuals capable of self-government. The American revolution was the dramatic culmination of just such a moment.
This essay was first published here in May 2012.
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