As we approach next week’s holiday celebrating the high virtue of gratitude, it’s good to remember the one enduring thing for which we, the people of the United States, should all be eternally grateful.
It is the same as the very first Thanksgiving Proclamation, recommended by a joint committee of both houses of Congress and signed by the very first president, naming in its opening paragraph that the people should be grateful to God for:” an opportunity to peacefully establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Thank God for the blessing of self-government, in short.
All these decades, generations, and election cycles later, America’s singular form of self-government remains the rare exception among nations.
The Washington proclamation called on Americans to “come together in rendering … our sincere and humble thanks” and to “offer our prayers and supplications” to God, who surely knows that we urgently need more unity.
A good dose of gratitude and meditation for national autonomy could be a good starting point.
Except for one thing.
Perhaps the main source of our immense disunity goes back to the main root of a definition. In other words, before we can unite in gratitude for our “selves”
government”, we must agree on the meaning of this word.
Newly independent Americans attached to the word “government” a meaning quite different from that of their British counterparts. For the English, the main connotation of government was political, as evidenced by Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the 10th Revised Edition published in 1810. The definition there was: “1. Form of a community in relation to the disposition of the ultimate authority ; 2. An established state of supreme authority.”
But Noah Webster’s First American English Dictionary (1828) defined “government” as follows: “1. Direction, regulation… 2. Control, restraint. The use of Webster’s words in the sample sentences indicated primarily personal definition on individual terms.
Where the stalwart Tory Johnson assumed a top-down source of social order—the primacy of sovereign authority over a community—the patriot Webster’s colonial source was fundamental, emanating from the individuals who make up societies and communities.
The people governed themselves through civil society, which is distinct from civic government. Thomas Paine deeply contrasted the two in “Common Sense” as not only being different, but also of different backgrounds. “[T]The first promotes happiness positively by uniting our affections, the second negatively by repressing our vices. … The former is a patron, the latter a punisher.”
When “self-government” first appeared as a noun in dictionaries, its meaning was entirely personal: “The government of oneself” (1854).
This entry reflected, even a century after the first rumblings of revolution and independence, the American notion that self-government applied primarily to the myriad non-political ways in which people instituted order in their life. The self-governing order seethed through various streams, including customs and faith, and was carried by a tenacious spirit of self-reliance.
Indeed, several similarly prefixed terms contribute to successful self-government: self-sacrifice, self-discipline, self-sufficiency, and self-control.
Fortunately, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary sticks to its original first definition of self-government as “self-control.” This is not the case with other popular online peers, however.
Collins, Wiktionary, and Google all list the political definition first and label the meaning of “self-control” as archaic, dated, and old-fashioned, respectively. Macmillan and Cambridge list political significance as the only one, without any reference to “self-control”; Dictionary.com relegates this to its third definition.
This division of mentalities was a fundamental driving force of American independence. Parliament assumed that the strength of the social order was its supremacy. Revolutionary Americans understood that the source of strength in society was “we the people”.
The colonists never flinched from the threat of impending “anarchy” of England if they continued to oppose empire taxation because they had full faith in self-government.
This fundamental difference is why our ancestors fought, bled and died. Yet it now appears that around half of our citizens have returned to the perspective of the UK Parliament. They share Samuel Johnson’s view that a sovereign “supreme power” is needed to impose order on a community. “In sovereignty there are no gradations”, he wrote in 1775, “…there can be no limited government”.
Few in Britain could comprehend Americans’ fierce allegiance – including taking up arms – to self-government madness, fueled by freedom as a birthright.
Fewer still believed it could ever work. And it would not have been the case if early Americans had not understood that democratic self-reliance begins with, is sustained by, and depends on individual self-control.
Do you remember Julia, the hypothetical faceless woman from the 2012 Obama campaign? Her success in life has been attributed to what government authority has done for her. There was a federal program or grant for all his needs, from education and family planning to small business and retirement security.
The 18th century Julias were not on America’s side. It is more than a little alarming that in the 21st century we struggle to recognize the subtle enemies of our precious self-government and the many threats to it.
It is appropriate to be grateful over dinner next Thursday for self-government. But it is more important to protect it.
Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.