All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 2001

Self-Government and the Distinctive Character of American Civil Society

We Must Restore Personal Self-Government

When America resisted British taxation, Parliament was amused. The Americans would get their comeuppance by force of arms because America had forsaken the law and order of the empire. As days moved to weeks, and weeks to months, the amusement changed to frustration and the frustration to shock. Edmund Burke explained why:

We were confident, that the first feeling, if not the very prospect of anarchy, would instantly enforce a complete submission. The experiment was tried. A new, strange, unexpected face of things appeared. Anarchy is found tolerable. A vast province [Massachusetts] has now subsisted , and subsisted in a considerable degree of health and vigour, for near a twelvemonth, without governor, without public council, without judges, without executive magistrates. How long it will continue in this state, or what may arise out of this unheard of situation, how can the wisest of us conjecture?1

Parliament had deluded itself into believing that order flowed from its supremacy. What Americans understood was that order arose from many sources in society and not just political government. It was through the various avenues of custom, rational self-interest, faith, and fellow feeling that individuals acquired the capacity for personal self-government. The first definition of that term in an American English dictionary was simply government of one’s self. It was individual and personal, and it was that which gave to American civil society its distinctive and robust quality.

Americans, governing themselves individually, associated freely for all manner of purposes, whether to spread knowledge, help the unfortunate, found a hospital, establish a church, or put out fires. But today we speak primarily of collective political self-government, with little or no mention of the original understanding. That shift has produced a profound reorientation of Americans’ attitude toward the role of politics in our communities, an attitude that threatens the foundations of American civil life.

From earliest usage, Americans did not think of “government” in quite the same way as their British counterparts did. Comparing the popular British dictionary by Samuel Johnson (1810 [10th revised and corrected edition]) with Noah Webster’s first American English dictionary (1828) is instructive. Johnson gives the political understanding as primary: “1) Form of a community with respect to the disposition of the supreme authority.” And “2) An established state of legal authority.” Webster, on the other hand gives, “1) Direction; regulation. These precepts will serve for the government of our conduct. 2) Control, restraint. Men are apt to neglect the government of their temper and passions.” Only by the fifth definition do we get to the political, or “The system of polity in a state. . . .”

Webster’s emphasis was on the individual quality of personal government, as illustrated by his examples of “our conduct” or “their tempers and passions.” Johnson’s, on the other hand, immediately assumes the primacy of a sovereign authority over a community. Consider the sources. Samuel Johnson was a noted English Tory essayist opposed to the colonial resistance to Parliamentary taxation. Perhaps his best-known essay among Americans at the time was “Taxation No Tyranny” (1775). The whole conception here was of the top-down imposition of order on an erring community: “There must in every society be some power or other from which there is no appeal, which admits no restrictions, which pervades the whole mass of the community, regulates and adjusts all subordination, enacts laws or repeals them, erects or annuls judicatures, extends or contracts privileges, exempt itself from question or control, and bounded only by physical necessity.”2

An Erring Rebel

Webster, by contrast, was one of those erring rebels, an American Patriot, but he was not by any means the most radical of those sorts. Indeed , Webster was an ardent Federalist, a centralizer by comparison with the more extreme members of the American Whig revolutionaries, and prone to lament the disorders he saw at the level of the state governments. Even so, his focus was not directed principally to government as the source of order, but to individuals in communities or society, a fundamental distinction that underscores the nature of the American Revolution as a defense of rights retained by the people and not surrendered up to the claims of parliamentary supremacy, or any government for that matter. For government to violate such rights was to invite the people to “alter or abolish it,” as the Declaration claimed.

And to have the stomach for such resistance required a deep appreciation for all of the nonpolitical ways people gave order to their lives. In this conception, society was sharply distinguished from political government. One need only reflect on the opening lines of that extraordinarily successful pamphlet of the same year as Johnson’s essay, Paine’s Common Sense:

Some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.3

It is not to be wondered then that “self-government” finally entered Webster’s dictionary as “Self-governed ,” meaning simply, “Governed by one’s self.” That was in the year 1841. In 1854, its noun form, “self-government,” was entered and defined solely as “The government of one’s self.” It was personal; it was individual, and nothing else.4 And it is no coincidence that this conception went hand in hand with the flourishing of American associational life during the same period. How people conceive themselves to be governed will determine whom they will look to for help in meeting life’s challenges. Thus Tocqueville observed a vibrant American civil society where individuals came together voluntarily, forming associations for every possible cause:

Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial associations and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited , immensely large and very minute. Americans combine to give fetes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. Finally, if they want to proclaim a truth or propagate some feeling by encouragement of a great example, they form an association. In every case, at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.5

The personal sense of responsibility and self-government on which this extended order of self-help was based persisted well into the twentieth century. But today most dictionaries appear to list self-control, or self-command , as outmoded or rare, and some only list the political definition. The one remaining dictionary to define self-government in the individual sense as primary is the Merriam-Webster, which lists “self-control; self-command ,” as the initial definition, and self-control means simply the “control of oneself.” Even here, however, there has been a subtle shift.

In the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (1934–1961), Merriam Webster made the political definition dependent on the individual sense of self-government, one implication being that you could not have democracy without self-governing individuals: “1. Self-control; Self-command. 2. 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.” In 1961, the publisher dropped “Hence,” implying that the two concepts are now separable.6 Such a sudden change for a publisher was no doubt preceded by a long steady erosion in usage, a period of time corresponding to the expansion of government in American life. Scores of writers have chronicled this development in the growth of government, such as Jeffrey Rogers Hummel on the Civil War and Robert Higgs on political and economic crises. What seems less well known is how profoundly that change has altered our very language, and how that in turn has warped the role and function of our civil associations and major philanthropic endeavors.

Then there’s Encarta, published by Bill Gates’s Microsoft. A popular dictionary on the market today, it lists the primary definition of self-government as the right of citizens to choose their own government. The second definition is the older one of personal self-government, or self-control, and it is listed as archaic. We have returned to the world of Samuel Johnson.

The top-down view of order is back, and if you have any doubts, consider Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein’s The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes. Profoundly Tory, they make Johnson’s case even as they insist that government is the basis for “the full panoply of rights characteristic of the American tradition.” And just what do they think that tradition is? “Personal liberty,” they write, “as Americans value and experience it, presupposes social cooperation managed by government officials. The private realm we rightly prize is sustained , indeed created , by public action.”8 You can just hear the huzzas from Westminster.

For our civil associations the change was noted in 1965 by Richard Cornuelle, when he observed sadly that the “independent sector now mainly promotes its government competitor. The test of a good citizen is not that he takes responsibility, but that he successfully sends it to Washington.”9 That remains as true now as it was then—and even more so.

The standard bearer of top-down assistance for our “crisis” in community is Robert Putnam of Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone fame. In a recent white paper produced from his Saguaro seminar at Harvard , “Bettertogether,” Putnam et al. advocate public-private cooperation, calling for among other things, “employers and policy makers to design norms and regulations that will effectively govern the new economy while not harming social relations.” Such a mixture of voluntary and legislative measures will take time, especially those for “planning and building political support.” He seems completely unaware that as government becomes more involved , personal responsibility recedes, and with it goes the lifeblood of our voluntary associations. By advocating closer ties with government he administers more poison, not medicine.10

Putnam is quick to lament the decline of political participation among Americans, and he is right to correlate this to the decline of American voluntary associations. He is wrong, however, to generalize the cause to some amorphous set of societal woes. It has rather a very specific origin in the decline of self-respecting, self-governing individuals, and their replacement by overweening bureaucrats and lobbyists.

Less Participation

As government in the twentieth century became more distant, more centralized , more involved in our daily affairs, it took on the appearance of something done to us, rather than something we participate in. When government was small and did relatively little, people relied more on themselves and associated freely. Since government was kept fairly local, they had considerable stake in what it did. Participation was high if for no other reason than that people fought to protect themselves from the political advantage seeking of their neighbors. The more such local power was removed to Washington, however, the less interesting politics became for all but an elite. The irony now is that we pay homage to political “democracy” as the primary form of self-government, but participate less and less as government grows more and more. Yet Putnam believes that even more government involvement is needed to shore up community, and this has been heard by the new administration in Washington. Faith-based initiatives are the rage, but no one stops to consider that government money comes with government strings, and those strings will not allow for free association because that implies voluntary discrimination.

Has anyone stopped to consider that the success of a faith-based charity might be due to the fact that it can demand of its clients a commitment to that faith? Such commitment usually entails the fostering of a strong sense of personal responsibility, but if organizations are not allowed to turn those away who refuse to commit themselves, what have they become but mere government agencies with all the inefficiencies that entails? And what has become of our understanding of political advantage-seeking? Is government money no longer corrupting? Do the lessons of Public Choice political economy not pertain to faith-based organizations? How do we expect them to govern themselves if they are also to be governed from Washington?

Here is the problem. We can’t restore what has been the distinctive source of strength in our civil society if we do not restore our understanding of personal self-government. We can’t restore personal self-government if we do not restore the limits to political government. Disbursing money from Washington only reinforces the idea that order comes from “the top.” Rather, we need to keep money at home, give power back to localities, and get active in the home-grown development of our civil associations. Above all we need to remind ourselves why our forebears fought: Self-government, in every sense of the word , depends first and foremost on individuals who insist on governing themselves. Otherwise we can look forward to becoming just another ordinary country like those found in Tocqueville’s Europe, then and now, with large government agencies drawing all responsibility to themselves and great Tory magnates demanding more taxes. Oh heck, we’re already there.

Hans Eicholz is a Liberty Fund senior fellow and author of Harmonizing Sentiments: The Declaration of Independence and the Jeffersonian Idea of Self-Government (Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2001).


  1. Edmund Burke, Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22, 1775, as presented in Philip B. Kurland, Ralph Lerner, eds., The Founders’ Constitution, vol. 1 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2000), p. 6
  2. Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language in Two Volumes, vol. 1 (London: F. and C. Rivington, etc., 1810); Noah Webster, LL.D., An American Dictionary of the English Language in Two Volumes, vol. 1 (New York: S. Converse, 1828); Samuel Johnson, “Taxation No Tyranny,” in Donald J. Greene, ed. Political Writings/Samuel Johnson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2000), p. 423. It is interesting to compare the different attitudes of Johnson and Webster to language, which, as Bernard Mandeville and F. A. Hayek argued, is a kind of spontaneous, evolved order. In his preface to the dictionary Johnson says “wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated”—a very Tory disposition to view what is spontaneous as chaotic. Webster in his preface, on the other hand, notes the ideal of conformity for the sake of communication, but sees the value in preserving what is distinctively American, writing that “although the body of the language is the same as in England, and it is desirable to perpetuate that sameness, yet some differences must exist. Language is the expression of ideas; and if the people of one country cannot preserve an identity of ideas, they cannot retain an identity of language.” For Mandeville and Hayek on language see Chiaki Nishiyama and Kurt R. Leube, eds., The Essence of Hayek (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1984), pp. 187–188, 319.
  3. Thomas Paine, Common Sense, in Mark Philp, ed., Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings/Thomas Paine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 5.
  4. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language; First Edition in Octavo (New Haven, Conn.: B. L. Hamlen, 1841), p. 562; Noah Webster and Chauncey A. Goodrich, An American English Dictionary of the English Language (Springfield, Mass.: George and Charles Merriam, 1854).
  5. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
  6. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary based on Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1959); Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1961).
  7. Encarta World English Dictionary (Microsoft, 2000)
  8. Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein, The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999), pp. 15, 220.
  9. Richard C. Cornuelle, Reclaiming the American Dream: The Role of Private Individuals and Voluntary Associations (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1993 [1965]), p. 70.
  10. See the seminar paper, p. 29, at

  • Hans L. Eicholz is a senior fellow at Liberty Fund and author of Harmonizing Sentiments: The Declaration of Independence and the Jeffersonian Idea of Self-Government (Peter Lang).