Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter xxi.: self—government. - On Civil Liberty and Self-Government
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chapter xxi.: self—government. - Francis Lieber, On Civil Liberty and Self-Government 
On Civil Liberty and Self-Government, 3rd revised edition, ed. Theodore D. Woolsey (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1883).
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The last constituent of our liberty that I shall mention is local and institutional self-government.1 Many of the guarantees of individual liberty which have been mentioned receive their true import in a pervading system of self-government, and on the other hand are its refreshing springs. Individual liberty consists, in a great measure, in politically acknowledged self-reliance, and self-government is the sanction of self-reliance and self-determination in the various minor and larger circles in which government acts and of which it consists. Without local self-government, in other words, self-government consistently carried out and applied to the realities of life, and not remaining a mere general theory, there is no real self-government according to Anglican views and feelings. Self-government is founded on the willingness of the people to take care of their own affairs, and the absence of that disposition which looks to the general government for everything; as well as on the willingness in each to let others take care of their own affairs. It cannot exist where the general principle of interference prevails, that is, the general disposition in the executive and administration to do all it possibly can do, and to substitute its action for individual or minor activity and for self-reliance. Self-government is the corollary of liberty.
So far we have chiefly spoken of that part of liberty which consists in checks, except indeed when we treated of representative legislatures; self-government may be said to be liberty in action. It requires a pervading conviction throughout the whole community that government, and especially the executive and administrative branch, should do nothing but what it necessarily must do, and which cannot, or ought not, or will not be done by self-action; and that, moreover, it should allow matters to grow and develop themselves. Self-government implies self-institution, not only at the first setting out of government, but as a permanent principle of political life. In a pervading self-government, the formative action of the citizens is the rule; the general action of the government is the exception, and only an aid. The common action of government in this system is not originative, but regulative and moderative, or conciliative and adjusting. Self-government, therefore, transacts by far the greater bulk of all public business through citizens, who, even while clad with authority, remain essentially and strictly citizens, and parts of the people. It does not create or tolerate a vast hierarchy of officers, forming a class of mandarins for themselves, and acting as though they formed and were the state, and the people only the substratum on which the state is founded, similar to the view that the church consists of the hierarchy of priests and that the laity are only the ground on which it stands.
A pervading self-government, in the Anglican sense, is organic. It does not consist in the mere negation of power, which would be absurd, for all government implies power, authority on the one hand and obedience on the other; nor does it consist in mere absence of action, as little as the mere absence of censorship in China is liberty of the press It consists in organs of combined self-action, in institutions, and in a systematic connection of these institutions. It is therefore the opposite at once of a disintegration of society into individual, dismembered and disjunctive independencies, and of despotism, whether this consist in the satrap despotism of the East, (in which the pacha or satrap embodies indeed the general principle of unfreedom in relation to his superior, but is a miniature despot or sultan to all below him,) or whether it consist in the centralized despotism resting on a dense and thoroughly systematized hierarchy of officials, as in China or in the European despotic countries. Anglican self-government differs in principle from the sejunction into which ultimately the government of the Netherlands lapsed and it is equally far from popular absolutism, in which the majority is the absolute despot. The majority may shift, indeed, in popular absolutism, but the principle does not, and the whole can only be called a mutually tyrannizing society, not a self-government. An American orator of note has lately called self-government a people sitting in committee of the whole. It is a happy expression of what he conceives self-government to be. We understand at once what he means; but what he means is the Athenian market democracy, in its worst time, or, as a French writer has expressed it, Le peuple-empereur, the people-despot. It is, in fact, one of the opposites of self-government, as much so as the one expressed in the favorite saying of Napoleon I.: “Everything for the people, nothing by the people.” Self-government means Everything for the people, and by the people, considered as the totality of organic institutions, constantly evolving in their character, as all organic life is, but not a dictatorial multitude. Dictating is the rule of the army, not of liberty; it is the destruction of individuality. But liberty, as we have seen, consists in a great measure in protection of individuality.
While Napoleon I. thus epigrammatically expressed the essence of French centralization,1 his chief antagonist, William Pitt, even the tory premier, could not help becoming the organ of Anglican self-government, as appears from the anecdote which I relate in full as it was lately given to the public, because the indorsement by the uncompromising soldier gives it additional meaning:
“A day or two before the death of the Duke of Wellington, referring to the subject of civic feasts, he told an incident in the life of Pitt which is worth recording. The last public dinner which Pitt attended was at the Mansion-house: when his health was proposed as the savior of his country. The duke expressed his admiration of Pitt's speech in reply; which was, in substance, that the country had saved herself by her own exertions, and that every other country might do the same by following her example.”1
Self-government is in its nature the opposite to political apathy and that moral torpidity or social indifference which is sure to give free play to absolutism, or else to dissolve the whole polity. We have a fearful instance in the later Roman empire. It draws its strength from self-reliance, as has been stated, and it promotes it in turn; it cannot exist where there is not in each a disposition and manliness of character willing and able to acknowledge it in others. Nothing strikes an observer, accustomed to Anglican self-government, more strongly in France than the constant desire and tendency even in the French democracy to interfere with all things and actions and to leave nothing to self-development Self-government requires politically, in bodies, that self-rule which moral self-government requires of the individual—the readiness of resigning the use of power which we may possess, quite as often as using it. Yet it would be a great mistake to suppose that self-government implies weakness. Absolutism is weak. It can summon great strength upon certain occasions, as all concentration can; but it is no school of strength or character; nor is a certain concentration by any means foreign to self-government, but it is not left in the hands of the executive to use it arbitrarily. Nor is it maintained that self-government necessarily leads in each single case soonest and most directly to a desired end, especially when this belongs to the physical welfare of the people; nor that absolute and centralized governments may not occasionally perform brilliant deeds, or carry out sudden improvements on a vast scale which it may not be in the power of self-governments so rapidly to execute. But the main question for the freeman is, which is the most befitting to man in his nobler state; which produces the best and most lasting results upon the whole and in the long run; which effects the greatest stability and continuity of development; in which is more action of sound and healthful life and not of feverish paroxysms; which possesses the greatest tenacity? Is it the brilliant exploits which constitute the grandeur of nations if surveyed in history, and are there not many brilliant actions peculiar to self-government and denied to centralized absolutism?
In history at large, we observe that the material and brilliant influence of states is frequently in accordance with their size and the concentration of their governments, but that the lasting and essential influence exercised by states is in proportion to their vigorous self-government. This influence, however, is less visible, and requires analyzing investigation to be discovered and laid open. The influence of England on the whole progress of our race has been far greater than that of France, but far less brilliant than that of the period of Louis XIV. A similar observation may be made in all spheres. The influence which the mind of Aristotle has had on our race far surpasses the effects of all the brilliant exploits of his imperial pupil; yet thousands learn the name of Alexander the Great, even in our primary schools, who never hear of Aristotle. Nature herself furnishes man with illustrations of this fact. The organic life which silently pervades the whole with a creative power, is not readily seen, while convulsions, eruptions, and startling phenomena attract the attention, or cause at least the wonder of the least observing.
Where self-government does not exist, the people are always exposed to the danger that the end of government is lost sight of, and that governments assume themselves as their own ends, sometimes under the name of the country, some times under the name of the ruling house. Where self-government exists, a somewhat similar danger presents itself in political parties. They frequently assume that they themselves are the end and object, and forget that they can stand on defensible ground only if they subserve the country. Man is always exposed to the danger of substituting the means for the ends. The variations we might make on the ancient Propter vitam vivendi perdere causas, with perfect justice, are indeed endless1
Napoleon I., who well knew the character of absolute government and pursued it as the great end of his life, nevertheless speaks of the “impuissance de la force”—the impotency of power.2 He felt, on his imperial throne, which on another and public occasion he called wood and velvet unless occupied by him, and which was but another wording of Louis XIV.'s L'état c'est moi, that which all sultans have felt when their janizaries deposed them—he felt that of all governments the czar-government is the most precarious. He felt what, with other important truths, Mr. de Tocqueville had the boldness to tell the national assembly, in a carefully considered report of a committee, in 1851, when he said:
“That people, of all nations in the whole world, which has indeed overthrown its government more frequently than any other, has, nevertheless, the habit, and feels more than any other the necessity, of being ruled.
“The nations which have a federal existence, even those which, without having divided the sovereignty, possess an aristocracy, or who enjoy provincial liberties deeply rooted in their traditions—these nations are able to exist a long time with a feeble government, and even to support, for a certain period, the complete absence of a government. Each part of the people has its own life, which permits society to support itself for some time when the general life is suspended. But are we one of those nations? Have we not centralized all matters, and thus created of all governments that which, indeed, it is the easiest to upset, but with which it is at the same time the most difficult to dispense for a moment?”1
With this extract I conclude, for the present, my remarks on self-government, and with them the enumeration of the guarantees and institutions which characterize, and in their aggregate constitute, Anglican liberty.
They prevail more or less developed wherever the Anglican race has spread and formed governments or established distinct polities. Yet, as each of them may be carried out with peculiar consistency, or is subject to be developed under the influence of additional circumstances, or as a peculiar character may be given to the expansion of the one or the other element, it is a natural consequence that the system of guarantees which we have called Anglican presents itself in various forms. All the broad Anglican principles, as they have been stated, are necessary to us, but there is, nevertheless, that which we can call American liberty-a development of Anglican liberty peculiar to ourselves. Those features which may, perhaps, be called the most characteristic are given in the following chapter.
[1.]The history of this proud word is this: It was doubtless made in imitation of the Greek autonomy, and seems originally to have been used in a moral sense only. It is of frequent occurrence in the works of the divines who flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. After that period it appears to have been dropped for a time. We find it in none of the English dictionaries, although a long list of words is given compounded with self, and among them many which are now wholly out of use; for instance, Shakspeare's Self-sovereignty. In Dr. Worcester's Universal and Critical Dictionary, the word is marked with a star, which denotes that he has added it to Dr. Johnson's, and the authority given is Paley, who, to my certain knowledge, does not use it in his Political Philosophy, nor have several of my friends succeeded in finding it in any other part of his works, although diligent search has been made. [It is in Webster, ed. of 1848.]
[1.]As to the first part of this imperial dictum—tout pour le peuple—we know very well how difficult it is to know what is for the people, without institutional indexes of public opinion, and how easy it is, even for the wisest and the best, to mistake and substitute individual, family, and class interests, and passions, for the wants of the people. This, indeed, constitutes one of the inherent and greatest difficulties of monarchical despotism. A benevolent Eastern despot could not have said it, for there is no people, politically speaking, in Asia; and for a European ruler it was either hypocritical, or showed that Napoleon was ignorant of the drift of modern civilization, of which political development forms so large a portion.
[1.]London Spectator of September 18, 1852.
[1.]Do not all the following, and many more, find their daily or historical applications: Propter imperium imperandi perdere causas; Propter ecclesiam ecclesiæ perdere causas; Propter legem legis perdere causas; Propter argumenta tionem argumenti perdere causas; Propter dictionem dicendi perdere causas?
[2.]The Memoirs of Count Miot, the first volumes of which have lately been published, show more in detail than any other work with what eagerness, consistency, and boldness Napoleon I. endeavored, step by step, to break down every guarantee of liberty which the French people had established. He did this so soon as he had been made consul, for life, and succeeded, through the newly-established senate and council of state, in nearly all cases. When he attempted to abolish the trial by jury, supported as he was by his high law-officers, the institution was saved by a few men, showing, on that occasion, a degree of resolution which had become rare, even at so early a period.
[1.]Mr. de Tocqueville made this report on the 8th of July, in the name of the majority of that committee, to which had been referred several propositions relating to a revision of the constitution. It was the time when the constitutional term of the president drew to its end, and the desire of annulling the ineligibility for a second term became manifest. It was the feverish time that preceded the second of December, destined to become another of the many commentaries on the facility with which governments founded upon centralization are upset, by able conspiracies or by a terror-striking surprise, such as the revolution of February had been, when the Orleans dynasty was expelled, and another proof how easy it is in such states to obtain an acquiescent majority or its semblance.