Heading into next week's holiday celebrating the high virtue of gratitude, it's good to remember the one enduring thing we the people of the United States should all be perennially thankful for.
It's the same thing the very first Thanksgiving proclamation, recommended by a joint committee of both houses of Congress and signed by the very first president, named in its opening paragraph that the people ought to be grateful to God for: "an opportunity peaceably to 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, the singular form of American self-government remains the rare exception among nations.
Washington's proclamation called for Americans to "unite in rendering ... our sincere and humble thanks" and in "offering our prayers and supplications" to God, who surely knows we're in urgent need of more unity.
A good dose of national self-government gratitude and meditation might be a great place to start.
Except for one thing.
It may be that the main source of our towering disunity can be traced back to the trunk root of a definition. In other words, before we can unite in gratitude for our "self-
government," we have to uniformly agree what that word means.
Freshly independent Americans attached a quite different meaning to the word "government" than their British counterparts. For Englanders, the principal connotation of government was political, evidenced in Samuel Johnson's 10th revised edition dictionary published in 1810. There the definition was: "1. Form of a community with respect to the disposition of the supreme authority; 2. An established state of supreme authority."
But Noah Webster's first American English dictionary (1828) defined "government" as: "1. Direction, regulation ... 2. Control, restraint." Webster's word use in example sentences indicated a predominantly personal definition on individual terms.
Where staunch Tory Johnson presumed a top-down source of social order--the primacy of a sovereign authority over a community--colonial Patriot Webster's source was ground-up, arising from the individuals who make up societies and communities.
The people self-governed through civil society, which is distinct from civic government. Thomas Paine profoundly contrasted the two in "Common Sense" as being not only different, but also from different origins. "[T]he former promotes happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. ... The first is a patron, the last a punisher."
When "self-government" first appeared as a noun in dictionaries, its meaning was entirely personal: "The government of one's self" (1854).
That entry reflected, even a century after the first rumblings of revolution and independence, the American notion that self-government applied first and foremost to the myriad nonpolitical ways people instituted order in their lives. Self-governed order bubbled up through various currents, including customs and faith, and was buoyed by a spirit of tenacious self-reliance.
Indeed, several similarly prefixed terms factor into successful self-government: self-sacrifice, self-discipline, self-sufficiency and self-control.
Thankfully, Merriam-Webster's online dictionary holds firm to its original first definition of self-government as "self-control." Not so with other popular online peers, however.
Collins, Wiktionary and Google all list the political definition first, and term the "self-control" meaning as archaic, dated and old-fashioned, respectively. Macmillan and Cambridge list the political meaning as the only one, with no reference to "self-control" at all; Dictionary.com relegates that to its third definition.
This mindset divide was a core foundational driver of America's independence. Parliament presumed the strength of social order to be its supremacy. Revolutionary Americans understood the source of strength in society to be "we the people."
The colonists never cowered at England's threat of impending "anarchy" if they continued opposing the empire's taxation because they had full faith in self-government.
That fundamental difference is what our forefathers fought, bled and died for. Yet it appears now that roughly half of our citizenry has reverted to the British Parliament perspective. They share Samuel Johnson's view that a sovereign "supreme power" is necessary 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 the fierce American fidelity--including taking up arms--to the folly of self-government, fueled by liberty as a birthright.
Fewer still believed it could ever work. And it wouldn't have if the first Americans hadn't understood that democratic self-government starts with, is sustained by and is dependent on individual self-control.
Remember Julia, the faceless hypothetical woman from the 2012 Obama campaign? Her success in life was credited to what government authority did for her. There was a federal program or subsidy for her every need, from education to family planning to small business to retirement security.
The Julias of the 18th century weren't on America's side. It's more than a little alarming that in the 21st century, we're having trouble recognizing the subtle enemies of, and teeming threats to, our treasured self-government.
It's appropriate to be grateful over dinner next Thursday for self-government. But it's more important to safeguard it.
Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.