What is Self Government? - Definition, Lesson & Quiz

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Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

In countries that have self-government, the people direct their own affairs, free from external authority. Learn more about the history and principles of self-government in the United States, and check your understanding of this topic with a quiz.

We also recommend watching America's Core Values: Liberty, Equality & Self-Government and The Right to Privacy: Definition, Lesson & Quiz

Definition of Self-Government

Self-government is a system in which the citizens of a country (or smaller political unit, such as a state) rule themselves and control their own affairs. Self-governments are free from external government control or outside political authority. Republican government and democracy in the United States are based on principles of self-government.

Roots of Self-Government in Colonial America

Between 1619 and 1776, American colonists had representative colonial governments for making laws. In 1619, the House of Burgesses in Jamestown, Virginia, was established as the first representative assembly. In 1620, the Pilgrims in Massachusetts signed the Mayflower Compact, agreeing to form a government and submit to the will of the majority. This form of direct democracy meant that laws would be subject to the citizens for their approval and consent. These, along with other colonial assemblies, laid the foundation for future self-government in America.

Scene at the Signing of the Mayflower Compact
Scene at the Signing of the Mayflower Compact

Here's where the problem comes in. Even though there were elected assemblies in the colonies, no English colony was fully democratic or completely self-governing. Following the French and Indian War (1754-1763) between Great Britain and France for control of North America, Great Britain ended the policy of salutary neglect. This policy had allowed the colonies to govern themselves without much interference. Changes in British policy prompted resistance by the colonists and ultimately led to the American Revolution.

Belief in Self-Government Leads to an Independent United States

The American colonists' belief in self-government was influenced by the writings of political activist/theorist Thomas Paine. In his fifty-page pamphlet Common Sense (1776), Paine made the argument for political independence from Britain, a representative self-government, and helped draft a constitution for the colonies. Paine felt the monarch had no place in government and that the people themselves were the legitimate authority for government. Thomas Jefferson was also influenced by the ideas of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who wrote the book, Two Treatises of Civil Government (1689). According to Locke, the main purpose of government should be to protect the people's natural rights.

This sounds good - everyone wants their rights protected. But, what exactly are people's natural rights? To put it simply, natural rights are those you are born with. According to John Locke, these are the rights to life, liberty, and property. He also said that kings should not have absolute power - that is, power without limits.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence
Signing of the Declaration of Independence

In the Declaration of Independence (1776), Thomas Jefferson wrote that 'all men are created equal' in their right to enjoy 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' Jefferson goes on to say that government 'derives its power from the consent of the governed.' Basically, this means that governments must be representative of the people and limited in power by the recognition of basic political rights. When the government violates people's natural rights, the people have the additional right to 'alter or abolish' that government. Jefferson urged colonists to part with the monarchy and become a republican self-government - that is, one in which the political authority comes from the people.

Ok, so once independence from Great Britain was declared, what then? Well, to make a long story short, the Revolutionary War was fought and colonists attempted their first national self-government under the Articles of Confederation (1781). Later, the Articles were revised under the United States Constitution (1787), which further strengthened the power of democratic self-government in the new republic.

Basic Principles of Self-Government in the United States

Preamble to the United States Constitution
United States Constitution

Let's now look at some of the basic principles of self-government in the United States.

  • Consent of the Governed. Power and authority of government comes from the will of the people (popular sovereignty), not an outside authority, such as a supreme ruler or king. The citizens give power to elected representatives, based on majority rule, to serve their interests and act on their behalf.
  • Limited Government. The power of government is limited by its citizens through a written constitution. Change and reform comes about by vote not force, therefore, the stability of government is dependent on civic involvement.
  • Political Equality is Key to the Political Process. Effective self-governments rely on the citizens to govern themselves. According to the Declaration of Independence, 'all men are created equal'; therefore, ordinary people are welcome to participate in government. Leaders emerge based on people's talents, not their birthright.
  • Rule of Law Protects the Rights of Citizens. The Constitution is the 'supreme law of the land.' It is the final say regarding what the government is allowed to do. The rights of the people are protected by the Constitution and through the vote of the people.

Lesson Summary

In summary, belief in self-government helped bring about the American Revolution. The colonists freed themselves from the political control of Great Britain. Since that time, the people of the United States have directed their own affairs through a self-governing republic. Power is given to the government by its citizens, as written in the U.S. Constitution, and through its elected representatives.

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