Self-Government the Best Form
The basic idea of a republic is the right of self-government, the right of every citizen to choose his own representatives and to have a voice in the laws under which he lives; and as this right can be secured only by the exercise of the right of suffrage — the ballot, in the hand of every qualified citizen, constitutes the true political status of the people in a republic.
The right of suffrage is simply the right to govern one’s self. Every human being is born into the world with this right, and the desire to exercise it comes naturally with this feeling of life’s responsibilities. “The highest earthly desire of a ripened mind,” says Thomas Arnold, “is the desire of taking an active share in the great work of government.” Those, only, who are capable of appreciating this dignity, can measure the extent to which women are defrauded, and they, only, can measure the loss to the councils of the nation of the wisdom of representative women.
They who say that women do not desire the right of suffrage, that they prefer masculine domination to self-govt, falsify every page of history, every fact in human experience. Even children at the earliest age are always in a chronic condition of rebellion against the control of nurses, elder brothers and sisters, parents and teachers, ever showing a decided preference to have their own way; in other words, to govern themselves.
Boys, in schools and colleges, find their chief happiness in disobeying rules, in circumventing and defying teachers and professors, their youthful pranks so many declarations of independence, affording one of the most pleasing topics of conversation in after life.
The general unrest of the people under kings, emperors and czars, in secret plottings, or in open defiance, against self-constituted authority, shows the settled hatred of all subjects to any form of government to which they have never consented.
But it is said on this point that women are peculiar, that they differ from all other classes, that being naturally dependent they prefer being governed by others. Here again the facts of life contradict the assertion. Women have always been in a state of half-concealed resistance to fathers and husbands, and all self-constituted authorities, as far as they dared, as far as good policy permitted them to manifest their real feelings. It has taken the whole power of the civil and the canon laws to hold women in the subordinate position which it is said she willingly accepts.
If woman naturally has no will, no self assertion, no opinions of her own, what means the terrible persecution of the sex in all forms of religious fanaticism, culminating in witchcraft, in which scarce one wizard to a thousand witches was sacrificed? So powerful and merciless has been the struggle to dominate the feminine element in humanity that we may well wonder at the steady, persistent resistance maintained by woman through the centuries. To every step of progress that she has made from slavery to the partial freedom she now enjoys, the State and the Church have alike made the most cruel opposition, and yet, under all circumstance, she has shown her love of the individual freedom, her desire for self-government, while her achievements in practical affairs and her courage in the great emergencies of life have vindicated her capacity to exercise this right. These, one and all, are so many testimonials in favor of self-government, and yet this is the
only form of government that has never yet been fairly tried in the home, the college, or the State.
The few experiments that have been made here and there in exceptional schools, homes and territories, have only been partially successful, because the whole surrounding influences have been adverse. When we awake to the great fact that our firesides and school-rooms are important places for training the citizens of a republic, the rights and duties involved in self-government will fill a larger place in the curriculum of our academies and universities.
Principal Twitchell of Hartford, Conn, in a paper which he read the other day before the Hartford County Teachers’ Association, made the following practical suggestion about government in the school: “There is such a thing as a teacher being a monarch in the school-room, and that, too, in absolute authority, asking no favors from his pupils, receiving no inspiration from them, in short, without the pupil having any share in the government of the school, taking no part in it only that of an obedient and dutiful subject performing the will of his master. I say that such government is possible, yes, I am inclined to think that it is the most common kind of school government, and not only the most common, but the easiest — but not the best. It is the kind of government that demands a powerful will on the part of the teacher — it is of the head and not the heart. I can conceive of a model school, as to order, being secured by will-force government.
I think it quite probable that a better ordered school will be secured by such government that by that teacher who is trying to rule by love, who is continually trying to win the love of her pupils, to make them feel that they have a responsibility and that they ought to do right because it is right. But the model school is not the end; it is the means to an end, and that end is the perfect citizen. Which form of government is the best adapted to secure that end? It seems to me that it is that form which directs not only what shall not, and what shall be, done, but how, and why, it ought to be done; that form which sets before the pupil in a clear light the difference between right and wrong and demands of him or her an act of judgment, a decision between the two.”
The same principle hold good in the home. Under one despotic will no doubt all things move along seemingly with order and harmony; but where there is no open resistance there may be, and generally is, settled discontent.
Where the experiment of self-government is made in the home each member of the family must be trained in the a b c of individual rights. Each must learn the exact limits of his own rights and the boundary line beyond which he cannot go without infringing on those of another. This will necessarily invoke much patient educational work and prolonged discussion, immense self-control, and constant yielding one to another, the will in all cases being subordinate to a sense of justice and equality. This lesson well learned in childhood and in youth is the best possible preparation for good citizens for the State.
If we would have wise statesmen to guide our national affairs our children must be early taught the broad difference between liberty and license, between a self-government that invokes a knowledge of the laws of one’s being and the interests of society, and that lawlessness which overrides all the most sacred relations between man and man at the will or caprice of the individual. Rightly understood, there can be no conflicting interests between individuals and society. The true interests of all lie in the same direction.
Again, self-government is not only the form most desired by all classes, but it promotes the highest human development, because it requires for its success.
Source: Library of Congress, Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers: Speeches and Writings, 1848-1902; Articles; 1901; 29 June, “Self Government the Best Form for Self-Development,” newspaper clipping, June 29, 1901.