Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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AUTONOMY. Autonomy is of Greek origin. Literally the word means independent legislation. At one period it was the synonym of sovereignty, but, in time, the sense of the word was restricted. The occasion was the following. Rome had made of Greece a province of the empire. The consul Flaminius, conqueror of the Achaian league, proclaimed the liberty of Greece at the Isthmian games. The Roman senate regulated this simulacrum of liberty by giving autonomy to the Greek cities (, self, and , law), that is, the right of governing themselves by their own laws and retaining their magistrates, which in reality was nothing but the municipium. Citizens of the municipia had political rights at Rome, and might fill the military and civil offices of the republic. They belonged, therefore, to two countries, to two cities, a thing altogether contrary to the maxim which Rome applied in the case of her own citizens: Nunquam duas patrias habebis, says Cicero (de legibus ii. 2). In the internal organization, the municipia generally took the great city as their model. They had a senate, comitia, consuls. Municipal cities could of their own will, renounce the benefit of autonomy in favor of the civil law of Rome, and when they had expressed this wish of assimilation, they were purely and simply incorporated into the republic.


—In order to define clearly the meaning of the word autonomy which is somewhat vague, it is necessary to distinguish it from sovereignty on the one hand, and self-government on the other.


—Sovereignty is absolute independence, which the nation alone can attribute to itself. The nation alone, whatever may be the form of its government, possesses the plenitude of power. It can stand as an individual (or as a collective person) vis-a-vis of foreign powers and it is supreme authority to its own citizens.


—Autonomy can belong only to a part of a state, or confederation. The characteristic of all autonomous political communities is, that they do not possess independence in foreign affairs, but enjoy a greater or less degree of independence in home matters. Among those who have the most complete autonomy must be counted the states of the German empire, next, the vassal states of Turkey, the Swiss cantons, the states of the North American Union. Some of these can even have semi-official, but not official representation abroad. In spite of great differences, they have this in common, that they have governments of their own with some of the attributes of sovereignty.


—The position of the two Scandinavian kingdoms united under the sceptre of Bernadotte is that of a personal union (see PERSONAL UNION.) It is the same in the case of Luxemburg and the Netherlands. The two halves of the Austro-Hungarian empire enjoy a large autonomy, almost the same as the German states, but with perceptible differences, not necessary to explain here (see AUSTRIA-HUNGARY, GERMAN EMPIRE.)


—The British colonies enjoy an internal autonomy which is almost complete, but abroad they are represented by the mother country.


—A narrower autonomy is accorded to Finland in Russia, to the states of the Austro-Hungarian crown, to certain British islands in the channel (Jersey, etc.) and to the Basque provinces in Spain. In former times certain French provinces, Scotland and Ireland enjoyed a very marked autonomy.


—It can not be said that there are at present in Europe provinces or communities which enjoy autonomy, in the proper sense of the word. We can only attribute to them a greater or less degree of self-government. Autonomy presupposes the right, no matter how restricted, of making laws.


—This is not the place to examine the question whether autonomy is desirable in itself or not. Abstract theory must answer that question in the affirmative; but in practice the question is very complex; it is essentially one of facts. We shall only say that no autonomy has been created outside of the British colonies. When it exists elsewhere, it is an historical growth, or rather it has maintained itself in spite of hostile influences which still continue to act. In the greater number of cases, perhaps in all, our preference would be for the preservation of such autonomy as has been able to resist these influences.


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