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Self-control is the core character virtue for the month of September. Often a key topic in self-help books, the character trait of self-control is important not just for successful leaders and successful students, but also for citizens in democratic republics like the United States of America.

What is Self-Control?

The ability to govern ourselves. Rejecting wrong desires and doing what is right.

Where does the word come from?

Word etymology: In 1711 the term was coined by the English moral philosopher Anthony Ashley Cooper Shaftesbury and refers to control or restraint of oneself or one’s actions, feelings, etc.

Self-Control in Action: William Penn (1644-1718)

He died before the United States of America was established, but in 1984 William Penn was the first person of only eight people in history to receive honorary citizenship in the U.S. Why would the U.S. grant honorary citizenship to someone almost 300 years after his death?

On November 28, 1984, Ronald Reagan proclaimed, “To commemorate these lasting contributions of William Penn and Hannah Callowhill Penn to the founding of our nation and the development of its principles, the Congress of the United States, by Senate Joint Resolution 80, approved October 19, 1984, authorized and requested the President to declare these persons honorary citizens of the United States of America.”

Granted by King Charles II of England, Penn had full authority to dictate the religion and rule with absolute authority, a large area of land that was later named Pennsylvania.

The land Penn was granted authority over

However, because he believed granting individuals the rights and responsibilities of self-government would allow them to flourish, he restrained his own interests and implemented a democratic system that would benefit all men instead of just himself. While Penn was passionate about his own Quaker faith and was imprisoned four times because he held to his beliefs, he chose to never establish an official religion in Pennsylvania. Instead he fought for individual rights by establishing elected representatives, a separation of powers, freedom of religion and impartial trials.

Shortly after he came to Pennsylvania, his ideals of impartial trials were tested when Swedish immigrant Margaret Mattison was accused of witchcraft. With an interpreter for Mattison, 12 jury members and Penn, serving as judge, conducted the questioning. At the end of the trial, the jury declared Mattison guilty of having the reputation of a witch, but that she was not guilty of practicing witchcraft. She was set free. It was the first and last recorded witch trial in Penn’s colony.

While he had been given ownership of the land by the King of England, Penn also

recognized that the Native Americans living on the land also had a right to it. On July 15, 1682, Penn and the Delaware Indians struck a deal in which Penn purchased the land from them and established peaceful trade agreements.

Self-control is at the heart of the principles Penn advocated and implemented in Pennsylvania. Without citizens capable of controlling their own actions, religious liberty, toleration and respect for personal conscience, self-government cannot long survive.

It was partly due to Penn’s influence that the New England colonies had the elements of virtue, self-control and desire for liberty that would lead to the formation of the United States of America a hundred years later. U.S. citizens today owe a debt to William Penn for the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees their liberties.

Quotes From William Penn

No man is fit to command another that cannot command himself. 

To be innocent is to be not guilty; but to be virtuous is to overcome our evil inclinations.”

If thou wouldst conquer thy weakness, thou must never gratify it. No man is compelled to evil: his consent only makes it his. It is no sin to be tempted, but to be overcome.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is self-control important? How can a lack of self-control keep you from reaching your goals?
  • How can developing self-control help you improve as a student? As an athlete? As a son or daughter? As a citizen?
  • How is being disciplined related to self-control?
  • How is self-government connected to self-control?
  • Self-control is a habit that takes years of practice to develop. What can you do today to start building a habit of self-control?
  • If you can’t refuse a slice of chocolate cake when you are on a diet, are you actually free or are you a slave to yourself?


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