The State

The Earliest Forms Of Government

Author:      Wilson, Woodrow

 

Part I.

 

 

     1. Nature of the Question. - The probable origin of government is a

question of fact, to be settled, not by conjecture, but by history.  Some

traces we can still discern of the history of primitive societies.  As

fragments of primitive animals have been kept for us sealed up in the earth's

rocks, so fragments of primitive institutions have been preserved, embedded in

the rocks of surviving law or custom, mixed up with the rubbish of accumulated

tradition, crystallized in the organization of still savage tribes, or kept

curiously in the museum of fact and rumor swept together by some ancient

historian.  Limited and perplexing as such means of reconstructing history may

be, they repay patient comparison and analysis as richly as do the materials

of the archaeologist and the philologian. The facts as to the origin and early

history of government are at least as available as the facts concerning the

growth and kinship of languages or the genesis and development of the arts and

sciences.  Such light as we can get from the knowledge of the infancy of

society thus meagrely afforded us is, at any rate, better than that derived

from a priori speculations founded upon our acquaintance with our modern

selves, or from any fancies, how learnedly soever constructed, that we might

weave as to the way in which history might plausibly be read backwards.

 

     2. Races to be studied: the Aryans. - For purposes of widest comparison

in tracing the development of government it would of course be desirable to

include in a study of early society not only those Aryan and Semitic races

which have played the chief parts in the history of the European world, but

also every primitive tribe, whether Hottentot or Iroquois, Finn or Turk, of

whose institutions and development we know anything at all.  Such a world-wide

survey would be necessary to any induction which should claim to trace

government in all its forms to a common archetype.  But, practically, no such

sweeping together of incongruous savage usage and tradition is needed to

construct a safe text from which to study the governments that have grown and

come to full flower in the political world to which we belong.  In order to

trace the lineage of the European and American governments which have

constituted the order of social life for those stronger and nobler races which

have made the most notable progress in civilization, it is essential to know

the political history of the Greeks, the Latins, the Teutons, and the Celts

principally, if not only, and the original political habits and ideas of the

Aryan and Semitic races alone.  The existing governments of Europe and America

furnish the dominating types of to-day.  To know other systems which are

defeated or dead would aid only indirectly towards an understanding of those

which are alive and triumphant.

 

     3. Semitic and Turanian Instance. - Even Semitic institutions, indeed,

must occupy only a secondary place in such inquiries.  The main stocks of

modern European forms of government are Aryan.  The institutional history of

Semitic or Turanian peoples is hardly part of the history of European forms of

governments: it is only analogous to it in many of the earlier stages of

development.  Aryan, Semitic, and Turanian races alike seem to have passed at

one period or another through similar forms of social organization.  Each,

consequently, furnishes illustrations in its history, and in those social

customs and combinations which have most successfully survived the wreck of

change, of probable early forms and possible successive stages of political

life among the others.  Aryan practice may often be freed from doubt by

Semitic or Turanian instance; but it is Aryan practice we principally wish to

know.

 

     4. Government rested First upon Kinship. - What is known of the central

nations of history clearly reveals the fact that social organization, and

consequently government (which is the visible form of social organization),

originated in kinship.  The original bond of union and the original sanction

for magisterial authority were one and the same thing, namely, real or feigned

blood-relationship.  In other words, families were the original units of

social organization; and were at first, no doubt, in a large degree separate.

The man and his wife and offspring lived generally apart.  It was only by slow

stages and under the influence of many changes of habit and environment that

the family organization widened and families were drawn together into

communities.  A group of men who considered themselves in some sort kinsmen

constituted the first State.

 

     5. Early History of the Family; was it originally Patriarchal? - The

origin of government is, therefore, intimately connected with the early

history of the family.  It is the more unfortunate that the conclusions to be

drawn from what is known of the beginnings of the family should furnish matter

for much modern difference of opinion.  This difference of opinion may be

definitely summed up in the two following contrasted views: -

 

     (1) That the patriarchal family, to which the early history of the

greater races runs back, and with which that history seems to begin, was the

family in its original estate, - the original, the true archaic family.

 

     The patriarchal family is that in which descent is traced to a common

     male ancestor, through a direct male line, and in which the authority of

     rule vests in the eldest living male ascendant.

 

     (2) That the patriarchal family, which is acknowledged to be found in one

stage or another of the development of almost every race now civilized, was a

developed and comparatively late form of the family, and not its first form,

having been evolved through various stages and varieties of polyandry

(plurality of husbands) and of polygyny (plurality of wives) out of a possibly

original state of promiscuity and utter confusion in the relations of the

sexes and of consequent confusion in blood-relationship and in the government

of offspring.

 

     In brief, it is held on the one hand that the patriarchal family was the

original family; and on the other, that it was not the original but a derived

form, others of a less distinct organization preceding it.

 

     6. The Evidence. - It is of course impracticable to set forth here the

miscellaneous evidence which has been swept together concerning so very

obscure and complex a question.  Suffice it to say that among many primitive

races cases abound of the reckoning of kinship through mothers only, as if in

matter-of-course doubt as to paternity; of consanguinity signified throughout

the wide circle of a tribe, not by real or supposed common descent from a

human ancestor, but by means of the fiction of common descent from some bird

or beast, from which the tribe takes its name, as if for lack of any better

means of determining common blood; of marriages of brothers with sisters, and

of groups of men with groups of women, or of groups of men with some one

woman.  In the case of some tribes, moreover, among whom polygamy or even

monogamy now exists, together with a patriarchal discipline, it is thought to

be possible to trace clear indications of an evolution of these more civilized

forms of family organization from earlier practices of loose multiple

marriages or even still earlier promiscuity in the sexual relation.

 

     The peoples, however, among whom such confusions of sexual relationships

have been observed are not those who have emerged upon the European field.

Among almost every European folk there is clear, unbroken tradition running

back to a patriarchal power and organization.  Roman law, that prolific mother

of modern legal idea and practice, bears impressed upon every feature of it

indubitable marks of its descent from a time when the father ruled as king and

high priest in the family.  Greek institutions speak hardly less unequivocally

of a similar derivation.  No belief is more deeply fixed in the traditions of

the great peoples who have made modern history than the belief of direct

common descent, through males, from a common male ancestor, human or divine;

and nothing could well be more numerous or distinct than the traces inhering

in the very heart of their polity of an original patriarchal organization of

the family as the archetype of their political order.

 

     7. The Warrantable Conclusion. - The evidence of more confused marriage

relationships, moreover, is nowhere of such a character as to warrant the

conclusion that promiscuity in sexual connections has among any people marked

the first or any regular stage of social development.  "All the evidence we

possess tends to show that among our earliest human ancestors the family, not

the tribe, formed the nucleus of every social group, and, in many cases, was

itself perhaps the only social group." "It seems probable, moreover, that

monogamy prevailed almost exclusively among our earliest human ancestors." ^1

Promiscuity belongs, not to the most primitive times or to the regular order

of social life, but rather to exceptional seasons of demoralization or

confusion; to times of decadence rather than to the origins of the race.

Polyandry has grown up only where the women were fewer than the men, and has

almost necessarily broken down when the numerical balance between the sexes

was restored.  Polygyny "has been less prevalent at the lowest stages of

civilization, - where wars do not seriously disturb the proportion of the

sexes; where life is chiefly supported by hunting, and female labor is

consequently of slight value; where there is no accumulation of wealth and no

distinction of class, - than it is at somewhat higher stages." ^2 Where it

does exist, it is invariably confined to a small minority of wealthy and

powerful men; the majority, from choice or necessity, are always monogamous.

First and last, the strong monogamous instinct, which man shares with all the

higher orders of beasts, has tended to exclude promiscuous or multiplied

sexual connections, and to build up a distinct family order round about

monogamous marriages.

 

[Footnote 1: Westermarck, History of Human Marriage, pp. 538, 549.]

 

[Footnote 2: Id., 548.]

 

     The efficient races who have dominated the European stage, at any rate,

came into their place of leadership and advantage under the discipline of the

patriarchal order of family life.  Whether with several wives or with only

one, the father was chief and master among them, and the family showed that

clear authority and close organization which was to serve in fullness of time

as the prototype and model for the State.

 

     8. From the Patriarchal Family to the State. - Among these Aryan peoples

there was first the family ruled by the father as king and priest. There was

no majority for the sons so long as their father lived.  They might marry and

have children, but they could have no entirely separate and independent

authority during their father's life save such as he suffered them to

exercise.  All that they possessed, their lives even and the lives of those

dependent upon them, were at the disposal of this absolute father- sovereign.

Such a group naturally broadens in time into the 'House,' or gens, and over

this too a chief kinsman rules.  There are common religious rites and

observances which the gens regards as symbolic of its unity as a composite

family; and heads of houses exercise many high representative and probably

some imperative magisterial functions by virtue of their position. Then, as

the social order widens, Houses are in their turn absorbed.  The first

distinctively political unit, no doubt, was the Tribe: broader than the gens

and tending to subordinate it; a body in which kinship must still have been

deemed the bond of union, but in which, nevertheless, it must have been a very

obscure bond indeed, and in which family rights must steadily have tended to

give way before the establishment of a common order within which the House

served only as a unit of membership and a corporation for worship.

 

     Tribes at length united to form a State.  In days of nomadic habit the

organization of the Tribe sufficed, and no more fixed, definite, or effective

order was attempted.  But when a people's travelling days were over, a settled

life brought new needs of organization: a larger power must have sprung up

almost of itself.  Then a very significant thing happened. The State in effect

ousted both the House and the Tribe from their functions as political units,

and came itself to rest, not upon these for foundation, but upon the family,

the original formation of the social substructure.  Tribe and gens served

henceforth only as religious corporations or as the convenient units of

representation in the action of the State.

 

     9. Prepossessions to be put away. - In looking back to the first stages

of political development, it is necessary to put away from the mind certain

prepossessions which are both proper and legitimate to modern conceptions of

government, but which can have found no place in primitive thought on the

subject.  It is not possible nowadays to understand the early history of

institutions without thus first divesting the mind of many conceptions most

natural and apparently most necessary to it.  The centuries which separate us

from the infancy of society separate us also, by the whole length of the

history of human thought, from the ideas into which the fathers of the race

were born; and nothing but a most credulous movement of the imagination can

enable the student of to-day to throw himself back into those conceptions of

social connection and authority in which government took its rise.

 

     10. The State and the Land. - How is it possible, for instance, for the

modern mind to conceive distinctly a travelling political organization, a

State without territorial boundaries or the need of them, composed of persons,

but associated with no fixed or certain habitat?  And yet such were the early

tribal states, - nomadic groups, now and again hunting, fishing, or tending

their herds by this or that particular river or upon this or that familiar

mountain slope or inland seashore, but never regarding themselves or regarded

by their neighbors as finally identified with any definite territory.

Historians have pointed out the abundant evidences of these facts that are to

be found in the history of Europe no further back than the fifth century of

our own era.  The Franks came pouring into the Roman empire just because they

had had no idea theretofore of being confined to any particular Frank-land.

They left no France behind them at the sources of the Rhine; and their kings

quitted those earlier seats of their race, not as kings of France, but as

kings of the Franks. There were kings of the Franks when the territory now

called Germany, as well as that now known as France, was in the possession of

that imperious race: and they became kings of France only when, some centuries

later, they had settled down to the unaccustomed habit of confining themselves

to a single land.  Drawn by the processes of feudalization (secs. 313, 323,

351, 352), sovereignty then found at last a local habitation and a name.

 

     11. The same was true of the other Germanic nations.  They also had

chiefs who were the chiefs of people, not the chiefs of lands.  There were

kings of the English for many a year, even for several centuries after A. D.

449, before there was such a thing as a king of England.  John was the first

officially to assume the latter title.  From the first, it is true, social

organization has everywhere tended to connect itself more and more intimately

with the land from which each social group has drawn its sustenance.  When the

migratory life was over, especially, and the settled occupations of

agriculture had brought men to a stand upon the land which they were learning

to till, political life, like all the other communal activities, came to be

associated more and more directly with the land on which each community lived.

But such a connection between lordship and land was a slowly developed notion,

not a notion twin-born with the notion of government.

 

     12. Modern definitions of a State always limit sovereignty to some

definite land.  "A State" - runs the modern definition - "is a People

organized for law within a definite territory." But the first builders of

government would not have found such a definition intelligible.  They could

not have understood why they might not move their whole people, 'bag and

baggage,' to other lands, or why, for the matter of that, they might not keep

them moving their tents and possessions unrestingly from place to place in

perpetual migration, without in the least disturbing the integrity or even the

administration of their infant 'State.' Each organized group of men had other

means of knowing their unity than mere neighborhood to one another; other

means of distinguishing themselves from similar groups of men than distance or

the intervention of mountain or stream.  The original governments were knit

together by bonds closer than those of geography, more real than the bonds of

mere contiguity.  they were bound together by real or assumed kinship.  They

had a corporate existence which they regarded as inhering in their blood and

as expressed in all their daily relations with each other.  They lived

together because of these relations; they were not related because they lived

together.

 

     13. Contract versus Status. - Scarcely less necessary to modern thought

than the idea of territoriality as connected with the existence of a State, is

the idea of contract as determining the relations of individuals.  And yet

this idea, too, must be put away if we would understand primitive society.  In

that society men were born into the station and the part they were to have

throughout life, as they still are among the peoples who preserve their

earliest conceptions of social order. This is known as the law of status.  It

is not a matter of choice or of voluntary arrangement in what relations men

shall stand towards each other as individuals.  He who is born a slave, let

him remain a slave; the artisan, an artisan; the priest, a priest, - is the

command of the law of status.  Excellency cannot avail to raise any man above

his parentage; aptitude is suffered to operate only within the sphere of each

man's birthright.  No man may lose 'caste' without losing respectability also

and forfeiting the protection of the law.  Or, to go back to a less developed

society, no son, however gifted, may lawfully break away from the authority of

his father, however cruel or incapable that father may be; or make any

alliance which will in the least degree draw him away from the family alliance

and duty into which he was born.  There is no thought of contract. Every man's

career is determined for him before his birth.  His blood makes his life.  To

break away from one's birth station, under such a system, is to make breach

not only of social, but also of religious duty, and to bring upon oneself the

curses of men and gods.  Primitive society rested, not upon contract, but upon

status.  Status had to be broken through by some conscious or unconscious

revolution before so much as the idea of contract could arise; and when that

idea did arise, change and variety were assured. Change of the existing social

order was the last thing of which the primitive community dreamed; and those

races which allowed the rule of status to harden about their lives still stand

where they stood a thousand years ago.  "The leaving of men to have their

careers determined by their efficiencies," says Mr. Spencer, "we may call the

principle of change in social organization."

 

     14. Theories concerning the Origin of the State: the Contract Theory. -

Such views of primitive society furnish us with destructive dissolvents of

certain theories once of almost universal vogue as to the origin of

government.  The most famous, and for our present purposes most important, of

these theories is that which ascribes the origin of government to a 'social

compact' among primitive men.

 

     The most notable names connected with this theory as used to account

     for the existence of political society are the names of Hooker, Hobbes,

     Locke, and Rousseau.  It is to be found developed in Hooker's

     Ecclesiastical Polity, Hobbes' Leviathan, Locke's Civil Government, and

     Rousseau's The Social Contract.

 

     This theory begins always with the assumption that there exists, outside

of and above the laws of men, a Law of Nature. ^1 Hobbes conceived this Law to

include "justice," "equity," "modesty," "mercy"; "in sum, 'doing to others as

we would be done to.'" All its chief commentators considered it the abstract

standard to which human law should conform. Into this Law primitive men were

born.  It was binding upon their individual consciences; but their consciences

were overwhelmed by individual pride, ambition, desire, and passion, which

were strong enough to abrogate Nature's Law.  That Law, besides, did not bind

men together. Its dictates, if obeyed, would indeed enable them to live

tolerably with one another; but its dictates were not obeyed; and, even if

they had been, would have furnished no permanent frame of civil government,

inasmuch as they did not sanction magistracies, the setting of some men to be

judges of the duty and conduct of other men, but left each conscience to

command absolutely the conduct of the individual.  In the language of the

'judicious Hooker,' the laws of Nature "do bind men absolutely, even as they

are men, although they have never any settled fellowship, never any solemn

agreement, amongst themselves what to do or not to do; but forasmuch as we are

not by ourselves sufficient to furnish ourselves with competent store of

things needful for such a life as our Nature doth desire, a life fit for the

dignity of man, therefore to supply these defects and imperfections which are

in us living single and solely by ourselves, we are naturally induced to seek

communion and fellowship with others.  This was the cause of men uniting

themselves at first in politic societies." ^2 In other words, the belligerent,

non-social parts of man's character were originally too strong for this Law of

Nature, and the 'state of nature,' in which that Law, and only that Law,

offered restraint to the selfish passions, became practically a state of war,

and consequently intolerable. It was brought to an end in the only way in

which such a condition of affairs could be brought to an end without mutual

extermination, namely, by common consent, by men's "agreeing together mutually

to enter into one community and make one body politic." (Locke.) This

agreement meant submission to some one common authority, which should judge

between man and man; the surrender on the part of each man of all rights

antagonistic to the rights of others; forbearance and cooperation.  Locke

confidently affirmed "that all men are naturally in that state [a state, i.e.,

of nature], and remain so till, by their own consents, they make themselves

members of some politic society." It was only as the result of deliberate

choice, in the presence of the possible alternative of continuing in this

state of nature, that commonwealths came into being.

 

[Footnote 1: For the natural history of this conception of a Law of Nature,

see Maine, Ancient Law, Chap. III.  Also post, secs. 269-271.]

 

[Footnote 2: Ecclesiastical Polity, Book I., sec. 10.]

 

     15. Traditions of an Original Lawgiver. - Ancient tradition had another

way of accounting for the origin of laws and institutions.  The thought of

almost every nation of antiquity went back to some single lawgiver at whose

hands their government had taken its essential and characteristic form, if not

its beginning.  There was a Moses in the background of many a history besides

that of the Jews.  In the East there was Menu; Crete had her Minos; Athens her

Solon; Sparta her Lycurgus; Rome her Numa; England her Alfred.  These names do

not indeed in every instance stand so far back as the beginning of government;

but they do carry the mind back in almost every case to the birth of national

systems, and suggest the overshadowing influence of individual statesmen as

the creative power in framing the greater combinations of politics.  They

bring the conception of conscious choice into the history of institutions.

They look upon systems as made, rather than as developed.

 

     16. Theory of the Divine Origin of the State. - Not altogether unlike

these ancient conceptions of lawgivers towering above other men in wisdom and

authority, dominating political construction, and possibly inspired by divine

suggestion, is that more modern idea which attributes human government to the

immediate institution of God himself, - to the direct mandate of the Creator.

This theory has taken either the definite form of regarding human rulers as

the direct vicegerents of God, or the vague form of regarding government as in

some way given to man as part of his original make-up

 

     17.  The Theories and the Facts. - Modern research into the early history

of mankind has made it possible to reconstruct, in outline, much of the

thought and practice of primitive society, and has thus revealed facts which

render it impossible for us to accept any of these views as adequately

explaining what they seek to explain.  The defects of the social compact

theory are too plain to need more than brief mention.  That theory simply has

no historical foundation.  The family was the original, and status the fixed

basis, of primitive society.  The individual counted for nothing; society -

the family, the tribe - counted for everything. Government came, so to say,

before the individual and was coeval with his first human instincts.  There

was no place for contract; and yet this theory makes contract the first fact

of social life.  Such a contract as it imagines could not have stood unless

supported by that reverence for 'law' which is an altogether modern principle

of action.  The times in which government originated knew absolutely nothing

of law as we conceive it. The only bond was kinship, - the common blood of the

community; the only individuality was the individuality of the community as a

whole.  Man was merged in society.  Without kinship there was no duty and no

union.  It was not by compounding rights, but by assuming kinship, that groups

widened into States, - not by contract, but by adoption.  Not deliberate and

reasoned respect for law, but habitual and instinctive respect for authority,

held men together; and authority did not rest upon mutual agreement, but upon

mutual subordination.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center