Government, Its Origins, Part Two

The State

The Earliest Forms Of Government

Author: Wilson, Woodrow

Part II.

18. Of the theories of the origination of government in individual

lawgiving or in divine dictate, it is sufficient to say that the one

exaggerates the part played by human choice, and the other the part played by

man's implanted instincts, in the formation and shaping of political society.

19. The Truth in the Theories. - Upon each of these theories,

nevertheless, there evidently lies the shadow of a truth. Although government

did not originate in a deliberate contract, and although no system of law or

of social order was ever made 'out of hand' by any one man, government was not

all a mere spontaneous growth. Deliberate choice has always played a part in

its development. It was not, on the one hand, given to man ready-made by God,

nor was it, on the other hand, a human contrivance. In its origin it was

spontaneous, natural, twin-born with man and the family; Aristotle was simply

stating a fact when he said, "Man is by nature a political animal." But, once

having arisen, government was affected, and profoundly affected, by man's

choice; only that choice entered, not to originate, but to modify government.

20. Conclusion. - Viewed in the light of "the observed and recorded

experience of mankind," "the ground and origin of society is not a compact;

that never existed in any known case, and never was a condition of obligation

either in primitive or developed societies, either between subjects and

sovereign, or between the equal members of a sovereign body. The true ground

is the acceptance of conditions which came into existence by the sociability

inherent in man, and were developed by man's spontaneous search after

convenience. The statement that while the constitution of man is the work of

nature, that of the state is the work of art, is as misleading as the opposite

statement that governments are not made, but grow. The truth lies between

them, in such propositions as that institutions owe their existence and

development to deliberate human effort, working in accordance with

circumstances naturally fixed both in human character and in the external

field of its activity." ^1

[Footnote 1: John Morley, Rousseau, Vol. II., pp. 183-4.]

21. The Beginnings of Government. - Government must have had

substantially the same early history amongst all progressive races. It must

have begun in clearly defined family discipline. Such discipline would

scarcely be possible among races in which consanguinity was subject to

profound confusion and in which family organization therefore had no clear

basis of authority on which to rest. In every case, it would seem, the

origination of what we should deem worthy of the name of government must have

awaited the development of some such definite family as that in which the

father was known, and known as ruler. Whether or not the patriarchal family

was the first form of the family, it must have furnished the first adequate

form of government.

22. The Family the Primal Unit. - The family was the primal unit of

political society, and the seed-bed of all larger growths of government. The

individuals that were drawn together to constitute the earliest communities

were not individual men, as Locke and Locke's co-theorists would lead us to

believe, but individual families; and the organization of these families,

whether singly or in groups, furnished the ideas in which political society

took its root. The members of each family were bound together by kinship.

The father's authority bore the single sanction of his being the fountain-head

of the common blood-relationship. No other bond was known, or was then

conceivable, except this single bond of blood- relationship. A man out of

this circle of kinship was outside the boundaries of possible friendship, was

as of course an alien and an enemy.

23. Persistence of the Idea of Kinship. - When society grew, it grew

without any change of this idea. Kinship was still, actually or

theoretically, its only amalgam. The commonwealth was for long conceived of

as being only a larger kindred. When by natural increase a family multiplied

its branches and widened into a gens, and there was no grandfather,

great-grandfather, or other patriarch living to keep it together in actual

domestic oneness, it would still not separate. The extinct authority of the

actual ancestor could be replaced by the less comprehensive but little less

revered authority of some selected elder of the 'House,' the oldest living

ascendant, or the most capable. Here would be the materials for a complete

body politic held together by the old fibre of actual kinship.

24. Fictitious Kinship: Adoption. - Organization upon the basis of a

fictitious kinship was hardly less naturally contrived in primitive society.

There was the ready, and immemorial, fiction of adoption, which to the thought

of that time seemed no fiction at all. The adopted man was no less real a

member of the family than was he who was natural-born. His admittance to the

sacred, the exclusive religious mysteries of the family, at which no stranger

was ever suffered even to be present, and his acceptance of the family gods as

his own gods, was not less efficacious in making him one with the household

and the kin than if he had opened his veins to receive their blood. And so,

too, Houses could grow by the adoption of families, through the engrafting of

the alien branches into this same sacred stock of the esoteric religion of the

kindred. Whether naturally, therefore, or artificially, Houses widened into

tribes, and tribes into commonwealths, without loss of that kinship in the

absence of which, to the thinking of primitive men, there could be no

communion, and therefore no community, at all.

25. Kinship and Religion. - In this development kinship and religion

operated as the two chief formative influences. Religion seems in most

instances to have been at first only the expression of kinship. The central

and most sacred worship of each group of men, whether family or tribe, was the

worship of ancestors. At the family or communal altar the worshipper came

into the presence of the shades of the great dead of his family or race. To

them he did homage; from them he craved protection and guidance. The adopted

man, therefore, when received into this hallowed communion with the gods of

the family, accepted its fathers as his own, and took upon himself the most

solemn duties and acquired the most sacred privileges of kinship. So, too, of

the family adopted into the gens, or the gens received into the tribe. The

new group accepted the ancestry by accepting the worship of the adopting House

or community.

Religion was thus quite inseparably linked with kinship. It may be said

to have been the thought of which kinship was the embodiment. It was the sign

and seal of the common blood, the expression of its oneness, its sanctity, its

obligations. He who had entered into the bonds of this religion had,

therefore, entered into the heart of kinship and taken of its life-blood. His

blood-relationship was thus rendered no fiction at all to the thought of that

day, but a solemn verity, to which every religious ceremonial bore impressive


26. The Bonds of Religion and Precedent. - The results of such a system

of life and thought were most momentous. It is commonplace now to remark upon

English regard for precedent, and upon the interesting development of 'common'

and 'case' law. But not even an Englishman or an American can easily conceive

of any such reverential regard for precedent as must have resulted from a

canonization of ancestors. We have ourselves in a measure canonized our own

forefathers of the revolutionary era, worshipping them around fourth of July

altars, to the great benefit both of our patriotism and of our political

morality. But the men of '76, we are all willing to acknowledge, were at

their greatest only men. The ancestor of the primitive man became, on the

contrary, a god, and a god of undying power. His spirit lived on to bless or

to curse. His favor had to be propitiated, his anger appeased. And herein

was a terribly effective sanction for precedent. It was no light matter to

depart from the practices of these potent ancestors. To do so was to run in

the face of the deities. It was to outrage all religious feeling, to break

away from all the duties of spiritual kinship. Precedent was under such

circumstances imperative. Precedent of course soon aggregated into custom, -

such custom as it is now scarcely possible to conceive of, - a supreme,

uniform, imperious, infrangible rule of life which brought within its

inexorable commands every detail of daily conduct.

27. The Reign of Custom. - This reign of customary law was long and

decisive. Its tendency was to stiffen social life into a formula. It left

almost no room at all for the play of individuality. The family was a

despotism, society a routine. There was for each man a rigorous drill of

conformity to the custom of his tribe and house. Superstition strengthened

every cord and knot of the network of observance which bound men to the

practices of their fathers and their neighbors. That tyranny of social

convention which men of independent or erratic impulse nowadays find so

irksome, - that 'tyranny of one's next-door neighbor' against which there are

now and again found men bold enough to rebel, - had its ideal archetype in

this rigid uniformity of custom which held ancient society in hard


28. Fixity of System the Rule, Change the Exception. - Such was the

discipline that moulded the infancy of political society: within the family,

the supreme will of the father; outside the family, the changeless standards

of religious opinion. The tendency, of course, was for custom to become fixed

in a crust too solid ever to be broken through. In the majority of cases,

moreover, this tendency was fulfilled. Many races have never come out of this

tutelage of inexorable custom. Many others have advanced only so far beyond

it as those caste systems in which the law of status and the supremacy of

immemorial custom have worked out their logical result in an unchanging

balance of hereditary classes. The majority of mankind have remained

stationary in one or another of the earliest stages of political development,

their laws now constituting as it were ancient records out of which the

learned may rewrite the early history of those other races whom primitive

custom did not stagnate, but whose systems both of government and of thought

still retain many traces (illegible without illumination from the facts of

modern savage life) of a similar infancy. Stagnation has been the rule,

progress the exception. The greater part of the world illustrates in its laws

and institutions what the rest of the world has escaped; the rest of the world

illustrates what favorable change was capable of making out of the primitive

practices with which the greater part of the world has remained per force


29. Changes of System outrun Changes of Idea. - The original likeness of

the progressive races to those which have stood still is witnessed by that

persistency of idea of which I have already spoken. Progress has brought

nations out of the primitive practices vastly more rapidly than it has brought

them out of the primitive ideas of political society. Practical reform has now

and again attained a speed that has never been possible to thought. Instances

of this so abound in the daily history of the most progressive nations of the

world of to-day that it ought not to be difficult for us to realize its

validity in the world of the first days of society. Our own guilds and unions

and orders, merely voluntary and conventional organizations as they are,

retain in their still vivid sense of the brotherhood of their members at least

a reminiscence of the ideas of that early time when kinship was the only

conceivable basis of association between man and man, when "each assemblage of

men seems to have been conceived as a Family." ^1 In England political change

has made the great strides of the last two centuries without making the Crown

any less the central object of the theoretical or lawyerly conception of the

English constitution. Every day witnesses important extensions and even

alterations of the law in our courts under the semblance of a simple

application of old rules (secs. 258, 1421, 1422). Circumstances alter

principles as well as cases, but it is only the cases which are supposed to be

altered. The principles remain, in form, the same. Men still carry their

brides on wedding journeys, although the necessity for doing so ceased with

the practice, once general, of stealing a bride. 'Good blood' still continues

to work wonders, though achievement has come to be the only real patent of

nobility in the modern world. In a thousand ways we are more advanced than we

think we are.

[Footnote 1: Maine, Early History of Institutions, p. 232.]

30. How did Change enter? - The great question, then, is, How did change

enter at all that great nursery of custom in which all nations once wore short

clothes, and in which so many nations still occupy themselves with the

superstitions and the small play of childhood? How did it come about that

some men became progressive, while most did not? This is a question by no

means easy to answer, but there are probabilities which may throw some light

upon it.

31. Differences of Custom. - In the first place, it is not probable that

all the groups of men in that early time had the same customs. Custom was

doubtless as flexible and malleable in its infancy as it was inflexible and

changeless in its old age. In proportion as group separated from group in the

restless days of the nomadic life, custom would become differentiated from

custom. Then, after first being the cause, isolation would become the natural

result of differences of life and belief. A family or tribe which had taken

itself apart and built up a practice and opinion all its own would thereby

have made itself irrevocably a stranger to its one-time kinsmen of other

tribes. When its life did touch their life, it would touch to clash, and not

to harmonize or unite. There would be a Trojan war. The Greeks had

themselves come, it may be, from these very coasts of Asia Minor; the Trojans

were perhaps their forgotten and now alien kinsmen. Greeks, Romans, Celts,

had probably once been a single people; but how unlike did they become!

32. Antagonism between Customs. - We need not specially spur our

imaginations to realize how repugnant, how naturally antagonistic, to each

other families or tribes or races would be rendered by differences of custom.

"We all know that there is nothing that human beings (especially when in a low

state of culture) are so little disposed to tolerate as divergencies of

custom," says Mr. Hamerton, who is so sure of the fact that he does not stop

to illustrate it. How 'odd,' if not 'ridiculous,' the ways of life and the

forms of belief often seem to us in a foreign country, - how instinctively we

pronounce them inferior to our own! The Chinaman manages his rice quite as

skilfully with his 'chop-sticks' as we manage ours with our forks; and yet how

'queer,' how 'absurd' chop-sticks are! And so also in the weightier matters of

social and religious practice.

33. Competition of Customs. - To the view of the primitive man all

customs, great or small, were matters of religion. His whole life was an

affair of religion. For every detail of conduct he was accountable to his

gods and to the religious sentiment of his own people. To tolerate any

practices different from those which were sanctioned by the immemorial usage

of the tribe was to tolerate impiety. It was a matter of the deepest moment,

therefore, with each tribal group to keep itself uncontaminated by alien

custom, to stamp such custom out wherever and whenever it could be discovered.

That was a time of war, and war meant a competition of customs. The conqueror

crushed out the practices of the conquered and compelled them to conform to

his own.

34. The Better prevail. - Of course in such a competition the better

custom would prevail over the worse. ^1 The patriarchal family, with its

strict discipline of the young men of the tribe, would unquestionably be "the

best campaigning family," - would supply the best internal organization for

war. Hence, probably, the national aspect of the world to-day: peoples of

patriarchal tradition occupying in unquestioned ascendency the choicest

districts of the earth; all others thrust out into the heats or colds of the

less-favored continents, or crowded into the forgotten corners and

valley-closets of the world. So, too, with the more invigorating and

sustaining religions. Those tribes which were least intimidated by petty

phantoms of superstition, least hampered by the chains of empty but imperative

religious ceremonial, by the engrossing observance of times and seasons,

having greater confidence in their gods, would have greater confidence in

themselves, would be freer to win fortune by their own hands, instead of

passively seeking it in the signs of the heavens or in the aspects of nearer

nature; and so would be the surer conquerors of the earth. Religion and the

family organization were for these early groups of kindred men the two indexes

of character. In them was contained inferiority or superiority. The most

serviceable customs won the day.

[Footnote 1: For the best development of the whole idea of this paragraph and

others in this connection, see Bagehot, Physics and Politics, Chap. II.]

35. Isolation, Stagnation. - Absolute isolation for any of these early

groups would of course have meant stagnation; just as surely as contact with

other groups meant war. The world, accordingly, abounds in stagnated

nationalities; for it is full of instances of isolation. The great caste

nations are examples. It is, of course, only by a figure of speech that we

can speak of vast peoples like those of China and India as isolated, though it

is scarcely a figure of speech to say that they are stagnated. Still in a

very real sense even these populous nations were isolated. We may say, from

what we discern of the movements of the nations from their original seats,

that the races of China and India were the 'back-water' from the great streams

of migration. Those great streams turned towards Europe and left these

outlying waters to subside at their leisure. In subsiding there was no little

commotion amongst them. There were doubtless as many intertribal wars in the

early history of China before the amalgamation of the vast kingdom as there

have been in the history of India. That same competition of custom with

custom which took place elsewhere, also took place there. But the tribes

which pressed into China were probably from the first much of a kind, with

differing but not too widely contrasted customs, which made it possible for

them to assume at a now very remote period a uniformity of religion and of

social organization never known amongst the peoples that had gone to the West;

so that, before the history that the rest of the world remembers had begun,

China's wall had shut her in to a safe stagnation of monotonous uniformity.

The great Indian castes were similarly set apart in their vast peninsula by

the gigantic mountains which piled themselves between them and the rest of the

continent. The later conquests which China and India suffered at the hands of

Oriental invaders resulted in mere overlordships, which changed the

destination of taxes, but did not touch the forms of local custom.

36. Movement and Change in the West. - It is easy to imagine a rapid

death-rate, or at least an incessant transformation, amongst the customs of

those races which migrated and competed in the West. There was not only the

contact with each other which precipitated war and settled the question of

predominance between custom and custom; there was also the slow but potent

leaven of shifting scene and changing circumstance. The movement of the

peoples was not the march of a host. It was only the slow progress of

advancing races, its stages often centuries long, its delays fruitful of new

habits and new aspirations. We have, doubtless, a type of what took place in

those early days in the transformation of the Greeks after they had come down

to the sea from the interior of Asia Minor. We can dimly see them beginning a

new life there on those fertile coasts. Slowly they acquired familiarity with

their new neighbor, the sea. They learned its moods. They imagined new gods

breathing in its mild or storming in its tempestuous winds. They at length

trusted themselves to its mercy in boats. The handling of boats made them

sailors; and, lured from island to island across that inviting sea, they

reached those later homes of their race with which their name was to be

forever afterwards associated. And they reached this new country changed men,

their hearts strengthened for bolder adventure, their hands quick with a

readier skill, their minds open to greater enthusiasms and enriched with

warmer imaginings, their whole nature profoundly affected by contact with

Father Aegeus.

37. Migration and Conquest. - And so, to a greater or less extent, it

must have been with other races in their movements toward their final seats.

Not only the changes of circumstance and the exigencies of new conditions of

life, but also the conquests necessarily incident to those days of migration,

must have worked great, though slow, alterations in national character. We

know the Latins to have been of the same stock with the Greeks; but by the

time the Latins had reached Italy they were already radically different in

habit, belief, and capacity from the Greeks, who had, by other routes, reached

and settled Magna Graecia. Conquest changes not only the conquered, but also

the conquerors. Insensibly, it may be, but deeply, they are affected by the

character of the subdued or absorbed races. Norman does not merge with Saxon

without getting Saxon blood into his own veins, and Saxon thoughts into his

own head; neither had Saxon overcome Celt without being himself more or less

taken captive by Celtic superstition. And these are but historical instances

of what must have been more or less characteristic of similar events in

'prehistoric' times.

38. Intertribal Imitation. - There must, too, have been among the less

successful or only partially successful races a powerful tendency towards

imitation constantly at work, - imitation of the institutions of their more

successful neighbors and rivals. Just as we see, in the histories of the Old

Testament, frequent instances of peoples defeated by Jewish arms incontinently

forsaking their own divinities and humbly commending themselves to the God of

Israel, so must many another race, defeated or foiled in unrecorded wars, have

forced themselves to learn the customs in order that they might equal the

success of rival races.

39. Individual Initiative and Imitation. - And this impulse towards

imitation, powerful as between group and group, would of course, in times of

movement and conquest, be even more potent amongst individual men. Such times

would be rich with opportunity for those who had energy and enterprise. Many

a great career could be carved out of the events of days of steady

achievement. Men would, as pioneers in a new country or as leaders in war, be

more or less freed from the narrow restrictions of hard and fast custom. They

could be unconventional. Their individual gifts could have play. Each

success would not only establish their right to be themselves, but would also

raise up after them hosts of imitators. New types would find acceptance in

the national life; and so a new leaven would be introduced. Individual

initiative would at last be permitted a voice, even as against immemorial


40. Institutional Changes: Choice of Rulers. - It is easy to see how,

under the bracing influences of race competition, such forces of change would

operate to initiate and hasten a progress towards the perfecting of

institutions and the final abolition of slavery to habit. And it is no less

plain to see how such forces of change would affect the constitution of

government. It is evident that, as has been said (sec. 34), the patriarchal

family did furnish the best campaigning materials, and that those races whose

primitive organization was of this type did rapidly come to possess the

"most-competed-for" parts of the earth. They did come to be the chief, the

central races of history. But race aggregations, through conquest or

adoption, must have worked considerable changes in the political bearings of

the patriarchal principle. The direct line of male descent from the reputed

common progenitor of the race could hardly continue indefinitely to be

observed in filling the chieftainship of the race. A distinct element of

choice - of election - must have crept in at a very early period. The

individual initiative of which I have spoken, contributed very powerfully to

effect this change. The oldest male of the hitherto reigning family was no

longer chosen as of course, but the wisest or the bravest. It was even open

to the national choice to go upon occasion altogether outside this succession

and choose a leader of force and resource from some other family.

41. Hereditary replaced by Political Magistracy. - Of course mere growth

had much to do with these transformations. As tribes grew into nations, by

all the processes of natural and artificial increase, all distinctness of

mutual blood-relationship faded away. Direct common lines of descent became

hopelessly obscured. Cross-kinships fell into inextricable confusion. Family

government and race government became necessarily divorced, - differentiated.

The state continued to be conceived as a Family; but the headship of this huge

and complex family ceased to be natural and became political. So soon as

hereditary title was broken in upon, the family no longer dominated the state;

the state at last dominated the family. It often fell out that a son,

absolutely subject to his father in the family, was by election made master of

his father outside the family, in the state. Political had at least begun to

grow away from domestic authority.

42. Summary. - It will be possible to set forth the nature of these

changes more distinctly when discussing Greek and Roman institutions at length

in the next chapters. Enough has been said here to make plain the approaches

to those systems of government with which we are familiar in the modern world.

We can understand how custom crystallized about the primitive man; how in the

case of the majority of mankind it preserved itself against all essential

change; how with the favored minority of the race it was broken by war,

altered by imperative circumstance, modified by imitation, and infringed by

individual initiative; how change resulted in progress; and how, at last,

kinsmen became fellow-citizens.

Some Representative Authorities.

Bagehot, Walter, "Physics and Politics," N.Y., 1884.

Coulanges, Fustel de, "The Ancient City," Boston, 1882.

Darwin, Charles, "The Origin of Species," 2 vols., London, 1888.

Draper, J. W., "History of the Intellectual Development of Europe."

Freeman, E. A., "Comparative Politics," London, 1873.

Hearn, W. E., "The Aryan Household," London, 1879.

Huxley, T. H., "Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature," London, 1863.

Lang, Andrew, "Custom and Myth," London, 1885; and article "Family," in

the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Lecky, W. E. H., "History of European Morals."

Letourneau, Ch., "The Evolution of Marriage," N.Y.

Lubbock, Sir John, "The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive

Condition of Man," London, 1889; and "Prehistoric Times," London, 1890.

Lyall, Sir A. C., "Asiatic Studies, Religious and Social," London, 1882.

McLennan, J. F., "The Patriarchal Theory," London, 1885; and "Studies in

Ancient History," London, 1886; "Studies in Ancient History," Second Series,

London and N.Y., 1896.

Maine, Sir H. S., "Ancient Law," N.Y., 1885; "Early Law and Custom,"

N.Y., 1883, especially Chap. VII.; "Early History of Institutions," N.Y.,

1875; and "Village Communities in the East and West," N.Y., 1880. Maurer, G.

L. von, "Einleitung zur Geschichte der Mark-, Hof-, und Dorf-, und

Stadt-Verfassung und der offentlichen Gewalt," Munich, 1854.

Mayne, J. D., "Hindu Law and Custom," Madras, 1888.

Morgan, L. H., "Ancient Society."

Peschel, O., "The Races of Man," trans. London, 1876.

Smith, W. Robertson, "Marriage and Kinship in Early Arabia," Cambridge,


Spencer, H., "Principles of Sociology," Vol. I., Part III.; "Ceremonial

Institutions," and "Political Institutions."

Starke, C. N., "The Primitive Family," N.Y., 1889.

Tylor, E. B., "Early History of Mankind," London, 1878; "Primitive

Culture," London, 1871, 3rd ed., 1891.

Westermarck, Edward, "History of Human Marriage," London, 1891.

The classical statements of the contract theory of the origin of

government will be found in

Hooker, "Ecclesiastical Polity."

Hobbes, "Leviathan."

Locke, John, "Essays on Civil Government."

Rousseau, J. J., "The Social Contract."

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