The Earliest Forms Of Government
Author: Wilson, Woodrow
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
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
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
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
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
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."
Locke, John, "Essays on Civil Government."
Rousseau, J. J., "The Social Contract."