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1.3 A (Very) Brief History of Government

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the historical path of the development of governments.
  2. Understand historical events and forces that shaped the development of those governments

One piece of evidence that would suggest that humans prefer an organized government is that for thousands of years, we’ve always had them. For much of human history, people seem to prefer to live in organized groups. These groups took different forms in different times and places, but generally there seems always to have been a process by which people made decisions. We know a little about the earliest states, which ranged from democracies and republics in ancient Greece and Rome, to early kingdoms and empires all over the world, to ancient states in China where everybody who wasn’t the king was, in effect, a slave.

Tribal societies tend to be somewhat egalitarianA society or community in which people are treated roughly the same, with equal respect and privileges. The opposite would be aristocratic, in which some people have more rights than others.—everyone tends to have more of an equal say. Native American tribes and tribes in ancient Europe might have had a king or a chief, but that person was often elected and had limited power (with no guarantee that you’d be succeeded by your son or daughter). Some tribes, such as the Commanches of the American Southwest, chose separate war and peace chiefs, who even then had authority only to the extent that they were successful in the ventures they organized. The state has always had to provide something to people to be legitimate, and even the kings and emperors of antiquity weren’t immune to public pressure. Governments continued (and still continue) to rule as long as they provided some combination of stability, safety and prosperity.

Many ancient kingdoms and empires made religious appeals, even going so far as to say that the king or emperor was a god and therefore had to be obeyed. We don’t know to what extent people believed this, even among the people who said it. And it was a dicey proposition—if you’re a god, and you make it rain, and then one year it doesn’t rain, people might begin to doubt. An El Nino weather event resulted in droughts in Egypt that toppled the Old Kingdom around 2150 BCE. Succeeding pharaohs in the Middle and New Kingdom eras were a little more careful about claiming to be rainmakers after that.

States and rulers didn’t give up entirely as a basis for religion. Kings and emperors around the world, from Japan and China to Europe, frequently claimed to be either chosen by god or, in some instances, gods themselves. In ancient Greece and Rome, religion was an important part of civic life. Elected officials in the Roman republic had to perform ceremonial religious duties as part of their jobs. Roman emperors often claimed to be gods themselves, but then adopted Christianity as a way of maintaining authority and legitimacy as the empire came under increasing pressure from within and without.

The Greeks and Romans

Not every state was ruled by a king or an emperor. Studies have shown that if societies become wealthy enough, they tend to become more democratic.Minxin Pei, Economic Institutions, Democracy and Development, This appears to be because having satisfied their basic needs, people can turn to other pursuits, and are less likely to surrender quite so much liberty in exchange for security. So, city-states (states not much bigger than a city, but sovereign nations nonetheless) in Greece and nearby lands evolved into something like democracies. Ancient Athens was a democracyA system of government involving direct rule by the people., in that a lot of people voted directly on the affairs of state. However, that voting population was limited to free, property-owning males, so that women, foreigners and slaves (which may have been as much as two-thirds of the population of Athens) didn’t get to vote. And even in this democracy, the citizens elected less-numerous councils above them to make important decisions. So they were also somewhat like republicsA system of government in which people elect others to make decisions on their behalf., in which people elect other people to make decisions on their behalf.

Greece was never a very big country, and even when Alexander the Great conquered a good chunk of the world he knew about, his empire didn’t outlive his death at age of 33. But the Greeks are very important to the history of politics. They wrote—a lot—and a lot of their work survives. The multiplicity of Greek city-states meant they experimented with a variety of governments. The work of Plato and especially Aristotle invented political science as the formalized study of governments. What they did and wrote had a huge impact on the western world, and eventually on the globe.

Rome was also a city-state, and the Romans were very impressed with the culture and learning of the Greeks. The Roman state was much more enduring, and Roman political practice and law also had a huge impact on the development of government through the ages. Rome, which grew from a city-state to an empire, evolved from rule by a king to a republic in about 508 BCE. The Roman republic featured a series of elected officials, each with specific duties, and a senate, where elected citizens would also weigh in on the tasks and issues of the day. Roman government was noted for its checks and balances—it wasn’t difficult for one part of government to block action by another part. The Roman republic had so many checks and balances that it was in fact hard to get anything done, so that needed changes to the law, such as land reform and tax reform, never happened. In the end, the richest empire in the western world couldn’t afford to defend itself, and attempted to rule an empire with what amounted to a government designed to run a city.

When Octavius, (Julius Caesar’s nephew) became emperor in 27 BCE, it meant that somebody could finally make a decision, and the Roman Empire lasted nearly another 500 years. But a system of government that relies on continually finding just the right guy to be in charge is an iffy proposition.

The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, based in Constantinople (now Istanbul) lasted another 1,000 years. In the west, however, what survived the empire was what we now think of as the Catholic Church, and it was to dominate European politics for the next 1,000 years. The church, as the one institution that survived the fall of Rome (conquered, sacked and then finally occupied by invading peoples from the north and east), created order, preserved learning, and exercised some influence and authority over the many kingdoms that divided up Europe and the old Roman world.

Meanwhile, the Islamic empire that grew out of Saudi Arabia around 700 CE also was heavily influenced by faith, so that the two competing sides in the western world were significantly faith-based states. This led to a lot of debate about the role of the church in secular (everyday) affairs, a debate that never quite seems to leave us, even today.

After the Roman Empire

This era in Europe, from 500–1,000 CE, is sometimes called the Dark AgesA time in Europe when society was in a state of uncertainty following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire., which scholars have more recently decried as an incorrect characterization of life at the time. But it is true that life was less safe; the old Roman order had broken down. Travel became more difficult, trade dried up, and people again traded liberty for security. This led to the development of a system called feudalism, in which common people bound themselves to powerful rulers who offered security in exchange for labor and goods. The legitimacy of the feudal state was, to some extent, based on this mutual obligation—feed me and I’ll keep the bad guys away. Some scholars say feudalism flourished between 900 and 1500 CE, part of which (around 900–1200 CE) is often referred to as the Middle AgesAfter the Dark Ages and before the Renaissance, a historical period when feudalism helped restore order to Europe.. At its best, it meant a safer life; at its worst, it meant economic exploitation and a lack of freedom. A peasant classified as a serf, for example, was bound to the land and the person who owned it—not quite a slave, but certainly not a free person.

FeudalismA system of government in which people trade liberty for security. was not very economically efficient. Being self-sufficient is an attractive idea, but you generally get better stuff at better prices if you can shop around. And not every part of every country is as good at producing things as some other places—it would be very expensive to grow oranges in the Dakotas, and they probably wouldn’t taste as good as oranges from California and Florida. But with trade limited by the uncertain conditions at the time, people’s living standards were sometimes lower than they had been than during the Pax Romana (the Roman peace).

This wasn’t to last, however. Feudalism helped create order out of chaos. This system held together, somewhat roughly, for 500 years or so. Order created safety, which made travel and trade possible again, and that meant more wealth. As Karl Marx once observed, by creating security, feudalism sowed the seeds of its own demise. From small, self-sustaining political units, empires and kingdoms grew. Travel and trade became possible again, people’s lives got better, and suddenly the guy with the big muscles and the pointed stick wasn’t quite as important as the guy with all the gold. Increasingly, urban areas grew and cities began to clamor for freedom if not outright independence from kings, queens and the duke of whatever.

The Renaissance

The return of stability and order helped create RenaissanceA period in which Europe recovered from the uncertainty of the previous several hundred years, highlighted by the growth of trade, wealth, and the arts and sciences.. From an old French word meaning “to be reborn,” the Renaissance (14th-17th centuries) saw an increase in arts and literature as well as trade and material wealth, and, inevitably, more participatory forms of government. Italian city-states such as Florence and Venice became republics; people in what is now Switzerland and the Netherlands fought for and won their independence from the descendants of the feudal lords of Europe.

Along the way a couple of remarkable events occurred that had great impact on the later history of governments. In the middle of a dispute with a group of unhappy barons, in 1215 King John of England was forced to sign a document we now refer to as the Magna Carta, “the Great Charter.” (They didn’t call it that. It was later referred to as Magna Carta so as to distinguish it from another charter.) The Magna Carta talked about a lot of things that involved particular disputes between John and the feudal lords underneath him. But of particular importance to us, it established that justice had to be applied evenly to all, as opposed to the king just throwing you in jail. As with a lot of good ideas from antiquity, this didn’t apply to you if you were a serf, but it was a start. (A serf was a half-step above a slave but below a true citizen; serfs were bound to the land and the people who owned it.)

Magna Carta formalized the council of feudal lords and churchmen who had advised English kings since William the Conqueror, although it would be a mistake to call this a parliament. And, in fact, King John didn’t make much use of it despite signing the Magna Carta (and he died in 1216). But his grandson, Edward I, called Parliament into formal session in 1295, including the barons, earls and dukes of the kingdom, church officials, but also knights and burgesses (free citizens who were leaders of local communities) from every shire and borough. The knights and burgesses eventually became the commons, which today is called the House of Commons, in effect the community of the state.

Why would a king call a parliament into session? Edward, like rulers before and after, wanted money with which to fight wars. He wanted more land; and his neighbors wanted to take land from him. Having the parliament raise money took pressure off the king and legitimized the raising of taxes. But it also gave this early legislative body a power that would eventually make it far more durably powerful than any king. Eventually members of this parliament were elected, although it would take another 500 years before ordinary citizens were allowed to vote and a century after that for women to gain that right. But as with the legal rights prescribed in the Magna Carta, it was a start.

The other big event that was to echo down the hallways of history was the Reformation. In 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany, a professor and priest named Martin Luther walked up the church door and nailed a series of statements (the “Ninety-five Theses”) that were to change the western world. (While this may sound like an act of defiance, in fact it was the 16th century equivalent of posting something on Facebook to see how people will react.) Luther’s arguments weren’t about politics; in his mind, he only hoped to reform the church. The church, dominated by popes and cardinals in Rome, was raising money for wars and monuments by promising salvation to people who paid enough money. From what Luther observed, that wasn’t what the Bible said, and consequently people who couldn’t afford it were giving up money for a promise the church couldn’t keep. Neither the pope nor Luther would back down in this dispute. Some German princes, eager to be out from under the thumb of both the church and the Holy Roman emperor (who was elected by the princes and affirmed by the pope), protected Luther and helped him start a new flavor of Christianity, Protestantism.

This matters for politics because Luther argued that everyone was equal in the eyes of God. And while Luther was not a terribly progressive thinker when it came to politics, he had let the genie out of the bottle with his argument. If we are equal before God, it’s not a huge leap to begin arguing that we should also be equal in the eyes of the state.

The American Experiment

For the country that became the United States, this was all very important. It meant that the Europeans who came to the New World after Columbus bumped into it in 1492 brought traditions with them that led to the founding of the United States. Americans sometime grow up with the romantic notion that the revolution was a battle against tyranny and taxation, but that isn’t quite the story. The colonists in British North America elected their own legislatures and levied their own taxes and enjoyed as much liberty as any people in the world. So it’s not immediately obvious why the colonists decided to revolt.

The usual story is about taxes, but that’s a relatively small part of it. Following what Americans call the French and Indian War (1754–1763, which the British refer to as the Seven Years War), the cost of defending the colonies caused the British government to raise taxes on the North American colonies. While the colonists had in fact levied taxes on themselves, they were less keen on taxes imposed from elsewhere. But the bigger issues were economic. Parliament had banned the export of manufacturing equipment to the colonies; trade of many goods had to move on British ships through Britain on its way to North America.

Take, for example, the Boston Tea Party. In more recent times, a political movement calling itself the Tea Party has complained about taxes and a somewhat mixed list of other issues (such as the remarkably frequent calls to “Keep the government out of my Medicare.” Think that one through). But, in fact, the original tea party had nothing to do with taxes and everything to do with tea. Tea was a big deal when it arrived in the western world from the east. It can only be grown in certain places, so transplanting the crop is difficult. Before tea, people drank alcohol as a way of drinking water that wouldn’t kill you. Water otherwise had to be boiled. Making tea means boiling water, and tea has the opposite effect of alcohol. So when the British government arranged to dump a lot of tea on the North American tea market, to help bail out the East India Company, Boston tea merchants responded by dressing up as Native Americans, climbing aboard three ships, and dumping a lot of tea in the harbor. Parliament backed off on some laws, particularly taxes, but not on others, and the Americans became increasingly concerned that their economic futures were in doubt.Ben Baack, The Economics of the American Revolutionary War,

Another interesting thing to note about the American Revolution is that while the Declaration of Independence goes on at some length about the sins of King George, by that point in history the king was on his way to being a bit player in British politics. The revolutionaries’ real beef was with Parliament, and there was no real check on the power of Parliament.

And so the Americans sought political and economic independence from the most politically liberal state on earth. It wasn’t a direct road from revolution to functioning republic, however. The war ended in 1783; briefly, the 13 colonies toyed with the idea of becoming 13 separate states. Instead, they stayed united under the Articles of Confederation. This didn’t work well. Congress had no power over the states and no authority to raise money. Money borrowed during the war wasn’t being paid back; the states threatened to go to war with each other; and the fledgling nation stood in danger of being cherry picked by the Europeans.

In 1787, a subset of the folks we think of as the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia at what became known as the Constitutional Convention. They faced an uphill slog. They distrusted centralized power, but they knew that government needed some power in order to get anything done. Under a total news blackout, they hammered out the document that became known as the Constitution, which was eventually approved by all 13 states. It attempted to balance power between different branches and levels of government, and it gave Congress the power to tax and spend, and to regulate commerce that travels between the states. The Founding Fathers were by no means perfect, and there are no perfect governments. But the depth and breadth of their experiment, which has had a large impact on the practice of politics all over the world, still is worth thinking about and admiring.

The result was the United States of America. While not the first republic, it was certainly the largest ever attempted. Previous attempts at participatory government tended to be small, homogenous states, and the degree of participation was limited. You will sometimes hear that the United States is the world’s oldest democracy. In fact, it’s neither a democracy (it’s a republic) nor the world’s oldest republic. (It does have the world’s oldest constitution that remains in use.) Voting as part of government long predates the American Revolution. Electing kings and chiefs was common in many ancient cultures. The Icelandic parliament, the Allthing, is nearly 1,000 years old, and the world’s oldest republic, San Marino (an independent enclave surrounded by Italy) got its start when it was founded in the year 301.Its current constitution was adopted in 1600, although some observers argue that the documents of 1600 weren’t really a constitution. The Faeroe Islands’ Logting may be older than the Icelandic Allthing, and the parliament of the Isle of Man, a self-governing part of the British state, dates to at least the 1500s. All this being said, the American experiment was ground-breaking.

A Full House of Commons Beats a Pair of Kings

History did not stop with the U.S. Constitution. Subsequent experiments in government have had a record no less mixed, and perhaps more uneven, than has the American one. Slowly, over the last two centuries, more states have adopted participatory forms of government—allowing more and more people to vote. As the world moved into the 1800s, more and more states added legislative bodies such as parliaments to their governments. So even where kings and emperors still ruled, they were increasingly aided by legislatures. The pressure for this came from citizens of all types, including business people and nobles. Civil unrest and outright revolutions occurred across Europe during the 1800s, and pressure for a state that offered more to all people began to grow.

Nonetheless, this was actually a relatively stable period for the Europeans, who used that stability and advances in military technology to conquer and subjugate most of Africa and large parts of Asia. Africa had been home to a long series of substantial kingdoms and empires, some of which were greatly damaged by the slave trade that followed the conquest of the New World. (African states went to war with each other to capture slaves to sell to Europeans, to the extent that all were weaker when the Europeans showed up with guns and a hunger for land.) The British, Portuguese and French carved up and conquered the several states of India, and the Chinese empire, once the world’s most advanced, had so turned inward on the world that it was nearly helpless when Europeans began to rip off chunks of the country to rule as their own. So, it was a profitable time for some Europeans, but not such a good time for many other people around the world.

The years around World War I saw the end of monarchyRule by a king. as a legitimate form of government. The last few major monarchic states fell apart, from the Qing Dynasty in China to the collapse of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires at the end of World War I in 1918. Nonetheless, it wasn’t all an inevitable road to progress. The side trips from what we loosely call democracy have been significant. Many European and Asian nations tried to become participatory—governments based on voting and elections. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes these fledgling republics were overwhelmed by strong men who became dictators. Republican Russia lasted all of six months until the government was toppled by the Bolsheviks, who became the Communists and, after World War II ushered in a half-century of experimenting in dictatorial socialism. Those governments eventually lost legitimacy too. They were economically inefficient and politically closed and unfair. As there was no check on the power of the state, the state could go haywire and often did. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin killed perhaps seven and 20 million of his own people (estimates vary widely) while attempting to create a communist paradise. Germany and Italy experimented with fascism in the middle of the 20th century, and multiple states tried out socialism as an economic system and communism as a political and economic system up until the 1990s. The results, as you probably know, ranged from inefficient (moribund economies that never seemed to produce enough goods and services) all the way to catastrophic—war, repression, millions of people killed over their beliefs and refusal to cooperate with ideas that they disagreed with.

Governments today remain diverse in their approaches to governing, but democratic-style governments have been on the rise. By one account, 121 of 192 sovereign states rely on elections for choosing governments, up from only 76 in the 1980s.Karatnycky, Adrian and Piano, Aili and Puddington, Arch, Editors, Freedom in the World 2003: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003 This is important, if only because Americans sometimes get the impression that they live in the only country with political liberty. Meanwhile, the 21st century world features very few actual monarchies, which was the dominant form of government for much of the last 2,000 years. Communist states have shrunk to two—Cuba and North Korea—while many states remain dictatorships with limited political participation outside of an inner circle of rulers. Increasingly, states have to prove their legitimacy by letting people participate meaningfully in government. That can range from a parliament in a monarchy such as Kuwait, to a theocratic (church-based) republic such as Iran (also called a theocracyRule by the church., but that doesn’t have to be a republic). The Arab spring has seen states from Tunisia to Libya to Egypt overthrow dictators and replace them with elected governments, although it’s too early to tell how successful they will be.

We appear to live in an age dominated by market economics and, in some small way, by more participatory government. You’ll have to decide how that’s working. Hopefully, how it works will make more sense as we go along.

Key Takeaways

  • Systems of government have evolved over time.
  • The American Revolution was as much about economic issues as it was about political issues.
  • The United States is not the only republic, or the only place where people enjoy political liberty.


  1. Where did your ancestors come from? What was the government like when they left there, and what is it like now?
  2. If history doesn’t stop happening, what could government be like in the future? For example, how might technology affect the way we govern ourselves?

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.