Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/June 1881/The Development of Political Institutions VII


IN the preceding chapter on chiefs and kings, we traced the development of the first element in that triune political structure which everywhere shows itself at the outset. We pass now to the development of the second element—the group of leading men among whom the chief is, at first, merely the most conspicuous. Under what conditions this so evolves as to subordinate the other two, what causes make it narrower, and what causes widen it until it passes into the third, we have here to observe.

If the innate feelings and aptitudes of a race have large shares in determining the size and cohesions of the social groups it forms, still more must they have large shares in determining the relations which arise among the members of such groups. While the mode of life followed tends to generate this or that political structure, its effects are always complicated by the effects of inherited character. Whether or not the primitive state, in which governing power is equally distributed among all warriors or all elders, passes into the state in which governing power is monopolized by one, depends, in part, on the life of the group as predatory or peaceful, and in part on the natures of its members as prompting them to oppose dictation more or less doggedly. A few facts will make this clear.

The Arafuras (Papuan-Islanders) who "live in peace and brotherly love," have no other "authority among them than the decisions of their elders." Among the harmless Todas "all disputes and questions of right and wrong are settled either by arbitration or by a Punchayet—i. e., a council of five." Of the Bodo and Dhimáls, described as averse to military service, and "totally free from arrogance, revenge, cruelty, and fierté," we read that though each of their small communities has a nominal head who pays the tribute on its behalf, yet he is without power, and "disputes are settled among themselves by juries of elders." In these cases, besides absence of the causes which bring about chiefly supremacy, may be noted the presence of causes which directly hinder it. The Papuans generally, typified by the Arafuras above named, while they are described by Modera, Ross, and Kolff, as "good-natured," "of a mild disposition," kind and peaceful to strangers, are said by Earl to be unfit for military action; "their impatience of control ... utterly precludes that organization which would enable" the Papuans "to stand their ground against encroachments." The Bodo and Dhimáls while "they are void of all violence toward their own people or toward their neighbors," also "resist injunctions, injudiciously urged, with dogged obstinacy." And of a kindred "very fascinating people," the Lepchas, amiable, peaceful, kind, as travelers unite in describing them, and who will not take service as soldiers, we are told that they will "undergo great privation rather than submit to oppression or injustice."

Where the innate tendency to resist coercion is strong, we find this uncentralized political organization maintained, notwithstanding the warlike activities which tend to initiate settled chieftainship. The Nagas "acknowledge no king among themselves, and deride the idea of such a personage among others"; their "villages are continually at feud"; "every man being his own master, his passions and inclinations are ruled by his share of brute force." And then we further find that "petty disputes and disagreements about property are settled by a council of elders, the litigants voluntarily submitting to their arbitration. But, correctly speaking, there is not the shadow of a constituted authority in the Naga community, and, wonderful as it may seem, this want of government does not lead to any marked degree of anarchy and confusion." Similarly among such peoples, remote in type, as many of the warlike tribes of North America. Speaking of these Indians in general, Schoolcraft says that "they all wish to govern, and not to be governed. Every Indian thinks he has a right to do as he pleases, and that no one is better than himself; and he will fight before he will give up what he thinks right." Of the Comanches, as an example, he remarks that "the democratic principle is strongly implanted in them"; and that for governmental purposes "public councils are held at regular intervals during the year." Further, we read that in districts of ancient Central America there existed somewhat more advanced societies which, though warlike, were impelled by a kindred jealousy to provide against monopoly of power. The government was by an elective council of old men who appointed a war-chief; and this war-chief, "if suspected of plotting against the safety of the commonwealth, or for the purpose of securing supreme power in his own hands, was rigorously put to death by the council."

Though the specialities of character which thus lead certain kinds of men in early stages to originate compound political headships, and to resist, even under the stress of war, the rise of single political headships, are innate, we are not without clews to the circumstances which have made them innate; and, with a view to interpretations presently to be made, it will be useful to glance at these. The Comanches and kindred tribes, roaming about in small bands, active and skillful horsemen, have, through long-past periods, been so conditioned as to make coercion of one man by another difficult. So, too, has it been, though in another way, with the Nagas. "They inhabit a rough and intricate mountain-range"; and their villages are perched "on the crests of ridges." Again, very significant evidence is furnished by an incidental remark of Captain Burton to the effect that in Africa, as in Asia, there are three distinctly marked forms of government—military despotisms, feudal monarchies, and rude republics; the rude republics being those formed by "the Bedouin tribes, the hill people, and the jungle races." Clearly, the names of these last show that they inhabit regions which, hindering by their physical characters a centralized form of government, favor a more diffused form of government, and the less decided political subordination which is its concomitant.

These facts are obviously related to certain other facts with which they must be joined. Already evidence has been given that it is relatively easy to form a large society if the country is one within which all parts are readily accessible, while it has barriers through which exit is difficult; and that, conversely, formation of a large society is prevented, or greatly delayed, by difficulties of communication within the occupied area, and by facilities of escape from it. But, as we now see, not only is political integration under its primary aspect of increasing mass hindered by these last-named physical conditions, but there is hindrance to the development of a more integrated form of government. That which impedes social consolidation also impedes the concentration of political power.

The truth here chiefly concerning us, however, is that the continued presence of the one or the other set of conditions fosters a character to which either the centralized or the diffused kind of political organization is appropriate. Existence, generation after generation, in a region where despotic control has arisen, produces an adapted type of nature; partly by daily habit and partly by survival of those most fit for living under such control. Contrariwise, in a region favoring maintenance of their independence by small groups, there is a strengthening, through successive ages, of sentiments averse to restraint; since not only are these sentiments exercised in all by resisting the efforts from time to time made to subordinate them, but, on the average, those who most pertinaciously resist are those who, remaining unsubdued, and transmitting their characters to posterity, determine the tribal character.

Having thus glanced at the effects of the factors, external and internal, as displayed in simple tribes, we shall understand how they coöperate when, by migration or otherwise, such tribes fall into circumstances which favor the growth of large societies.


The case of an uncivilized people of the nature described, who have in recent times shown what occurs when union of small groups into great ones is prompted, will best initiate the interpretation.

The Iroquois nations, each made up of many tribes previously hostile, had to defend themselves against European invaders. Combination for this purpose among these five (and finally six) nations necessitated a recognition of equality of power among them; since agreement to join would not have been arrived at had it been required that some divisions should be subject to others. The groups had to coöperate on the understanding that their "rights, privileges, and obligations" should be the same. Though the numbers of permanent and hereditary sachems appointed by the respective nations to form the Great Council, differed, yet the voices of the several nations were equal. Omitting details of the organization, we have to note first, that for many generations, notwithstanding the wars which this league carried on, its constitution remained stable—no supreme individual arose; and, second, that this equality of power among the groups coexisted with inequality within each group: the people had no share in its government.

A clew is thus furnished to the genesis of those compound headships with which ancient history familiarizes us. We are enabled to see how there came to coexist, in the same societies, some institutions of a despotic kind, with other institutions of a kind appearing to be based on the principle of equality, and often confounded with free institutions. Let us recall the antecedents of those early European peoples who developed governments of this form.

During the wandering pastoral life, subordination to a single head, growing naturally out of fatherhood, was fostered. A recalcitrant member of any group had either to submit to the authority under which he had grown up, or, throwing off its yoke, had to leave the group and face those risks which unprotected life in the desert threatened. The establishment of this subordination was furthered by the more frequent survival of groups in which it was greatest; since, in the conflicts between groups, those of which the members were insubordinate, ordinarily being both smaller and less able to coöperate effectually, were the more likely to disappear. But now, to the fact that in such families and clans circumstances fostered obedience to the father and to the patriarch, has to be added the fact above emphasized, that circumstances also fostered the sentiment of liberty in the relations between clans. The exercise of power by one of them over another was made difficult by wide scattering and by great mobility; and with successful opposition to external coercion, or evasion of it, carried on through numberless generations, the tendency to resent and resist all strange authority was likely to become strong.

Whether, when groups thus disciplined aggregate, they assume this or that form of political organization, depends partly, as already implied, on the conditions into which they fall. Even could we omit those differences between Mongols, Semites, and Aryans, established in prehistoric times by causes unknown to us—even had complete likeness of nature been produced in them by long continuance of pastoral life—yet large societies, formed by combinations of these small ones, could be similar in type only under similar circumstances. Hence, probably, the reason why Mongols and Semites, where they have settled and multiplied, have failed to maintain the autonomies of their hordes after combination of them, and to evolve the resulting institutions. Even the Aryans, among whom chiefly the less concentrated forms of political rule have arisen, yield an illustration. Originally inheriting in common the mental traits generated during their life in the Hindoo-Koosh and its neighborhood, the different divisions of the race have developed different institutions and accompanying characters. Those of them who spread into the plains of India, where great fertility made possible a large population, to the control of which there were small physical impediments, lost their independence of nature, and did not evolve political systems like those which grew up among their Western kindred, under conditions favorable for maintaining the original character.

The implication is, then, that where groups of the patriarchal type fall into regions permitting considerable growth of population, but having physical structures which impede the centralization of power, compound political headships will arise, and for a time sustain themselves, through coöperation of the two factors—independence of local groups and need for union in war. Let us consider some examples.


The island of Crete has numerous high mountain-valleys containing good pasturage, and provides many seats for strongholds—seats which ruins prove that the ancient inhabitants utilized. Similarly with the mainland of Greece. A complicated mountain system cuts off its parts from one another and renders each difficult of access. Especially is this so in the Peloponnesus; and, above all, in the part occupied by the Spartans. It has been remarked that the state which possesses both sides of Taygetus has it in its power to be master of the peninsula: "It is the Acropolis of the Peloponnese, as that country is of the rest of Greece."

When, over the earlier inhabitants, there came the successive waves of Hellenic conquerors, these brought with them the type of nature and organization common to the Aryans, displaying the united traits above described. Such a people, taking possession of such a land, inevitably fell in course of time "into as many independent clans as the country itself was divided by its mountain-chains into valleys and districts." From separation there resulted alienation; so that those remote from one another, becoming strangers, became enemies. In early Greek times the clans, occupying mountain villages, were so liable to incursions from one another that the planting of fruit-trees was a waste of labor. There existed a state like that seen at present among such Indian hill tribes as the Nagas.

Though preserving the tradition of a common descent, and owning allegiance to the oldest male representative of the patriarch, a people spreading over a region which thus cut off from one another even adjacent small groups, and still more those remoter clusters of groups arising in course of generations, would inevitably become disunited in government: subjection to a general head would be more and more difficult to maintain, and subjection to local heads would alone continue practicable. Moreover, there must arise, under such conditions, increasing causes of insubordination, as well as great difficulties in maintaining subordination. When the various branches of a common family spread into localities so shut off from one another as to prevent intercourse, their respective histories, and the lines of descent of their respective heads, must become unknown, or but partially known, to one another; and claims to supremacy made now by this local head and now by that are certain to be disputed. When we remember how, even in settled societies having records, there have been perpetual conflicts about rights of succession, and how, down to our own day, there are frequent lawsuits to decide on heirships to titles and properties, we can not but infer that, in a state like that of the early Greeks, the difficulty of establishing the legitimacy of general headships, conspiring with the desire to assert independence and the ability to maintain it, inevitably entailed lapse into numerous local headships. Of course, under conditions varying in each locality, splittings-up of wider governments into narrower went to different extents; and, naturally, too, reëstablishments of wider governments or extensions of narrower ones in some cases took place. But, generally, the tendency under such conditions must have been to form small independent groups, severally having the patriarchal type of organization. Hence, then, the decay of such kingships as are implied in the "Iliad." As Grote writes, "When we approach historical Greece, we find that (with the exception of Sparta) the primitive, hereditary, unresponsible monarch, uniting in himself all the functions of government, has ceased to reign."[1]

But now what will happen when a cluster of clans of common descent, which have become independent and hostile, are simultaneously endangered by enemies to whom they are not at all akin, or but remotely akin? Habitually, they will sink their differences and coöperate for defense. But on what terms will they coöperate? Even among friendly groups joint action would be hindered if some claimed supremacy; and, among groups having outstanding feuds, there could be no joint action save on a footing of equality. The common defense would, therefore, be directed by a body formed of the heads of the coöperating small societies; and, if the coöperation for defense were prolonged, or became changed by success into coöperation for offense, this temporary controlling body would tend to become a permanent one holding the small societies together. The special characters of this compound head would, of course, vary with the circumstances. Where the traditions of the united clans agreed in identifying some one chief as the lineal representative of the original patriarch or hero, from whom all descended, precedence and some extra authority would be permitted to him. Where claims derived from descent were disputed, personal superiority or election would determine which member of the compound head should take the lead. If within each of the component groups the power of its chief was unqualified, there would result from union of such chiefs a close oligarchy; while the closeness of the oligarchy would become less in proportion as recognition of the authority of each chief, given by nearness in blood to the divine or semi-divine ancestor, diminished. And in cases where there came to be incorporated numerous aliens, owing allegiance to the heads of none of the component groups, there would come into play influences tending still more to widen the oligarchy.

Such, we may conclude, were the origins of those compound headships of the Greek states which existed at the beginning of the historic period. In Crete, where there survived the tradition of primitive kingship, but where dispersion and subdivision of clans had brought about a condition in which "different towns carried on open feuds," there were "patrician houses, deriving their rights from the early ages of royal government," who continued "to retain possession of the administration." In Corinth, the line of Herakleid kings "subsides gradually, through a series of empty names, into the oligarchy denominated Bacchiadæ.... The persons so named were all accounted descendants of Herakles, and formed the governing caste in the city." So was it with Megara. According to tradition, this arose by combination of several villages inhabited by kindred tribes, which, originally in antagonism with Corinth, had probably, in the course of this antagonism, become consolidated into an independent state. And at the opening of the historic period the like had happened in Sikyon and other places. Though in Sparta kingship had survived under an anomalous form, yet the joint representatives of the primitive king, still reverenced because the tradition of their divine descent was preserved, had become little more than members of the governing oligarchy, retaining certain prerogatives. And, though it is true that in its earliest historically-known stage, the Spartan oligarchy did not present the form which would spontaneously arise from the union of the heads of clans for coöperation in war—though it had become elective within a limited class of persons—yet the fact that an age of not less than sixty was a qualification, harmonizes with the belief that it at first consisted of the heads of the respective groups, who were always the eldest sons of the eldest; and that these groups with their heads, described as having been in in pre-Lykurgean times "the most lawless of all the Greeks," became united by that continuous militant life which distinguished them.[2]

The Romans exemplify the rise of a compound headship under conditions which, though partially different from those the Greeks were subject to, were allied fundamentally. In its earliest-known state, Latium was occupied by village-communities, which were united into cantons; while these cantons formed a league headed by Alba—a canton regarded as the oldest and most eminent. This combination was for joint defense; as is shown by the fact that each group of clan-villages composing a canton had an elevated stronghold in common, and also by the fact that the league of cantons had for its center and place of refuge Alba, the most strongly placed as well as the oldest. The component cantons of the league were so far independent that there were wars between them; whence we may infer that when they cooperated for joint defense it was on substantially equal terms. Thus, before Rome existed, the people who formed it had been habituated to a kind of life such that, with great subordination in each family and clan, and partial subordination within each canton (which was governed by a prince, council of elders, and assembly of warriors), there went a union of heads of cantons, who were in no degree subordinate one to another. When the inhabitants of three of these cantons, the Ramnians, Tities, and Luceres, began to occupy the tract on which Rome stands, they brought with them their political organization. The oldest Roman patricians bore the names of rural clans belonging to these cantons. Whether, when seating themselves on the Palatine Hills and on the Quirinal, they preserved their cantonal divisions, is not clear, though it seems probable a priori. But, however this may be, there is proof that they fortified themselves against one another, as

well as against outer enemies. The "mount-men" of the Palatine and the "hill-men" of the Quirinal were habitually at feud; and, even among the minor divisions of those who occupied the Palatine, there were dissensions. As Mommsen says, primitive Rome was "rather an aggregate of urban settlements than a single city." And that the clans who formed these settlements brought with them their enmities is to be inferred from the fact that not only did they fortify the hills on which they fixed themselves, but even "the houses of the old and powerful families were constructed somewhat after the manner of fortresses."

So that again, in the case of Rome, we a see a cluster of small independent communities allied in blood but partially antagonistic, which had to coöperate against enemies on such terms as all would agree to. In early Greece the means of defense were, as Grote remarks, greater than the means of attack; and it was the same in early Rome. Hence, while coercive rule within each family and small group was easy, there was difficulty in extending coercion over many groups—fortified as they were against one another. Moreover, the stringency of government within each settlement constituting the primitive city was diminished by facility of escape from one and admission into another. As we have seen among simple tribes, desertions take place when the rule is unduly harsh; and we may infer that, within each of these clustered settlements, there was a check on exercise of force by the heads of the more powerful families over those of the less powerful, caused by the fear that migration might weaken the settlement and strengthen an adjacent one. Thus the circumstances were such that when, for defense of the primitive city, coöperation became needful, the heads of the clans included in the several settlements came to have substantially equal powers. The original senate was the collective body of clan-elders; and "this assembly of elders was the ultimate holder of the ruling power": it was "an assembly of kings." At the same time, the heads of families in each clan, forming the body of burgesses, stood, for like reasons, on equal footing. Primarily for command in war, there was an elected head, who was also chief magistrate. Though not having the authority given by alleged divine descent, he had the authority given by supposed divine approval; and, himself bearing the insignia of a god, he retained till death the absoluteness appropriate to one. But, besides the fact that the choice, originally made by the senate, had to be again practically made by it in case of sudden vacancy, and besides the fact that each king, nominated by his predecessor, had to be approved by the assembled burgesses, there is the fact that his power was exclusively executive. The assembly of burgesses "was in law superior to, rather than coördinate with, the king." Further, in the last resort was exercised the still superior power of the senate, which was the guardian of the law, and could veto the joint decision of king and burgesses. Thus the constitution was in essence an oligarchy of heads of clans, included in an oligarchy of heads of houses—a compound oligarchy which became unqualified when kingship was suppressed. And here should be emphasized the truth, sufficiently obvious and yet continually ignored, that the Roman Republic, which remained when the regal power ended, was quite alien in nature to those popular governments with which it has been commonly classed. The heads of clans, of which the narrower governing body was formed, as well as the heads of families which formed the wider governing body, were, indeed, jealous of one another's powers; and in so far simulated the citizens of a free state who individually maintain their equal rights. But these heads severally exercised unlimited powers over the members of their households and over their clusters of dependents. A community of which the component groups severally retained their internal autonomies, with the result that the rule within each remained absolute, was nothing but an aggregate of small despotisms. Institutions under which the head of each group, besides owning slaves, had such supremacy that his wife and children, including even married sons, had no more legal rights than cattle, and were at his mercy in life and limb, or could be sold into slavery, can be called free institutions only by those who confound similarity of external outline with similarity of internal structure.[3]


The formation of compound political heads in later times repeats this process in essentials, if not in details. In one way or other the result arises when a common need for defense compels coöperation, while there exists no means of securing coöperation save voluntary agreement.

Beginning with the example of Venice, we notice first that the region occupied by the ancient Veneti included the extensive marshy tract formed of the deposits brought down by several rivers to the Adriatic—a tract which, in Strabo's day, was "intersected in every quarter by rivers, streams, and morasses"; so that "Aquileia and Ravenna were then cities in the marshes." Having for their stronghold this region full of spots accessible only to inhabitants who knew the intricate ways to them, the Veneti maintained their independence, spite of the efforts of the Romans to subdue them, until the days of Cæsar. In later days kindred results were more markedly displayed in that part of this region specially characterized by inaccessibility. From the earliest times the islets, or rather mud-banks, on which Venice stands, were inhabited by a maritime people. Each islet, secure in the midst of its tortuous lagunes, had a popular government of annually elected tribunes. And these original governments, existing at the time when there came several thousands of fugitives, driven from the mainland by the invading Huns, survived under the form of a rude confederation. As we have seen happen in other cases, the union into which these independent little communities were forced for purposes of joint defense was disturbed by feuds; and it was only under the stress of opposition to aggressing Lombards on the one side and Slavonic pirates on the other that a general assembly of nobles, clergy, and citizens appointed a duke or doge to direct the combined forces, and to restrain internal factions; being superior to the tribunes of the united islets and subject only to this body which appointed him. What changes subsequently took place—how, beyond the restraints imposed by the general assembly, the doge was presently put under the check of two elected councilors, and on important occasions had to summon the principal citizens; how there came afterward a representative council, which underwent from time to time changes—does not now concern us. Here we have simply to note that, as in preceding cases, the component groups being favorably circumstanced for severally maintaining their independence of one another, the imperative need for union against enemies initiated a rude compound headship, which, notwithstanding the centralizing effects of war, tended to maintain itself in one or other form.

On finding allied results among men of a different race but occupying a similar region, doubts respecting the process of causation must be dissipated. On the area—half land, half sea—formed of the sediment brought down by the Rhine and adjacent rivers, there early existed scattered families. Living on isolated sand-hills, or in huts raised on piles, they were so secure amid their creeks and mud-banks and marshes, that they remained unsubdued by the Romans. Subsisting at first by fishing, with here and there such small agriculture as was possible, and eventually becoming maritime and commercial, these people, in course of time, rendered their land more habitable by damming out the sea; and they long enjoyed a partial if not complete independence. In the third century "the Low Countries contained the only free people of the German race." Especially the Frisians, more remote than the rest from invaders, "associated themselves with the tribes settled on the limits of the German Ocean, and formed with them a connection celebrated under the title of the 'Saxon League.'" Though, at a later time, the inhabitants of the Low Countries fell under power of France, yet the nature of their habitat continued to give them such advantages in resisting foreign control that they organized themselves after their own fashion, notwithstanding interdicts. "From the time of Charlemagne the people of the ancient Menapia, now become a prosperous commonwealth, formed political associations to raise a barrier against the despotic violence of the Franks." Meanwhile the Frisians, who, after centuries of resistance to the Franks, were obliged to yield and render small tributary services, retained their internal autonomy. They formed "a confederation of rude but self-governed maritime provinces," each of these seven provinces being divided into districts severally governed by elective heads with their councils, and the whole being under a general elective head and a general council.

Of illustrations which modern times have furnished, must be named those which again show us the effects of a mountainous region. The most notable is, of course, that of Switzerland. Surrounded by forests, "among marshes and rocks and glaciers, tribes of scattered shepherds had, from the early times of the Roman conquest, found a land of refuge from the successive invaders of the rest of Helvetia." In the labyrinths of the Alps, accessible to those only who knew the ways to them, their cattle fed unseen; and against straggling bands of marauders who might discover their retreats they had great facilities for defense. These districts—which eventually became the cantons of Schwytz, Uri, and Unterwalden, originally having but one common center of meeting, but eventually, as population increased, getting three, and forming separate political organizations—long preserved complete independence. With the spread of feudal subordination throughout Europe, they became nominally subject to the Emperor; but, refusing obedience to the superiors set over them, they entered into a solemn alliance, renewed from time to time, to resist outer enemies. Details of their history need not detain us. The fact of moment is, that in these three cantons, which physically favored in so great a degree the maintenance of independence by individuals and by groups, the people, while framing for themselves free governments, united on equal terms for joint defense. And it was these typical "Swiss," as they were the first to be called, whose union formed the nucleus of the larger unions which, through varied fortunes, eventually grew up. Severally independent as were the cantons composing these larger unions, there at first existed feuds among them, which were suspended during the needs for joint defense. Only gradually did the leagues pass from temporary and unsettled forms to a permanent and settled form. Two facts of significance should be added. One is that, at a later date, a like process of resistance, federation, and emancipation from feudal tyranny, among separate communities occupying small mountain-valleys, took place in the Grisons and in the Valais—regions which, though mountainous, were more accessible than those of the Oberland and its vicinity. The other is that the more level cantons neither so early nor so completely gained their independence; and, further, that their internal constitutions were less free in form. A marked contrast existed between the aristocratic republics of Berne, Lucerne, Fribourg, and Soleure and the pure democracies of the forest cantons and the Grisons; in the last of which "every little hamlet resting in an Alpine valley, or perched on mountain-crag, was an independent community, of which all the members were absolutely equal—entitled to vote in every assembly, and qualified for every public function.... Each hamlet had its own laws, jurisdiction, and privileges," the hamlets being federated into communes, the communes into districts, and the districts into a league.

Lastly, with the case of Switzerland may be associated that of San Marino—a little republic which, seated in the Apennines, and having its center on a cliff a thousand feet high, has retained its independence for fifteen centuries. Here eight thousand people are governed by a senate of sixty, and by captains elected every half year, assemblies of the whole people being called on important occasions. There is a standing army of eighteen, "taxation is reduced to a mere nothing," and officials are paid by the honor of serving.

One noteworthy difference between the compound heads arising under physical conditions of the kinds exemplified, must not be overlooked—the difference between the oligarchic form and the more or less popular form. As shown at the outset of this section, if each of the groups united by militant coöperation is despotically ruled—if the groups are severally framed on the patriarchal type, or are severally governed by men of supposed divine descent—then the compound head becomes one in which the people at large have no share. But if, as in these modern cases, patriarchal authority has decayed; or if belief in divine descent has been undermined by a creed at variance with it; or if peaceful habits have weakened that coercive authority which war ever strengthens—then the compound head is no longer an assembly of petty despots. With the progress of these changes it becomes more and more a head formed of those who exercise power not by right of position but by right of appointment.


There are other conditions which favor the rise of compound heads, temporary if not permanent: those, namely, which occur at the dissolutions of preceding organizations. Among people habituated through countless generations to personal rule, having sentiments appropriate to it, and no conception of anything else, the fall of one despot is at once followed by the rise of another; or, if a large personally-governed empire collapses, its parts severally generate governments for themselves of like kind. But, among less servile peoples, the breaking up of political systems having single heads is apt to be followed by the establishment of others having compound heads; especially where there is a simultaneous separation into parts which have not local governments of stable kinds. Under such circumstances there is a return to the primitive state. The preëxisting regulative system having fallen, the members of the community are left without any controlling power save the aggregate will; and, political organization having to commence afresh, the form first assumed is akin to that which we see in the assembly of the savage horde, or in the modern public meeting. Whence there presently results the rule of a select few subject to the approval of the many.

In illustration may first be taken the rise of the Italian republics. When, during the ninth and tenth centuries, the German emperors, who had long been losing their power to restrain local antagonisms in Italy and the outrages of wandering robber bands, failed more than ever to protect their subject communities, and, as a simultaneous result, exercised diminished control over them, it became at once necessary and practicable for the Italian towns to develop political organizations of their own. Though in these towns there were remnants of the old Roman organization, this had obviously become effete; for, in time of danger, there was an assembling of "citizens at the sound of a great bell, to concert together the means for their common defense." Doubtless on such occasions were marked out the rudiments of those republican constitutions which afterward arose. Though it is alleged that the German emperors allowed the towns to form these constitutions, yet we may reasonably conclude, rather, that, having no care further than to get their tribute, they made no efforts to prevent the towns from forming them. And though Sismondi says of the townspeople, "ils cherchèrent à se constituer sur le modèle de la république romaine," yet we may question whether, in those dark days, the people knew enough of Roman institutions to be influenced by their knowledge. With more probability may we infer that "this meeting of all the men of the state capable of bearing arms ... in the great square," originally called to take measures for repelling aggressors—a meeting which must, at the very beginning, have been swayed by a group of dominant citizens, and must have chosen leaders—was itself the republican government in its incipient form. Meetings of this kind, first occurring on occasions of emergency, would gradually come into use for deciding on all important public questions. Repetition would bring greater regularity in the modes of procedure, and greater definiteness in the divisions formed, ending in compound political heads, presided over by elected chiefs. And that this was the case in those early stages of which there remain but vague accounts, is shown by the fact that a similar, though somewhat more definite, process afterward occurred at Florence, when the usurping nobles were overthrown. Definite records tell us that in 1250 "the citizens assembled at the same moment in the square of Santa Croce; they divided themselves into fifty groups, of which each group chose a captain, and thus formed companies of militia: a council of these officers was the first-born authority of this newly revived republic." Clearly that sovereignty of the people which, for a time, characterized these small governments, would inevitably arise if the political form grew out of the original public meeting; while it would be unlikely to have arisen had the political form been artificially devised by a limited class.

That this interpretation harmonizes with the facts which modern times have furnished, scarcely needs pointing out. On an immensely larger scale and in ways variously modified, here by the slow collapse of an old régime and there by combination for war, the rise of the first French Republic and that of the American Republic have similarly shown us this tendency toward resumption of the primitive form of political organization, when a decayed or otherwise incapable government is broken up. Greatly obscured by complicating circumstances and special incidents as these transformations were, we may recognize in them the play of the same general causes.


In the last chapter we saw that, as conditions determine, the first element of the triune political structure may be differentiated from the second in various degrees—beginning with the warrior chief slightly predominant over other warriors, and ending with the divine and absolute king, widely distinguished from the select few next to him. By the foregoing examples we are shown that the second element is, as conditions determine, variously differentiated from the third: being at the one extreme qualitatively distinguished in a high degree and divided from it by an impassable barrier, and at the other extreme almost merged into it.

Here we are introduced to the truth next to be dealt with: that not only do conditions determine the various forms which compound heads assume, but that conditions determine the various changes they undergo. There are two leading kinds of such changes—those through which the compound head passes toward a less popular form, and those through which it passes toward a more popular form. We will glance at them in this order.

Progressive narrowing of the compound head is one of the concomitants of continued military activity. Beginning with the case of Sparta, the constitution of which in its early form differed but little from that which the "Iliad" shows us existed among the Homeric Greeks, we see, in the first place, the tendency toward concentration of power in the regulation, made a century after Lykurgus, that, "in case the people decided crookedly, the senate with the kings should reverse their decisions"; and then we see that later, in consequence of the gravitation of property into fewer hands, "the number of qualified citizens went on continually diminishing": the implication being not only a relatively-increased power of the oligarchy, but, probably, a growing supremacy of the wealthier members within the oligarchy itself. Turning to the case of Rome, ever militant, we find that in course of time inequalities increased to the extent that the senate became "an order of lords, filling up its ranks by hereditary succession, and exercising collegiate misrule"; and then "out of the evil of oligarchy there emerged the still worse evil of usurpation of power by particular families." In the Italian republics, again, perpetually at war one with another, there resulted a kindred narrowing of the governing body. The nobility, deserting their castles, began to direct "the municipal government of the cities, which consequently, during this period of the republics, fell chiefly into the hands of the superior families." Then at a later stage, when industrial progress had generated wealthy commercial classes, these, competing with the nobles for power, and finally displacing them, repeated within their respective bodies this same process. The richer guilds deprived the poorer of their shares in the choice of the ruling agencies; the privileged class was continually narrowed by disqualifying regulations; and newly risen families were excluded by those of long standing. So that, as Sismondi points out, such of the numerous Italian republics as remained nominally such at the close of the fifteenth century were, like "Sienna and Lucca, each governed by a single caste of citizens: ... had no longer popular governments." A kindred result occurred among the Dutch. During the wars of the Flemish cities with the nobles and with one another, the relatively popular governments of the towns became narrowed. The greater guilds excluded the lesser from the ruling body, and their members "clothed in the municipal purple ... ruled with the power of an aristocracy; ... the local government was often an oligarchy, while the spirit of the burghers was peculiarly democratic." And with these illustrations may be joined that furnished by those Swiss cantons which, physically characterized in ways less favorable to individual independence, were at the same time given to wars, offensive as well as defensive. Berne, Lucerne, Fribourg, Soleure, acquired political constitutions in large measure oligarchic; and in "Berne, where the nobles had always been in the ascendant, the entire administration had fallen into the hands of a few families, with whom it had become hereditary."

We have next to note as a cause of progressive modification in compound heads, that, like simple heads, they are apt to be subordinated by their administrative agents. The first case to be named is one in which this effect is exemplified along with the last—the case of Sparta. Originally appointed by the kings to perform prescribed duties, the ephors first made the kings subordinate, and eventually subordinated the senate; so that they became substantially the rulers. From this we may pass to the instance supplied by Venice, where power, once exercised by the people, gradually lapsed into the hands of an executive body, the members of which, habitually reëlected, and at death replaced by their children, became an aristocracy, whence there eventually grew the Council of Ten, who were, like the Spartan ephors, "charged to guard the security of the state with a power higher than the law"; and who thus, "restrained by no rule," constituted the actual government. Through its many revolutions and changes of constitution, Florence exhibited like tendencies. The appointed administrators, now signoria, now priors, became able, during their terms of office, to carry out their ends even to the extent of suspending the constitution—getting the forced assent of the assembled people, who were surrounded by armed men. And then, eventually, the head executive agent, nominally reëlected from time to time but practically permanent, became, in the person of Cosmo de' Medici, the founder of an inherited headship.

But the liability of the compound political head to become subject to its civil agents, is far less than its liability to become subject to its military agents. From the earliest times this liability has been exemplified and commented upon; and, familiar as it is, I must here illustrate and emphasize it, because it directly bears on one of the cardinal truths of political theory. Setting out with the Greeks we observe, in the first place, that the tyrants, by whom oligarchies were so often overthrown, had armed forces at their disposal. Either the tyrant was "the executive magistrate, upon whom the oligarchy themselves had devolved important administrative powers," or he was a demagogue, who pleaded the alleged interests of the community, "in order to surround" himself "with armed defenders"—soldiers being in either case the agents of his usurpation. And then, in the second place, we see the like done by the successful general. As Macchiavelli remarks of the Romans: "For the further abroad they [the generals] carried their arms, the more necessary such prolongations [of their commissions] appeared, and the more common they became; hence it arose, in the first place, that but a few of their citizens could be employed in the command of armies, and consequently few were capable of acquiring any considerable degree of experience or reputation; and in the next, that when a commander in chief was continued for a long time in that post, he had an opportunity of corrupting his army to such a degree that the soldiers entirely threw off their obedience to the senate, and acknowledged no authority but his. To this it was owing that Sylla and Marius found means to debauch their armies and make them fight against their country; and that Julius Cæsar was enabled to make himself absolute in Rome."

The Italian republics, again, furnish many illustrations. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, those of Lombardy "all submitted themselves to the military power of some nobles to whom they had intrusted the command of their militias, and thus all lost their liberty." Later times and nearer regions yield instances. At home Cromwell showed how the successful general tends to become autocrat. In the Netherlands the same thing was exemplified by the Van Arteveldes, father and son, and again by Maurice of Nassau; and, but for form's sake, it would be needless to name the case of Napoleon. It should be added that not only by command of armed forces is the military chief enabled to seize on supreme power, but acquired popularity, especially in a militant nation, places him in a position which makes it relatively easy to do this. Neither their own experience, nor the experiences of other nations throughout the past, prevented the French from lately making Marshal MacMahon executive head; and even the Americans, in more than once choosing General Grant for President, proved that, predominantly industrial though their society is, militant activity promptly caused an incipient change toward the militant type, of which an essential trait is the union of civil headship with military headship.

From the influences which tend to narrow compound political headships, or change them into single ones, let us pass to the influences which tend to widen them. The case of Athens is, of course, the first to be considered. To understand this we must remember that, up to the time of Solon, democratic government did not exist in Greece. The only known forms were the oligarchic and the despotic; and in those early days, before political speculation began, it is certain that there was not recognized in theory a social form wholly unknown in practice. We have, therefore, to exclude the notion that popular government arose in Athens under the guidance of any preconceived idea. As having the same implication should be added the fact that—Athens being governed by an oligarchy at the time—the Solonian legislation served but to qualify and broaden the oligarchy and remove crying injustices. In seeking the causes which worked through Solon, and also made practicable the reorganization he initiated, we shall find them to lie in the direct and indirect influences of trade. Grote comments on "the anxiety, both of Solon and of Drako, to enforce among their fellow-citizens industrious and self-maintaining habits"—a proof that, even before Solon's time, there was in Attica little or no reprobation of "sedentary industry, which in most other parts of Greece was regarded as comparatively dishonorable." Moreover, Solon was himself in early life a trader; and his legislation "provided for traders and artisans a new home at Athens, giving the first encouragement to that numerous town-population, both in the city and in the Peiræus, which we find actually residing there in the succeeding century." The immigrants who flocked into Attica because of its greater security, Solon was anxious to turn rather to manufacturing industry than to cultivation of a soil naturally poor; and one result was "a departure from the primitive temper of Atticism, which tended both to cantonal residence and rural occupation"; while another result was to increase the number of people who stood outside those gentile and phratric divisions, which were concomitants of the patriarchal type and of personal rule. And then the constitutional changes made by Solon were in leading respects toward industrial organization. The introduction of a property-qualification for classes, instead of a birth-qualification, diminished the rigidity of the political form, since acquirement of wealth by industry, or otherwise, made possible an admission into the oligarchy, or among others of the privileged. By forbidding self-enslavement of the debtor, and by emancipating those who had been self-enslaved, his laws added largely to the enfranchised class as distinguished from the slave-class. In another aspect this change, leaving equitable contracts untouched, prevented those inequitable contracts under which, by a lien on himself, a man gave more than an equivalent for the sum he borrowed. And, with a decreasing number of cases in which there existed the relation of master and slave, went an increasing number of cases in which benefits were exchanged by agreement. The odium attaching to that lending at interest which ended in slavery of the debtor having disappeared, legitimate lending became general and unopposed, the rate of interest was free, and accumulated capital was made available. Then, as coöperating cause, and as ever-increasing consequence, came the growth of a population favorably circumstanced for acting in concert. Urban people, who, daily in contact, can gather one another's ideas and feelings, and who, by quickly-diffused intelligence, can be rapidly assembled, can coöperate far more readily than those who are scattered through rural districts. With all which direct and indirect results of industrial development must be joined the ultimate result upon character, produced by daily fulfilling and enforcing contracts—a discipline which, while requiring each man to recognize the claims of others, also requires him to maintain his own. In Solon himself this attitude which joins assertion of personal rights with respect for the rights of others was well exemplified; since, when his influence was great he refused to become a despot, though pressed to do so, and in his latter days he resisted at the risk of death the establishment of a despotism. In various ways, then, increasing industrial activity tended to widen the original oligarchic form, and initiate a more popular form. And though these effects of industrialism, joined with subsequently-accumulated effects, were for a long time held in check by the usurping Peisistratidæ, yet, being ready to show themselves when, some time after the expulsion of these tyrants, there came the Kleisthenian revolution, they were doubtless instrumental in then initiating the popular form of government.

Though not in so great a degree, yet in some degree, the same causes operated in liberalizing and widening the Roman oligarchy. Rome "was indebted for the commencement of its importance to international commerce"; and, as Mommsen points out, "the distinction between Rome and the mass of the other Latin towns must certainly be traced back to its commercial position, and to the type of character produced by that position.... Rome was the emporium of the Latin districts." Moreover, as in Athens, though doubtless to a smaller extent, trade brought an increasing settlement of strangers, to whom rights were given, and who, joined with emancipated slaves and with clients, less bound to their patrons, formed an industrial population, the eventual inclusion of which in the burgess-body caused that widening of the constitution effected by Servius Tullius.

The Italian republics of later days again show us, in numerous cases, this connection between trading activities and a freer form of rule. The Italian towns were industrial centers. "The merchants of Genoa, Pisa, Florence, and Venice supplied Europe with the products of the Mediterranean and of the East; the bankers of Lombardy instructed the world in the mysteries of finance and foreign exchanges; Italian artificers taught the workmen of other countries the highest skill in the manufactures of steel, iron, bronze, silk, glass, porcelain, and jewelry. Italian shops, with their dazzling array of luxuries, excited the admiration and envy of foreigners from less favored lands." Then, on looking into their histories, we find that industrial guilds were the bases of their political organizations; that the upper mercantile classes became the rulers, in some cases excluding the nobles; and that, while external wars and internal feuds tended continually to revive narrower, or more personal, forms of rule, rebellions of the industrial citizens, from time to time occurring, tended to reëstablish popular rule.

When we join with these the like general connections that arose in the Netherlands and in the Hanse towns; when we remember the liberalization of our own political institutions which has gone along with growing industrialism; when we observe that the towns more than the country, and the great industrial centers more than the small ones, have given the impulses to these changes—it becomes unquestionable that, while by increase of militant activities compound headships are narrowed, they are widened in proportion as industrial activities become predominant.


In common with the results reached in preceding chapters, the results above reached show that types of political organization are not matters of deliberate choice. It is common to speak of a society as though it had, once upon a time, decided on the form of government which thereafter existed in it. Even Mr. Grote, in his comparison between the institutions of ancient Greece and those of mediæval Europe (vol. iii, pages 10-12) tacitly implies that conceptions of the advantages or disadvantages of this or that arrangement furnished motives for establishing or maintaining it. But, as gathered together in the foregoing sections, the facts show us that, as with the genesis of simple political headships, so with the genesis of compound political headships, conditions and not intentions determine.

Recognizing the fact that independence of character is a factor, but ascribing this independence of character to the continued existence of a race in a habitat which facilitates evasion of control, we saw that, with such a nature so conditioned, coöperation in war causes the union on equal terms of groups whose heads are joined to form a directive council. And according as the component groups are governed more or less autocratically, the directive council is more or less oligarchic. We have seen that in localities differing so widely as do mountain-regions, marshes or mud-islands, and jungles, men of different races have developed political heads of this compound kind. And, on observing that the localities, otherwise so unlike, are alike as being severally made up of parts difficult of access, we can not question that to this is mainly due the governmental form under which their inhabitants unite.

Besides the compound headships which are thus indigenous in places favoring them, there are other compound headships which arise after the break-up of preceding political organizations. Especially apt are they so to arise where the people, not scattered through a wide district but concentrated in a town, can assemble bodily. Control of every kind having disappeared, it happens in such cases that the aggregate will has free play, and there establishes itself for a time that relatively popular form with which all government begins; but, regularly or irregularly, a superior few become differentiated from the many, and of predominant men some one is made, directly or indirectly, most predominant.

Compound headships habitually become, in course of time, either narrower or wider. They are narrowed by militancy, which tends ever to concentrate directive power in fewer hands, and, if continued, almost certainly changes them into simple headships. Conversely, they are widened by industrialism. This, by gathering together aliens detached from the restraints imposed by patriarchal, feudal, or other such organizations, by increasing the number of those to be coerced in comparison with the number of those who have to coerce them, by placing this larger number in conditions favoring concerted action, by substituting for daily enforced obedience the daily fulfillment of voluntary obligations and daily maintenance of claims, tends ever toward equalization of citizenship.


  1. While I am writing, the just-issued third volume of Mr. Skene's "Celtic Scotland" supplies me with an instructive illustration of the process above indicated. From his account it appears that the original Celtic tribes which formed the earldoms of Moray, Buchan, Athol, Angus, Menteith, became broken up into clans; and how influential was the physical character of the country in producing this result, we are shown by the fact that this change took place in the parts of them which fell within the Highland country. Describing the smaller groups which resulted, Mr. Skene says: "While the clan, viewed as a single community, thus consisted of the chief, with his kinsmen to a certain limited degree of relationship; the commonalty who were of the same blood, who all bore the same name, and his dependents, consisting of subordinate septs of native men, who did not claim to be of the blood of the chief, but were either probably descended from the more ancient occupiers of the soil, or were broken men from other clans, who had taken protection with him.... Those kinsmen of the chief who acquired the property of their land founded families.... The most influential of these was that of the oldest cadet in the family which had been longest separated from the main stem, and usually presented the appearance of a rival house little less powerful than that of the chief."
  2. As bearing on historical interpretations at large, and especially on interpretations to be made in this work, let me point out further reasons than those given by Grote and others for rejecting the tradition that the Spartan constitution was the work of Lykurgus. The universal tendency to ascribe an effect to the most conspicuous proximate cause is especially strong where the effect is one of which the causation is involved. Our own time has furnished an illustration in the ascription of Corn-law Repeal to Sir Robert Peel, and after him to Messrs. Cobden and Bright, leaving Colonel Thompson unnamed. In the next generation the man who for a time carried on the fight single-handed, and forged sundry of the weapons used by the victors, will be unheard of in connection with it. It is not enough, however, to suspect that Lykurgus was simply the finisher of other men's work. We may reasonably suspect that the work was that of no man, but simply that of the needs and conditions. This may be seen in the institution of the public mess. If we ask what will happen with a small people who, for generations spreading as conquerors, have a contempt for all industry, and who, when not at war, pass their time in exercises fitting them for war, it becomes manifest that at first the daily assembling to carry on these exercises will entail the daily bringing of provisions by each. As happens in those picnics in which all who join contribute to the common repast, a certain obligation respecting qualities and quantities will naturally arise—an obligation which, repeated daily, will pass from custom into law; ending in a specification of the kinds and amounts of food. Further, it is to be expected that as the law thus arises in an age when food is coarse and unvaried, the simplicity of the diet, originally unavoidable, will eventually be considered as intended—as an ascetic regimen deliberately devised. (When writing this I was not aware that, as pointed out by Professor Paley in "Fraser's Magazine," for February, 1881, that among the Greeks of later times it was common to have dinners to which each guest brought his share of provisions, and that those who contributed little and consumed much were objects of satire. This fact greatly increases the probability that the Spartan mess originated as suggested.)
  3. I should have thought it needless to insist on so obvious a truth, had it not been that even still there continues this identification of things so utterly different. Within these few years has been published a magazine-article by an historian, describing the corruptions of the Roman Republic during its latter days, with the appended moral that such were, and are, likely to be the results of democratic government.