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A Brief History of Government

The first civilization began in the city states of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Mexico, and other places where small communities spawned kingdoms. We can trace the history of this culture in the wars fought between kingdoms and between nomadic barbarians and the settled communities. China and India brought forth political dynasties that had little contact with the outside world except when nomadic groups threatened them from the Asian steppe (or when a “civilized” conqueror such as Alexander the Great invaded northern India). The empires formed in Mexico and Peru were also largely self-confined. The Middle East is another story. Here political dynasties arose in Mesopotamia, Turkey, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Italy which fought other kingdoms for control of the civilized world. The story of this civilization is the story of the rise and fall of kingdoms striving to become an empire which controls a territory containing many different peoples.

Government is the institution which survives from this period. The history of government is largely one of warfare although certain other functions also emerged. The laws of Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi were noteworthy achievements. The extensive system of roads that connected distant parts of the Persian and Roman empires allowed a central government to control far-flung territories. The first Chinese emperor Shih Hwang-ti standardized the Chinese script, replaced the hereditary nobility with appointed officials, and began work on the Great Wall. But a recognized mark of achievement was how large a territory the empire might conquer and maintain. At its height in the 2nd century A.D., there were four political empires which controlled a broad swath of land from China’s Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast of Gaul and Spain. These were the Han Chinese, Kushan, Parthian, and Roman empires. Their societies were under totalitarian rule.

In China this pattern has continued into modern times. In recurring dynasties, the type of government created in the 3rd century B.C. lasted for two millennia. Even though the Ching dynasty ended in 1911, centralized government following the imperial model has been resurrected by the communists. In Europe, on the other hand, no one succeeded in reviving the Roman empire. This empire was split into two parts when Constantine I established a second capital at Constantinople to govern Rome’s eastern territories while the city of Rome remained the capital of territories in the west. Separate lineages of emperors ruled in each place. The last ruler of the west Roman empire, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476 B.C., marking what we in the west call “the fall of the Roman empire”.

Many causes have been ascribed to this “fall”, including the corrosive influence of Christianity and the moral corruption of the Roman people. Considering that the western empire was overthrown by barbarian invaders, a more likely explanation is that the eastern border had become too porous. Germanic peoples had begun to migrate into Roman territories lured by the empire’s wealth and culture and even staff the imperial armies. After the Roman government fell, Gothic, Frankish, and other barbarian kings ruled the western part of Europe. Their domains became the territories of the European nation states. Several political leaders including Charlemagne, Emperor Frederick II, Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, and, more lately, Napoleon and Hitler have tried to reunite the lands once ruled by ancient Rome, but none have succeeded for more than a short time.

In the eastern part of the empire, however, the Roman state continued for almost a thousand years beyond the demise of the western empire. This so-called “Byzantine” Roman empire, ruled from Constantinople, fought the Sasanian Persians, Islamic Arabs, Norman French, Saljuq Turks, and Ottoman Turks, among others, to maintain its sovereignty before Constantinople was besieged and taken by the Ottomans in 1454 A.D. Its cultural identity was related to orthodox Christianity as much as to the Roman state. The metropolitan of Constantinople was the spiritual leader of orthodox Christians. After that great city fell to the Moslems, ecclesiastical power shifted to Moscow.

Prince Vladimir of Kiev became a Christian in 989 A.D. Slavic peoples then converted en masse to the orthodox faith. The grand dukes of Moscow annexed the Ukraine and other lands to create the Russian empire. This Christian empire thereby became a continuation of the Byzantine empire and the Roman empire before that. Its model of empire involved a partnership between church and state, with the church in a subordinate position. The Russian czar (or “Caesar”) ruled a largely totalitarian state which, like that in China, was readily adapted to communist rule.

By this time world history had passed into the second epoch of civilization whose distinguishing institution was religion. We have seen that the Byzantine empire involved a partnership between church and state. In the west, the church continued to exist after the Roman state fell. The bishop of Rome, or Pope, became the spiritual leader of Christians living in the territories once ruled from that city. Barbarian kings converted to Christianity. The church gave its blessing to their rule. Charlemagne, who almost succeeded in reviving the political empire, had himself crowned “Holy Roman Emperor” by the Pope.

Medieval Christian society was ruled by a partnership between the temporal and ecclesiastical authorities. The Pope was the chief ecclesiastical official. The Holy Roman Emperor and lesser princes held temporal power. This was not an empire of the same kind as the pre-Christian Roman Empire. It was one where religion shared the governing power and, indeed, was considered to be a superior power to secular government.

The Islamic religion had also managed to bring a large territory under its control. The ruling caliphs, successors to Mohammed, combined religious and political authority. But, again, the religious was preferred to the secular. The purpose of empire was to convert persons to the Moslem faith and to govern society according to laws and regulations which Mohammed himself had prescribed. The caliphates in Damascus and Baghdad had authority over the entire realm of Islam.

A later Moorish regime was established in Spain. Turkish peoples and others from the Eurasian steppe later created Islamic empires. There were Buwayhid Iranians, Saljuq Turks in Anatolia, Aghlabid Arabs in Tunisia, and Fatimids and Mamluks in Egypt. In a later incarnation of Islamic empire, three great empires extended across from Turkey into south Asia: the Ottoman Turks, Persian Safavis, and Moguls of India. These were not revivals of the type of political empire found in those lands in the 2nd century A.D. but empires infused with religion.

As we enter the third epoch of world history, the institution of government experienced still more changes. In western Europe, the Protestant Reformation took place. Power shifted away from the papacy to the European princes who were able to choose the religion of their subjects. For instance, Henry VIII founded the church of England, a Protestant denomination, after the Pope refused permission to divorce his wife and remarry. Emperor Charles V (grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella) seemed to have most of Europe under his control but, caught in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, he was unable to build a permanent empire. Pope Alexander VI’s division of American territories between Spain and Portugal proved ineffective in the face of Dutch, French, and English colonization.

How was government affected by these events? The Reformation taught that the Bible, not the Roman church, was the source of religious truth and authority. Every man was authorized to read the Bible and interpret it for himself. So the individual was religiously empowered; it was a step leading to democracy. Another important trend was the rise of Parliamentary government, especially in England. Parliaments, originally assembled to help the king collect taxes, took power away from kings. The idea that the people should pick their leaders replaced the principle that royal power was divinely sanctioned.

One 17th century revolution, the Puritan, and two 18th century revolutions, the American and French, were milestones toward the establishment of democratic government. The successful example of democracy in America helped to promote democratic governments in Europe and the rest of the world. In the aftermath of World War I, three major European dynasties fell and were replaced by democracies (if you count the Bolshevist government in Russia as a democracy.) The European “revolutions” gave a shock to government, two epochs after this institution had been created. The idea of beheading a divinely appointed monarch was especially shocking. One might look for a similar event affecting the other institutions somewhere down the line.

In the third epoch of history, we find the European nation state as the basic model of government. Democratic governments were replacing hereditary monarchies. Independent nations arose in South and Central America in the early 19th century. A multitude of new nations arose in Africa and Asia as the European nations divested themselves of their former colonies. An important element in the history of the first civilization came to an end when the military threat from nomadic barbarians was extinguished. Manchu China and Czarist Russia, equipped with firearms, had encircled their homeland by the mid 17th century.

Wars were now fought to advance economic objectives - gain new territories, access to markets, or control of natural resources - rather than to promote a religion. These wars tended to more disciplined and restrained than the religious ones had been. Communism, a new economic “religion” exhibiting certain features of Christianity, later took control of Russia, China, and other nations and, for a time, seemed poised for further conquest. But history took a different turn.

Industrialization now became the key to a nation’s military strength. As religion had been in the second epoch of history, so the influence of commerce was felt upon politics and government in the third epoch. Access to oil was critical. Education was also important as an educated citizenry was thought essential to a successful democracy.

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