restricted access 6 - Origins of the State
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6 Origins of the State F rom a recent readingof Woodrow Wilson’s The State,1 it became clear to me that this work rejects certain entrenched American views about the source of political rights.Wilson provided a view of the“state”that differs from the conventional American understanding of rights as inhering in the individual from the moment of birth. His argument about the state is previewed in the opening sentence of his work, in which he addresses the “probable origin of government.”2 The state’s origin “is a question of fact, to be settled not by conjecture , but by history.”3 The inquiry then moves to “such traces as remain to us of the history of primitive societies.”4 The societies involved in this investigation are ancient Indo-­ European, Turanian, and Semitic ones, although not Far Eastern civilization, and Wilson concludes that the state’s origin cannot be located in any of these hypothetical beginnings. In all the societies surveyed, it is possible to find complex family patterns, patriarchal authority, and/or Germanic tribal chieftains, but no inklings of the modern state.5 Wilson is not impressed by explanations for the state’s development featuring a social contract theory. He is profoundly skeptical about certain rights of nature that supposedly were developing in primitive political societies. He treats these imaginary rights with the same doubt with which he approaches narratives about the divine origin of the state or an original lawgiver, whose life remains shrouded in mystery. But a shadow of truth, according to Wilson, may cling to all of these already commonplace explanations: Although government did not originate in a deliberate contract and although no system of law or social order was ever made out of hand by any one man, government was not at all a spontaneous development. But one having arisen, government was affected, and profoundly affected, by man’s choice; only that choice entered not to originate, but to modify, government.6 74 C H A P T E R six Wilson did not identify the state with enumerated natural rights that supposedly came from a very remote past.Like Hume and Burke,he regarded government as a cultural-­ historic artifact that arose out of definable needs and that originated in a particular time and place.He expresses a debt to the German historical school of the nineteenth century, which emphasized the state’s rootedness in specific historical circumstances.Members of this school focused on the state as a historically determined institution and on the complex conditions that engendered this political arrangement. In his opening chapter Wilson traces the origin of the modern state to an Indo-­ European society that emerged from patriarchal authority and that substituted contractual for status relations.7 Here the future president may have been thinking about the English jurist Henry Sumner Maine, who famously observed in 1861 that modern civilization had moved “from status to contract.”8 Like Maine,Wilson assumes that the state as a historical institution had the power to alter social relations.9 Kinship and feudal patterns faded in importance as the state and its sovereign came to dominate what in the new dispensation were individual subjects or citizens. Not surprisingly, Thomas Hobbes in his defense of the sovereign state never refers to nations or classes. In Hobbes’s Leviathan, we meet only isolated individuals who would engage in perpetual warfare without a sovereign, who is there to maintain peace and “promote commodity.”10 The assumed lack of collective identities prior to the social contract in Hobbes’s scheme serves his defense of the sovereign state as something that creates identity as well as a system of defense. Because of the indispensability of sovereign authority for maintaining civil order, Hobbes showed no tolerance for anything that might weaken the state. Neither an intermediary social structure nor any religion that operates in defiance of the unitary government, according to Hobbes, could be given a free hand, without creating the threat of political dissolution. Hobbes took this position, according to Michael Oakeshott, 11 not because he was in love with dictatorial government. Rather, Hobbes was convinced that given the religious and dynastic wars of his age, a minimal state would not function effectively, especially in the face of the murderous discord unleashed by the English civil war.12 This bloody commotion was for Hobbes the natural condition that ran from the sixteenth century into the second half of the next. Then religious and dynastic strife beset...


Subject Headings

  • Conservatism.
  • Liberalism.
  • Right and left (Political science).
  • Political science -- Philosophy.
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