Chapter 2: The Nature Of Government And Its Progress In The First Ages Of Society

We shall now explain:


To acquire proper notions of government, it is necessary to:

Thus among hunters there is no regular government, they live according to the laws of nature.

The appropriation of herds and flocks introduced an inequality of fortune.

  • Until there is property, there can be no government.
  • In this age of shepherds, if one man possessed 500 oxen, and another had none at all, he would not be allowed to possess them unless there were some government to secure them to him.
  • They therefore who had appropriated a number of flocks and herds, necessarily came to have great influence over the rest.
  • Accordingly, we find in the Old Testament that Abraham, Lot, and the other patriarchs were like little petty princes.
  • This inequality of fortune in a nation of shepherds occasioned greater influence than in any period after that.
  • At present, a man may spend a great estate and yet acquire no dependents.
  • Arts and manufactures are increased by it, but it may make very few persons dependent.
  • In a nation of shepherds, it is quite otherways.
  • We now explain:

  • A nation consists of many families who have met together, and agreed to live with one another.
  • The chieftain is the leader of the nation.
  • Thus chieftainship becomes hereditary.
  • The number of presents which he receives, increase his fortune, and consequently his authority.
  • Among barbarous nations, nobody goes to the chieftain, or makes any application for his interest, without something in his hand.
  • We shall now consider the different powers which naturally belong to government, how they are distributed, and what is their progress in the first periods of society.  

    All these powers in the original form of government belonged to the whole body of the people.

    Cowardice and treason were the first crimes punished.

    The priest generally inflicted the punishment, as it were by command of the gods.

  • The power of making peace and war belonged to the people.
  • The judicial power which concerns individuals was long precarious.

  • In the age of shepherds this power is absolutely exerted.
  • In Great Britain, we can observe vestiges of the precariousness of the judicial power, but none of the executive.
  • It was very common in the ruder ages to demand a trial by dipping their hands in boiling water.
  • When people were constantly exposed to the weather, boiling water could have little effect upon them, though now, when we are quite covered, it must have a contrary effect.
  • In the periods of hunters and fishers, and in that of shepherds, as was before observed, crimes are few; small crimes passed without any notice.

  • When these took place and difficult trades began to be practised, controversies became more frequent.
  • All causes must be left undecided.
  • The natural means they end up with would be to choose some of their number to whom all causes should be referred.
  • The chieftain who was before this distinguished by his superior influence, when this comes to be the case, would preserve his wonted precedence, and
  • would naturally be one of those who were chosen for this purpose.
  • A certain number would be chosen to sit along with him.
  • They would be afraid to trust matters of importance to a few.
  • Accordingly, we find that at Athens there were 500 judges at the same time.
  • By this means, the chieftain would still further increase his authority, and
  • the government would appear in some degree monarchical.
  • But this is only in appearance, for the final decision is still in the whole body of the people, and the government is really democratical.
  • The power of making peace and war was at first lodged in the people.

  • This province would either:
  • This is properly called the senatorial power, which at Rome took care of the public revenue, public buildings, and the like.
  • But afterwards at Rome, the court of justice and the senatorial one became quite distinct. The same may be said of the Areopagite court at Athens.
  • We shall now observe nations in the two first periods of society, those of hunters and shepherds.

    In a nation of hunters and fishers, few people can live together.

  • But as they live together for their mutual defence, and to assist one another, their villages are not far distant from each other.
  • When any controversy happens between persons of different villages, it is decided by a general assembly of both villages.
  • As each particular village has its own leader, so there is one who is the leader of the whole nation.
  • The nation consists of an alliance of the different villages, and the chieftains have great influence on their resolutions, especially among shepherds. In no age is antiquity of family more respected than in this.
  • The principle of authority operates very strongly, and they have the liveliest sense of utility in the maintenance of law and government.
  • The difference of the conduct of these nations in peace and war is worth our observation.

    The exploits of hunters are never very considerable.

  • On the other hand, a much greater number of shepherds can live together.
  • There is a very great difference between barbarous nations and those that are a little civilized.

  • On this account, barbarous nations are always disposed to quit their country.

  • Next: Chapter 3