Guest Essayist: Will Morrisey


Why have ‘states’ in the Union, anyway? True, the colonies predated the United States, the colonies became states, and ratification of the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution proceeded on a state-by-state basis. But many municipalities preceded the states; some existed before the British wrestled control of them from the French. And, as Gary Porter explained in a recent essay here, courts in most states regard all or many of the municipalities to be creatures of the state for legal purposes, even if historians beg to differ. Why not treat states the same way? Whatever practical barriers to this there may be, what is wrong with it in principle? After all, many countries around the world have commercial-republican regimes while nonetheless treating the provinces as, well, provincial. Why shouldn’t we do the same?

If the distinctive human characteristic is the ability to speak and to reason, then what is good for such a being must not only allow but encourage it to exercise that ability, just as it must be good for a horse to have room to run. To live in societies ruled by tyrants terrorizing their subjects with brute force must be bad for human beings, somehow beneath their real nature—hence the adjective ‘brute.’ By nature, human beings belong in civil societies, societies in which they may speak and reason together, deliberate with one another on what they should do, how they should act. Old-fashioned mothers would tell unruly children to ‘be civil,’ to ‘keep a civil tongue in your head.’ A civil tongue is one indirectly but closely attached to a reasoning brain, a brain more fully developed in accordance with its nature than the brain of a madman or a dolt, to say nothing of a barking pit bull or a chorusing frog.

Civil society begins in the home. Parents command children, ‘for their own good.’ But father and mother themselves properly form a civil relationship, ruling one another by mutual consent, by shared responsibilities, authority, and obligations. Outside the home, what we call civil society works the same way, as fellow citizens form businesses, churches, clubs, and schools. Families and civil associations alike govern themselves deliberately, reasonably—insofar as they are genuinely civil, institutions fitted for mature human beings. Children learn to do the same thing, choosing up sides for games, ‘ganging up’ (for better or for worse), imitating the adults (also for better or for worse).

You learn to be civil in small groups. The earliest political societies were small, outgrowths of extended families or clans which united with one another for convenience and protection. The polis or city-state rules itself, perhaps as a democracy, more often as an oligarchy, sometimes as a monarchy. Whatever its regime, the city-state occupies a small territory and consists of a small population; in ancient Greece, they seldom consisted of more than 30,000 souls. Given this small size, political life mattered. There was nowhere to hide from whomever ruled; whether it was the one, the few, or the many, whether he or they were good or bad, the ruler(s) could and did reach out and in many respects determine your way of life. No adult could be indifferent to politics because everyone felt the effects of political rule.

City-states faced a serious, ultimately fatal threat. If children and adults like to ‘gang up,’ what is to prevent the most ambitious, if perhaps the less reasonable, among them from gathering together not merely to tyrannize the city-state but to conquer other city-states? If, say, a tyrant gains control of Macedonia, masters the nearby city-states, and sets sail for Greece, what is to prevent him from conquering it? In the event, nothing, as Alexander the Great proved not only in Greece but throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. As did many others: The Old Testament is full of Egyptians, Ethiopians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, the New Testament full of Romans. A small people could retain its self-government among the empires only if God chose to protect it. It couldn’t go it alone.

What is more, small places foster political passions as much as they foster rational deliberation. If I care intensely about who rules me, because whoever that is he will make me feel his rule, I may gang up with others to make sure that we are the hammers, not the nails. In The Federalist, Publius remarks that small republics were as often as short in their lives as they were violent in their deaths. When not ruined by foreign conquerors, they succumbed to suicide-by-faction. Although human beings may be rational by nature, they often fail to live up to their nature. “Why has government been instituted at all?” Publius asks. “Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”

The problem only intensified in the modern world, the world of Machiavelli. As an official of the Italian city-state of Florence, Machiavelli became impatient with smallness, with puny states which squabbled with one another, incapable of extending their power beyond their own small territories. He conceived not so much of another empire but of lo stato, a governing body extending over the whole of the Italian nation. Lo stato might be governed by one or many, be a principality or a republic, but whichever regime it had, it would be able to extract substantial numbers of soldiers and revenues from all parts of Italy.  Even the larger nations of Europe—the French, the Turks—did not have lo stato; they were feudal societies, in which monarchs reigned but found themselves constrained by ‘the few,’ by titled aristocrats, by churches or mosques—by elites of various descriptions, all bent on aggrandizing themselves at the expense of the central government. Machiavelli recommended what we would now call a strategy of ‘state-building’—of bring ‘the few’ to heel, extending the administrative apparatus of the central government into the provinces and subordinating those provinces to it. Once a few rulers took the advice he preserved in his books (he died powerless), once the Tudors in England and the Bourbons in France began to put an end to feudalism, all European nations needed their own states, if they were to avoid conquest. On that continent, the Hohenzollern-Bismarck-Prussian forging of the many small German states into one nation-state proved the most salient fact of the nineteenth century, and the most ominous fact of the first half of the twentieth century. Without states of their own, European nations would have fallen under German rule, as Germans aimed at reconstituted a new and much more malevolent form of the Holy Roman Empire, no more holy or Roman than the original, but very much more an empire.

Will Morrisey is William and Patricia LaMothe Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College, and is a Constituting America Fellow; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.


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