Chapter 2

The Nature Of Government And Its Progress In The First Ages Of Society

by Adam Smith Icon

We shall now explain:

  • the nature of government,
  • its different forms,
  • what circumstances gave occasion for it, and
  • how it is maintained.

There are 3 forms of government:

  1. Monarchical - the supreme power is vested in one who can do what he pleases, make peace and war, impose taxes, etc. [tyranny]
  2. Aristocratical - the state is run by magistrates chosen by a class of people, such as the wealthy or known families, [oligarchy + aristocracy]
  3. Democratical - the state is run by the people together [democracy]

Aristocratical and democratical governments may be called republican. The division of government is into monarchical and republican.

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

  • consider its first form of it
  • observe how the other forms arose out of it.

There is no government in a nation of hunters. The society consists of a few independent families who=

  • live in the same village,
  • speak the same language, and
  • have agreed among themselves to keep together for their mutual safety

But they have no authority one over another. The whole society interests itself in any offence.

If possible they make it up between the parties, if not they banish from their society, kill or deliver up to the resentment of the injured him who has committed the crime. But this is no regular government. They might have a respected leader, yet he never can do anything without the consent of the whole. 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. It led to regular government. Until there is property, there can be no government. The very end of government is to=

  • secure wealth [utility], and
  • defend the rich from the poor.

In this age of shepherds, if Person A had 500 oxen and Person B had none, a government would be needed to secure them from him. This inequality of fortune makes a distinction between the rich and the poor. It gave the rich much influence over the ooor.

Those who had no herds depended on those who had herds because the poor could no longer do hunting because the wild animals had become domesicated. Those who had more flocks and herds necessarily gained great influence over the rest.

Accordingly in the Old Testament, 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.

A nation of shepherds has no way to spend their property other than giving it in presents to the poor. Through this, they gain influence over them as to make them their slaves.

At present, on the other hand, a man may spend for a great estate and yet have no dependents. The arts and manufactures are increased by his spending yet it makes very few persons dependent.

How could one man gain more authority than the rest as a chieftain?

A nation consists of many families that have agreed to live with one another. At their public meetings, there will always be one of superior influence to the rest. He will direct and govern their resolutions, which is all the authority of a chieftain in a barbarous country. The chieftain is the leader of the nation.

His son naturally becomes the chief of the young people. On the fathers’ death, the son succeeds to his authority. Thus, chieftainship becomes hereditary.


In time, this power of chieftainship increases by a variety of circumstances. 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.

In a civilized nation, the man who gives the present is superior to the person who receives it. But in a barbarous nation, the case is directly opposite.

What different powers naturally belong to government? How are they distributed? What is their progress in the first periods of society?

The powers of government* are:

  1. legislative, which makes laws for the public good
  2. judicial, or that which obliges private persons to obey these laws, and punishes those who disobey
  3. the executive, or as some call it, the federal power, to which belongs the making war and peace.

*Superhysics Note: We add the fourth power of government which is resource-allocation which is currently part of the executive power

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

It took a long time before the legislative power was introduced, as it is the highest exertion of government to make laws to bind ourselves and our posterity, and those who never gave any consent to the making them.

The judicial power came when two persons quarrelled and the whole society naturally interposed. When they could not be reconciled, they were kicked out of society.

During this early age, crimes were few. It was long before the punishment was made equal to the crime. Cowardice and treason were the first crimes punished.

Cowardice among hunters is considered as treason because if their enemy attacked them and some of their party deserted, the rest might suffer by it. Therefore, those who deserted were punished for treason. The priest generally inflicted the punishment, as if it were commanded by the gods.

The government was so weak at that time. The power of making peace and war belonged to the people. All the heads of families were consulted about it. The judicial power which concerns individuals was long precarious.

The executive power came very soon to be exerted absolutely as the society first interposed as friends and then as arbitrators. When a private quarrel happens on who owns this cow, society is not immediately concerned. But it is deeply interested in making peace and war. 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. When a criminal was tried, he was asked how he his cause should be decided, whether by:

  • combat,
  • the ordeal trial, or
  • the laws of his country.

The society only obliged him not to disturb them in the decision. In England the question still remains, though the answer is not now arbitrary.

It was very common in the ruder ages to demand a trial by dipping their hands in boiling water. In that way, almost everyone was found innocent. But now, no one would escape by this means. When people were constantly exposed to the weather, boiling water could have little effect on them. Nowadays, we are quite covered, so it must have a big effect.

This choice of trial shows the weakness of the judicial laws. We find that the judicial combat continued in England as late as the days of Queen Elizabeth. It has now worn out gradually and insensibly without so much as a law made against it.

In the periods of hunters and shepherds, crimes are few and small crimes passed without any notice. In those ages, no controversies arose from interpretations of testaments, settlements, contracts, which render our lawsuits so numerous, for these were unknown among them. When these took place and difficult trades began to be practised, controversies became more frequent.

But as men were generally employed in some branch of trade, they could not spare the time to wait on the decision. Thus, all causes were left undecided unless they could refer them to the chieftain who had superior influence.

A certain number would be chosen to sit along with him. In the first ages of society, this number was always big as 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. This helped the chieftain further increase his authority. The government would appear somewhat monarchical. But this is only in appearance, for the final decision is still with the people, and the government is really democratical.

The power of making peace and war was at first lodged in the people. But the people could not attend to deliberations of this kind when:

  • society advanced
  • towns were fortified
  • magazines prepared
  • stocks of money kept together
  • generals and officers appointed

This power would either:

  • fall to the court of justice, or
  • there would be another set of people appointed for this purpose, though it would naturally at first fall to the court of justice.

This is properly called the senatorial power.

  • In Rome, it took care of the public revenue, public buildings, and the like.
  • But afterwards at Rome, the court of justice and the senatorial one became distinct.
  • The same may be said of the Areopagite court at Athens.

Hunters and shepherds

In a nation of hunters and fishers, few people can live together because any large number would destroy all the game in the country, and consequently would lack a means of subsistence.

A village is made up of 30 families at the most. They live together for their mutual defence and assist one another. Thus, their villages are not far apart. When any controversy happens between persons of different villages, it is decided by a general assembly of both villages.

Each village has its own leader. The whole nation has one leader. The nation consists of an alliance of the different villages. 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. They have the liveliest sense of utility in the maintenance of law and government.

These two ages have differing conduct in peace and war. The exploits of hunters are never very considerable because their number seldom exceeds 200 men which cannot be supported above 14 days. Therefore, there is very little danger from a nation of hunters.

Our colonies are much afraid of them without any just grounds. They may give them some trouble by their inroads and excursions. But can never be very formidable.

On the other hand, a much greater number of shepherds can live together. There may be 1,000 families in the same village.

The Arabs and Tatars have always been shepherds. They have made the most dreadful havoc many times. A Tatar chief is extremely formidable. When one of them gets the better of another, the most dreadful and violent revolutions always happens. They take their whole flocks and herds into the field with them. Whoever is overcome loses his people and wealth. The victorious nation follows its flocks and pursues its conquest. If it comes into a cultivated country with such numbers of men, it is quite irresistible. This is how Mohammad ravaged all Asia.

There is a very great difference between barbarous nations and those that are a little civilized.

People can have no attachment to the soil where=

  • the land is not divided, and
  • the people live in huts which they carry with them.

All their property consists in living goods which they can easily carry. On this account, barbarous nations are always disposed to quit their country. Thus, we find such migrations among the Helvetii, Teutones, and Cimbrians. The Huns dwelt for a long time on the north of the Chinese wall. They drove out the Astrogoths on the other side of the Palus Maeotis, they again the Wisigoths, etc.


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