Centralized Government Essay

The History of Civilization in Europe (Excerpts)

By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1896.


We have now reached the threshold of modern history, in the proper sense of the term. We now approach that state of society which may be considered as our own, and the institutions, the opinions, and the manners which were those of France forty years ago, are those of Europe still, and, notwithstanding the changes produced by our revolution, continue to exercise a powerful influence upon us. It is in the sixteenth century, as I have already told you, that modern society really commences…

The actual accomplishment of this change belongs to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though it was in the fifteenth that it was prepared. It is this preparation, this silent and hidden process of centralization, both in the social relations and in the opinions of men—a process accomplished, without premeditation or design, by the natural course of events—that we have now to make the subject of our inquiry.

It is thus that man advances in the execution of a plan which he has not conceived, and of which he is not even aware. He is the free and intelligent artificer of a work which is not his own. He does not perceive or comprehend it, till it manifests itself by external appearances and real results; and even then he comprehends it very incompletely. It is through his instrumentality, however, and by the development of his intelligence and freedom, that it is accomplished. Conceive a great machine, the design of which is centered in a single mind, though its various parts are intrusted to different workmen, separated from, and strangers to each other. No one of them understands the work as a whole, nor the general result which he concurs in producing; but every one executes, with intelligence and freedom, by rational and voluntary acts, the particular task assigned to him. It is thus, that by the hand of man, the designs of Providence are wrought out in the government of the world. It is thus that the two great facts which are apparent in the history of civilization come to coexist; on the one hand, those portions of it which may be considered as fated, or which happen without the control of human knowledge or will; on the other hand, the part played in it by the freedom and intelligence of man, and what he contributes to it by means of his own judgment and will…

I shall begin with France. The last half of the fourteenth, and the first half of the fifteenth century, were, as you all know, a time of great national wars against the English. This was the period of the struggle for the independence of the French territory and the French name against foreign domination. It is sufficient to open the book of history, to see with what ardor, notwithstanding a multitude of treasons and dissensions, all classes of society in France joined in this struggle, and what patriotism animated the feudal nobility, the burghers, and even the peasantry. If we had nothing but the story of Joan of Arc to show the popular spirit of the time, it alone would suffice for that purpose…

Thus the nationality of France began to be formed. Down to the reign of the house of Valois, the feudal character prevailed in France; a French nation, a French spirit, French patriotism, as yet had no existence. With the princes of the house of Valois begins the history of France, properly so called. It was in the course of their wars, amid the various turns of their fortune, that, for the first time, the nobility, the citizens, the peasants, were united by a moral tie, by the tie of a common name, a common honor, and by one burning desire to overcome the foreign invader. We must not, however, at this time, expect to find among them any real political spirit, any great design of unity in government and institutions, according to the conceptions of the present day. The unity of France, at that period, dwelt in her name, in her national honor, in the existence of a national monarchy, no matter of what character, provided that no foreigner had anything to do with it. It was in this way that the struggle against the English contributed strongly to form the French nation, and to impel it towards unity.

At the same time that France was thus forming herself in a moral point of view, she was also extending herself physically, as it may be called, by enlarging, fixing, and consolidating her territory. This was the period of the incorporation of most of the provinces which now constitute France…

Let us turn from the nation to the government, and we shall see the accomplishment of events of the same nature; we shall advance towards the same result. The French government had never been more destitute of unity, of cohesion, and of strength, than under the reign of Charles VI [1380—1422], and during the first part of the reign of Charles VII. At the end of this reign [1461], the appearance of everything was changed. There were evident marks of a power which was confirming, extending, organizing itself. All the great resources of government, taxation, military force, and administration of justice, were created on a great scale, and almost simultaneously. This was the period of the formation of a standing army and permanent militia—the compagnies-d’ordonnance, consisting of cavalry, and the free archers, the infantry. By these companies, Charles VII re-established a degree of order in the provinces, which had been desolated by the license and exactions of the soldiery, even after the war had ceased. All contemporary historians expatiate on the wonderful effects of the compagnies-d’ordonnance. It was at this period that the taille, one of the principal revenues of the crown, was made perpetual; a serious inroad on the liberty of the people, but which contributed powerfully to the regularity and strength of the government. At the same time the great instrument of power, the administration of justice, was extended and organized…

Thus, in relation to the military force, the power of taxation, and the administration of justice, that is to say, in regard to those things which form its essence, government acquired in France, in the fifteenth century, a character of unity, regularity, and permanence, previously unknown; and the feudal powers were finally superseded by the power of the state.

At the same time, too, was accomplished a change of very different character; a change not so visible, and which has not so much attracted the notice of historians, but still more important, perhaps, than those which have been mentioned:—the change effected by Louis XI in the mode of governing…Before his time the government had been carried on almost entirely by force, and by mere physical means. Persuasion, address, care in working upon men’s minds, and in bringing them over to the views of the government—in a word, what is properly called policy—a policy, indeed, of falsehood and deceit, but also of management and prudence—had hitherto been little attended to. Louis XI substituted intellectual for material means, cunning for force, Italian for feudal policy…

From France I turn to Spain; and there I find movements of the same nature. It was also in the fifteenth century that Spain was consolidated into one kingdom. At this time an end was put to the long struggle between the Christians and Moors, by the conquest of Grenada. Then, too, the Spanish territory became centralized: by the marriage of Ferdinand the Catholic, and Isabella, the two principal kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, were united under the same dominion. In the same manner as in France, the monarchy was extended and confirmed. It was supported by severer institutions, which bore more gloomy names. Instead of parliaments, it was the Inquisition that had its origin in Spain. It contained the germ of what it afterwards became; but at first it was of a political rather than a religious nature, and was destined to maintain civil order rather than defend religious faith…

A similar analogy may be discovered in Germany. It was in the middle of the fifteenth century, in 1438, that the house of Austria came to the empire; and that the imperial power acquired a permanence which it had never before possessed. From that time election was merely a sanction given to hereditary right. At the end of the fifteenth century, Maximilian I definitively established the preponderance of his house and the regular exercise of the central authority; Charles VII was the first in France who, for the preservation of order, created a permanent militia; Maximilian, too, was the first in his hereditary dominions, who accomplished the same end by the same means. Louis XI had established in France, the post-office for the conveyance of letters; Maximilian I introduced it into Germany. In the progress of civilization the same steps were everywhere taken, in a similar way, for the advantage of central government.

The history of England in the fifteenth century consists of two great events—the war with France abroad, and the contest of the two Roses at home. These two wars, though different in their nature, were attended with similar results. The contest with France was maintained by the English people with a degree of ardor which went entirely to the profit of royalty. The people, already remarkable for the prudence and determination with which they defended their resources and treasures, surrendered them at that period to their monarchs, without foresight or measure. It was in the reign of Henry V that a considerable tax, consisting of custom-house duties, was granted to the king for his lifetime, almost at the beginning of his reign. The foreign war was scarcely ended, when the civil war, which had already broken out, was carried on; the houses of York and Lancaster disputed the throne. When at length these sanguinary struggles were brought to an end, the English nobility were ruined, diminished in number, and no longer able to preserve the power which they had previously exercised. The coalition of the great barons was no longer able to govern the throne. The Tudors ascended it; and with Henry VII, in 1485, begins the era of political centralization, the triumph of royalty.

Monarchy did not establish itself in Italy, at least under that name; but this made little difference as to the result. It was in the fifteenth century that the fall of the Italian republics took place. Even where the name was retained, the power became concentrated in the hands of one, or of a few families. The spirit of republicanism was extinguished. In the north of Italy, almost all the Lombard republics merged in the Duchy of Milan. In 1434, Florence fell under the dominion of the Medicis. In 1464, Genoa became subject to Milan. The greater part of the republics, great and small, yielded to the power of sovereign houses; and soon afterwards began the pretensions of foreign sovereigns to the dominion of the north and south of Italy; to the Milanese and kingdom of Naples.

Indeed, to whatever country of Europe we cast our eyes, whatever portion of its history we consider, whether it relates to the nations themselves or their governments, to their territories or their institutions, we everywhere see the old elements, the old forms of society, disappearing. Those liberties which were founded on tradition were lost; new powers arose, more regular and concentrated than those which previously existed. There is something deeply melancholy in this view of the fall of the ancient liberties of Europe. Even in its own time it inspired feelings of the utmost bitterness…Every system which does not provide for present order, and progressive advancement for the future, is vicious, and speedily abandoned. And this was the fate of the old political forms of society, of the ancient liberties of Europe in the fifteenth century. They could not give to society either security or progress. These objects naturally became sought for elsewhere; to obtain them, recourse was had to other principles and other means; and this is the import of all the facts to which I have just called your attention.

To this same period may be assigned another circumstance which has had a great influence on the political history of Europe. It was in the fifteenth century that the relations of governments with each other began to be frequent, regular, and permanent. Now, for the first time, became formed those great combinations by means of alliance, for peaceful as well as warlike objects, which, at a later period, gave rise to the system of the balance of power. European diplomacy originated in the fifteenth century. In fact you may see, towards its close, the principal powers of the continent of Europe, the Popes, the Dukes of Milan, the Venetians, the German Emperors, and the Kings of France and Spain, entering into a closer correspondence with each other than had hitherto existed; negotiating, combining, and balancing their various interests…This new order of things was very favorable to the career of monarchy. On the one hand, it belongs to the very nature of the external relations of states that they can be conducted only by a single person, or by a very small number, and that they require a certain degree of secrecy: on the other hand, the people were so little enlightened that the consequences of a combination of this kind quite escaped them. As it had no direct bearing on their individual or domestic life, they troubled themselves little about it; and, as usual, left such transactions to the discretion of the central government. Thus diplomacy, in its very birth, fell into the hands of kings; and the opinion, that it belongs to them exclusively; that the nation, even when free, and possessed of the right of voting its own taxes, and interfering in the management of its domestic affairs, has no right to intermeddle in foreign matters;—this opinion, I say, became established in all parts of Europe, as a settled principle, a maxim of common law…The people are remarkably timid in disputing this portion of the prerogative; and their timidity has cost them the dearer, for this reason, that, from the commencement of the period into which we are now entering (that is to say, the sixteenth century), the history of Europe is essentially diplomatic. For nearly three centuries, foreign relations form the most important part of history. The domestic affairs of countries began to be regularly conducted; the internal government, on the Continent at least, no longer produced any violent convulsions, and no longer kept the public mind in a state of agitation and excitement. Foreign relations, wars, treaties, alliances, alone occupy the attention and fill the page of history; so that we find the destinies of nations abandoned in a great measure to the royal prerogative, to the central power of the state…

Down to the fifteenth century, the only general ideas which had a powerful influence on the masses were those connected with religion. The Church alone was invested with the power of regulating, promulgating, and prescribing them. Attempts, it is true, at independence, and even at separation, were frequently made; and the Church had much to do to overcome them. Down to this period, however, she had been successful. Creeds rejected by the Church had never taken any general or permanent hold on the minds of the people; even the Albigenses had been repressed. Dissension and strife were incessant in the Church, but without any decisive and striking result. The fifteenth century opened with the appearance of a different state of things. New ideas, and a public and avowed desire of change and reformation, began to agitate the Church herself. The end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth century were marked by the great schism of the West, resulting from the removal of the papal chair to Avignon, and the creation of two popes, one at Avignon, and the other at Rome. The contest between these two papacies is what is called the great schism of the West. It began in 1378.  In 1409, the Council of Pisa endeavored to put an end to it by deposing the two rival popes and electing another. But instead of ending the schism, this step only rendered it more violent.

There were now three popes instead of two; and disorders and abuses went on increasing. In 1414, the Council of Constance assembled, convoked by desire of the Emperor Sigismund. This council set about a matter of far more importance than the nomination of a new pope; it undertook the reformation of the Church. It began by proclaiming the indissolubility of the universal council, and its superiority over the papal power. It endeavored to establish these principles in the Church, and to reform the abuses which had crept into it, particularly the exactions by which the court of Rome obtained money…The council elected a new pope, Martin V, in 1417. The pope was instructed to present, on his part, a plan for the reform of the Church. This plan was rejected, and the council separated. In 1431, a new council assembled at Basel with the same design. It resumed and continued the reforming labors of the Council of Constance, but with no better success. Schism broke out in this assembly as it had done in Christendom…

In this manner papacy gained the day, remained in possession of the field of battle, and of the government of the Church…

But the projects of the reformers met with a new reverse of fortune. As the council had failed, so did the pragmatic sanction. It perished very soon in Germany. It was abandoned by the Diet in 1448, in virtue of a negotiation with Nicholas V. In 1516, Francis I abandoned it also, substituting for it his concordat with Leo X. The reform attempted by princes did not succeed better than that set on foot by the clergy. But we must not conclude that it was entirely thrown away…

The councils were right in trying for a legal reform, for it was the only way to prevent a revolution. Nearly at the time when the Council of Pisa was endeavoring to put an end to the great western schism, and the Council of Constance to reform the Church, the first attempts at popular religious reform broke out in Bohemia. The preaching of John Huss, and his progress as a reformer, commenced in 1404, when he began to teach at Prague. Here, then, we have two reforms going on side by side; the one in the very bosom of the Church,—attempted by the ecclesiastical aristocracy itself,—cautious, embarrassed, and timid; the other originating without the Church, and directed against it,—violent, passionate, and impetuous. A contest began between these two powers, these two parties. The council enticed John Huss and Jerome of Prague to Constance, and condemned them to the flames as heretics and revolutionists…The popular reform of John Huss was stifled for the moment; the war of the Hussites broke out three or four years after the death of their master; it was long and violent, but at last the empire was successful in subduing it. The failure of the councils in the work of reform, their not being able to attain the object they were aiming at, only kept the public mind in a state of fermentation. The spirit of reform still existed; it waited but for an opportunity again to break out, and this it found at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Had the reform undertaken by the councils been brought to any good issue, perhaps the popular reform would have been prevented. But it was impossible that one or the other of them should not succeed, for their coincidence shows their necessity.

Such, then, is the state, in respect to religious creeds, in which Europe was left by the fifteenth century: an aristocratic reform attempted without success, with a popular suppressed reform begun, but still ready to break out anew.

It was not solely to religious creeds that the human mind was directed, and about which it busied itself at this period. It was in the course of the fourteenth century, as you all know, that Greek and Roman antiquity was (if I may use the expression) restored to Europe. You know with what ardor Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and all their contemporaries, sought for Greek and Latin manuscripts, published them, and spread them abroad; and what general joy was produced by the smallest discovery in this branch of learning. It was in the midst of this excitement that the classical school took its rise; a school which has performed a much more important part in the development of the human mind than has generally been ascribed to it. But we must be cautious of attaching to this term, classical school, the meaning given to it at present. It had to do, in those days, with matters very different from literary systems and disputes. The classical school of that period inspired its disciples with admiration, not only for the writings of Virgil and Homer, but for the entire frame of ancient society, for its institutions, its opinions, its philosophy, as well as its literature. Antiquity, it must be allowed, whether as regards politics, philosophy, or literature, was greatly superior to the Europe of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It is not surprising, therefore, that it should have exercised so great an influence…Thus was formed that school of bold thinkers which appeared at the commencement of the fifteenth century, and in which prelates, jurists, and men of learning were united by common sentiments and common pursuits.

In the midst of this movement happened the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, 1453, the fall of the Eastern empire, and the influx of the fugitive Greeks into Italy. These brought with them a greater knowledge of antiquity, numerous manuscripts, and a thousand new means of studying the civilization of the ancients. You may easily imagine how this must have redoubled the admiration and ardor of the classic school. This was the most brilliant period of the Church, especially in Italy, not in respect of political power, but of wealth and luxury. The Church gave herself up to all the pleasures of an indolent, elegant, licentious civilization; to a taste for letters, the arts, and social and physical enjoyments…

We observe, then, three great facts in the moral order of society at this period—on one hand, an ecclesiastical reform attempted by the Church itself; on another a popular, religious reform; and lastly, an intellectual revolution, which formed a school of free-thinkers; and all these transformations were prepared in the midst of the greatest political change that has ever taken place in Europe, in the midst of the process of the centralization of nations and governments.

But this is not all. The period in question was also one of the most remarkable for the display of physical activity among men. It was a period of voyages, travels, enterprises, discoveries, and inventions of every kind. It was the time of the great Portuguese expedition along the coast of Africa; of the discovery of the new passage to India by the Cape of Good Hope, by Vasco de Gama; of the discovery of America, by Christopher Columbus; of the wonderful extension of European commerce. A thousand new inventions started up; others already known, but confined within a narrow sphere, became popular and in general use. Gunpowder changed the system of war; the compass changed the system of navigation. Painting in oil was invented, and filled Europe with masterpieces of art. Engraving on copper, invented in 1406, multiplied and diffused them. Paper made of linen became common. Finally, between 1436 and 1452, was invented printing,—printing, the theme of so many declamations and common-places, but to whose merits and effect no common-places or declamations will ever be able to do justice.

From all this, some idea may be formed of the greatness and activity of the fifteenth century; a greatness which, at the time, was not very apparent; an activity of which the results did not immediately take place. Violent reforms seemed to fail; governments acquired stability. It might have been supposed that society was now about to enjoy the benefits of better order, and more rapid progress. The mighty revolutions of the sixteenth century were at hand; the fifteenth century prepared them.—They shall be the subject of the following lecture.

Government comprises the set of legal and political institutions that regulate the relationships among members of a society and between the society and outsiders. These institutions have the authority to make decisions for the society on policies affecting the maintenance of order and the achievement of certain societal goals. This article provides an overview of the types of government, the ways authority can be distributed, the divisions of government, and the functions of government. Separate articles deal with the origins and development of the concept of the state, the theoretical and practical development of representation, law, and the study of government (see political science).

The power of a government over its own citizens varies, depending on the degree to which it is free of limitations and restraints. The power of a government abroad also varies, depending on the human and material resources with which it can support its foreign policy. Governments range in size and scope from clans, tribes, and the shires of early times to the superpowers and international governments of today. Until recent times some governments were strong enough to establish empires that ruled not only their own people but other peoples and states across national, ethnic, and language boundaries. The present-day counterpart of the empire is the superpower that is able to lead or dominate other countries through its superior military and economic strength. Within the modern nation-state, government operates at many different levels, ranging from villages to cities, counties, provinces, and states.

Types of Government

Aristotle, a Greek political philosopher of the 4th century B.C., distinguished three principal kinds of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and polity (a kind of enlightened democracy). The differences among them chiefly concerned whether power were held by one, by a few, or by many. Aristotle thought that the selfish abuse of power caused each type to become perverted, respectively, into tyranny, oligarchy, and a lower form of democracy characterized by mob rule. Monarchy tended to become tyrannical because it vested authority in a single ruler. Aristocracy, a government based on birth and privilege, in which the rulers governed for the good of the whole society, tended to become oligarchy as a consequence of restricting political power to a special social and economic class; only a few members of the class would have enough drive and ability to acquire the power to govern. The polity, likewise, would deteriorate into ochlocracy, or mob rule, if the citizens pursued only their selfish interests.

Aristotle's classifications suited the societies of ancient times, but they do not correspond to the power structure of later societies. Modern writers have developed a variety of schemes for classifying governments, based on the nature of the ruling class, the economic system, the government's political institutions, the principles of authority, the acquisition and exercise of power, and other factors. Some influential writers on government include Thomas Hobbes, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and the sociologist Max Weber.


The most common form of government from ancient times to the early part of the 20th century was monarchy, or rule by a hereditary king or queen. Monarchy passed through three basic stages, varying according to the nation and the political and economic climate. The first stage was that of the absolute monarch. In the Christian part of the world during the Middle Ages, a conflict developed between the pope and the kings who recognized his spiritual authority. The pope wanted to expand the power of the church beyond spiritual matters to include the temporal realm. But some kings proclaimed that God had given them the right to rule, and by proclaiming this divine right they were able to give legitimacy to their reigns and limit the pope's power. (See church and state; investiture controversy.)

Limited monarchy was the second stage. Kings depended on the support of the most powerful members of the nobility to retain their thrones. In England and some other Western European countries, the nobility placed limits on the power of the ruler to govern. This was done in England, for example, through the Magna Carta. Threatened with the loss of political and financial support, even the strongest kings and emperors had to accept a system of laws that protected the rights and privileges of powerful social and economic classes.

The third stage in the evolution of monarchy was the constitutional monarchy. Present-day monarchs are nearly all symbolic rather than actual rulers of their countries. (A few exceptions can be found in Africa and Asia.) In such monarchies as Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Spain, governing power is now in the hands of the national parliaments.

Constitutional Government  

Today most governments derive their legitimacy from national constitutions that provide a legal framework for their rule and specify how power is to be exercised and controlled. Even one-party states, such as the traditional Communist countries and other nations in Africa, Asia, and South America, have found it necessary to establish formal constitutions. In democratic countries the constitution can be amended or replaced by popular vote, either directly or through a system of elected representatives. In authoritarian one-party systems, however, all political power, including that of revising the constitution, resides with the leaders of the party. The constitution may thus be only a paper facade, and in order to understand how the country is governed one must examine the actual political process.


Representative government in the modern world is based not only on a constitution that provides for it but on the actual rule of law—the assurance that provisions of the constitution will be enforced. It requires that citizens be free to organize competing political parties, engage in political campaigns, and hold elections according to agreed-upon rules. Democratic governments vary in structure. Two common forms are the parliamentary and the presidential. In the parliamentary form of government, as in Australia, Britain, Canada, or India, all political power is concentrated in the parliament or legislature. The prime minister or premier and the officers of the cabinet are members of the parliament. They continue in office only as long as parliament supports—or has "confidence" in—their policies. In the presidential form of government, as in France and the United States, the voters elect a powerful chief executive who is independent of the legislature but whose actions are delimited by constitutional and other legal restraints.


As a form of government, dictatorship is principally a 20th-century phenomenon. The dictator, often a military leader, concentrates political power in himself and his clique. There is no effective rule of law. The regime may or may not have a distinctive political ideology and may or may not allow token opposition. The main function of a dictatorship is to maintain control of all governmental operations. There have been some cases—Indira Gandhi in India and several military dictatorships in Latin America—in which authoritarian rulers have relaxed their control and have even allowed open elections. In certain Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe dictators were forced from power in bloodless coups or voluntarily relinquished their authority to popularly elected officials as Soviet power declined.

The totalitarian dictatorship, as in Nazi Germany, Communist China, and the former USSR, is much more thoroughgoing. It seeks to control all aspects of national life, including the beliefs and attitudes of its people. It has a set of ideas that everyone is expected to embrace, such as revolutionary Marxism or counterrevolutionary fascism. At its most extreme, as during the leadership of Joseph Stalin in the USSR, the power of the dictator may become more absolute than in any of the earlier forms of tyranny. Such gross power in the hands of one person results inevitably in the development of what has been called a cult of personality. The leader is credited with almost infallible wisdom, because to admit that he or she may be wrong would deprive the regime of its authority. In some Communist countries the cult of personality appears to have given way to the dominance of a group of party leaders—a ruling oligarchy. The administrative complexities of managing a modern industrial state are too great to be monopolized by an individual leader such as Stalin or Mao Zedong(Mao Tse-tung). The successor regime in China, for example, continues to claim infallibility for its policies and doctrines but not for the leaders. Examples of 20th-century dictators in addition to those already mentioned include Idi Amin Dada(Uganda), Kemal Atatürk (Turkey), Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro (Cuba), Francisco Franco (Spain), Saddam Hussein(Iraq), Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines), Benito Mussolini (Italy), Juan Peron (Argentina), and António Salazar (Portugal).

Distribution of Authority

Effective government in any form requires a workable method for distributing authority within the country. The larger and more diverse the jurisdiction of the government, the stronger the tendency toward a federal system in which authority is "layered" or distributed among different levels. In countries with a relatively homogeneous population and with a common tradition, language, and sense of national history, the central governments may not be federal but unitary—that is, they may retain most of the administrative power at the center. Loosely allied autonomous states sometimes join together to create a type of central government known as a confederation, in which the central government exists only at the pleasure of the sovereign members.

Federal Systems  

The United States and India with their state governments and Canada and China with their provincial governments are examples of workable federal systems in large nations with very diverse populations. Other federal states include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, and Germany. The national governments of these countries are clearly more powerful than those of their subdivisions, even though the constitutions delegate many powers and responsibilities to the subnational units. In certain prescribed policy areas a state government may have a high degree of autonomy. In the United States, for example, state legislatures pass laws having to do with state affairs; state administrators carry them out; and state judiciaries interpret them.

Federal systems also include autonomous local governments such as county governments and municipal governments—in cities, boroughs, townships, and villages local governments may stand in a relationship to their state governments that corresponds to that of state governments with the national government. The citizens in each jurisdiction elect many of the public officials. In addition, certain special districts exist with a single function, such as education or sanitation, and have their own elected officials.

The layers of government in a federal system may not be clearly defined in practice. Often the different levels compete for control of functions and programs. In the United States and other countries the tendency over the years has been for the national government to become much more involved in areas that once were the exclusive domain of state or regional governments. In addition, the distribution of authority has become even more complex and varied with the rise of large metropolitan areas—the megalopolis—and the corresponding new local governmental organizations such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Unitary States 

In unitary states the national government performs all the governmental functions. Subnational national units administer matters within their jurisdiction, but their powers are set and delegated by the national authority. The national government retains the police power—the inherent power to provide for the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. Taxation and major lawmaking powers also rest almost entirely with the national government.

Most nations are unitary states, but their institutions and processes may differ markedly. Great Britain, for example, is considered a unitary system, yet a certain degree of regional autonomy exists in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and local county governments perform certain fairly autonomous functions. In France, however, strict control over the administrative territorial subdivisions is exercised by the national government. In other unitary states there exists only token territorial decentralization.


Confederation produces the weakest central government. Member states in a confederation retain their sovereignty, delegating to the central government only those powers that are essential for its maintenance. The individual states jealously guard their power to tax and to make their own laws. The central government serves as a coordinating instrument to protect the interests of all its members. It also represents the confederation in dealings with outside governments, but its actions are subject to the review and approval of the confederated states.

The weakness of the confederate form of government led the United States to abandon that system in 1789 after only eight years. Confederations, however, have also served other nations—Germany and Switzerland, for example—as a preliminary step toward a more unified government. No modern nation-state is organized along confederate lines, yet some international organizations, such as the British Commonwealth of Nations, the European Union (formerly the European Community), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have some aspects of a confederation.

Divisions of Government

Various political thinkers have distinguished types of government activity. Montesquieu was the first, however, to urge the creation of three separate institutions or divisions of government—the executive, legislative, and judicial—a distinction that became common in almost all modern constitutions. Some governmental structures, notably that of the United States, are based on the principle of separation of powers at nearly every level. Executive, legislative, and judicial powers are divided into three branches of government, creating a system of checks and balances among them and helping to protect citizens from arbitrary and capricious actions on the part of any of the three branches. Such protection is crucial in the area of civil rights—those constitutionally guaranteed rights that shield the citizen from tyrannical actions bygovernment. Often, in times of grave national emergency, when the central government needs more power, the public is willing to grant it. The executive branch usually predominates at such time (see president of the United States).

Proponents of the separation of powers bring an additional argument in its favor: they point out that the system diminishes the influence of special-interest groups over any one branch of government or over the government as a whole. It is difficult for even the strongest faction to dominate a government in which the executive is elected by the entire population, members of the legislature represent different geographical constituencies, and the judges are appointed by the executive with the approval of the legislature.

Not all states, of course, have such clear divisions of government, nor do divisions necessarily guarantee personal liberties. Parliamentary democratic systems, for example, tend to merge legislative and executive functions yet control the exercise of power by constitutional methods of sharing it. Authoritarian states may, however, be constitutionally bound to have separate organs of government yet actually concentrate power in the executive.

Functions of Government

Maintenance of Authority  

One of the principal functions of government is to remain in power. Governments do not relinquish their authority unless compelled to do so. Many of the actions of politicians and civil servants can be explained by the need to maintain and enhance their power.

Every government strives to increase its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. It may identify itself with ancient traditions, with hope for the future, or with fear of a common enemy. Some governments employ repression, never relaxing their vigils against real or imagined opponents. Even democracies, when threatened, are likely to engage in a search for subversives and "enemies of the people."

When a regime draws its main support from a privileged class or group that decreases in numbers and strength, when a government becomes ineffective in handling domestic affairs or countering external threats, or when a society's consensus on the principles and goals of government evaporates, a government tends to lose authority. The French monarchy in the 18th century and the Russian monarchy in the 20th century were based on aristocracies that had lost much of their legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Eventually these regimes were unable to enforce their laws, and revolutions swept them from power.

Governments tend, therefore, to foster widespread ideological commitment to the nation through patriotic ceremonies, propaganda, and civic education; they employ armed forces and intelligence-gathering organizations for national defense; they maintain police and prison systems to ensure domestic order; and they undertake the administration of supervisory and regulatory functions to carry out national goals by establishing various bureaucracies to handle each complex function.


All governments recognize the principle that the public must be protected and served. The citizen, in effect, surrenders a degree of individual sovereignty to the government in return for protection of life and property and the delivery of essential services. Governments supervise the resolution of conflicting interests, the workings of the political process, the enforcement of laws and rights, and the monitoring of national income (see income, national) and international trade; they regulate economic and social relationships among individuals and private organizations; and they carry out enterprises such as production of military goods, provision of postal services, and ownership of power utilities and public works. Among the most basic services provided by government are the printing and coining of money, the provision of roads, sewers, water, education, and social and welfare services.

With the growth of the welfare state, governments began to provide services such as social security and health insurance. But the scope of government regulation is now much broader. In the United States the government sets minimum wages, limits the rates charged by public utilities, buys farm commodities to keep prices up, forbids the sale of harmful foods and drugs, sets standards for gasoline consumption by automobiles, requires manufacturers to install antipollution devices, and monitors the safety of factories. Federal, state, and local governments in the United States also engage directly in economic activity. They impose taxes, produce and consume goods, sell electric power, lend money to farmers, and insure bank deposits.

In other countries governments intrude even further into the workings of the economy. In Western Europe governments own and operate telephone, radio, and television services, railroads, coal mines, and aircraft companies. In some countries, such as Sweden and Great Britain, the entire health system is also run by the state. In countries with Communist governments, such as the former USSR, North Korea, China, and Cuba, the state has attempted to control the entire economic life of the nation. All economic planning is centralized in the government and its bureaucracies. When the system fails to produce the goods and services expected by the people, the government is forced to increase the level of repression of its citizens in order to remain in power.

Internal Conflicts

The end of the cold war and the loss of control by the superpowers over international events have led to a different type of stress on many governments. The threats to their sovereignty are no longer external. Many nations, especially those artificially carved out of old empires that expired during both World Wars, are finding that the arbitrary power that maintained the central governments is no longer sufficient for the task. The communication revolution, through radio and the satellite transmission of television, has truly created a "global village." Citizens no longer live in isolation. They demand the rights and privileges enjoyed by others.

Another kind of demand governments must try to meet comes from ethnic and religious groups that in some cases seek autonomy from the government. Some of these conflicts result in attempts at genocide, and the rest of the world appears powerless to intervene. These problems are not limited to Third World countries. NATO has revised its original purpose of preventing an invasion of western Europe to a strategy of maintaining smaller mobile forces to prevent the internal breakup of nations. But these internal conflicts continue to have the potential to produce anarchy and chaos, threatening entire regions.

International Government

In modern times national governments have become increasingly involved with one another in supranational systems. The League of Nations, established in 1919, grew to include more than 90 members. It collapsed in World War II but was succeeded by the United Nations (UN). The UN, like the League, is a voluntary association generally without power to act unless the five permanent members of the Security Council agree. It has, however, served as a forum for international debate and a convenient meeting ground for negotiations. The UN has also committed military forces of member nations in an attempt to limit the scope of conflicts that cannot be solved by national governments. UN forces have suffered casualties in some of these conflicts. The United Nations is now an international government in both theory and reality, and the organization will continue to face many serious challenges in many parts of the world.

Associated with the UN are a number of specialized organizations that perform important governmental functions. They include the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Court of Justice (World Court), the International Labor Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization, and the International Telecommunication Union.

The specialized agencies have enabled national governments to cooperate in many practical matters such as setting standards, extending technical and financial assistance to developing countries, eliminating or controlling epidemic diseases, and establishing an international monetary system.

Regional associations of nations have usually existed in a loose confederation for national security purposes or for vaguely defined geographical and political purposes. The European Union of 15 member nations has taken the concept of regional association to a much higher level. It has moved to create a political union among sovereign states, and its Common Market constitutes one of the major economies of the world.

Reviewed by Thomas B. Hartmann

How to Cite This Article:

MLA (Modern Language Association) style:

Hartmann, Thomas B. "Government." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online, 2014. Web. 1 July 2014. (use the date you accessed the page)

Chicago Manual of Style:

Hartmann, Thomas B. "Government." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online http://gme.grolier.com/article?assetid=0123980-0 (accessed July 1, 2014). (use the date you accessed the page)

APA (American Psychological Association) style:

Hartmann, T. B. (2014). Government. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 1, 2014, (use the date you accessed the page) from Grolier Online http://gme.grolier.com/article?assetid=0123980-0



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