Skip to main content
Select Source:

State, The

State, The. The American concepts of state and state power have since colonial times been shaped by national security interests and by experience in the management and use of the American military. Insofar as a sovereign state holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, state power must be defined with reference to the raising and employment of armed forces. The logic is Hobbesian. The state provides order; the alternative is anarchy and a life both “brutish and short.” Given this choice, the citizen opts for order and accepts the rule of Hobbes's Leviathan—the state.

Historical development has distanced the American state from this view but never quite overcome it. The nation's founding myth—that a dispute with the crown over contractual rights and responsibilities caused the Revolution—follows John Locke's contrary postulate that the social contract grants limited power to the state. The Constitution itself confirmed the relevance of Locke's version of the contract metaphor to the U.S. government and its constitution.

The Internal Security Dilemma and the Nineteenth‐Century American State.

This conception of limited state power poses special problems with respect to national security. National security becomes a vital issue when survival of the state is threatened; then the Hobbesian (or realpolitik) understanding of the state and state power clashes with the Lockean (or liberal) conception. This clash creates what can be called the “internal security dilemma.” In the realpolitik view, the state cannot provide the blessings of liberty unless it can assure its own survival. In the liberal view, the powers of the state must be so disposed as to protect citizens. Hence the dilemma: The state must somehow cope with threats to itself while maintaining the liberties and rights of citizens.

From the end of the War of 1812 to the close of the nineteenth century, state survival was not a question of external threat. Survival emerged as a serious sectional issue, which the Civil War settled; otherwise, policies and disputes associated with the security of the American state centered on providing the United States with strategic space. By denying the western hemisphere to rival powers, the Monroe Doctrine (declared in 1823 but an unfinished project until the twentieth century) laid claim to an enormous strategic space for the United States. The quarrel with Britain over the Oregon Country, settled diplomatically in 1846, and the disputes with Mexico that led to the Mexican War in that same year, actualized American state claims to territory on the basis of strategic considerations no less than by invoking “manifest destiny.” The Civil War, however, definitively established the nineteenth‐century American understanding of the state's power to ensure its survival, as the federal government held a continent‐wide country‐qua‐empire together by force of arms. The scale and violence of the Civil War tested the limits of war itself, while its political stresses took a heavy toll on civil liberties—the federal courts proving particularly ineffective guardians against martial law's encroachments on freedom of speech and assembly.

The exercise of political opposition and the employment of military force furnish two major reference points for defining the state. Democracy requires the possibility of legitimate opposition to government, while nation‐states under threat to their survival or security, and states that vastly expand their military activity, usually give priority to security considerations and seek to limit political partisanship. Such tensions were particularly evident in the early‐ and mid‐nineteenth‐century United States, where army officers, and to a lesser extent navy officers, often cultivated political connections and acted as partisan figures. In 1846, for example, the Senate rejected President James K. Polk's attempt to appoint Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a civilian with no military experience and a fellow Democrat, as the top general commanding the campaigns against Mexico. Polk had to content himself with two Whig generals, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, both aspirants to their party's presidential nomination in 1848, as leading officers in the campaigns. In 1864, Gen. George B. McClellan, once Abraham Lincoln's general in chief, ran against Lincoln as Democratic nominee for the presidency. For his own part, Lincoln did not hesitate to appoint brigadier generals and allot military contracts as a means of cultivating local interests and winning their political support.

Partisanship and “pork” persisted after the Civil War, but preferment gradually diminished. The army, deployed in the West during the Plains Indians Wars, became more isolated from American society and thus susceptible to reforms, adopted after the Spanish‐American War, that made it more professional and less political. Up to that point, however, political considerations generally tended to place American state power—and the services of the U.S. Army—at the disposal of local interests. This was largely true in the Mexican War and in westward expansion. In the Spanish‐American War, the Cuban campaign was essentially a projection of land power partly in response to the demands of Cuban exiles in New York and Florida.

The army reforms of 1899–1904, largely under Secretary of War Elihu Root, reinforced civilian authority over the army, with a chief of staff, the army's leader‐manager, answering to the president as commander in chief, and depending upon the civilian secretary of war to be effective in his own job. This structure reduced the autonomy of the army bureaus and weakened their links to congressional interests, while centralizing authority in such a way as to strengthen professionalism. Despite a certain amount of resistance at the top, officers tended to embrace the new managerial ideals, which facilitated the planning and coordination fundamental to modern warfare, and thus rejected older, populist views of military leadership, which stressed romantic, intuitive qualities and fostered partisan political activity. The navy followed suit, achieving its reforms by more informal means.

Professionalism has usually advanced at the expense of local politics in the American military establishment and has strengthened civilian leadership based on the power and authority of the president as commander in chief. Significant advances occurred during the first two decades of the twentieth century, although localism remained evident at the end of the century when post–Cold War budget cutbacks led to military base closings that were opposed by local interests.

During the twentieth century, American armed forces took part in four major wars—World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—and several minor conflicts, the largest of which was the Persian Gulf War. None of these five occurred in the western hemisphere: two took place in Europe, two in Asia, and one in the Middle East. Local interests played either a negligible role or no role at all in any of them. Military power was associated with “high politics,” a phrase commonly used during the Cold War to refer to the way Congress and the executive branch handled national security in the nuclear age—in particular, the way Congress deferred to the president—and the way the public rallied to support state power in times of crisis.

When the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson chose a professional officer to command the American Expeditionary Forces. Though Gen. John J. Pershing was son‐in‐law to a senior Republican senator, he avoided partisan politics, and after the war, he scotched a movement to run him for president on the Republican ticket.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt minimized political controversy about the conduct and purpose of the war effort by two means. One was to promote bipartisanship; the other, to delay the resolution of contentious issues about war aims until the return of peace. The first he accomplished by bringing two prominent Republicans into his wartime cabinet (Henry L. Stimson as secretary of war and Frank Knox as secretary of the navy) and appointing other Republicans to administer war agencies. The second he accomplished by declaring, as he did at the Casablanca Conference in 1942, that unconditional surrender was the Allied military objective of the war.

But important issues about the employment of the armed forces as the principal instruments of state power in war remained. One had to do with strategic priorities. Roosevelt adopted the army's favored strategy of defeating Germany first (before Japan). Command links to the European theater from Roosevelt through Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in Europe worked nearly perfectly. No field commander in American history caused his commander in chief less trouble or delivered more results than did Eisenhower. Although Japan surrendered sooner than expected, the Pacific War was a different matter, for Asia's lower priority left two military scores to be settled after 1945—one with the navy and one with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Both had important consequences for the state and its control over the armed forces.

The navy's priority lay in the Pacific theater, where it could demonstrate its seaborne striking power. Only after the defeat of Germany did it gain first priority, and then the Pacific War ended quickly. In the immediate aftermath of the war, as the administration of Harry S. Truman sought to restructure the U.S. military, the navy bitterly opposed the force integration that modern warfare required. This dispute was settled by the Key West Agreement of 1948 and other compromises, delaying the development of combined arms warfare and perpetuating interservice rivalry that handicapped military operations and distorted military advice during the Vietnam War.

MacArthur proved in some ways a more difficult problem. Charismatic and personable, he was a virtual throwback to the nineteenth century; as army commander in chief of the Pacific theater, he proved an uneasy partner to the admiral commanding the Pacific Fleet, Chester Nimitz. With the defeat of Japan, MacArthur became the virtual American proconsul in Tokyo, often ignoring instructions from Washington on occupation policy. The problem worsened when it fell to him to lead the United Nations (predominantly American) forces in the Korean War. His relations with Washington deteriorated into mutual mistrust until President Truman dismissed him in 1951, when MacArthur sought the support of congressional Republicans in a ploy reminiscent of the Partisan Politics of the Mexican War or the Civil War.

This, the second score to be settled from World War II, showed that Eisenhower's example was now the rule. A general might have presidential aspirations, but not a hint of them may show until he takes off his uniform. American military activities in the last half of the twentieth century would scarcely be isolated from business interests or shielded from political controversy, but whatever personal political ambitions arose within the officer corps were strictly channeled.

The Truman administration's political fortunes suffered because of the Korean War, which put any candidacy by Truman for a second elected term as president beyond consideration. In broader terms, Truman had invoked crises too often in his efforts to build a permanent and stable Cold War posture. Eisenhower profited by his predecessor's hard lesson that presidents could overplay their hand in the “high politics” of state power. Elected in part to end the Korean War, Eisenhower resisted the temptation to use crises to win political support for military programs and military actions. Yet his calmer leadership style with respect to “high politics” had its own problems. When the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first of the space satellites, in 1957, his administration came under attack for its seeming unconcern about competing with Soviet military technology. John F. Kennedy employed charges of a “missile gap” in his successful presidential campaign in 1960 (only to learn later, and admit, that it never existed).

No twentieth‐century war drew the American state into more domestic dissent than the Vietnam War. President Lyndon B. Johnson's decisions about the war added up to an unsuccessful military policy, with disastrous domestic effects. As with Truman and Korea, they led to a turnover of the White House to a Republican president. Richard M. Nixon, who succeeded Johnson, expanded the war in the course of ending it, leaving the Democrats in bitter opposition and the American state burdened with failures in both security policies and the handling of its military leaders and forces. Yet if Vietnam raised the political costs of engaging American military forces abroad, it did not end the practice. It had little effect on NATO; if anything, the ending of the American engagement in Vietnam enabled the United States to strengthen its forces in Europe. Meanwhile, the nation's postwar isolationism proved only temporary. Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976 at the head of a Democratic Party that espoused moderately anti‐internationalist and antimilitary policies. But Carter reversed himself and started a rearmament program that became the Ronald Reagan rearmament policy of the 1980s. The Vietnam War's more permanent legacy, a reduced confidence in America's leaders in their employment of force, led Reagan to try to restore popular confidence in U.S. military power. In this he proved only partially successful.

“Vietnam” remained shorthand for a warning against committing American military forces without an exit strategy. But strategy alone was not the issue: the way the American state handled “high politics” was.

As the management of the armed forces in relation to Congress, the executive branch, and society, “high politics” defined the degree of consensus on national security issues and hence the dimensions of American state power. Defined in this inclusive way, the Cold War's high politics shifted dynamically over time to reflect changes in threat perceptions, in the perceived need for the armed forces, and in their successes and failures. State power expanded and contracted accordingly, growing during the first half century, declining briefly in the early fifties as a result of the Korean War and the Communist scare, then recovering and reaching its high point of consensus on security issues in the early sixties. It was never the same again. The manifest errors of the Vietnam War reduced public and elite confidence in the employment of force to achieve political goals and sharply curbed the expression of state power. Eventually, the early seventies watchword, “No more Vietnams,” faded from use; but the skepticism it reflected remained. By the late eighties and nineties, policymakers concerned with security and the state were looking increasingly to economic leverage as a substitute for military power.

Nuclear Danger and the Definition of the Powers of the Commander in Chief.

Before the United States acquired nuclear weapons, U.S. political leaders regarded the state's military function as synonymous with its capacity to mobilize for and conduct large‐scale warfare. Nuclear weapons did not displace this role because conventional war‐fighting capabilities continued to be regarded as necessary in maintaining stable deterrence and in minimizing the danger of a catastrophic nuclear war. Yet nuclear weapons irrevocably altered the way the American state employed force to achieve security. Three interrelated factors shaped the change.

The first was World War II's impact on the balance of power. The war severely damaged the military capacity of all participants except the United States, which emerged as the world's first superpower. This eliminated the prospect that America could confine itself to the role of power balancer of last resort, for other states could no longer reliably stabilize the international political order. Specifically, Western Europe could not balance the Soviet bloc without an explicit and tangible U.S. commitment from the beginning. For the first time in its history, the American state had to maintain massive military forces in the absence of active hostilities.

The second factor that shaped the American state's military power after World War II was the American view of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. U.S. leaders saw it as a threat to the military and political security of Western Europe and to American interests there. They took the Soviet bloc as a given; in the interest of stability, they did not challenge it—which in turn meant containing it, not defeating it. For a European statesman, the point was self‐evident, but those who wielded American state power found it an unfamiliar idea. Only for the leaders of the American state was it necessary to decouple the identification of a rival from the course of the action the United States had taken in two world wars: to mobilize and defeat it.

The third factor was the American development of nuclear weapons systems—the warheads themselves and the technologies for warning and target acquisition, for aiming and delivering and guiding weapons, for safeguarding them and for commanding and controlling their employment—that could deter enemies from attacking at locations remote from U.S. territory; and finally, the doctrines that explained how these vast, complicated systems should be positioned and employed. All of this placed an enormous burden on the military command and control process, beginning at the top, with the commander in chief. President Kennedy, appalled at the “spasm war” scenarios for which the nuclear air force had planned, took steps in 1961 to provide himself, as commander in chief, with options in a Flexible Response doctrine, expanding the range of choices available to presidents for employing nuclear weapons. But the Vietnam War produced a quite different approach to options, based on a critique that placed much of the blame for the U.S. defeat on civilian leaders—in particular, on the president—for overextending American power and micromanaging the war with catastrophic consequences.

This criticism has persisted. President Reagan's secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger, issued guidelines for military interventions that assured maximum autonomy to the generals in determining how they might fight. In substance, President George Bush followed these guidelines in the Persian Gulf War.

Criticisms of the Vietnam War also led to the Congressional War Powers Resolution of 1973. Intended by its authors to increase congressional participation in decisions that might lead to war under circumstances that did not directly threaten the survival of the United States, this act has been opposed by every president since its passage. Presidential concern for preserving the prerogatives of the commander in chief, however, have been no more significant in rendering the act inconsequential than has congressional reluctance to follow through on the claim to a decisive role in determining whether or not forces should be introduced in dangerous situations. The law claims for Congress a resolve it has in actual practice lacked: to share in presidential decisions regarding the employment of conventional forces.

At the end of the twentieth century, divergent views about security threats, the military forces needed to meet them, and the employment of those forces have left the American concept of the state, in relationship to security and the military, unfocused and in flux. Congress avoids showdowns over military issues with the president; legislators avoid partisan showdowns among themselves over military policies. Meanwhile, the military itself enjoys a voice in security policy—and is called upon to participate in quasi‐police activities like the “war on drugs”—to a degree unanticipated by military professionals at midcentury.

Looking back from an era of total war and nuclear standoff, one is struck by the prominence the U.S. Constitution gave (and still gives) to executive power by combining in the presidency the offices of chief of state and commander in chief. This solution reflected British experience as it was understood at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and addressed the internal security dilemma in two enduring respects. One was to avoid the potential tyranny of an Oliver Cromwell (the English military dictator in the mid‐seventeenth century) by conferring the highest military authority on a civilian, whose authority did not derive solely from the Congress. The other was to combine the offices of chief of state and commander in chief as a means of avoiding “Caesarism,” the despotism of a military commander insulated by popularity from control by civil authorities. The men who drafted the Constitution were aware of an internal security dilemma when international threats to the survival of the American state were taken seriously. This dilemma remains. After more than 200 years, it continues to impose stress on a government of limited powers that, when dealing with the issues of its citizens, ultimately depends upon the survival of the state.
[See also Civil Liberties and War; Congress, War, and the Military; Constitutional and Political Basis of War and the Military; Nationalism; Supreme Court, War, and the Military.]


Edward S. Corwin , Total War and the Constitution, 1947.
Samuel P. Huntington , The Soldier and the State; The Theory and Politics of Civil‐Military Relations, 1957.
Ernest R. May, ed., The Ultimate Decision; The President as Commander in Chief, 1960.
Paul Y. Hammond , Organizing for Defense: The American Military Establishment in the Twentieth Century, 1961.
Allan R. Millett and and Peter Maslowski , For the Common Defense; A Military History of the United States of America, 1984.
Henry Bartholomew Cox , War, Foreign Affairs, and Constitutional Power: 1829–1901, Report of the American Bar Association Steering Committee on War, Foreign Affairs, and Constitutional Power, Vol. 2, 1984.
Robert Previti , Civilian Control Versus Military Rule, 1988.
Daniel P. Franklin , Extraordinary Measures: The Exercise of Prerogative Powers in the United States, 1991.
John Hart Ely , War and Responsibility, 1993.
John T. Rourke , Presidential War and American Democracy: Rally 'Round the Chief, 1993.
Barbara Hinckley , Less Than Meets the Eye; Foreign Policy Making and the Myth of the Assertive Congress, 1994.

Paul Y. Hammond

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"State, The." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"State, The." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . (December 13, 2017).

"State, The." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

State, The

State, The








All human communities have some type of political organization that governs the behavior of its individual members. However, state forms of government are distinct from other forms of political organization such as tribes, clans, and gens. As Brian Nelson states in his 2006 study, the state is best defined in terms of its basic structural characteristics, which are territoriality, sovereignty, law, centralization, legitimation, and class stratification. And as both Elman Service (1975) and Ted Llewellen (1983) note, in contrast to earlier forms of political organization, which were based on lineage and heredity, the state is a form of political organization based on territorial jurisdiction. The state is also a sovereign entity, which means it claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory, as argued by Max Weber (1978). The states sovereignty depends on its ability to successfully enforce a monopoly of coercive force in relation to all inhabitants of its territory, against the claims of neighboring states, and against the claims of competing forms of political organization (e.g., tribes) within the same territory. Thus, for a state to exist, it must centralize the coercive powers of law, administration, and military force because sovereignty does not exist when governmental authority is retained by competing social units, such as clans or tribes, or where inhabitants political loyalties are retained by local units of government that function independently of the states central authority. Consequently, Charles Tilly observes (1975), state-building has been a lengthy and violent historical process involving the subordination of competing forms of political organization to the states sovereign authority and the defense of its territorial boundaries against rival states.

The states structural characteristics of territoriality, sovereignty, and centralized government are exercised through the application of general laws that are considered authoritatively binding on the territorys inhabitants. These laws are always reinforced by a corresponding form of state consciousness or ideology of legitimation. The state always derives its legitimacy from an operative myth of the states origin or foundation, such as a belief that the law is received by a states priests or wise men directly from the gods, or that the state is founded by heroes with exceptional virtues, or that the state was established by contract among its citizens. Yet, as a matter of fact, all states arise from a system of class stratification, which is reproduced by the state as one of its main political and economic functions. Class, as Friedrich Engels (1972) argued, is not the only kind of social stratification that exists in state societiesit generally coexists with gender, racial, or ethnic forms of stratificationbut class stratification is a unique attribute of state forms of governance.


Scholars have proposed many different typologies of state forms, but historically, as Nelson (2006) states, there are four fundamental forms of state: (1) ancient city-states, (2) ancient empire-states, (3) modern city-states, and (4) the modern nation-state. The origins of the state are generally traced to the late Neolithic period (30004000 bce), or about 34,000 years after the first homo sapiens. The first archaic states emerged on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (Mesopotamia), the Nile River Valley (Egypt), the Yellow River Valley (China), and the Indus River Valley (India).

Geography was a key factor in the origins of the state, because the fertility of these river valleys supported large settled agricultural populations, while the agricultural surpluses generated by these peoples made it possible to store and redistribute crops and to support the specialized craftsmen, warriors, priests, and administrators critical to state formation. Karl Wittfogels (1957) hydraulic thesis of state formation notes that complex irrigation and flood control systems were necessary to realize these agricultural surpluses, while the construction and maintenance of these systems required increasingly centralized forms of political control. As Morton Fried (1967) and Jonathan Haas (1982) observe, this centralization of political authority and the emergence of social differentiation based on function mark the origins of the archaic state.


The first archaic states were created by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia about 3500 bce, but within a few hundred years (31002320 bce) many of these archaic states had evolved into fully developed city-states. The first real states were city-states, and the largest among them sometimes had tens of thousands of inhabitants. The ancient Sumerian city-states were typically warlike and in some cases expansionary. The fact that many ancient cities were defended by walls and fortifications suggests that the city-state, which quickly spread to other parts of Mesopotamia, did so partly as a result of the conquest of other peoples and partly as a way to defend against the threat of the Sumerian city-states. Significantly, these states not only centralized political authority within a defined territory, but eventually developed concepts of law that were first enunciated in the Hammurabic Code, a code of written law promulgated by Hammurabi, a king of Babylonia (17921750 bce). Hammurabis Code influenced the emergence of legal systems in other Near Eastern states and was transmitted as a model to other empires in the Near East, Mediterranean, and later Europe.

The Egyptian state emerged almost simultaneously with the Sumerian city-states in 3100 bce. In both regions, the sovereign authority of the state and its legitimizing religious myth were embodied in the person of a king, who claimed power either as a deity (Egypt) or as the voice of the gods (Sumeria). The centralized bureaucratic, military, economic, and ideological power of these kings far surpassed that of any previous tribal chieftain or clan elder. These kings commanded a formal state-military hierarchy, sat atop a rigid class system, and exercised preeminent religious influence within the state.

The Indus Valley Civilization emerged at about the same time (3300 bce) on the Indian subcontinent, but this civilization did not achieve a state-level society until about 2600 bce. Romila Thapar (2002) explains that, as in Sumeria and Egypt, the irrigation of the Indus River Valley generated large agricultural surpluses that supported burgeoning urban centers by 2500 bce, and, over the next six hundred years, Indus Valley Civilization spread to the Ganges River basin and northern Afghanistan. However, it was not until 1000 bce that the first recognizable city-states appeared on the Indian subcontinent, although by 500 bce there were sixteen monarchies known as the Mahajanapadas covering the Indian subcontinent. These city-states, Vincent Smith (1981) notes, followed the earlier pattern of legitimizing the right of a king to his throne with genealogies devised by priests that ascribed divine origins to the rulers.

In their history of China, John Fairbank and Denis Twitchett (vol. 1, 1978) note that the Huang He Valley emerged as the first cultural center in China in the late Neolithic period (21001800 bce); by the end of the second millennium bce, the Zhou Dynasty (1027771 bce) was established in the Yellow River Valley and later in the Yantgtze River Valley (770221 bce). The first Zhou king invoked the Mandate of Heaven to legitimize his rule, a concept that would influence almost every subsequent Chinese dynasty. During the Zhou Dynasty, the city-state spread throughout China until several hundred warring states were finally consolidated into seven states toward the end of the fifth century bce.


The ancient city-states were aggressive and expansionary regardless of where they originated, and their wars resulted directly in the formation of the first ancient empire-states. In most cases, Nelson (2006) observes, the basis of early state formation was the city, with empires arising as a secondary state formation from a city-states imperial expansion. The Assyrians built the first empirestate, starting with Sargon of Akkad, who became the first king to successfully assert political control over inhabitants living beyond his city-state (2371 bce). Assyrian kings gradually asserted hegemony over all of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent (2371612 bce), including Egypt for a short period (745612 bce). In building an empire of city-states, the Assyrians established the model for all subsequent ancient and classical empires, including the Persian, Macedonian, and Roman Empires, as well as many smaller empires, such as the Athenian, Phoenician, and Carthaginian Empires.

In India and the Far East, comparable configurations emerged from the warring city-states. During the time that large parts of India were subjected to the Persian and Macedonian Empires, the first Indian empire-state was the kingdom of Magadha, which emerged as a major power in northeastern India after subjugating two neighboring states (68426 bce). Numerous empires rose and fell in different parts of the Indian subcontinent, including the Satavahana Empire (230 bce199 ce) in southern and central India, and the Gupta Empire (240550 ce), which united northern India. In 1526 Babur established the Mughal Empire, which was the first empire-state to unite most of the Indian subcontinent by 1600 ce. Its successor, the Maratha Empire, stretched across the entire subcontinent by 1760 but was eventually displaced by the British Empire (17571947 ce).

In China, the Qin Dynasty (221207 bce) was the first to subdue large parts of the core Han Chinese homeland and unite them under a centralized Legalist government. It also imposed a common system of writing and developed a state ideology based on Confucianism. China was an empire-state for most of its history, although historians generally divide its political development into early imperial (221 bc588 ce), classical imperial (5801234 ce), and later imperial (12791911 ce) phases. However, as Peter Farb (1968) explains, there is considerable debate as to whether the Meso-American empires, including those established by the Olmecs (1200400 bce), Mayans (250900 ce), Incas (11971533 ce), and Aztecs (12481521 ce) should be considered ancient empire-states, archaic states, or a distinct tribal (i.e., non-state) form of tributary empire.


The ancient empire-states were often disorganized and short-lived in comparison to modern states. As S. N. Eisenstadt (1963) observes, it was not uncommon for empires to be conquered by rival empires, nor was it uncommon for empires to disintegrate back into warring city-states or into forms of feudalism because of weak political leadership, natural catastrophe, invasion, or rebellion. However, city-states and empire-states are the only known forms of state until the emergence of the modern state.

The basic structural characteristics of the modern state are identical to those of earlier state forms. However, most modern states tend to manifest these characteristics on a different territorial scale (the nation) and to vest sovereignty in an impersonal legal system. In the modern state, sovereignty is asserted to reside in the impersonal state form, and not in the ruler as conceived in the archaic and ancient states. Thus, in the modern state, there is a firm distinction between the state and its government (rulers), which is a distinctive ideological characteristic of the modern state compared to earlier forms of state. As Nelson (2006) notes, the modern state has also evolved in tandem with the capitalist form of economy and is therefore generally linked to the reproduction of specifically capitalist forms of class stratification.

The origins of the modern state are found in the medieval towns of Europe, which, as a general rule, stood outside the stateless feudal system of political relationships based on personal rule. The medieval towns developed their own governing system based on the idea that the town (i.e., the state) was an abstract entity (corporation or universitas ) that was by right free from outside control. Joseph Strayer (1970) notes that these commercial centers evolved into independent states, most notably in Italy and Germany in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The German city-states of the Hanseatic League, which emerged from the mid-fourteenth century onward, constituted a trading and military alliance of modern city-states but never became a true state in itself. Venice is the only modern city-state to build a commercial empire-state (8001797 ce) by asserting control over other cities and islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Despite being largely displaced by the nation-state, Singapore, Monaco, and Luxembourg survive today as successful and prosperous modern city-states.


The modern state became largely synonymous with the nation-state beginning in Europe in the early 1300s. In parts of the world, such as Europe in the medieval era, China, and Japan, there was sometimes a concept of the nation or the people, which was united by geography, language, literature, custom, and religion; but there were not actual states with territorial boundaries coinciding with this legitimating idea. Indeed, following the collapse of empires in Europe, China, Japan, and India, and their disintegration into feudalism, the state often ceased to exist as a form of political organization. Feudal forms of political organization were premised on structural characteristics that are the opposite of a state: (a) extreme decentralization and (b) the privatization of social, economic, and political power.

The modern nation-state originated in Europe as powerful monarchs in France, England, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Denmark waged continuous wars to unify their nations. The political and religious wars that engulfed Europe for four centuries finally culminated in 1648 in the Peace of Westphalia, which codified the modern system of nation-states as international law by recognizing fixed national boundaries and the sovereignty of states within their territories. However, the system of European nation-states was not actually completed until the unification of Germany and of Italy in 1871.

It has been argued that, because most of the major and minor European nation-states were all colonial and imperial powers from the 1500s onward, the major nation-states have always been nation-state-empires. In fact the nation-state as codified in the Westphalian system was largely transferred to other regions of the world through European colonial and imperial expansion. Some of these postcolonial states, such as those in North America (1700s), Latin America (1800s), China (1911), India (1947), and Africa (1950s1970s), were established by revolutions of national independence. Other states established in Africa and the Middle East were artificial nations created by the retreating colonial powers after World War I and World War II. For this reason, however, many of the postcolonial states lack the fundamental characteristics of either a nation or a state, such as a founding or heroic myth to legitimize the state. These nations often have a stronger history of internal tribal and religious conflict, while they sometimes lack a common language or religion except as a legacy of the colonizing state. The shared characteristics of nationhood are often most common among political and economic elites but are not shared evenly by inhabitants, who continue to speak local dialects, follow traditional religious practices, or retain political loyalties to local tribes and clans.


New nation-states have proliferated in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries as resurgent nationality and ethnic groups withdraw from artificially constructed nation-states or reassert their independence from nationstate empires. Membership in the United Nations increased from 51 members in 1945 to 191 members in 2002. However, as Martin Van Creveld argues in his 1999 study, the future of the nation-state appears uncertain: Many existing states are combining into new forms of transnational political association, while many of the states economic and military functions are being taken over by organizations that are not states.

The reassertion of ethnic and religious identities within and against established nation-states has also led to the proliferation of failed states among many of the artificial postcolonial states. This has resulted in a number of tenuous governing entities best described as quasi-states or proto-states; in other cases it has resulted in long periods of stateless anarchy, where small areas are governed by competing warlords in a system sometimes described, as by Gianfranco Poggi in his 1990 study, as modern feudalism.

On the other hand, many nation-states are responding to the contemporary challenges of a new era of globalization by delegating or ceding partial sovereignty to transnational, international, or supranational organizations that perform the statelike functions of internal governance (European Union), economic regulation (World Trade Organization), health and welfare provision (United Nations), and military defense (North Atlantic Treaty Organization); but these organizations, as both Kenichi Ohmae (1990) and Martin Shaw (2000) point out, are neither nations nor states. It is not yet clear whether this emerging network of political, economic, and military organizations foreshadows the end of the nation-state or the establishment of a new global state.

SEE ALSO Authority; City-State; Ethnicity; Gender; Globalization, Anthropological Aspects of; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Government; Law; Military; Nationalism and Nationality; Political Science; Political System; Politics; Race; Sovereignty


Eisenstadt, S. N. 1963. The Political Systems of Empires. London and New York: Free Press.

Engels, Friedrich. 1972. The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York: International Publishers.

Fairbank, John K. and Denis Twitchett, eds. 19782003. The Cambridge History of China. 12 vols. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Farb, Peter. 1968. Mans Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. New York: Dutton.

Fried, Morton H. 1967. The Evolution of Political Society: An Essay in Political Anthropology. New York: Random House.

Haas, Jonathan. 1982. The Evolution of the Prehistoric State. New York: Columbia University Press.

Llewellen, Ted C. 1983. Political Anthropology: An Introduction. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Nelson, Brian R. 2006. The Making of the Modern State: A Theoretical Evolution. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ohmae, Kenichi. 1990. The End of the National State. New York: Free Press.

Poggi, Gianfranco. 1990. The State: Its Nature, Development, and Prospects. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, and Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Service, Elman R. 1975. Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. New York: Norton.

Shaw, Martin. 2000. Theory of the Global State: Globality as Unfinished Revolution. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Vincent A. 1981. The Oxford History of India. 4th ed. Delhi and New York: Oxford University Press.

Strayer, Joseph R. 1970. On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thapar, Romila. 2002. Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tilly, Charles, ed. 1975. The Formation of National States in Western Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Van Creveld, Martin. 1999. The Rise and Decline of the State. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischoff et al. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wittfogel, Karl. 1957. Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Clyde Barrow

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"State, The." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"State, The." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (December 13, 2017).

"State, The." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from

State, The


This entry includes two subentries:

The Postcolonial State

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"State, The." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"State, The." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 13, 2017).

"State, The." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from