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The Rise of the Nation-State

History of Liberty Seminar 2001

Tags War and Foreign PolicyPolitical Theory

03/01/2004Donald W. Livingston

Most of what is said about nation-states is not true. They are neither democracies nor republics nor nations nor states. There is no natural relationship between government and state. Men have been governed by many things that are not states. Throughout most of history man has lived without a state.

But the modern state is a distinct form of government. Hobbes’ Leviathan is a brilliant reference to this issue. The contract is between the people themselves.  There are two features: 1) the state is vast, and 2) the state is “an artificial man”, a nation person.

By the end of the Middle Ages the independence of the Church had been considerably weakened. The Thirty Years War reduced the Holy Roman Empire to a shadow. Absolute Monarchy (three generations old) was established. A system of large states was created, centralizing the King’s bureaucracy. Louis XIV was the most powerful monarch. Yet the state administrative system, with people called republicans, held that society must control the state with the single will of the French nation.

The modern state destroys, creates problems, and then presents itself as the solution. The state cloaked itself in moral authority that was much greater than monarchs had imagined. But authority is based on nothing but opinion. Hegel described the state as that veritable God on earth.

When the state could present itself with social authority, it could enforce unilateral taxation (1913), ultimate jurisdiction, and conscription (1873). Four times as many people have been killed by government than by war. The banality of evil arises from this artificial man.

Small states cannot arise today without the right of secession.

From the 2001 History of Liberty seminar.


Contact Donald W. Livingston

Donald Livingston is a professor of philosophy at Emory University with an "expertise in the writings of David Hume." Livingston received his doctorate at Washington University in 1965. He has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow and is on the editorial board of Hume Studies and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Livingston is a constitutional scholar and an expositor of the compact nature of the Union, with its concomitant doctrines of corporate resistance, nullification, and secession. The doctrine coincides with federalism, states' rights, the principle of subsidiarity. His political philosophy embodies the decentralizing themes echoed by Europeans such as Althusius, David Hume, and Lord Acton and Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, Spencer Roane, Abel Parker Upshur, Robert Hayne and John Calhoun, which holds the community and family as the elemental units of political society. As Livingston affirms, the compact nature of the Union is opposed to the innovative nationalist theory of Joseph Story, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln which contends for an indivisible sovereignty, an inviolable aggregate people, and that the American Union created the States following the American War for Independence. This theory as articulated by Lincoln has been characterized by Livingston as "Lincoln's Spectacular Lie."