Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION I: The constitution of government arising from the union of different tribes or villages. - The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks
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SECTION I: The constitution of government arising from the union of different tribes or villages. - John Millar, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks 
The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks; or, An Inquiry into the Circumstances which give rise to Influence and Authority in the Different Members of Society, edited and with an Introduction by Aaron Garrett (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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The constitution of government arising from the union of different tribes or villages.
The improvement of agriculture, as it increases the quantity of provisions, and renders particular tribes more numerous and flourishing, so it obliges them at length to send out colonies to a distance, who occupy new seats wherever they can find a convenient situation, and are formed into separate villages, after the model of those with which they are acquainted. Thus, in proportion as a country is better cultivated, it comes to be inhabited by a greater number of distinct societies, whether derived from the same or from a different original, agreeing in their manners, and resembling each other in their institutions and customs.
These different communities being frequently at war, and being exposed to continual invasions from their neighbours, are in many cases determined, by the consideration of their mutual interest, to unite against their common enemies, and to form a va-<177>riety of combinations, which, from the influence of particular circumstances, are more or less permanent. Having found the advantage of joining their forces in one expedition, they are naturally disposed to continue the like association in another, and by degrees are encouraged to enter into a general alliance. The intercourse which people, in such a situation, have maintained in war will not be entirely dissolved even in time of peace; and though the different villages should be originally strangers to each other, yet, having many opportunities of assembling in their military enterprises, they cannot fail to contract an acquaintance, which will become an inducement to their future correspondence. They have frequent opportunities of meeting in their common sports and diversions: the leading men entertain one another with rustic hospitality and magnificence: intermarriages begin to take place between their respective families; and the various connexions of society are gradually multiplied and extended.
An alliance for mutual defence and security is a measure suggested by such obvious views of expediency, that it must frequently take place, not only among tribes of husbandmen, but also among those of shepherds, and even of mere savages. Many instances of it are, accordingly, to be found in Tartary, upon the coast of Guinea, in the history of the ancient Germans, and among the Indians of America. But such alliances are not<178> likely to produce a permanent union, until the populousness of a country has been increased by agriculture, and the inhabitants, in consequence of that employment, have taken up a fixed residence in the same neighbourhood.
From a confederacy of this kind, a very simple form of government is commonly established. As every village, or separate community, is subjected to its own leader, their joint measures fall naturally under the direction of all those distinguished personages; whose frequent meeting and deliberation gives rise, in a short time, to a regular council, or senate, invested with a degree of power and authority corresponding to what each of its members has acquired over his own particular domestics and retainers.
The same considerations, however, which determine the individuals of a single tribe to be guided by a particular person in their smaller expeditions, must recommend a similar expedient in conducting a numerous army, composed of different clans, often disagreeing in their views, and little connected with each other. While every chief has the conduct of his own dependents, it is found convenient that some one leader should be intrusted with the supreme command of their united forces; and as that dignity is commonly bestowed upon the person who, by his opulence, is most capable of supporting it, he is frequently enabled to maintain it during life, and even in many cases to render it<179> hereditary. In this manner a great chief, or king, is placed at the head of a nation, and is permitted to assume the inspection and superintendence of what relates to its defence and security.
But, notwithstanding the rank and pre-eminence enjoyed by this primitive sovereign, it may easily be conceived that his authority will not be very considerable. His advancement can hardly fail to excite the jealousy of chiefs unaccustomed to subordination, who will be disposed to take every opportunity of curbing his pretensions, and to allow him no higher prerogatives than are sufficient to answer the purposes for which he was created. His interpositions, in matters of public concern, will depend very much upon times and circumstances, and being directed by no previous rules, will be frequently made in an irregular and desultory manner. In a day of battle, when placed at the head of his army, he may venture, perhaps, to rule with a high hand, and it may be dangerous for any of his followers to disobey his orders; but upon other occasions his power is usually confined within a narrower compass, and frequently extends no further than to the members of his own clan. After the conclusion of a military enterprise, when the other tribes have retired to their separate places of abode, they are in a great measure withdrawn from his influence, and are placed under the immediate jurisdiction and authority of the respective chiefs by whom they are protected. As it is neces-<180>sary that these leading men should give their consent to every public measure of importance, they are usually convened for that purpose by the king; who at the same time is accustomed to preside in all their deliberations.
Such, as far as can be collected from the scattered hints delivered by travellers, is the state of government in many rude kingdoms, both upon the coast of Africa, or in those parts of Asia, where a number of distinct tribes or villages have been recently and imperfectly united.*
In the Odyssey, Alcinous, king of the Pheacians, says expressly, “There are twelve chiefs who share dominion in the kingdom, and I am the thir-teenth.”* He is accordingly obliged to call a council of his nobles, before he can venture to furnish Ulysses with a single ship, in order to transport him to his native country.
In the island of Ithaca, the power of the chiefs, who usually deliberated in council upon the affairs of the nation, is equally conspicuous.<181>
From the early history of all the Greek states, we have reason to believe that their government was of a similar nature. The country of Attica, in particular, is said to have been peopled by colonies which were brought, under different leaders, from Egypt and some of the neighbouring countries, and which formed a number of distinct tribes or villages, independent of one another.‡ The first association among these little societies happened in the time of Cecrops,1 the founder of Athens, who became their general, and who made a considerable reformation in their police and manners. They were afterwards more intimately united in the reign of Theseus, when the nobility, or principal inhabitants of the several towns or villages,<182> were persuaded to settle at Athens, and composed a senate, or national council, which exercised an authority over the whole country, and obtained the chief direction of religious matters, together with the privilege of electing magistrates, and of teaching and dispensing the laws.*
The resemblance between this and the ancient Roman constitution is sufficiently obvious. The foundation of that mighty empire was laid by a few tribes of barbarians, originally distinct from one another, who at first inhabited different quarters of the city, and who appear to have lived under the jurisdiction of their respective chiefs.† This was, in all probability, the origin of that connexion between the poor and the rich, which remained in after ages, and which has been commonly ascribed to the policy of Romulus. People of the lower class at Rome were all attached to some particular patron of rank and distinction; and every patrician had a number of clients, who, besides owing him respect and submission, were bound to portion his daughters, to pay his debts, and to ransom his per-<183>son from captivity; as, on the other hand, they were entitled to his advice and protection.‡ Of these leading men, who had an extensive influence over the populace, was formed the primitive senate, or council of the sovereign; which appears to have had the absolute determination of peace and war; and which, in the first instance, had not only the privilege of deliberating upon all public regulations, but also, upon the death of a king, that of naming a successor to the royal dignity.§
It must not be overlooked, however, that in the Roman, as well as in many of the Greek governments, there was originally a considerable mixture of democracy, arising from the peculiar circumstances of the people. The different tribes, or families, united in the formation of Rome, or of the independent cities which arose in Peloponnesus and some of the neighbouring countries, had very little property, either in moveables or in land; and their poverty must have prevented the growth of authority in their respective leaders. The influence of a chief, in each of those petty states, depended, in all probability, upon the personal attachment of his followers, and their admiration of his abilities, more than upon his superiority in wealth; and the power which that influence enabled him to assume<184> was, therefore, far, from being absolute. For this reason, under the kingly government of Rome, the authority of the senate, composed of all the chiefs, was not alone sufficient for making general laws, or transacting business where dissension might be apprehended, but its decrees, in such cases, were usually confirmed by an assembly consisting of the whole people. The same practice obtained in Athens and Sparta, and probably in most of the other states of Greece.
The particulars related by Caesar concerning the inhabitants of ancient Gaul may be considered as affording the most authentic evidence of the state of government in any rude country. We learn from this author that the whole of that country was divided into a number of separate states, independent of each other, and differing considerably in the degrees of their power, as well as in the extent of their territories. In the several towns, villages, or families, belonging to each nation, there were certain leading persons, possessed of great influence and authority, by whom their respective followers were governed and protected. The affairs of a whole nation were conducted by a king, or chief magistrate, assisted by a national council; and when different nations were engaged in a common enterprise, they made choice of a general to command their united forces.* <185>
The German nations who, about the fifth century, over-ran and subdued the provinces of the Western empire, were in a different situation from any other people with whose history we are acquainted. While they remained in their own country, those nations had made considerable advances in the pastoral state, and had thereby acquired a good deal of wealth in herds and flocks. By their settlement in the Roman provinces, they had an opportunity, as has been already observed, of acquiring large estates in land, which tended to augment the authority of different leaders in proportion to their riches.
The inhabitants of a large tract of country were, at the same time, associated for their mutual defence, and in their common expeditions, were conducted by a great chief, or king, whose rank and dignity, like that of every subordinate leader, was supported by his own private estate. There were two circumstances which rendered the associations<186> made upon this occasion much more extensive than they commonly are among nations equally barbarous.
As each of the nations who settled in the Western empire, though seldom large, was, by the rapid progress of its arms, and by a sudden improvement in agriculture, enabled to occupy a prodigious quantity of land, the different proprietors, among whom that land was divided, were placed at a great distance from one another, and spread over a wide country. But many of these proprietors consisting of kindred or acquaintance, and all of them having been accustomed to act under one commander, they were still inclined, how remote soever their situation, to maintain a correspondence, and to unite in their military enterprises.
The state of the Roman provinces was another circumstance which promoted an extensive association among the conquerors. Each province of the Roman empire constituted, in some measure, a separate government, the several parts of which had all a dependence upon one another. The inhabitants, not to mention their ancient national attachment, had usually a set of laws and customs peculiar to themselves, and were governed by the same officers civil and military. They were accustomed on public occasions to act in concert, and to consider themselves as having a common interest. The capital, which was the seat of the governor, became the centre of government, to which<187> the gentry of the province resorted in expectation of preferment, or with a view of sharing in the pleasures of a court; and from thence, to the most distant parts of the country, innumerable channels of communication were opened, through the principal towns, where trade was carried on, where taxes were levied, or where justice was administered.
The connexions, which had thus subsisted for ages between the several districts of large territory, were not entirely destroyed when it came under the dominion of the barbarians. As the ancient inhabitants were no where extirpated, but either by submitting to servitude, or by entering into various treaties of alliance, were incorporated and blended with the conquerors, the habits of intercourse, and the system of political union which remained with the former, was, in some degree, communicated to the latter. When different tribes, therefore, though strangers to each other, had settled in the same province, they were easily reduced under one sovereign; and the boundaries of a modern kingdom, came frequently, in the western part of Europe, to be nearly of the same extent with the dominions which had been formerly subject to a Roman governor.
In proportion to the number of tribes, or separate families, united in one kingdom, and to the wideness of the country over which they were scattered, the union between them was loose and feeble.<188> Every proprietor of land maintained a sort of independence, and notwithstanding the confederacy of which he was a member, assumed the privilege of engaging in private wars at pleasure. From the violent disposition to theft and rapine which prevailed in that age, neighbouring proprietors, when not occupied in a joint expedition, were tempted to commit depredations upon each other; and mutual injuries between the same individuals being often repeated, became the source of family quarrels, which were prosecuted with implacable animosity and rancour. There was no sufficient authority in the public for repressing these disorders. If, upon great provocation, the king had been excited to humble and punish an opulent baron, he found in many cases that the whole force of the crown was requisite for that purpose, and by the hazard and difficulty of the attempt, was commonly taught to be cautious, for the future, of involving himself in such disputes.
As individuals, therefore, in those times of violence and confusion, were continually exposed to injustice and oppression, and received little or no protection from government, they found it necessary to be constantly attentive to their own safety. It behoved every baron, not only to support his own personal dignity, and to maintain his own rights against the attacks of all his neighbours, but also to protect his retainers and dependents; and he was<189> led, upon that account, to regulate the state of his barony in such a manner, as to preserve the union of all its members, to secure their fidelity and service, and to keep them always in a posture of defence. With this view, when his relations, who had hitherto lived about his house, were gradually permitted to have families of their own, he did not bestow upon them separate estates, which would have rendered them independent; but he assigned them such portions of land as were thought sufficient for their maintenance, to be held upon condition, that whenever they were called upon, they should be ready to serve him in war, and that, in all their controversies, they should submit to his jurisdiction. These grants were made for no limited time, but might be resumed at pleasure; so that, though the master was not likely, without some extraordinary offence, to deprive his kinsmen of their possessions, yet his power in this respect being indisputable, it could hardly fail to keep them in awe, and to produce an implicit obedience to his commands.
The military tenants, supported in this manner, were denominated vassals; and the land held by any person upon such terms has been called a fief; though many writers, in order to distinguish it from what afterwards went under the same name, have termed it a benefice.
When the estate of a baron became extensive,<190> the slaves, by whom it was cultivated, were likewise sent to a distance from the house of their master, and were placed in separate families, each of which obtained the management of a particular farm; but that they might, in those disorderly times, be more easily protected by the owner, and might be in a condition to defend and assist one another, a number of them were usually collected together, and composed a little village. Hence they received the appellation of villani, or villains.
The whole of a kingdom was thus divided into a number of baronies, of greater or smaller extent, and regulated nearly in the same manner. The king was at the head of a barony similar in every respect to those of his subjects, though commonly larger, and therefore capable of maintaining a greater number of vassals and dependents. But the land which belonged to the barons, was held in the same independent manner with that which belonged to the king. As each of those warlike chiefs had purchased his demesnes by his own activity and valour, he claimed the absolute enjoyment and disposal of them, together with the privilege of transmitting them to his posterity; and as he had not been indebted to the crown for his original possession, neither was he obliged to secure the continuance of it, by serving the king in war, or by submitting to his jurisdiction. Their property, therefore, was such as has been called allodial, in contradistinc-<191>tion to that feudal tenure enjoyed by their respective military tenants.* <192>
These peculiarities, in the state of the kingdoms which were formed upon the ruins of the Roman empire, had a visible effect upon their constitution of government. According to the authority possessed by the barons, each over his own barony, and their independence with respect to each other, and with respect to the king, was their joint power<193> and influence over that great community of which they were members. The supreme powers of government in every kingdom were, therefore, exercised by an assembly composed of all those proprietors, and commonly summoned by the king on every great emergency.
Two meetings of this great council appear to have been regularly held in a year, for the ordinary dispatch of business; the first, after the seed-time, to determine their military operations during the summer; the second, before the harvest, in order to divide the booty. In those meetings it was customary also to rectify abuses by introducing new regulations, and to decide those law-suits which had arisen between independent proprietors of land. Such was the business of the early parliaments in France, of the Cortes in Spain, of the Wittenagemote in England; and in each of the feudal kingdoms, we discover evident marks of a national council, constituted in the same manner, and invested with similar priveleges.* <194>
These observations may serve to show the general aspect and complexion of that political constitution which results from the first union of rude tribes, or small independent societies. The government resulting from that union is apt to be of a mixed nature, in which there is a nobility distinguished from the people, and a king exalted above the nobles. But though, according to that system, the peculiar situation of different nations may have produced some variety in the powers belonging to these different orders, yet, unless in very poor states, the influence acquired by the nobles has commonly been such as to occasion a remarkable prevalence of aristocracy.<195>
[* ]Histoire generale des voyages, 4to. tom. 3. liv. 8. chap. 3. § 4.—Ibid. tom. 4. liv. 9. chap. 7. § 8.—liv. 10. chap. 2. 6.—See also Calendar’s collection of voyages, vol. 1. p. 67, 68.
[† ]Pope’s Odyss. book 2. l. 19.
[‡ ]See Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war, book 1. 2.
[1. ]Cecrops, traditionally the first king of Attica, was a mythic figure who interacted with the gods and was portrayed as having the body of a man above the waist and that of a snake below. He was associated with the institution of marital, funerary, and property customs.
[* ]Vid. Sigon. de repub. Atheniens. lib. 1. cap. 2.———Thucyd. hist. lib. 2 [[15.— Plutarch. in vit. Thesei 24.]]
[† ]See the account which is given of the forum originis, by the author of the historical law-tracts; whose acute and original genius has been employed in uniting law with philosophy, and in extending the views of a gainful profession to the liberal pursuits of rational entertainment. [[Lord Kames, Historical Law-tracts, chap. of courts I:363–67.]]
[‡ ]Dion. Halicarn. antiq. Rom. lib. 2. § 10.
[§ ]Dion. Halicarn. antiq. Rom. lib. 2. [[§ 3.—Polyb. hist. lib. 6. 13–17.—Hein. antiq. Rom. Hein I.II.46.]]
[* ]“In Gallia non solum in omnibus civitatibus, atque pagis, partibusque, sed pene etiam in singulis domibus, factiones sunt: earumque factionum sunt principes, qui summam auctoritatem eorum judicio habere existimantur: quorum ad arbitrium, judiciumque, summa omnium rerum consiliorumque redeat. Idque ejus rei causa antiquitus institutum videtur, ne quis ex plebe contra potentiorem auxilii egeret. Suos enim opprimi quisque, et circumveniri non patitur; neque, aliter si faciat, ullam inter suos habeat auctoritatem. Haec eadem ratio est in summa totius Galliae. Namque omnes civitates in duas partes divisae sunt.” [[“In Gaul there are factions not only in each state, canton, and district, but indeed in nearly every house, and the leaders of these factions are those who are esteemed by the judgments of their compatriots to have the greatest authority; they are those individuals to whose judgment and will the most important matters and counsels are referred. And this seems to have arisen from ancient institutions, that no one of the people should be lacking in strength against someone more powerful. For no one wants those close to him to be cheated and oppressed, for if he allows this he will have no authority among them. This holds for all of Gaul as well. For all the states are divided into two parts.” Caes. de bell. Gall. lib. 6. 11. See Treasurie of auncient and moderne Times. Pub. 1619. “Chapter 6: Of the Ancient Gaules,” in Mexia et al., Archaio-ploutos, 17.]]
[* ]Different authors have entertained very different opinions concerning the primitive state of landed property, and the origin of feudal tenures, in the modern nations of Europe. The antiquaries who first turned their attention to researches on this subject, those of France in particular, living under an absolute monarchy, appear to have been strongly prepossessed by the form of government established in their own times, and their conjectures, with regard to the early state of the feudal institutions, were for a long time almost implicitly followed by later writers. They suppose that, when any of the German nations settled in a Roman province, the king seized upon all the conquered lands: that, retaining in his own possession what was sufficient to maintain the dignity of the crown, he distributed the remainder among the principal officers of his army, to be held precariously upon condition of their attending him in war: and that these officers afterwards bestowed part of their estates upon their dependents or followers, under similar conditions of military service.
[* ]In France, under the Merovingian kings, all deeds of any importance, issuing from the crown, usually contained some such expression as these: Una cum nostris optimatibus pertractavimus. De consensu fidelium nostrorum. In nostra et procerum nostrorum praesentia. [[“Together with our best we have consulted. Of our trustworthy agreement. In us and our trustworthy chiefs present.” Obser. par M. de Mably. I:238.. And there is good reason to believe that what is called the Salique Law was laid before the national assembly, and received their approbation. “Dictaverunt Salicam legem Proceres ipsius gentis, qui tunc temporis apud eam erant rectores.” Praef. leg. Sal. “Prologus” 1 § 2: “The Chiefs have spoken the Salic law of the clan, who then at that time were governed by it.” The early-sixth-century Lex Salica was the legal code of the Salian Franks. It is the only extant Germanic, pre-Christian legal code still in relatively pristine form. It is particularly important in French history as it was used to legitimate claims of royal succession, for example from the Capetians to the House of Valois. See lettres historiques sur les fonctions essentielles du parlement. Boulainvilliers let. sur le parl. de France. I:39, 126. There were references to both Hume’s and Robertson’s histories in this note in earlier editions of the Ranks.]]