12th Grade: The Dynamic of the ‘State Nation’


This week we continued looking at the development of states, attempting to make the connection between the various elements in society that propel change.  We looked this week at the ‘State-Nation,’ and the ‘Nation-State.’

Th ‘Territorial-State’ (1648-1776) was a conscious move away from the monarchical ambition and religious motivated violence of the previous era.  They sought order, symmetry, balance, and proportion.  This required careful international diplomacy, and sought to prevent any inward social upheavals, for good or ill.

A variety of factors lead to the breakup of this constitutional order.  For one, the Enlightenment grew stale and begged for a more ‘Romantic’ counter-reaction.  But perhaps more than that, the expansion of Territorial States stretched the logic of their identity based on contiguous property (and not ideology, which travels in the minds of me).  The French-Indian War is perhaps the most striking example of a Territorial-State conflict that gives birth to the ‘State-Nation’ here in America.

The French-Indian War created a sense of identity, a sense of a ‘people.’   This ‘people’ would naturally now not want to be treated as pawns in an international game.  They would inevitably demand rights, and this is at least part of the roots of the conflict between the colonies and England.

A look at the Declaration of Independence and Constitution gives us insight into the emerging world of ‘State-Nations.’
1. We have the basis of the particular relationship between government and the people rooted in universal ideas (all men are created equal)
2. We have recognition that the ‘people,’ not territory or states, are the basis for political power, i.e. “We the people. .  .”
3. At the same time we still have a somewhat aristocratic, paternalistic attitude towards ‘the people.’  Government was responsible ‘for’ the people, but neither George Washington, John Adams, Robespierre, or Napoleon would have thought in terms of government ‘by’ the people, or ‘of’ the people.

Napoleon is a great example of someone who understood how the socio-political landscape had changed, and understood how to take advantage of it.  The French Revolution destroyed not only the aristocracy, but the professional army led by aristocrats.  Napoleon had mass, energy, and ideology at his disposal, but lacked the well drilled and trained armies of the rest of Europe.

With a ‘people’ now organized in France, Napoleon could mobilize more support for his campaigns.  He had the supplies, backing, and motive to take his army far (we are liberators of the oppressed).  His took this energy and channeled, achieving superiority of mass at points of his choosing.  This rag-tag ball of energy created by the French Revolution and harnessed by Napoleon made quick work of the rational, balanced, symmetrical, and aristocratic armies of Europe.

But then a curious thing happened.  The countries Napoleon occupied inevitably brought with them the ideology and ‘constitution’ they espoused.  If France was so great, why couldn’t Prussia or Austria be great too?  If they wanted to resist, they would need to raise a new army rooted in this new sense of solidarity, this new sense of a ‘people.’  The old aristocratic officers had been discredited by their initial defeat at Napoleon’s hands.  The armies that defeated Napoleon from 1809-1815 from Spain to Russia, from Prussia to England, were in sense, Napoleon’s accidental creations.  is it any wonder that

Napoleon’s success and ultimate failure have many lessons.  For our purposes I want the students to see how elements of society fit together and in a sense, carry the same message.  Different ideas and actions create new social and political contexts.  Without awareness of the ripple effects of these changes, nations will end up behind the 8 ball, much like Spain of the early 17th century, France and England in the late 18th century, the Austro-Hungarians in the early 20th century, and so on.

Next week I will update you on the ‘Nation-State’ (what you and I grew up with) passed away, and speculate on the best way to move forward in the new economic, technological, social, cultural, political, and moral world we live in. Having seen a few examples of how this process tends to work, I am hoping for some good observations and discussion from the students.


Dave Mathwin