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The Rise of the Nation-State

Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 28 years.

The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in 1469 united much of the Iberian Peninsula under one kingdom and laid the foundation for one of Europe's first nation-states: Spain.

The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile in 1469 united much of the Iberian Peninsula under one kingdom and laid the foundation for one of Europe's first nation-states: Spain.

What Led to the Rise of Nation-States?

In modern times, there are many forms of government. Just in the United States, consider the many forms of government: republics, democracies, cities, towns, townships, counties, and special districts. However, the major political actors today are the many nation-states that are modern creations.

The Beginning of the Concept

Today, nation-states are the most powerful political actors in the world. A nation-state is a ruling organization which consists of a group of people that maintain a national identity, occupy a bounded territory, and possess their own government. Countries like France, Japan, and the United States are examples of modern nation-states. The modern nation-state system began in Western Europe and eventually encompassed the globe. Today there are about 190 nation-states, and these states comprise the major political actors on the world stage.

The nation-state system began in medieval Western Europe as a result of the waning political dominance held by the feudal lords and the Catholic Church. Both the Renaissance and the Reformation were breaking the back of the Church’s political power. The men of the Renaissance (the “rebirth”) began to look to the classical forms of antiquity for guidance in learning. As for the Reformation, it proposed that men need not get to heaven through the Church. Each believer was a priest before God. So now, both the road to knowledge and to heaven need not go through Rome. The Protestant Reformation also wrought a state transformation throughout Europe:

The Protestant Reformation helped shatter the religious unity of Europe, and it was linked with the emergence of nation-states with their own boundaries, legislatures, jurisdiction—and therefore laws. It was a time of growing national consciousness. Vernaculars began to be used in universities, replacing Latin. There was a development of interest in national rather than Roman-based law. In Europe, legal nationalism eventually took the form of written national law codes. In place of the authority of Rome or the papacy or some universal principle, the source of the law’s authority now became the state.[1]

Coupled with the decline of the Roman Church, feudalism also declined in Europe. Major stress on feudalism came because of a rising bourgeoisie middle class in Europe. After the Crusades, the crusaders returned to the west, bringing with them stories of the wealth in the east and bringing some of that wealth with them. This desire for wealth led to the development of improved trade routes between the east and west. As a result of the increased trade, towns began to develop as centers of commerce. Over time, some of these towns demanded independence (or at least semi-independence) from their feudal masters. Sometimes the leaders of the towns would revolt against their feudal overlords; at others times, they might buy their independence from their lord, who was always in need of money.

As these towns became more politically powerful and as their rulers became wealthier, feudalism’s grip as a political force grew slack. Some serfs, seeing these towns as havens of freedom, would leave their manor and flee to the towns where they could become freemen after a time. After a while, the lord of the manor had to convince his serfs to stay on at the manor and allow them to farm their land as tenets. The flight of the serfs, coupled with the rising wealth among the new merchant classes, ended feudal domination in western Europe and gave impetus to centralized national power. Land had been the basis of wealth and status under feudalism, but that system was yielding to a rising commercial class that found its wealth in trade and money. Mobile capital was a resource for a new type of emerging state.

This power vacuum created by the waning of the feudal order gave rise to a new type of ruler: a single national monarch. In Western Europe, adjacent territories consolidated as the merchant classes desired powerful rulers that could protect them and their wares as the traveled from one destination to the next. Over time, people were no longer bound to their ruler by an oath; rather, they were citizens of cities and towns with privileges and rights because of their attachment to that city. Since the towns were sources of wealth, they were prime candidates for taxation by powerful rulers in exchange for protection. Later, these rulers could consolidate more and more land under their control.

But not only was feudalism stressed by the rising commercial society, but it also stood in the way of commerce. As merchants travelled throughout Europe, they constantly had to pay the tolls and fees to travel through a lord’s domain. Since there were so many of these petty fiefdoms, the merchants desired fewer of these domains, which gave rise to the desire for a more consolidated Europe with fewer rulers but greater protection for the merchants.

The cover of Thomas Hobbes book "Leviathan" (1651). The close up of the book cover reveals that the links in the armor of the prince are little people, symbolizing that the sovereign is based on the people.

The cover of Thomas Hobbes book "Leviathan" (1651). The close up of the book cover reveals that the links in the armor of the prince are little people, symbolizing that the sovereign is based on the people.

Sovereignty and the Nation-State

It was these conditions: feudalism, the Church’s hegemonic decline, and the rise of a bourgeoisie class that set the stage for the rise of powerful monarchs and, with them, the modern nation-state system. If the nation-state system has a birthday, it is 1648, the year of the Treaty of Westphalia, which brought an end to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). That war had been a bloody religious war between the Catholics and Protestants. As a resolution to the war, the Treaty of Westphalia allowed the German princes to decide the official religion of their domain, be that religion Catholic, Calvinist, or Lutheran. More important, throughout Europe, Westphalia signaled the beginning of state sovereignty that each of these kings would be the sole sovereign in his domain. Sovereignty is that power of which there is no higher appeal.

While the general understanding was that God was the sovereign and that rulers governed as God’s ministers, there was an attempt by some to sever government from the domain of heaven. Such was the effort of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). In his work Leviathan (1651), Hobbes lays the foundation for a ruler that is not under God but is the absolute ruler in his domain. According to political theorist Walter Berns, Hobbes was “the first political philosopher to argue openly that government may be founded on an anti-religious basis.”[2]

Hobbes was born in 1588, the time when Spain was sailing its “Invincible Armada” to the shores of England to place the island-nation under Rome and popery. Hobbes tells the story that his mother, upon hearing that Spain’s armada was about to attack England, went into premature labor and gave birth to Hobbes. On the day of his birth, said Hobbes, "my mother gave birth to twins, myself and fear." Hobbes’ absolute state is one based on fear, a fear of chaos and disorder where life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Therefore, man's only recourse is to surrender his natural rights to an absolute monarch that will protect him from chaos, but he must obey him absolutely. Hobbes' prescribed monarch was an absolute ruler who imposed order, in a top-down fashion, upon his domain.

While others (like the Christian John Locke) modified Hobbes’ theory of an absolute monarch, Hobbes still helped lay the foundation for the modern state and the coming Beast by advancing a monarch above whom there was no higher appeal. Today, sovereignty is a central concept that nation-states claim for themselves. However, democratic states tend not to say that the ruler is sovereign. Sovereignty might be resident either in the legislature (as in the United Kingdom) or in the people (as in the United States).

The Growth of the Nation-States

By the time the United States ratified the Constitution in 1788, there were only about twenty nation-states in the world. However, that soon changed as the nineteenth century approached with a series of independence movements against colonial powers like Spain and France that spurred the creation of new states. The nineteenth century also saw the rise in nationalism, sometimes referred to as the “gravedigger of empires.”[3] This demolishing of empires continued into the twentieth century as more ethnic groups embraced national solidarity and claimed the right to determine their political destiny. The years following World War I saw an increase in new nation-states and a corresponding decline in world empires such as the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. However, even after World War II, only about half of the modern states were in place. New anti-colonial movements led to the creation of more states after World War II. During 1944-1984, there were about ninety new states created. Coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a series of republics, the world had about 190 nation-states by the turn of the millennium.

It had been thought that with the creation of international organizations like the United Nations and regional states like the European Union, the nation-state system would collapse just as did the feudal order from which the Westphalian system sprang. However, this has not happened. The nation-states still remain the most powerful political players on the international stage.


[1] Lynn Buzzard, “Stop! In the Name of the Law.” World vol. 14, no. 29, July 31, 1999, 68.
[2] Walter Berns, “The Need for Public Authority,” in Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 1998), 59.
[3] Rod Hague, Martin Harrop, and Shaun Breslin, Political Science: A Comparative Introduction, 2nd ed. (New York: Worth Publishers, 1998), 9.

© 2011 William R Bowen Jr


Sunungutma on August 10, 2018:

It's well written, all inclusive summary which almost captured all important happenings in simple and understandable tone. However others views of the state evolution should also look into.

Maria on May 02, 2018:

Excellent article! Very nicely summarizes the history and rise of nation-states. Will be citing you in the research paper I am writing for my undergraduate senior thesis. Thank you!

Norma Lawrence from California on May 11, 2016:

Very good article.