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Judicial History - Government

Governments direct or control societies. As historical pictures show, the form of government has varied from society to society. In some historical times, a single leader or ruler had central authority over a kingdom or tribe. It is likely that the ruler's personality determined the way the government operated in early times, such as what behaviors were regulated or how disputes were resolved. Through history, a common form of government was the hereditary monarch such as a king, queen, emperor, or tsar, who sometimes ruled directly or sometimes with a group of hereditary nobility, or aristocracy. As historical pictures show, the authority of a central ruler often became modified by some form of legislature representing other powerful factions such as the clergy, and, eventually, representatives of the populace. A legislature advises on policy and has power over enactment of laws.

The territory that was controlled by a government has varied widely through history. At one extreme, there was no designated territory, as in the case of a nomadic tribe, whose leader was empowered over his own group, wherever they traveled. In ancient Greece the governmental unit was a city-state, and at the other extreme the Roman Empire controlled virtually the entire Mediterranean basin, as seen in historical pictures. Other notable empires with various degrees and kinds of governmental authority over huge territories include the ancient Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great, the vast colonial reaches of New Spain, and the global domination of the British Empire in the 1700s. In each case the laws and style of administration of the imperial nation had a lasting influence on the institutions of the governed territory.

Governments change over time, pressured by economic difficulties brought on by wars or by societal conflicts such as class differences. Under medieval feudalism, rule was exercised through layers of lords and vassals. At least in theory, each level of society was bound by loyalty to the immediately superior level, so a king ruled a lord, who ruled a group of peasants, in its most simplified form. Tensions between these factions created power struggles. As historical pictures show, economic forces can also create changes in government, for example, the excesses of the 18th-century French kings, which led overtaxed citizens to overthrow the monarchy in the French Revolution.

As seen in historical images, governments have also changed due to loss or gain of territory in war. For example, after the Norman Conquest in 1066, England fell under the rule of the French kings. Frequently, a consequence of military defeat or victory is a shift in borders. Illustrating this point, the governments have been in continual flux since prehistoric times due to European alliances and warfare, as historical maps of Europe reveal. Another type of unchosen change of government has been foreign authority imposed on indigenous people in many parts of the world due to foreign conquest or colonialism.

Leaders of government may arise because of ability, as in the case of Native American chiefs, or they may inherit the position, such as a royal family, or they may be elected. Governments may also be constructed as combinations of forms. British government, for instance, combines a hereditary monarch with a Parliament that is also a combination: the hereditary House of Lords and the elected House of Commons. Members of both houses of the US Congress are popularly elected, as is the US President, but the third federal branch, justices of the US Supreme Court, are appointed. Executive power varies widely, from a king who is only a ceremonial figure to the other extreme, a despot or military ruler who makes all the laws. Other heads of government have included councils or other groups, prime ministers, and other leaders such as caesars, pharaohs, and colonial administrators.

Some governments have been overthrown in violent revolution or revolt, such as the French Revolution or the American Revolutionary War, as shown in historical pictures. Inauguration of a US president illustrates a peaceful change of government. Democratic governments usually rely on elections to select political leaders, as seen in historical images. Political campaigns try to persuade voters to support a candidate.

International relations are governed by treaties, which are laws that bind two or more groups by mutual agreement. They may be peace treaties, or they may create military alliances against a common enemy, or they may address market issues, such as forming a trading partnership such as the medieval Hanseatic League. As vintage images show, conflict between governments often results in use of military force, from a naval blockade to enforce a trade embargo to a declaration of war.


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