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Textbook Review #3: Civil Government in the United States Considered with some Reference to its Origins

(John Fiske, Civil Government in the United States Considered with some Reference to its Origins. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1890; 360 pp.)


When I reviewed this text, it was one of about 60 other civics textbooks in my collection. My immediate impression of Fiske’s text was how different it is from the others I have acquired. First, as its subtitle implies, Fiske treated the origins of what he called “civil government” in considerable detail. Second, he not only placed local government at the beginning of his work, but he also justified his decision in an unusual manner, as will be described below. Third, his writing style was both engaging and informative, a rare combination of qualities in civics textbooks then or now.

In his preface, Fiske describes his objective and plan for the book. For one thing, he deliberately omitted from it “abstract definitions and axioms concerning the rights of men and the nature of civil society, such as we often find at the beginning of books on government.” The “metaphysics,” he wrote, “can come later.” Instead, the alternative is to “have our story first, and thus find out what government in its concrete reality has been, and is.” He claims that he has followed advice to “avoid the extremely systematic, intrusively symmetrical style of exposition which is sometimes deemed indispensable in a book of this sort.” He points out that the text following Chapter I opens with a treatment of local government “beginning with the township as the simplest unit,” because “It is well to try to understand what is near and simple before dealing with what is remote and complex.”

Something else unusual about Fiske’s approach is the attention he pays to the idea of “the written Constitution.” He says that it is, after all, “the most original feature of our government.” This emphasis is attributed to his notion that the innovative significance of our written “Federal Constitution” must be understood, and to understand it fully, we also need to know what was federalized, namely, our various local governments. To do otherwise, Fiske argues, is to “run the risk of achieving a result like that attained by a school boy, who had studied geology in a text-book, but was not aware that he had ever set eyes upon an igneous rock.”

Unlike other civics textbooks, this one has a small number of chapters. However, each chapter consists of at least two somewhat lengthy subsections. The first chapter, “Taxation and Government,” is unusual because the topic is in the front of the book; in almost every textbook in my collection, it is either ignored, buried in several paragraphs somewhere in the text, or is a single chapter at the end of the text. Fiske’s taxation chapter begins with a droll anecdote taken from The Cloister and the Hearth. The incident is about citizen rebellion in a medieval town, because, as one of the citizens complains with a stammering tongue, they are obligated to pay “Tuta-tuta-tuta-tuta-too much taxes.” In one subsection of the chapter, Fiske discusses the difference between “taxation and robbery” but emphasizes that, although the terms are sometimes synonymous when unscrupulous “members of government … extort money for which they make no return in the shape of services to the public,” “government cannot long be kept in existence unless it can raise money by taxation.” Indeed, the chapter concludes, our “government is … a marvel of political skill [and usually] runs so smoothly that now and then, absorbed as most of us are in domestic cares, we are apt to forget that it will not run of itself … and therefore requires from every citizen the utmost watchfulness and intelligence of which he is capable.” The term some of the framers of the Constitution might have used for this civic virtue is “vigilance.”

The subjects of Chapter II are township and county government. “The Township” section is concerned with the history of the New England township, including township meetings and township officials. “Within its proper sphere,” Fiske asserts, “government by town meeting is the form of government most effectively under watch and control. Everything is done in the full daylight of publicity.” In townships, people are “not so liable to bewildering delusions” such as occur in other forms of government: “I refer especially to the delusion that ‘the government’ is a sort of mysterious power, possessed of a magic inexhaustible fund of wealth, and able to do all manner of things for the benefit of ‘the People.’” The “magic fund” delusion, Fiske warns, is “inexpressibly dear to demagogues. It is the prolific root from which springs that luxuriant crop of humbug upon which political tricksters thrive as pigs fatten upon corn. In point of fact, no such government, armed with a magic fund of its own, has ever existed upon the earth. No government has ever yet used any money for public purposes which it did not first take from its own people, — unless when it may have plundered it from some other people in victorious warfare.”

Noting that the roots of township government are in earlier times, Fiske writes that, in the colonial period, it “was not only a self-governing body”; it served as “the ‘unit of representation’ in the colonial legislature, or ‘General Court.’” In this same paragraph, Fiske emphasizes that, “In its beginnings and fundamentals our political liberty did not originate upon American soil, but was brought hither by our forefathers, the first settlers. They brought their political institutions with them as naturally as they brought their language and their social customs.”

In Chapter III, “The County,” Fiske comments on the historical background of many common local-government words. For example, after the Norman Conquest, “shire” was replaced by “the French name ‘County’ because of its analogy to the small pieces of territory on the Continent that were governed by ‘counts.’” Fiske, by the way, often writes about the origins of prefixes, suffixes, and other elements of language but always in the context of civic understanding. Examples include segments of place names such as -by, -chester, -ham, -shire, and -ton. He also often comments about the origins of whole words such as alderman, borough, charter, coroner and sheriff. These are not merely etymological asides; in Fiske’s hands, they teach important lessons about man and the state.

Chapter III also includes sections about “The Modern County in Massachusetts” and “The Old Virginia County.” My references to language curiosities and the histories of the several forms of government should not be construed as mere antiquarian interest. The following ten examples of “Questions on the Text” in Chapters II and III exemplify numerous practical questions that readers can discuss after reading the two chapters:

  • What training had [the first settlers] received in self-government?

  • What kinds of real estate were exempted from taxation and why?

  • What is the educational value of the town-meeting?

  • What is the object of representation?

  • Why should Americans be interested in [the English House of Commons]?

  • Has the state a right to direct the education of its youth?

  • A loans B $1000. May A be taxed for the $1000? Why? May B be taxed for the $1000? Why? Is it right to tax both for $1000? Suppose B with the money buys goods of C. Is it right to tax the three for $1000 each?

  • Why do we have counties in the United States? Contrast the popular reason with the historic.

  • What did Jefferson think about the principle of township government?

  • Would it be better for the towns to do themselves the work now done for them by the county?

In Chapter IV, Section 1, “Various Local Systems,” Fiske observes that “We have now completed our outline sketch of town and county government as illustrated in New England on the one hand and in Virginia as the other.” The object of his survey of the two forms of local government was to prepare the reader for the study of “various local systems” in more detail in later chapters and also “settlements of the public domain.”

Chapter V, “The City,” attributes the development of this form of government to the fact that population growth in America made town-hall governments obsolete. His discussion of the “ambiguity in the word ‘town’” is another example of his many comments about civic terminology, a technique that assists readers in understanding the distinctive character of local government in our country.

Fiske’s treatment of the City of London in Chapter V might seem out of place in a civics textbook for American readers. It is, however, important for those who wish to understand the meaning of self-government at its roots, as this statement exemplifies: “It was never safe for any king to trespass upon the liberties of London and through the worst times the city has remained a true republic with liberal republican sentiments. If George III could have been guided by the advice of London, as expressed by its great alderman Beckford, the American colonies would not have been driven into rebellion.” The author’s description of the role of charters in city governments in England is another useful historical point with respect to the origins of the written proclamation we call our Constitution.

Fiske’s occasional attention to the pathologies of local government is another unusual feature rarely found in civics textbooks. Consider, for example, his observation about the limited effectiveness of the oversight function of state government during one of the many times of widespread corruption in New York City:

The experience of New York thus proved that state intervention and special legislation did not mend matters. It did not prevent the shameful rule of the Tweed ring from 1868 to 1871, when a small band of conspirators got themselves elected or appointed to the principal city offices, and, having had their own corrupt creatures chosen judges of the city courts, proceeded to rob the taxpayers at their leisure. By the time they were discovered and brought to justice, their stealings amounted to many millions of dollars, and the rate of taxation had risen to more than two per cent.

Chapter VI, “The State,” illustrates one of Fiske’s narrative techniques: opening a chapter with a discussion of the roots of the subject in the history of the early Republic. In this case, the treatment of state government in America is divided into roughly two sections of equal length: (a) “The Colonial Governments,” and (b) “The State Governments.” The continuity of change from the early governmental form to the latter is described in “The Transition from Colonial to State Governments.” This intermediate section includes a brief history of the Committees of Correspondence. With a discussion of various attempts to experiment with new forms of governance in the post-Colonial period, the text gives way to “The State Governments” section.

The topics of Chapter VI, Section 3 (“The State Governments”), can be illustrated by several marginal notes:

  • “Separation between legislature and the executive”
  • “The governor’s functions: 1. advisor of the legislature, 2. Commander of state militia”
  • “In France, whether it is nominally a despotic empire or a republic at the top, there is scarcely any self-government at the bottom. Hence government there rests on an insecure foundation.”
  • “Vastness of the functions retained by the states in the American Union”
  • “Independence of the state courts”

Chapter VII, “Written Constitutions,” begins with the comment that a written constitution is a “momentous advance in civilization, and is especially interesting as being peculiarly American.” Fiske devotes ten pages to this subject, an unusual feature in civics texts of later generations. The main themes of the section are Magna Charta, the Declaration of Rights, the English Bill of Rights, the Instruments of Government, the Mayflower Compact, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and other such documents of liberty. Fiske points out that Magna Carta was based on “town charters” and that a document that was extracted from the sovereign at sword point is hardly a mutually agreed upon contract. Nevertheless, “it partook of the nature of a written constitution.” A legal distinction Fiske cites will be useful for understanding the difference between charters and constitutions: “[A] charter differs from a constitution in this, that the former is granted by the sovereign, while the latter is established by the people themselves: both are the fundamental law of the land.” Incidentally, three of these documents are reproduced as appendices in Fiske’s textbook along with the federal Constitution and the Articles of Confederation.

Fiske’s reservations about the then-current trend of state constitutions to “enter more and more boldly upon the general work of legislation” and a brief description of the referendum as an example of direct democracy conclude Chapter VII. This serves readers well as they turn to the next and final chapter.

The last chapter of Fiske’s textbook is “The Federal Union,” Chapter VIII. Its title typifies an earlier way of expressing the nation’s constitutional logic, “which transformed our country from a loose confederation into a federal nation, from a Band-of-States into a Banded-State.” Phrases now nearly extinct, such as “These United States” and “Our Federal Government,” implied the federated character of the nation that emerged from the Constitutional Convention and its ratifications by the various states of the time. One constitution was for the federal government, and the states were to provide their own. Today, it seems likely that most American citizens think of their country as a governmental monolith in which two subordinate forms of government (the states and local governments) are merely administrative conveniences for an overriding cybernetic device.

In the first section of Chapter VIII, Fiske provides an insight into the general organization of his textbook. He concedes that, “if we had started at the top instead of the bottom and begun to portray our national government,” the textbook would have been “much more concise.” A book organized with the “National Government” at the apex of the pyramid would have obscured, he seems to be saying, a “vast empire” constructed of “strictly self-governing elements.”

The success of the colonists in creating a federal union, Fiske asserts, lies in “one important circumstance”: “The inhabitants were all substantially one people.” Although “some of the colonies” included “a good many persons not of English ancestry … the English type absorbed and assimilated everything else.” As a result, “All spoke the English language, all had English institutions.” Other than the development of a written constitution, “every bit of civil government described [earlier in the text] came to America directly from England, and not a bit from any other country, unless by being first filtered through England. Our institutions were as English as our speech.”

Having isolated what he believed to be an important requirement for a successful federation, Fiske discusses several examples of previous unsuccessful efforts at federation that preceded the 15 years of the Continental Congress. This assembly lasted until it became obvious that it was time to recognize its shortcomings and “throw the Articles of Confederation overboard and construct a new government.”

The 44 concluding pages of Fiske’s work are devoted to the intricacies of creating the federal congress, the federal executive, national and state relationships, the federal judiciary, and territorial government. The 11 concluding pages reveal the author’s concern about the fragility of the American experiment in self-government, as exemplified by W. L. Marcy’s often quoted aphorism, “To the victors belong the spoils.” As forthright as Marcy’s statement was, Fiske declares it to be “one of the most shameful remarks recorded in history.” Its only merit was that it foretold the coming of the “spoils system” and that “the business of American politics was about to be conducted on principles fit only for the warfare of barbarians.”

Despite this concern, Fiske ends his study with the conviction that, although “Popular government makes many mistakes and is slow in finding them out … once it has discovered them it has a way of correcting them. It is the best kind of government in the world, the most wisely conservative, the most steadily progressive, and the most likely to endure.”


In his preface, Fiske declares that his publisher “requested me to write a small book on Civil Government in the United States, which might be useful as a text-book, and at the same time serviceable and suggestive to the general reader interested in American history.” Fiske believed that, because men, rather than unknown metaphysical forces, create change, “[i]t is obvious that the history of political institutions has serious lessons to teach us.” Moreover, he continues, the “subject [should be] treated in the same informal manner into which one naturally falls in giving lectures to young people.” Fiske achieved his objective in his book; it is a readable survey of civic principles that are well grounded in history.

The author expands upon the discussion of his purposes by explaining his emphasis on the origins and nature of “local institutions.” In doing so, he derides writers who scoff at including local governments in their civics textbooks. “Physical astronomy,” he argues, may be a “grand and noble subject,” but science would know little about it if scientists had “ignored petty experiments on terrestrial gravitation and radiant heat, such as can be made with commonplace pendulums and tea-kettles.” In any kind of disciplined study, Fiske continues, “there is nothing we can safely regard as trivial.” After all, “questions of civil government are practical business matters, the principles of which are often as forcibly illustrated in a city council or a county board of supervisors, as in the House of Representatives at Washington.” Fiske concludes this line of reasoning with an insight frequently ignored by the authors of civics textbooks of any generation: “It is partly because too many of our citizens fail to realize that local government is a worthy study that we find it making so much trouble for us. The ‘bummers’ and ‘boodlers’ do not find it the subject beneath their notice; the Master who inspires them is wide awake and—for a creature that divides the hoof—extremely intelligent.”

Any citizen interested in civic education, including prospective writers of civics textbooks would do well to read and absorb Fiske’s preface. It includes useful comments about civics education. Such persons should also peruse Fiske’s seven-page Bibliographical Note. One will find in it many provocative clues to Fiske’s perspective on his subject; consider, for example, this extract from Toulmin Smith’s Local Self-Government and Centralization:

Local self-government is that system of Government under which the greatest number of minds, knowing the most, and having the fullest opportunities of knowing it, about the special matter in hand, and having the greatest interest in its well-working, have the management of it, or control over it.

Centralization is that system of government under which the smallest number of minds, and those knowing the least, and having the fewest opportunities of knowing it, about the special matter in hand, and having the smallest interest in its well-working, have the management of it, or control over it.

Civil Government in the United States is, in many respects, not outdated. Historically, it was published at the beginning of the Progressive Era. Nevertheless, it would make an excellent choice for a reader who would like to understand the significance of later developments in government in a far richer context than is typically available in contemporary civics textbooks. For this purpose, many of the “Questions on the Text” and “Suggestive Questions and Directions” at the ends of the sections in each chapter of this text provide opportunities for lively discussions between students and their teachers. After all, if attention to the achievements and pathologies of local government is outdated, we can be certain that liberty itself is passé.

Fiske also achieves his goal of writing informally. Written decades before readability formulae, Civil Government in the United States is well within the intellectual grasp of the “young friends whom he has found it pleasant to meet” in his years of “lecturing on history” to various types of students “in different parts of the United States.” Indeed, it is easy for a reader to imagine that he is a member of an “audience of these earnest and intelligent young friends gathered before [Fiske] in a lecture hall.” The clarity of his writing helps readers soon discover that the idea of freedom is the principal strand of civic virtue that runs through Fiske’s text.

Civil Government in the United States would serve well as a foundation for reading a contemporary civics textbook. This would be particularly true for pupils with a more-than-average interest in self-government, especially if they were required to “compare and contrast” the two books. This book is now out of print but is available at



A. Some Comments about Two Later Editions of Civil Government in the United States

Between 1890 and 1904, three editions of Civil Government in the United States were published. Fiske wrote the prefaces to the first two editions. In his preface for the second edition, he refers to having made some changes in the text “to keep abreast with the times.” However, he does not identify the changes nor are they obvious in the text. D. S. Sanford wrote the preface, dated December 5, 1903, for the third edition. Sanford states that the “scope, plan, and spirit of the book remain unaltered.” Some “minor” but unspecified “inaccuracies” (“the result of changed conditions”) have been corrected, and “Some omissions have been made good.” All in all, Sanford claims, these amendments were achieved “within the compass of twenty-five pages.” Brackets have been used in the 1903 edition to designate needed changes. These are the topics of the bracketed material:


Page Numbers in the Third Edition

Comments about the organization of cities


Comments about mayors and sheriffs


Various changes in The Government of Cities


History of the office of mayor


Suffrage rights


Justices of the Peace, Superior Courts, Jury System and the selection of judges


Comments about offices in the federal government


Acquisition of some territories




B. A Review, by Nicholas Murray Butler, of Fiske’s Text, Civil Government in the United States Considered with some Reference to its Origins (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1890). Nicholas M. Butler was, at the time his review was published, a professor of the philosophy of education. Thereafter, and for 44 years, he was president of Columbia University. This review was published in Education Review, volume 1 (Jan.–May, 1891), pages 87–89.


There has been of late a great amount of pompous nonsense spoken and written about the teaching of patriotism in the schools. We have been asked to believe that patriotism, like the multiplication table, should be committed to memory in a certain specific grade, and that it would remain at hand and useful ever after. This view, or something remarkably like it, has been urged upon public attention with considerable vehemence. Text-books on the subject of “civics,” more or less vicious in principle and incorrect in detail, have been written and published, and we believe even used. Yet there is an idea, and a valuable one at that, concealed by this grotesque expression. It is that the structure of the state and the machinery of government should be familiar to every citizen, and hence form a legitimate subject of study in the schools. Perhaps this study should be called politics rather than civics, or Mr. Fiske’s term “civil government” may be better than either; but whatever we call it, if it can be kept from being made an end instead of a means, and out of the reach of those text-book makers who seem to be striving to dilute it with folly and ignorance, it will serve a useful purpose and bear good fruit. The French have made much of this branch of instruction since the advent of the Third Republic brought new responsibilities to them as individuals, and many of their text-books on the subject are models of beauty, clearness, and good taste. Others are not so good.

But neither in France nor in the United States has any book appeared that is quite so satisfactory as Mr. Fiske’s. It is not long, it is admirably written and arranged, and, pedagogically speaking, it is a model of what a text-book should be. It is a trite remark that to fully comprehend results, the processes that brought them about must be understood. Mr. Fiske’s exhaustive studies in American history, particularly in the period of the foundation of the national government, are especially valuable when he comes to dissect and explain our several political relations. The soundness of Mr. Fiske’s method is shown by the fact that he does not begin with the preamble to the Constitution nor with the original Adam’s social needs, but with taxation, the concrete, ever-present fact by which every one is made to feel the presence of a government, whether he chooses or is permitted to participate in its selection or not. Some brief statements as to taxation are followed naturally by the subject of local government. Mr. Fiske might speak even more strongly than he does of the importance of understanding all that local government means and implies. Not only has it been a striking characteristic in the political history of the English-speaking people, but it affects both the comfort and the pocket of the individual far more than do the grander concerns of the state and nation. The New England township and the old Virginia county, as typical of the two civilizations that found a home on North American soil, are studied in detail, and the existing state of things traced from its beginning in a way that sheds much light upon its present character. The colonies, the states, and the federal government follow in turn, and occupy the latter half of the book.

Mr. Fiske does not tell us nearly as much as he suggests: and this is perhaps the chief merit of the work considered as a text-book. It is pre-eminently a book to teach from, and the copious bibliographical references combined with the admirable “Suggestive Questions,” prepared by Mr. F. A. Hill of Cambridge, will delight every real teacher who uses the book. The Appendix contains such illustrative documents as the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, Magna Charta, the little known Confirmation chartatum of Edward I., a part of the Bill of Rights, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, a typical civil service examination paper, the New York Corrupt Practices Act, and some illustrations of the Australian system of voting. All of these give the book a practical character that will tend to make it popular.

If one may trust his reason, that man will best appreciate his privileges and duties as a citizen who understands how they came to be what they are, and who sees clearly their proportionate relations to each other. The empty patriotism which is based upon excitement and expends itself in shouting, will not last long. Its representatives will probably not think much of Mr. Fiske’s book.

It jars on us a little to see Thomas Jefferson referred to (p. x) as our “profoundest political thinker.” Mr. Jefferson did his country a great service and was a statesman of high order; but no political thinker who was really profound would have been as much enamored as he was of the jargon of the French Revolution.

July 27, 2009

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