Characteristics of 19th century Nation States

Political theorists have identified public education as a promoter and sustainer of nationalism. For example, Benedict Anderson states that nations are “imagined political communities” (class lecture). Though he was controversial leader, Joseph Stalin’s definition of the nation gives a fair summary. He writes that the nation is “an historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture”. (class lecture)

According to political thinker Bayly, strong states are also characterized by their modernity. Even during the early modern era of 16th and 17th powerful empire such as the Mughal, Asante and Dahomey also displayed a nurturing of modern ideas. These ideas were broad-based, ranging from culture, theology, philosophy and natural sciences. Surprisingly, these great imperial models of an earlier era share some key characteristics of strong19th century nation states. This includes an effective bureaucracy, regimentation/specialization of labour, eminence of the military, etc.

Even in smaller tribal communities such as the Zulu and Shaka states of southern Africa this pattern is evident. For example, in the three kingdoms of Mthetwa, Ndwandew and Ngwane of the Zulu state, we see features of centralization and militarization. On the flip side, these societies are marked by frequent violence and strife. Mixed with the primitive beliefs of the people in voodoo (black magic), militarism is easily incorporated into the ancient myths and folklore. (Gilbert & Helleiner, 1999)


Cottam, M. L., & Cottam, R. W. (2001). Nationalism & Politics: The Political Behavior of Nation States. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Ersoy, A., Gorny, M., & Kechriotis, V. (Eds.). (2010). Modernism: The Creation of Nation States. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Gilbert, E., & Helleiner, E. (Eds.). (1999). Nation-States and Money: The Past, Present and Future of National Currencies. London: Routledge.

Jackson Preece, J. (1998). National Minorities and the European Nation-States System. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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