From Machiavelli to America

Christopher Flannery

June 1, 2007

Machiavelli’s Liberal Republican Legacy edited by Paul RaheMachiavelli’s Liberal Republican Legacy edited by Paul Rahe (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 388 pp.

Edited collections of academic writings can be painful—not so much published as inflicted. This book is a refreshing exception. There is much to learn from it, and the learning is pleasant.

“The contributors to this volume are debtors,” writes Paul Rahe in the opening sentence, eagerly, even precipitately, acknowledging an intellectual debt owed especially to Zera Fink, Caroline Robbins, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and J.G.A. Pocock who serially, over the past 60 years, developed in their scholarship what became (with Pocock) a “grand synthesis” explaining the continuity of republican thought from Aristotle through Machiavelli to the American Revolution.

The reader immediately learns that this is largely a debt of the sort that sailors owe to lighthouses—for showing them where not to sail their ships. Pocock’s grand synthesis is “almost entirely wrong.” It misunderstands Machiavelli’s republicanism, and it misunderstands the reception of Machiavelli’s thought in general and the American reception of Machiavelli in particular. More fundamentally, Pocock misunderstands all the political thought he studies and all the political history. He treats those he studies, Rahe suggests, as “semi-conscious speakers of a common political ’language’ unable to say or think what cannot be expressed in their inherited tongue.” As their editor announces on their behalf, the contributors to Machiavelli’s Liberal Republican Legacy are united in rejecting this approach to political and intellectual history.

If the book is indebted to Pocock and company for showing its contributors where not to sail, is it indebted to anyone for more positive direction? Even before the first sentence, the volume is dedicated to Harvey C. Mansfield—Harvard professor, Machiavelli scholar, and friend of the Ashbrook Center. As it happens, Mansfield has a decades-old very public disagreement with Pocock concerning Machiavelli. What about? In a nutshell, it is about Leo Strauss’s approach to and understanding of Machiavelli. Mansfield recommends them. Pocock would rather ignore them. Mansfield endorses what he calls Strauss’s presupposition “that Machiavelli might be capable of perfect speech” and asks why Pocock must suppose that there is something ’”in the nature of language itself’ that prevents philosophers from communicating with each other across ages and cultures.”

In his old exchange with Pocock (in Political Theory, November, 1975), Mansfield invited all comers to refute Strauss if they could: “as far as I know, among hundreds of statements in [Strauss’s] Thoughts on Machiavelli susceptible of mistake, not one single mistake has yet been exposed.” Rahe’s volume has one entry for Leo Strauss in its index. The reader following this entry to its source in the text finds a warning about one “erroneous conclusion” Strauss drew in his study of Machiavelli. (What is the erroneous conclusion? Buy the book.) Paying their debts in such currency, Rahe and his crew presumably consider themselves free to steer their own course. They promise to take their subjects seriously by treating them not as prisoners of some inherited and limiting “language,” but as “fully conscious agents… wholly capable of thinking for themselves.”

The book is composed of an Introduction (by Rahe), a Prologue by Markus Fischer, and three parts divided into eleven chapters. Fischer’s Prologue “sets the stage” with an analysis of Machiavelli’s “daring political project” to “fashion [a republic] that could master the world.” Each of the three parts—”The English Commonwealthmen” (three chapters), “The Moderate Enlightenment” (three chapters), and “The American Founding” (five chapters)—represents an epoch in the reception or influence of Machiavelli in Western politics and political thought. Each chapter is written by a different contributor (two by Rahe) and focuses on one or more thinkers or statesmen in each of these epochs whose thought or deeds directly or indirectly reflect a Machiavellian influence—or an alternative to Machiavelli.

Part I offers Rahe on Marchamont Nedham and James Harrington; Margaret Michelle Barnes Smith on John Locke; and Vickie B. Sullivan on Algernon Sidney, and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Part II has John W. Danford on David Hume; Paul Carrese on Montesquieu; and Steven Forde on Benjamin Franklin (not so much as an American, but as a participant in the moderate enlightenment). Part III has Matthew Spalding on Washington; C. Bradley Thompson on Adams; Rahe on Jefferson; Gary Rosen on Madison; and Karl-Friedrich Walling on Hamilton.

The book’s tripartite division reflects and illuminates a distinguishing characteristic of its approach to political and intellectual history. The political thought studied in this book conforms to or arises from three events, each of which “signaled a political and ideological transformation.” These events are the execution of Charles I in England, the Battle of Blenheim, and the American Revolution. Each of these events “occasioned a sea change in political thought.” In connection with the special subject of this book, each event shaped in a distinctive way “the reception of Machiavelli’s republican ruminations.”

“Events are sometimes dispositive,” as the editor writes, “even with regard to political thought.” “Great battles,” for example, as Winston Churchill had written, “change the entire course of events, create new standards of values… to which all must conform.” Accident and force, to say it in an American idiom, can at the very least intervene between reflection and choice. Men are not altogether as “capable of thinking for themselves” as might be supposed. History, or fate, or fortune can do a considerable part of their thinking for them.

Since the book itself gives prominence to the American Revolution, its perspective on that event may suffice to give an idea of the volume’s invigorating approach to the study of Machiavelli and his relation to politics and political thought. In brief, the Revolution was a condition of greatness in thought and deed. As David Ramsay reflected at the time, the Revolution “called forth many virtues, and gave occasion for the display of abilities which, but for the event, would have been lost to the world.” It was the occasion for “a vast expansion of the human mind.” As John Adams put it, his generation had “been sent into life at a time when the greatest lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live.” But, as Machiavelli himself would insist, one must rise to the times. Washington and his co-founders did just that, and in rising to their times they were directly and indirectly indebted to Machiavelli in many interesting ways. But their political greatness displays for all time how cramped and unreal is Machiavelli’s notorious political “realism” and how unpolitical are Machiavelli’s realistic politics.

Christopher Flannery is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is professor of politics and director of the humanities program at Azusa Pacific University and senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books.