Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy
edited by Paul A. Rahe
Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Cambridge University Press: 2006
326 pages

May 2012

The foundations of the Founding

Paul A. Rahe has brought together a superb anthology of essays in Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy, analyzing aspects of a long road in the history of ideas: a road that led to the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution — the significantly deliberate design of the American Republic by men who knew what they were doing. Well, how did they know what features would be proper to a republic when there were no shining exemplars in the past, in fact no single society which the Enlightenment sensibility would rate both free and stable in all the history of the world?

The generation of the American Revolution, and particularly the leading figures, were very well versed in the history of statecraft and of individual freedom, and devoted much time and thought, conversation and correspondence, to this history and particularly to a handful of great political philosophers who had been wrestling with the ideas underlying why societies were more or less stable and free.

The arc which these essays cover is handled in three segments: the English Commonwealthmen of the Seventeenth Century; the Moderate Enlightenment; and the American Founding. The theme, as seen in the title Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy, is the thoughtful absorption and reshaping — however hesitant, piecemeal, qualified, and/or covert — of some of Niccolo Machiavelli's insights into the workings of Classical Greek and Roman, and Renaissance Italian, republics and principalities. Most critically in the Machiavellian tradition, not how things are supposed to work in some imagined ideal utopias, but how they actually do work in real societies with real people.

Must we have read or mastered Machiavelli's written works to follow the discussion? I'd say not. It surely helps to have read the Discourses on Livy and The Prince, both of which are eminently readable by moderns despite Machiavelli's subtleties and allusiveness. But Paul Rahe and his fellow essayists are very clear, explaining Machiavelli even as they compare and contrast ideas of his with those of successor thinkers. And let me emphasize that this book is clearly written throughout, free of the tangled jargon of so many current American academics.

In addition to Niccolo Machiavelli, starting with the English Revolution a number of philosophers and practitioners of statecraft with their ideas are brought to life: Marchamont Nedham, John Locke, Algernon Sidney, Trenchard and Gordon (Cato's Letters), David Hume, Montesquieu, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. Their reactions to Machiavelli's ideas, and what critique or use or disavowal or adaptation they made of them, provide our intellectual story here. For those not familiar with the fabulous Marchamont Nedham, Rahe's sketch of his career justifies the price of admission: if Alcibiades were born an English journalist —

I want to draw attention to a point outside of "intellectual" development made by editor Rahe in his introduction to the section on the Moderate Enlightenment: that without the string of victories in the early 1700s by John Churchill, later Duke of Marlborough, by which the British and their allies blocked Louis XIV's long war for the "establishment of a universal monarchy in Europe and French dominion in the New World", this thoughtful evolution toward a free republic would have been stifled. See Winston S. Churchill's great biography Marlborough for the history of that period.

I'm not going to try to summarize this Machiavellian ebb and flow of ideas, because I'd like you to read the book, along with others that discuss and analyze the deep history of the American Founding. In fact, the authors of a number of the chapters here also have written books on aspects of this theme. In this regard, for the overall perspective, see Paul A. Rahe's own magisterial Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (1992), the veritable Rock of Gibraltar to provide our bearings in these waters.

There's a great deal in Machiavelli's Liberal Republican Legacy to provide food for thought for all of us interested in the design, structure, and maintenance of a free republic. This book is a clear and balanced survey of vital and fascinating ideas.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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