Niccolò Machiavelli has deeply influenced contemporary American political culture with his concept of “libero vivere,” the community’s right to live freely from outside interference. Filtered through centuries of politics, Machiavellian-style liberty today grips American right-wing political movements. Its raison d’etre consists of fear of those considered outsiders such as African Americans and communitarian liberty focused on perceived threats against the republic rather than protection of individual rights. One need look no further than present-day book and critical race theory bans to find fresh evidence of Machiavelli’s impact.
The incident lasted for more than eight minutes. Watching the recording of it was a mind-blowing event! It felt like a Hollywood reality TV cop show, which says something about the racist approach of some of these shows, but it was palpably real. George Floyd called for help, saying “I can’t breathe” several times. Bystanders pled for the police to stop. Yet the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the man’s neck. He looked at the camera without hesitation, no blinking, no sense of regret or embarrassment. Life or death was in his grasp, and yet he had no understanding of the tragedy of the moment. He looked so ordinary, like a next-door neighbor or a second cousin, except that he was white and the man he held to the ground was black. When the paramedics finally came, they checked for a pulse, but Floyd had none.
The protests that erupted after George Floyd’s death and spread throughout the country in the summer of 2020 have deep roots in American political culture, roots that extend all the way back beyond the American Revolution. They are part of a long-running series of liberty battles crucial to the founding and development of the United States. Conflicts between the British Crown and its opponents at the beginning of the 1700s created the fuel that started the fires of the North American colonists’ rebellion. Those battling the British government delved even deeper into the past, borrowing their concept of liberty from the ideas of sixteenth century political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli. Most people are familiar with the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, the promise of democracy and individual rights embedded in them. However, few American citizens are aware of how deeply this country’s political culture is rooted in fear, a deep dread that political outsiders will destroy liberty and ultimately, the American republic.
This trepidation derives from an ancient Roman concept of liberty promoted by Niccolò Machiavelli, whose ideas gained widespread currency in Europe in the centuries after his death and then made their way across the Atlantic Ocean in the eighteenth century. For example, Joseph Addison’s 1712 theatrical play Cato—based upon a Roman senator of the same name who committed suicide rather than submit to Julius Caesar’s overthrow of the Roman republic—points to Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. Cato became the most performed play in the American colonies, with at least eight different editions of the play by the end of the century. Patrick Henry used a line from Addison’s play when he declared, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Cato was reportedly performed for George Washington (it was said to be his favorite play) and his troops in 1778 at Valley Forge. (1,2)
Thus, American colonists began to fear that King George III intended the destruction of their republic. Apprehension about the imposition of tyrannical rule started the American Revolution, as colonists initiated a rebellion against the British because they were afraid the Crown would destroy republican ideals of representative government, such as no taxation without representation, and republican institutions of colonial assemblies, town councils, and trial by jury. Contrary to our common understanding, the American rebellion, often seen as beginning with Jefferson’s unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, was birthed through fear and loathing of the British Crown. Thus, fear for the survival of the republic became a bedrock of American political culture. (3)
“In a fully constitutional regime, however, the goal of the political order is the freedom of the community…”
The notion that communities, not just individuals, possess liberty—strange though this sounds to our modern minds—originates from thinkers much older than the American founders. Machiavelli, best known for his book, The Prince, in which he argued that the ends justify the means and politics favor the wealthy and powerful, surprisingly commented widely on liberty and the republican form of government in other writings such as his Discourses on Livy. He spilled much ink discussing the strengths and weaknesses of republics and the meaning of liberty, conceiving of it as a community treasure much more than an individual right. Machiavelli scholar Cary Nederman has described Machiavelli’s thought this way. “In a fully constitutional regime, however, the goal of the political order is the freedom of the community (vivere libero) . . .” literally the right to live freely, without interference. (4)
During Machiavelli’s lifetime, the citizens of the republic of Florence – his beloved hometown – did indeed live freely, arguably possessing more liberty than any other sovereign state in the world. But the city faced many threats from inside and outside its walls. Attempts by rival noble families to seize power and corruption were commonplace. The armies of the French King Charles VIII, Pope Sixtus IV, and the Spanish Crown all threatened Florence’s independence.
Thus, Machiavelli, despite his belief that the republic constituted the best form of government, saw republics as fragile and vulnerable to failure as the vicissitudes of history wreaked havoc upon their liberty. “I claim that republics. . .will always be ruined when grave misfortune befalls them.” (5) Florence eventually collapsed under the weight of internal rivalries and invading armies and became a dictatorship under the Medici family. Having actively worked to prevent the failure of the city, Machiavelli became very pessimistic about the prospects of republics. His fear of the death of republics became an essential component of Machiavellian liberty. To protect republics, therefore, the liberty of the political community became paramount, far more important than the freedom of any of its members.
Admittedly, the definitions of “community” and “outsider” can be nebulous. If the American Revolution is the clear model – kick the British King George III out and send him back overseas – it turns problematic when that template (in which “community” and “outsider” are quite clearly defined) gets applied internally to much-less-clear situations. The definitions of “community” and “outsider” shift, get invented and re-invented over the centuries of American politics. While these “communities of liberty” see the boundaries quite clearly – for instance Americans worked very hard to draw a clear boundary of Blackness with the “one-drop rule” which claimed that anyone with one drop of African blood was Black, not Caucasian or mixed race – in fact, they are arbitrary. So, they must be reaffirmed constantly, which helps to explain the exclusionary drive pushing communitarian liberty.
Scholarly interest in Machiavelli’s influence over American political culture flared up in the 1960s-1970s but soon historians back pedalled, eventually foregoing Machiavelli in favor of free market neoliberalism. Scholars even reframed Machiavelli away from a populist protector of republican liberty to a modern-seeming liberal. But today’s political crisis demands that we reconsider the influence of Machiavelli’s fearful liberty. (6-10)
“We want no masters” the New York Artisan-Democrat John Hunt asserted in 1846, “and least of all no negro masters, to reign over us.”
Soon after the American Revolution, this reactionary conception of liberty became linked to racism. Abolitionism, begun in the Revolution, had borne fruit in an increasing number of northern states abandoning slavery. But freedom also gave rise to the question of political rights for newly freed African Americans. Thus, as white Americans began deciding whether to grant civil rights to free Blacks in the early nineteenth century, they reacted in fear that African Americans would come to dominate them politically, a potential they believed would destroy their liberty, and inevitably, the republic. White male property-owning elites discussed their anxiety about black domination openly in northern and midwestern free states’ constitutional conventions from the 1820s-1870s, which provide us with a database of fear. Constitutional delegates in states ranging from Michigan to Minnesota, from Ohio to Oregon, twenty-four in total, met and worked out the liberties that the people of their respective states would receive or, on the other hand, be denied. Almost none of the states allowed African American freedmen first-class citizenship. The right to vote, hold office, and serve on juries, to name the most important, were generally withheld from people of color. Only in New England did Blacks possess full voting rights. The racism of the day – the general agreement that Blacks were inferior to whites – explains part of their motivation.
However, the speeches and writings of the constitutional delegates also betray a deep worry about African Americans turning the tables on whites. If Blacks were given political power, they would lord it over whites, concluded one constitutional delegate. “We want no masters,” the New York Artisan-Democrat John Hunt asserted in 1846, “and least of all no negro masters, to reign over us.” There is something quite strange about this fear, for in none of these states did African Americans comprise anything close to a majority of the population. Nevertheless, the delegates maintained their irrational idea that conceding Blacks’ liberty would somehow diminish their own. Alongside their fear of domination, delegates expressed a deep anxiety that Black voters would degrade and eventually destroy the republic. Delegates feared that with the rise of abolitionism, the black vote would become a proxy for abolitionists. Rather than voting side by side with blacks, one delegate stated, or “jostle with negros, they [white voters] might abandon the polls before the ruffian assaults of a posse of shoeblacks.” Or the Blacks, “controlled by some political demagogue or… abolitionist” could change the balance of political power. Still another, an Indiana delegate in the same year argued that black voters would drag whites down to their level. “I have never known a neighborhood of colored persons that has not … pull[ed] down the white population… They mutually injure each other.” (11)
Some of the worst tragedies in American history, such as secession and the Civil War, the Cold War Red Scare, and our current political dysfunction, have been driven by a dread that Black Americans jeopardize the liberty of whites, and therefore their freedom must be denied or limited. Both the Populists and the Knights of Labor – late nineteenth century political and labor movements committed to American liberty – became deeply divided over Black participation in their organizations, eventually banning Blacks from their ranks. (12) In the Cold War Red Scare, conservatives equated the greatest perceived threat to the republic’s liberty, communism, with Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Albert Canwell, a Washington state legislator in the 1950s, argued the case in plain language, “If someone insists that there is discrimination against Negroes in this country, or that there is inequality of wealth, there is every reason to believe that person is a Communist”. (13) Completely false, assertions like this nonetheless created powerful opposition to the movement. Accusations connecting Blacks to communism remain a potent tool. During the George Floyd Protests, for instance, conservatives accused Black Lives Matter of being a front for Marxism.
“…in exchange for civil rights, they [white voters] were going to have to surrender certain basic freedoms they had until then taken for granted.”
The Machiavellian impulse has led some Americans to treat liberty as a zero-sum game; more freedom for some has meant less for the rest. Conservative commentator Christopher Caldwell paints a strikingly honest picture about rightwing Americans’ fear that Blacks are a threat to their liberty. Caldwell points out that in the 1960s protest era, white voters opposed to granting political rights to Blacks faced the possibility that “… in exchange for civil rights, they were going to have to surrender certain basic freedoms they had until then taken for granted.” (14) The same angst Machiavelli felt centuries ago continues to motivate Americans to defend their political communities from those they perceive as threatening it. For example, Trump’s birther campaign sought to discredit the United States’ first African American president, Barak Obama.
The birther movement emerged in the 2008 presidential campaign and during Barak Obama’s presidency. Scientific surveys have shown that racism played a crucial role in its rise. One study in 2019 looked at the issue of race and the attacks on Obama. Two things stand out. First, group attitudes surrounding political views are potent influences for those inside any particular political grouping, whether those views are true or false. This type of groupthink was prominent in the spreading of rumors about Obama. The second conclusion of the study that race played a central role in white voters’ negative views toward Obama has explosive implications. Support for birther rumors in the survey correlated strongly with a general anti-black animus. (15)
But we have to go beyond the explanation of simple racism to understand a movement that is so intrinsically connected to the world of politics and Obama’s role as the most powerful man in the world. No one would have cared about Obama’s place of birth if he had not been running for the presidency. Thus, it seemed to some Americans that electing a Black man to the Oval Office meant their greatest fear had been realized; that an African American male could exercise direct dominion over them. So, Obama’s election had to be discounted and raising questions about the authenticity of his citizenship became a way to discredit his presidency. Similar fears are on display in Republican attempts to restrict voting rights and the movement to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT), an educational curriculum which is designed to heighten Americans’ consciousness of the history and reality of racial injustice in the United States. They have also banned books focused on CRT or LGBTQ issues that have been deemed dangerous influences.
“Republicans are more concerned about fraud, so we don’t mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote–but everybody shouldn’t be voting.”
False accusations of voter fraud spread by then President Donald Trump motivated Republican statehouses in 2021 to enact hundreds of new voter restriction laws. Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican from Arizona, openly admitted that these laws were attempts to suppress voting, stating at the time, “Democrats value as many people as possible voting, and they’re willing to risk fraud. Republicans are more concerned about fraud, so we don’t mind putting security measures in that won’t let everybody vote – but everybody shouldn’t be voting.” In Georgia, the raft of voter restriction laws such as closing the polls on Sundays and banning mass transportation to the polls are clearly designed to suppress voting among the African American population which had been instrumental in the defeat of Republicans in the state in the 2020 election.
Even more recently, Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost the 2021 Virginia governor’s race in part because he ran afoul of the issue of community control of its children’s education, an issue Republicans linked to their efforts to condemn the teaching of CRT. McAuliffe committed a verbal gaffe in a September 29, 2021 debate, stating that parents should have little role in their children’s education. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” It gave an opening to Republicans who falsely claimed that Democrats in charge of the state government were attempting to impose CRT. One might argue that their concern was really about local control versus the state. But public opinion polling in Virginia has demonstrated that race played a big role, with a dramatic divide between whites and non-whites on the issue. Whites opposed the teaching of CRT by a wide margin, 24%, but all parents, white and non-white, were evenly split on its teaching. Whites apparently feel threatened by the open discussion of the racial issues CRT advocates. Characterizing their cause as protecting themselves from the malign influence of the state, local school boards, and even teachers has allowed conservatives to make CRT into an explosive political issue. In the wake of the Virginia election, book bans and laws outlawing the teaching of CRT have been introduced in many states. In 2021, the American Library Association reported 330 attempts to ban books, a significant increase from 2020. A new right-wing organization called No Left Turn has demanded that federal Attorney General Merrick Garland investigate what it called obscene or pornographic literature, a veiled reference to LGBTQ books. Other groups refer to “woke” or “revisionist” books which these organizations link to works by or about Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other people of color. It is no accident that one of the most banned titles is Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a young adult adaptation of Kendi’s research on racism in America. Related to book banning, legislatures have attempted to block the teaching of CRT, in 2021 proposing 120 bills to ban it.
Despite the fact that many of these proposals would violate the Constitution if implemented, these groups do not see themselves as repressive. The Goldwater Institute, an older conservative organization that supports book and CRT banning nationally, has the symbols and language of freedom splashed all over its website. It describes its top two agenda items as “Freedom of Speech” and “Choice in Education,” richly ironic given its support for the suppression of free expression. Machiavelli’s definition of liberty as protecting the community from outsiders provides us with a way of understanding the contradictory views of these organizations as they fight for what they perceive as their right to protect their children’s civil rights, while in reality suppressing first amendment rights.
George Floyd’s death set off explosions of protest on both the political left and the right. It is impossible to know what direction these liberty battles will take. It is clear, however, that protection of liberty from outsiders occupies a large space in the American political mind. The patterns of the past suggest that over time the civil rights version of liberty will win out. But history, with its unexpected twists and turns, cannot guarantee any particular outcome. Ultimately, the people will decide the future of American liberty.
- Addison, J., “Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays”, 1712.
- Trenchard, J., and Gordon, T., “Cato’s Letters,” London Journal, 1720-1724.
- Bailyn, B., “The Origins of American Politics”, 1968.
- Nederman, C., “Niccolò Machiavelli”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2019.
- Walker, L.J., “The Discourses of Niccolò Machiavelli”, 1992.
- Bailyn, B., “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”, 1967.
- Rodgers, D.T., “Republicanism: The Career of a Concept,” Journal of American History, 1992.
- Wilentz, “Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class”, 1984.
- Appleby, J., “The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism”, 2010.
- Sullivan, V.B., “Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the Formation of a Liberal Republicanism in England”, 2004.
- Berthoff, R., “Conventional Mentality: Free Blacks, Women and Business Corporations as Unequal Persons, 1820-1870,” Journal of American History, 1989.
- Postel, C., “Equality: An American Dilemma”, 2019.
- Whitfield, S., “The Culture of the Cold War”, 1991.
- Caldwell, C., “The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties”, 2018.
- Jardina, A., “The Genesis of the Birther Rumor: Partisanship, Racial Attitudes, and Political Knowledge”, Journal of Race Ethnicity and Politics, 2019.