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Research Report

On the Origins of Republican Violence

Summary: The works of Machiavelli have proven fertile ground for those on the right who entangle the duties of citizenship with the possession of arms, but also those on the left who seek radical democratic change.

  • Aziz Huq Aziz Z. Huq
Published: June 29, 2021

This essay is part of the series Protests, Insurrection, and the Second Amendment

ABSTRACT: This essay identifies and explores the intellectual roots of the Second Amendment as they have been imagined and deployed not just by the U.S. Supreme Court but also by contemporary insurrectionary movements of the right. The Court has recognized but sidelined a political understanding of the Second Amendment in its two main encounters with the amendment’s operative clause. That understanding, however, was on ample display during the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection, where it was featured on banners and performed through the actual possession and threat to use arms. The idea of the armed citizen as a cornerstone of the republic can be traced back to the work of the Florentine scholar-diplomat Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli. This essay shows that across his three main book-length works, Machiavelli developed a concept of citizenship that was closely tied to the political, and potentially insurrectionary, possession and use of arms. “Good laws” and “good arms” on his account could not be separated. This vision of a politically active populace, one seemingly at odds with its elites and leaders, can be traced forward to the January 6 insurrection. But it also has a left-of-center genealogy that today yields various forms of radically democratizing proposals for institutional reform. The intellectual past, in short, is not just still alive but surprisingly fertile.