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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.