Article V and The Machiavellian Moment

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Through a series of lessons arranged in three Books, the thrust of Niccolo’ Machiavelli‘s Discourses on Livy deals with how nations in general, and republics in particular, can design, keep, and if necessary, restore free-government. The media for this exercise are the experiences, trials, successes and failures of the Roman Republic as related by Titus Livius (59BC – 17AD).

J.G.A. Pocock, an historian at Washington University in St. Louis Missouri, coined the term “Machiavellian Moment” to identify the commencement of clear thinking in which civil society realizes that unless it takes corrective action, the corruption into which the nation has fallen may be irreversible.

From the opening of the 18th century, the language of our colonial forebears took on the dialect of the Glorious Revolution (1688) and more. Enlightenment writers and philosophers – Harrington, Milton, Sidney, Trenchard, Gordon, Bolingbroke, Montesquieu, Locke, together with Renaissance master Machiavelli, formed the authoritative literature of American culture. No matter the societal differences between the thirteen colonies, the educated and well-read heroes of the Founding Era were steeped in this neo-classical political tradition. A common language and tradition that bound them together almost guaranteed an eventual break with England.

Some two hundred and fifty years later, we are still familiar with their precepts – a patriotic ideal grounded in unalienable rights, public virtue and private property. Less well known today, yet itemized in our Declaration, are expressions of outrage at the corruption introduced into the colonies by George III. Just as many conservatives today regard our written Constitution as ideal, so our forebears likewise regarded the unwritten English Constitution of mixed and balanced government. However, having been raised in the aforementioned literature, his Majesty’s North American subjects were spring loaded to detect corruption of this most perfect form of government ever devised. American sensitivity was well known. In a March 1775 speech designed to head off further violence, Edmund Burke cautioned MPs to realize that the colonists “augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

As illustrated by our colonial experience, corruption of governing institutions isn’t the handiwork of the people; those at the top are responsible for planting the rot that eventually works its way down to society.

Civic personality, the perception of the individual’s place in society is shaped by many things, including one’s form of government, and the roles of religion, property and virtue. By the time ongoing corruption of the civic personality from a system that heretofore had been a source of trust and pride became apparent, the language of the previous seventy years compelled our ancestors to demand a return to the first principles of the British Constitution.

This demand, when virtue confronted corruption, constituted a Machiavellian Moment. One could say it occurred when the Stamp Act congress met, when delegations of leading men from across the colonies convened to devise measures in opposition to accelerating tyranny. Their work culminated in 1789 when the corrupted colonial government of George III was replaced with a new government built largely on old principles.

America is in a similar situation today. Virtue shall confront the corruption of our Constitution in a Machiavellian Moment when an Article V convention of the states is gaveled to order. As in the 18th century, the necessary, practical reforms of our governing system will span decades. It must begin soon, before the once freest and happiest people on earth slide into the depths of subjugation and despair.

Note: If you have in interest in the lessons Machiavelli drew from Livy, go to my homepage and enter the search term, “Livy.”

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Machiavelli, Niccolo. Discourses on Livy, translated by Julia Conaway Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Book.

Pocock, J.G.A. The Machiavellian Moment. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975. Book.