Lincoln, Machiavelli, and American Political Thought

By Danoff, Brian F. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Lincoln, Machiavelli, and American Political Thought


Danoff, Brian F., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Machiavelli offers crucial theoretical insights into the American presidency, as some of our leading scholars of the presidency have both implicitly and explicitly demonstrated. James MacGregor Burns (1956), for instance, drew on Machiavelli for both the title and one of the main themes of his classic book, Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox. To take another prominent example, Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power parallels Machiavelli's The Prince in certain key respects, as Stephen Wirls (1994) has shown. And most recently, in The President as Leader, Erwin Hargrove (1998) employs Machiavelli (as well as Aristotle) to explore the nature of presidential leadership.

The importance of Machiavelli for understanding the presidency, then, has often been noted. However, there have been few, if any, sustained accounts of how Abraham Lincoln in particular can be fruitfully understood in the light of Machiavelli's writings. In this article, I argue that Machiavelli's political theory provides us with a framework that can be used to illuminate the words and deeds of Lincoln, one of our most important presidents.

Machiavelli has, of course, been interpreted in a wide variety of ways. In this article, I draw primarily on the competing interpretations of Machiavelli offered by J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner, on one hand, and Harvey Mansfield on the other. If one surveys the voluminous contemporary scholarship on Machiavelli, one will notice that these two interpretations stand above the rest in terms of their influence on academic debates. On one hand, Pocock (1975) and Skinner (1978, 1981) have made the highly influential argument that Machiavelli was a civic humanist concerned above all with republicanism. On the other hand, Mansfield (1989) has forcefully argued for the more traditional view that Machiavelli should be interpreted as a kind of "spokesman for the Devil" (p. 281) who recommended not republican virtue but rather "ferocious aggrandizement" (p. xx).

These two camps are sharply opposed to one another. On one hand, Mansfield (1989) writes that Pocock and Skinner are "formidable authorities on Machiavellism.... But to study Machiavellism one must know Machiavelli" (pp. xix-xx). In Mansfield's view, Pocock and Skinner do not genuinely know Machiavelli, for they falsely "believe in Machiavelli the republican, a promoter ... of republican virtue" (p. xxiii). They do not see the real Machiavelli, the ruthless and cunning Machiavelli who had to be "tamed" by modern constitutionalism. On the other hand, Skinner (1981) no doubt had scholars such as Mansfield in mind when he complained that "Leo Strauss and his disciples have unrepentantly continued to uphold the traditional view that (as Strauss expresses it) Machiavelli can only be characterized as a `teacher of evil'" (p. 88). According to Skinner (1978), this view is "something of a vulgarization" (p. 137).

But if these two camps are in heated disagreement regarding the proper way to interpret Machiavelli, they agree that Machiavelli had a crucial impact on American political thought. Both camps therefore reject the idea that American political thought can be understood solely in terms of Lockean consensualism. For all of their differences, both Mansfield and Pocock argue that American politics cannot be understood without understanding Machiavelli. Of course, they disagree about the precise nature of Machiavelli's influence on American thought. In The Machiavellian Moment, Pocock (1975) offers an interpretation of the American revolutionary and founding eras that "stresses Machiavelli at the expense of Locke" (p. 545). Pocock argues that Machiavellian notions of republican virtue crucially influenced not only the founding era but also "continued to be of great importance in shaping American thought" well beyond the eighteenth century (p. 527). Mansfield (1989), for his part, argues that Machiavelli was the inventor of executive power and is thus in an important sense the true "author" (p. …

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