Normally the image would not have crystalized my anxiety. But I happened upon it in a dark time: as Donald Trump began to campaign in earnest for the office of president of the United States.
And so an otherwise unremarkable plaque in the Chiesa degli Scalzi, a baroque church next to the Venetian train station, struck me as a warning. Its inscription reads: Manini cineres or “the ashes of Manin.”
Lodovico Manin was Venice’s last doge. Generally doges served for life. But Manin’s term was cut short. As Napoleon’s troops converged on the lagoon in 1797, Manin abdicated. The Venetian Republic, which lasted 500 years, had fallen.
Even the best of republics, as this plaque reminds us, must end.
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The Venetians knew this. They knew this not only from their studies – in which the history of the fall of the Roman Republic was a prominent theme – but also from more recent events. In the Renaissance, republic after republic had fallen, each giving way to more authoritarian regimes.
Faced by the fragility of political arrangements, early modern thinkers were particularly keen on forging a political system that could weather as many challenges as possible. For this end, a republic or “mixed government” seemed ideal. “For when there is in the same city-state a principality, an aristocracy and a democracy,” Machiavelli wrote, “one form keeps watch over the other.”
Venice, more than any other state in Europe, embodied this principle. The doge was the monarchical element, the Senato the aristocratic, the Great Council the democratic. Our own government – with the presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives – reflects the mixed ideal of the Venetian constitution. The parallel is not accidental. A generation before the fall of Venice, our own nation’s founders had looked to Venice as a model.
But the Venetian republic endured not merely because of the form of its government, but also because of the texture of its society.
Not far from Venice’s Chiesa degli Scalzi is the spacious, shaded campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, one of the city’s best public squares. In the Renaissance, some 70 comparable squares dotted the city. Each had a church and a well that served the needs of all. In Venice the urban fabric itself brought individuals from all social classes together.
Moreover, Venice, while officially Catholic, remained open to a great diversity of peoples. To be sure, the city was at times less than tolerant. In 1516, exactly 500 years ago, the Venetian government established the Ghetto, requiring that all Jews live there; then in 1547 it permitted the Roman Inquisition to set up a tribunal in the Republic. Yet Venice did not restrict the movement of peoples. Foreigners and immigrants generally remained welcome. Jews could practice their faith in one of several synagogues, German Protestants could worship as they chose and, in the 17th century, Muslims too could live in the city unmolested.
Meanwhile, Venetian magistrates sought to provide a public justice that could keep the peace. They were not always successful, but they were deeply self-conscious about the need for justice to serve public rather than private interests.
Could we in the United States lose our republic?
The omens are not good. Throughout his campaign, Trump has attracted voters not by offering a blueprint for how he might govern but through vague claims that he can make America great again. Worse, at a moment in which our country has been scarred by racial tensions, he has systematically targeted Hispanics, African-Americans and Muslims with threats of violence. Now, building on the fears and anxieties of predominantly white America, he portrays himself as the voice of the people and as a strong man who will take “action” and do whatever it takes to keep ordinary Americans safe. Were there to be a significant terrorist attack on American soil shortly after a Trump election, it is not difficult to imagine him declaring martial law.
We shouldn’t assume this can’t happen. It happened in ancient Rome, it happened recurrently in the Renaissance republics and, in the 1930s, it took place in Weimar.
The best thing we can do to preserve our republic, at least in the short term, is to defeat Trump. But this will not be enough. We must also reinvigorate our political institutions and, above all, mend the social fabric. We must reduce disparities between rich and poor and between black and white. We must ensure that our legal system serves everyone equally.
No republic lasts forever. But perhaps there is greater dignity in falling to a Napoleon than in allowing our democratic ideals to be attacked from within, first by failing to care for the common good and, then, by succumbing to a demagogue.
Were our republic to fall, we would have only ourselves to blame for the ashes.
John Jeffries Martin is professor and chair of history at Duke University. He is currently completing a history of early modern Europe.