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Machiavellian Republics



Republics can learn from The Prince and apply many of the lessons provided to princes by Machiavelli. This does not mean that the lessons applied by republics are moral or even efficient, only that republics can apply them. These lessons consist of establishing new states, on maintaining old ones, on expanding the state, on the state’s arms, on the popularity of the state, and a warning on flatterers in society such as populists in modern American politics. A republic, being the political identity of a people, can be just as Machiavellian as any prince and can learn much from Machiavelli.

On Old Republics

An old republic that has been established politically and culturally is similar to a hereditary principality that has become accustomed in the state. It is easier for the president to run an old republic than that of a new one since the amount of accidents or deviants from republicanism is low. As Machiavelli put it regarding hereditary principalities, “because it is enough only not to depart from the order of his ancestors…” meaning that continuity is an advantage to running a state, . The more continuity there is the less likely there would be accidents. It would take much to shake an old republic but when it does happen, the president must use extraordinary and excessive force which is required to restore the status quo. An example of this occurring in the American republic would be the actions taken by president Lincoln during the Civil War. It took an extraordinary situation that was brewing for many decades to shake the American republic. This forced president Lincoln to take extraordinary measures to bring the rebellious states back into the fold such as suspending habeas corpus, or putting in charge a general like Grant who demanded unconditional surrender, or allowing a general like Sherman to march to the sea through Georgia.

On New Republics

Unlike an old republic a newly established republic must quell anti-republicanism by either removing royalists or by changing the minds of the people to be pro-republic. This must be done to prevent counter revolutions that aim to restore the royal order or the order of a previous republic. America did not have to worry too much about counter revolutionaries since many loyalists left the states to Canada. France did have to worry about counter revolutionaries since royalism and aristocratic rule was embedded in Parisian culture as well as in the Catholic rural populations which remained in the country after the establishment of the first republic. In the words of Machiavelli, “So you have as enemies all those whom you have offended in seizing that principality, and you cannot keep as friends those who have put you there because you cannot satisfy them…” meaning that a new republic must be better than the previous order while being stronger than the old power. America was just able to beat the old power of the British Empire but struggled to be a better regime for many years after the Revolution. There were internal struggles such as Shays’ Rebellion which tested whether or not the new republic deserved to exist. It turned out that the American republic did not deserve to exist and so it was reformed by the creation of the Constitution before discontent brought its downfall.

On Conquest

Similar to the issues of a new republic, as a republic expands there are issues with establishing the new order in the conquered territories and peoples. A republic will need to have a common language, perhaps a shared religion, but definitely share political principles of republicanism. Regarding the similarities of acquired territories, Machiavelli states that, “When they are (similar), they may be held with great ease, especially if they are not used to living free;” meaning that if a republic expands to include people who have not been free the republic could either maintain that tyranny or expand freedom. The former maintains the social order regarding freedom while the latter makes the expanding republic a liberator. If the expanding republic tries to limit the freedoms that were once enjoyed by the people then there will be rebellion. An example of this is the Philippine-American War where America claimed the Philippines in the Treaty of Paris concluding the Spanish-American War. The republic that existed in the Philippines that had been fighting the Spanish for independence were now fighting America for their freedom. Although the governments of the Philippines and America were republics, they were different in culture, religion, and most different in nationalism. This difference and the mistreatment by America eventually concluded in Philippine independence in 1946. Machiavelli’s remedy to differences between conqueror and conquered people is to colonize or as he puts it, “...would be for whoever acquires it to go there to live in person.” America tried this to a certain extent in the Philippines which did eventually change the Catholic and Muslim nation to a more Protestant one along with changing the national language to English but it did not change Philippines’ nationalism which persisted.

On Republican Military and Mercenaries

Establishment and expansion can only be secured through military means. Machiavelli warns that a prince who cannot form his own army will be under the control of those who can, “...I say that I judge those capable of ruling by themselves who can, by abundance of either men or money, put together an adequate army and fight a battle against whoever comes to attack them…” A strong republic, just as a capable prince, will be able to raise an army for itself and not for the interest of another state or money or general. An army in a republic that is paid, led, and regulated by a single general is just as dangerous as a general who can do those things in a principality. Such a general in a principality, Machiavelli warns, will seek to remove the current prince and establish himself. Such a general can remove the republic and establish himself. An example of this is Napoleon Bonaparte who fought for the French republic who later absolved the republic to establish his own empire. Mercenaries are also not to be trusted for the same reasons and then some. Machiavelli warns that a good mercenary is dangerous since they will take advantage of their position over a prince and would seize what the prince paid them to protect. A bad mercenary, on the other hand, is simply a bad investment who will waste the prince’s money and lose anyway.

On Avoiding Discontent

The use of the military and how that military acts especially domestically can affect how the people view the government. Machiavelli shows how a prince can be hated, “What makes him hated above all, as I said, is to be rapacious and a usurper of the property and the women of his subjects.” This can also be applied to republics but not in the same way. In general, when a prince usurps property and the dignity of its people it is usually done due to the selfishness of the prince which is universally despised. When a republic usurps property it can claim that it is seizing property to be redistributed to the people which can on occasion be supported by the people themselves. This is an advantage a republic has over the prince but if taken too far and if the redistribution is not equal then that may cause discontent. Just as a prince taking property for himself is hated, a republic taking property for the politicians or higher class is also bad enough for the people to hate the state. A republic wishing to avoid as much hatred as possible should not be rapacious. A republic also should not take conspiracies seriously during times of general happiness. As Machiavelli assures the prince that conspiracies during general content is nothing to be worried about since the prince has laws and the people on their side while conspirators have nothing but fear and jealousy. So too should a republic be indifferent to conspiracies only during general happiness. If the people were against the government then conspiracies ought to be taken seriously since those have the potential to go into effect. Maintaining the happiness and the general welfare of the people is the concern of a republic just as it is for a prince.

On Flatterers “Populists”

A republic should not be hated by the people but they should not gain support through flattery. Machiavelli states that, “choosing wise men in his state; and only to these should he give freedom to speak the truth to him, and of those things only that he asks about and nothing else.” This means that a prudent prince will not let themself be distracted by those who wish to take their attention away from real issues. A prince should not be focused on flattery but on war and the state. Similarly a republic both its administration and the people should not be distracted by flatterers or populists. The government should not be distracted by flatterers because they will lose focus of their main objective which is fulfilling the will of the people. The people in turn should not be distracted by populists who wish to guide the focus of the people away from their issues and grievances and instead towards frivolous policies. An example of this would be politicians today distracting the people with bread and games or with exaggerated policies meant to calm the people. Representatives, Senators, and even Presidents are always promoting large projects while ignoring inflation or other issues.


Republics can be Machiavellian in how they are established, how they maintain power, and how they expand. The lessons to a prudent prince can just as easily apply to a prudent republic which suggests that these rules are more like laws of politics given their universal use. Laws that change the preferences of the people to be pro republic, just as a prince would need to make sure that their subjects prefer them over another prince.



Works Cited


Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield. Second Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.





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