Power to the People: The role of the People in The Prince
By Kate Tandberg
In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli promises to “set aside fantasies about rulers, then, and consider what happens in fact.” The result is a book with a political philosophy that eludes classification, even today. Though it is traditionally thought to advocate for a ruthless authoritarian form of government, in The Prince, we see the People, uniquely for its time, as sovereign whose consent is required by the prince in order to rule. With their support, the nobility is wary to conspire against their ruler and any revolution it does go through with is quickly snuffed out. On the other hand, if his subjects are dissatisfied with the monarch, he finds himself unable to defend against internal and external threats. In this way, the People consent to their ruler and his government. The idea of consent is central to later political philosophy, particularly natural rights philosophy, which all modern democracies are based on. However, in The Prince, the People’s power is acknowledged less out of philosophical considerations than out of necessity. This is because the People are treated as a means to an end in The Prince; they are not a source of legitimacy but of stability. Nevertheless, The Prince represents the reemergence of the People as a political entity, albeit at times an underestimated one, with the power to decide the fate of their monarch.
Any discussion of The Prince inevitably runs into the problem of Machiavelli’s true intention and beliefs. Machiavelli’s background as civil servant in the Florentine Republic and his later works such as Discourses and Florentine Histories have lead a majority of scholars today to conclude that Machiavelli was, to quote Bernard “a dyed-in-the-wool republican.” Nevertheless, reconciling this side of Machiavelli with the one that wrote The Prince is what Philosopher Ernst Cassier called “one of the great puzzles in the history of human civilization.” Was The Prince born out of necessity, the realization that a republic was not possible in Florence? Did Machiavelli’s beliefs simply mature between The Prince and Discourses? Perhaps The Prince was written ironically as a satire on authoritarian regimes. A final, more unsettling, possibility is that “Machiavelli, blinded by a desire to ingratiate himself with the Medici, betrayed his republican principles.”
The purpose of this essay is not to understand why The Prince was written, but to understand what the role of the People is within it, whatever Machiavelli’s personal conviction may have been. Still, there is value in examining The Prince in the context of Machiavelli’s other works. I agree with Levy, that The Prince and Machiavelli’s other works are essentially, “in harmony” with one another. As such, I will reference the Discourses and Florentine Histories in my arguments where it may help to shed further light on Machiavelli’s claims in The Prince.
Before going any further, who exactly are the People? More specifically, who does Machiavelli understand the People to be? From the antiquity to Machiavelli’s own time in the 15th century, the People were understood to be a separate entity from the wealthy, nobility, and political elites. They are defined by their lack of wealth. Individually, they are powerless—but collectively, they hold immense political power. But, here we encounter a paradox. In political philosophy, particularly among republican and democratic thinkers, the People are understood to be sovereign—however, in practice, power rarely lay with the People. For instance, though the Magna Carta is popularly remembered as the origin of the rights of all Englishmen, in fact, it only protected the rights of barons. In another example, the early American Republic, though nominally a government ‘by and for the People’, was in actuality dominated by a minority of the population. As in an electoral-republic, most government officials came into power and retained it through elections, and because, in the beginning, the American franchise only included white male landowners, it was this group who held most of the political power. The People were not actually sovereign because their consent, in this case given through voting, was not required by their government. Likewise, the People were not sovereign in 12th century England because it was the barons who gave their consent to their King through a council and by not revolting. However, in the states Machiavelli describes in The Prince, the People’s consent is assumed by supporting the ruler during a crisis. Because the number and sort of people that can lend support are both diverse and plentiful, uniquely in history, when Machiavelli refers to the People, he means the People, both in theory and practice.
Machiavelli believed that the People were a solid basis of government, refuting a long-held proverb: “‘He who builds upon the people, builds upon the mud.'” So long as the prince behaves correctly, “he will never find himself let down by them, and he will realize he had laid foundations for his power.” Machiavelli prefers the People as a basis of power over other groups, such as the nobility. He writes in Discourses, that “[i]t will be seen that in the former [the nobles] there is a great desire to dominate and in the latter [the People] merely the desire not be dominated.” This thought is echoed in The Prince, where he writes that the People “only want not to be oppressed.” In this sense, the interests of the People and the prince agree. Levy notes that “[f]or many the desire for liberty is primarily a desire for security rather than self-government.” So long as the prince provides the People security—they will provide him with support and security in turn. The Nobles, on the other hand, are insatiable; they will want more and more from their prince before finally conspiring to overthrow him. It is for this reason that Machiavelli maintains that “in history… all conspiracies have been made by men of standing or else by men in immediate attendance of a prince.” Nobles may conspire because they feel they have been injured, or because they have been given so many honours all they lack is the power of the prince himself.
While the People are more inclined to submit to their ruler, Machiavelli sees their true value in their ability to support their ruler during times of crisis, conspiracies in particular. Whereas conspiracies make nobles a dangerous source of power, they are one of the things that give the People their power. Machiavelli gives us the following example in The Prince:
Messer Annibale Bentivoglio… who was ruler of Bologna, was conspired against and killed by the Canneschi family… Immediately after this killing, the people rose up and slaughtered all the Canneschi. The reason for this was the popular goodwill towards the Bentoglio at the time, which was great.
Machiavelli believed that the knowledge of a ruler’s popularity would discourage nobles from conspiring against him–though the example he gave does not support this theory. Nevertheless, having the People’s support did mean that Bentivoglio’s murder was avenged and that his son, an infant at the time, was able to succeed his father once he reached maturity.
However, in The Florentine Histories, the People do more than act retroactively. The following passage describes the aftermath of a failed assassination attempt against Lorenzo de’ Medici:
Meanwhile the whole city was in arms, and Lorenzo de’ Medici, accompanied by many armed men, had withdrawn to his houses. The Palace had been recaptured by the people, and all those who had seized it were captured or killed…Already [the conspirator’s] houses were seized by the people, and Francesco, naked as he was, was dragged from his house, led to the palace, and hanged beside the archbishop and others…There was no citizen armed or unarmed who did not go to the houses of Lorenzo in that necessity, and each offered himself and his property: so great was the fortune and the grace that had been acquired by this house through its prudence and liberality.
Lorenzo de’ Medici had made himself so popular with the People, that when his life and reign was threatened, they took up arms and quashed the conspiracy and killed the conspirators. This was the power of the People, and without their support a monarch could not survive.
Although Machiavelli was deeply distrustful of the nobility and their machinations, he does not consider the People capable of overthrowing their ruler themselves. His lack of concern is perhaps understandable given how little precedent there was for popular revolutions. Though history is littered with aristocratic coups, popular revolutions wouldn’t become common until the late 18th century, with the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. But even then, there were instances where the People posed a direct threat to government, instances Machiavelli was well aware of and included in own works. He gives one such example in his Discourses, writing: “[democracy] came about when the Roman nobility became so overbearing…that the populace rose up against them. And they were constrained by the fear that they might lose all, to grant the populace a share in the government.” Likewise, Machiavelli must have known that, according to legend, the Roman Republic began after a popular uprising against the King and his family. Why is this not addressed in The Prince? Perhaps popular revolutions were rare enough that Machiavelli felt they weren’t worth discussing. Perhaps, if one ascribes to the theory of Mary Dietz, he may have intentionally not included them in order to facilitate the downfall of the Medici. Or perhaps Machiavelli simply overlooked this power of the People.
But if the nobles posed the greatest danger to the prince, why have them around at all? In some cases, Machiavelli believed elimination to be the best course of action. When taking over mixed principalities that share the same language as the new ruler, Machiavelli recommends his prince do two things: “the first is to wipe out their old ruling families.” However, it is not possible to wipe out the entirety of the nobility, who, while a minority of the overall population, were still numerous enough for total eradication to be impractical. For example, in Machiavelli’s Florence, the ruling political class numbered 2,000 out of a total population of 100,000. Furthermore, the nobility were not without their uses. Machiavelli believed that conflict between the nobility and the People created liberty and that the support of the People alone, though a strong basis of power, was not enough to support a prince.
The first argument, that class conflict leads to liberty, is most thoroughly explored in Discourses, but its principles can also be applied to The Prince. Machiavelli argued that interests of the nobility and the People were inherently antithetical and would therefore always lead to conflict between the two. This conflict was exemplified in the struggle between the ancient Roman Senate and plebs. Traditionally, the conflict between the Senate and plebs has been seen by scholars as one of the Roman Republic’s greatest weaknesses, but Machiavelli is quick to dismiss these criticisms, writing: “To me those who condemn the quarrels between nobles and the plebs, seem to be cavilling at the very things that were the cause of Rome’s retaining her freedom.” An example of this would be the Tribunate, which, “besides giving the populace a share in the administration…served as guardian of Roman liberties.” For this, Machiavelli claims: “[I]f tumults led to the creation of the tribunes, tumults deserve the highest praise.”
But this is a risky strategy—though class conflict could create liberty, it could also result in anarchy or monarchy, although in the context of The Prince, the latter is not an unwelcome outcome. In fact, Machiavelli suggests his prince could use class conflict to his advantage, putting his lot in with the People, as “a man who becomes a ruler through popular support finds himself standing alone, having around him nobody or very few not disposed to obey him.” On the other hand, tensions between the People and the nobility, if not properly managed, could grow so great that it could lead to “armed conflict and violence”, as it did between the plebs and the senate during the time of the Gracchi.
Machiavelli was well aware of the weaknesses of pure democracies, particularly their tendency to devolve to anarchy. Machiavelli was a proponent of the classical theory of anacyclosis, which stated that every form of government had a good and bad form: monarchy and tyranny, aristocracy and oligarchy, and democracy and mob-rule, and that all states cycle between these forms. Pure democracies, aristocracies, and monarchies were particularly fragile and short lived—the remedy to anacyclosis was believed to have been a ‘mixed government’, a government which combined all three good forms of government. Machiavelli does not explicitly discuss anacyclosis and mixed government in The Prince, however we can see its influence in his description of principality in which the prince, nobility, and People all share power.
Thus, a prince needs both the People and, to a certain extent, the nobility on his side. Given their vastly different needs, this was no easy task, though Machiavelli gives a few potential solutions. First and foremost, Machiavelli advises rulers not to seize “the property or womenfolk of his subjects.” Next, following the example of Cesare Borgia, he recommends instituting an “efficient government” which would stabilize the region and ensure the support of the People. In order to prevent the nobility from committing these abuses themselves, Machiavelli recommends creating a “body to restrain the nobles and favor the people” in the model of the French parlement, for which he declares there to be “no more prudent measure or better institution.” At the time of The Prince‘s publication in 1532, the power of the French parlement and other representative bodies was still extremely limited, acting more as an advisory council to the kings, with minimal legislative or executive power. Nevertheless, Machiavelli writes, it would gratify the People without incurring the hatred of the nobles.
Here again, Machiavelli may be underestimating the power of the People. In 1536, nine years after Machiavelli’s death, the English Parliament, at Henry VIII’s behest, passed an act naming Henry the head of the Church of England. It was a symbolic gesture for England’s most absolute monarch: by going through parliament, Henry added a layer of legitimacy to his actions. In another hundred years, parliament would grow strong enough to throw off the monarchy during the English Civil War. Machiavelli was, of course, not around to witness any of these events, nor to realize the significance of his proposed representative body. Though his proposal was seemingly modest, Machiavelli had prefigured the creation of republics in which the People were truly sovereign. Once again, it is up for debate whether Machiavelli foresaw the ramifications of his recommendation, whether it was all part of a larger republican plot, or whether the suggestion was made innocently, with any broader significance being inadvertent. Whatever his true intentions were, reading The Prince, Machiavelli’s justification for a parliament would suggest that he views it, like all his policies, as a means to an end: to protect the power of the prince. Though the People can benefit from these arrangements, since their ruler is motivated by self-interest rather than genuine compassion, these benefits can disappear as soon as the political situation changes, which in newly obtained states, is guaranteed to be a frequent occurrence.
It may sometimes seem like an impossible task to reconcile Machiavelli’s republican background with his support for such an opportunistic and exploitative system of government, but as Levy points out, these two sides of Machiavelli may not be as disparate as is traditionally assumed. Levy notes that, “[f]or Machiavelli, a ruthless and competent prince is superior to a well-meaning but weak republic, not only politically but morally.” The phrase the ‘ends justify the means’ is often misattributed to The Prince, but is still applicable to Machiavelli’s philosophy. He writes in Discourses that those who criticize Romulus for killing his brother and later his co-ruler Titus Tatius do not consider “the end by which Romulus had in committing these murders” and that “[i]t is a sound maxim that reprehensible actions may be justified by their effects, and that when the effect is good, as it was in the case of Romulus, it always justifies the action.” Machiavelli does not advocate that his prince act ruthlessly at all times and in all aspects of his life, but only when it is necessary.
However, particularly when a ruler is newly in power, it is often necessary to “kill the sons of Brutus”, in order to preserve their position. He writes, “a ruler who wishes to maintain his power must be prepared to act immorally when it becomes necessary.” Indeed, maintaining power seems to be the sole end in The Prince, so much so, that if the prince cannot hold the city, then Machiavelli advises him to destroy it all together, like Rome did with Capua, Carthage and Numantia. It is measures like these that earned Machiavelli epithets such as ‘murderous machiavel’, and which has cemented The Prince‘s reputation as the handbook of evil.
Even in less extreme examples, Machiavelli shows that his Prince should be concerned with the People’s welfare only insomuch as it allows him to hold power. As is often the case, the ones who suffer the most are also the poorest. Machiavelli recommends seizing land for new colonies from the “scattered and poor.” His logic is that colonization would affect fewer people than military occupation, and seizing land from those without the resources to object or retaliate avoids the widespread civil violence that occurs when trying to take property from the wealthy.
This emphasis on the greater good can be traced back to Machiavelli’s classical education. The classical texts Machiavelli reads, such as those by Livy and Cicero, value the good of society as a whole over the individual. The concept of individual rights, like the right to the property, or more specifically, the right to not have property seized by the government, is an invention of later natural rights philosophers. Thus, for a ruler to take the land of his underprivileged subjects would be acceptable so long as it provides stability for the rest of the principality. However, the fact remains that no matter how few people such policies would affect, in taking the city in the first place, the prince causes immense instability and great loss of life, as Machiavelli himself acknowledges, referring to “the countless other injuries involved in conquering a state.”
The Prince remains a singularly enigmatic text. Is Machiavelli’s prince a tyrant or just pragmatic, if not at times ruthless? Can The Prince truly be considered republican if it treats the People as means to an end? Or does is the prince’s motivation for respecting the People irrelevant and that matters is that treats them well and looks out for their interest? There are no easy answers for these questions. But far from simply molding men into despots, a close reading of The Prince reveals a nuanced text that promotes a system of government that, like modern democracies, requires the consent of the People. Certainly, in Machiavelli’s system, their consent does not make a government just, simply more stable, and certainly Machiavelli at times appears to underestimate the political will of the People. Nevertheless, it represents a crucial step forward in the realization of a government truly by and for the People.
Bernard, John D. Why Machiavelli Matters: A Guide to Citizenship in a Democracy. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
Levy, David N. Wily Elites and Spirited Peoples in Machiavelli’s Republicanism. London: Lexington Books, 2014.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Discourses. Edited by Bernard R. Crick. Translated by Leslie J. Walker. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1970.
—. Florentine Histories. Translated by Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
—. The Prince. Edited by Quentin Skinner. Translated by Russell Price. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
McCormick, John P. Machiavellian Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
 Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, ed. by Quentin Skinner. Trans by Russell Price (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), XV
 John D. Bernard, Why Machiavelli Matters: A Guide to Citizenship in a Democracy (Westport: Praeger, 2009), 1.
 David N. Levy, Wily Elites and Spirited Peoples in Machiavelli’s Republicanism (London: Lexington Books, 2014), 95.
 Levy, 95.
 See note 4. Levy argues that “[w]hile republics and princes are in some ways natural enemies, in other ways republics need princes.”
 John P. McCormick, Machiavellian Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 12.
 Machiavelli, Prince, IX.
 Machiavelli, Discourses, I.5.
 Machiavelli, Prince, IX.
 Levy, 102.
 Machiavelli, Discourses, III.6.
 Machiavelli, Prince, XIX.
 Ibid. “One of the best safeguards that a ruler has against plots is not being hated by the people”
 Also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449- 1492). He is not to be confused with his grandson, Lorenzo de’ Medici (1492-1519), to whom The Prince was dedicated.
 Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentine Histories, trans. by Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 326.
 Machiavelli, Discourses, I.2.
 See Mary G. Dietz. “Trapping The Prince: Machiavelli and the Politics of Deception.” The American Political Science Review 80, no. 3 (1986)
 Machiavelli, Prince, III.
 Ibid., IV. “Since you can neither satisfy nor destroy them [the nobles].”
 Bernard, 4.
 Machiavelli, Discourses, I.4.
 Machiavelli, Prince, IX.
 Machiavelli, Discourses, I.37. The Gracchi brothers were a pair of reformers who both met violent ends in the 2nd century B.C. Their attempted reforms and the violence they precipitated are often cited as the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.
 See Machiavelli, Discourses, I.2 for Machiavelli’s discussion and explanation of anacyclosis.
 Machiavelli, Prince, XIX.
 Ibid., VII.
 Ibid., XIX.
 Levy, 101.
 Machiavelli, Discourses, I.9.
 Ibid., III.3. Brutus was a Roman consul who condemned his own sons to death and witnessed their execution after they were discovered to be a part of a treasonous conspiracy to return the exiled royal family to power.
 Machiavelli, Prince, XV.
 Ibid., V. “Destroying cities is the only certain way of holding them”
 Ibid., III.