Machiavelli, A Founding Father?

Machiavelli advocated centralization and concentration of power in The Prince while the authors of the Federalist Papers call for the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances.  The Prince, however, was a job application to Lorenzo di Medici the son of Piero di Medici.  Lorenzo had just inherited the principality of  Florence by settlement of a war with the Pope and his mercenaries ( Lerner xxvii) in 1512.

Machiavelli, was however, not as alien to the ideas of the Convention espoused by the various  Federalist Papers.   For much of his life he was staunchly republican in his outlook; the loss of the Florentine Republic and his position as an advisor to the powerful were powerful motivators to write a pro-monarchy text to regain his former position in the new state.( Lerner xxviii)

During this imposed exile from the halls of power Machiavelli’s works included the Discourses, an analysis of the Roman Republic, its power structure, and its defects.  In The Discourses Machiavelli is plainly pro-republic, though he also manages to treat the issue of a monarchy as well.  Machiavelli’s ideas are included to some degree in the Federalist Papers and the Constitution of the United States.

Machiavelli, Hamilton, Jay, and Madison would all find agreement in some of the most important aspects of the governing of a Republic; including the use of a standing army and the separation of powers.

Standing Army
The issue of a standing army was a touchy one for the convention.  The military was part of the executive power and a standing army could be abused.  Indeed he warns of this in Federalist #8 :

But in a country, where the perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to always be prepared to repel it, her armies are must be numerous enough for instant defence.”   The importance of the of the soldier is enhanced and the military state is elevated above the civil. In territories that are often the theatre of war , are unavoidably subjected to frequent violation of their rights; and by degrees the people come to consider the soldier their superiors. ( #8, p35)However , the Convention left the raising of regular troops solely under the authority of  Congress, and not the President.

Thus  they are under the control of the people; the Congress shall decide when a standing military is necessary; before a President has them to Command.  Hamilton says that the power to maintain a standing army in time of peace is a necessary caution given the fact that the Dominions of Britain and Spain border the fledgling nation.(#24, p120). Machiavelli would agree: “Such princes and republics of modern times as have no national troops for defense or attack ought well to be ashamed of it….” (prince 175) and I conclude, therefore, that no principality is secure without having its own forces” (Prince pg 52-53)

Separation of Powers

The separation of powers has been regarded as the hallmark of republican principles.  The separation of power among three distinct branches of government prevents any one person from acting as “legislator, judge, and executioner.”  In this way the abuse of power leading to Tyranny is avoided.

Machiavelli states much the same in The Discourses:

ALL those who have written upon civil institutions demon-

strate (and history is full of examples to support them) that

whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start

with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display

their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it. ( 117)

An early form of the system checks and balances was the formation of the Tribunes in the Roman Republic.  The Tribunes served to act as a sort of Legislative judge curbing and investigating alleged excesses by the Senators of Rome.( Machiavelli, “Discourses”, 118)  The Convention went further; it gave executive authority to the President, but withheld the purse, and it gave the Sword to Congress but required the Executive to wield it, and gave the Law to Congress but allowed both the Justice and Executive to disapprove it, gave Congress the means to remove an executive or a justice from office, but made the members of Congress answerable to the whole of the People.

Madison says that “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judicial in the same hands, whether of one, of few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of Tyranny.”(Carey lxx)   So both men believed that the separation of powers in a Republic is a fundamental principle defending the liberty of the citizen.     Both men also believed that the authority of the supreme executive should to some respect be stronger than that of the regional powers.

While the Federal system resembles more closely the “Prince and Baron” model warned against by Machiavelli; through well-thought out assignment of the powers to the Federal Government the position of the regional powers (Governors of the States) approach the “Prince and Servants” model advocated by him.  The Convention took the middle ground with the powers of the Executive (federal) being supreme only in its assigned sphere and that of the regional to be supreme within its own sphere.  Conflicts between States and the Federal authority were to be resolved by the Supreme Court.  Therefore no one State was in a position to help outside enemies to oppose the Federal government, but simultaneously the Federal authority could not rule by fiat as a Prince might have done.


So which model was more capable of maintaining order and curtailing disorder from below?  History seems to indicate that the careful checks and balances and the general separation of powers have been more enduring than a centralized Monarchy.  France proved the wisdom of the system of checks and balances when the National Assembly seized all power for the purpose of reforming the government.  This attempt, while its aims were noble, failed catastrophically and subjected the People of France to a series of tyrants, emperors, and various violations of their civil liberties for nearly a century.

Absolute Monarchy as Machiavelli said, is stable only so long as the ruler is ruthless when necessary and is either loved or feared by its people.  The problem seems to be that this merely builds up pressure in the people; who will begin to rebel the moment any hesitation by the monarch is shown either internally or through circumstance such as war.  This process happened on a world-wide scale and was experienced by Britain, France, Egypt, Iran, and may be happening now in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates of the Middle East.

Machiavelli states that all laws of liberty come from the open opposition in the legislature between two classes; the Nobles and the People.(Machiavelli,  “Discourses”, p119)  The constitution eliminated the Nobility but a similar problem of factions: Those who have power, those who want power, those who want to oppress.  In a similar fashion to the Tribunes of Rome the various divisions of power executive, legislative, judicial, the National, and the Regional allow open discussion and opposition without providing any overt favor to one faction over another;( Madison, “Federalist #10”, pp 42-48) ensuring that laws of liberty continue to come from the discourses of those vying for power. ( Madison, “Federalist #10”, pp42-48)

The Republican ideas that Machiavelli held and published in his works might well mark him as one of the founders of  the modern republic along with Locke, Montesque, and the other Enlightenment philosophers.

Works Cited

Carey, George W. and James McClellan. Reader’s Guide. The Federalist. By  Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. Indianapolis:  Liberty Fund 2001

Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist. Ed. George W. Carey and James McClellan. The Gideon Edition. Indianapolis:  Liberty Fund 2001

Learner, Max. Introduction.  The Prince and the Discourses. By Niccolo Machiavelli. New York: Random House 1950

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Prince”. Ed. E.R.P Vincent. Trans. Luigi Ricci. The Prince and the Discourses. New York: Random House 1950

Machiavelli, Niccolo. “The Discourses”.  Trans. Christian E. Detmold. The Prince and the Discourses. New York: Random House 1950




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