John P. McCormick

Department of Political Science

 The University of Chicago 


The People's Princes: Machiavelli, Leadership and Liberty



The Prince and Discourses are replete with episodes, often vividly conveyed, where a republic’s senators or wealthiest citizens are physically confined and sometimes slaughtered.  Machiavelli’s attitude in such instances ranges from apparent admiration for the perpetrator, as in the case of Clearchus of Heraclea, to qualified criticism as expressed by his appraisal of Agathocles the Sicilian.  It is clear how such recourse might be useful to aspiring princes: Machiavelli insists that they must eliminate potential rivals among the elite and that they ought to gain favor with the common people.  More curiously, however, Machiavelli also intimates that such action, or something very much like it, may be necessary for the preservation and reformation of republics.  He often affiliates such behavior with the recurrent need to punish or eliminate “the sons of Brutus”; grandi, who are driven by an appetite to oppress, and who bitterly resent the people’s liberty and political participation in republics.  My paper tries to make sense of these episodes and deciphers the circumstances when, on Machiavelli’s view, physically subduing the senate keeps republics along, what he calls, “the way of freedom” and, on the contrary, when they facilitate the designs of potential tyrants.  According to Machiavelli, inevitable conflicts arise in every republic between the grandi and the popolo, between those who wish to dominate and those who desire not to be dominated.  Therefore, both aspiring princes and republican magistrates will often find themselves caught between “the insolence of the aristocrats” and “the rage of the people.”  His advice is always to favor the latter, and suppress the former, but how can this be accomplished without setting a republic down the path of tyranny?  There are many lessons that Machiavelli offers to princes or magistrates in securing their power with the people and against the nobles; and to peoples by securing their liberty in supporting the right kind of leaders.