It is arguable that no two legendary works could be more opposed than Machiavelli’s “The Qualities of a Prince” and the United States Declaration of Independence (DOI). There are similarities, strangely enough. Both works focus on the role and obligations of a prince, as both acknowledge such a ruler as a fixture in human society. Then, Machiavelli and the DOI examine the most important aspect of a prince; namely, how his rule affects the people. Lastly, the two works are beautifully crafted and articulate, and each expresses its thoughts with great confidence in the truth of them. Machiavelli, by virtue of the length of his work, also has a greater opportunity to expand on his reasoning, and he takes full advantage of this. His arguments are cold but they are rational and persuasive as well, and he offers a serious challenge to the resistance to the prince as expressed in the DOI. In the final analysis, however, it is the DOI that presents the most reasonable claims. As the following explores, the DOI surpasses Machiavelli’s “The Qualities of a Prince,” not by virtue of ethics, but by reason alone.
To understand why the DOI is a superior work of reason, it is first necessary to examine Machiavelli’s content and meaning. Famously, Machiavelli is a pragmatist, and of the most severe kind. He firmly believes in the right of a prince to govern absolutely. His concern, in fact, goes to a prince who may be tempted to surrender some of his authority, in order to please the people. Consequently, his “The Qualities of a Prince” is actually a lesson or set of instructions. To the author’s credit, there is a consistent emphasis on the prince as the safeguard of the people. More exactly, Machiavelli is constantly aware that the prince is one of many princes, looking out for the interests of many states. This being the case, the author insists that war must be the primary concern of the prince. If he is tempted to pursue peace, he makes himself weak in the eyes of his peers: “For among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised” (Machiavelli). In a world of conflict, this is highly sensible.
Similarly, the body of Machiavelli’s instructions go to the prince’s being “virtuous” only in terms of how his actions enhance his power and prestige. It is good to be liberal, for example, but only when everyone applauds the prince for being so; otherwise it is a waste of resources. Along these lines, Machiavelli demands that the prince be just in matters of property but, again, not for the sake of justice. Instead, abusing the property of his subjects will only bring hatred to him, and hatred is far more destructive to the prince’s power than being feared. Citing historical examples, Machiavelli truly does present a model of the exercise of great power. Even being true to his own word is not a requirement when doing so may weaken his authority: “A wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him” (Machiavelli). The author’s prince is then the perfect ruler, insofar as securing the welfare of the state and of his own power is concerned. He understands that appearances are everything as far as his people are concerned, and he should manipulate these in whatever ways best ensure his keeping control of the state.
What then weakens Machiavelli and promotes the DOI as superior reasoning is what may be called the foundation of the reasoning itself. In plain terms, Machiavelli’s ideal prince lies and commits any number of crimes because this is right for a ruler to stay in power, and consequently be enabled to protect the state. Unfortunately, this describes a tyrant as well, and it is important to realize that Machiavelli’s reasoning falls apart in one important way: he assumes his prince can abuse ethics without losing sight of his ultimate – and ethical – obligation to the welfare of the people. It is a remarkable and unrealistic expectation: “Therefore a Prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty” (Machiavelli). The author ignores the character of the prince as actually cruel, and it is this failure that is the core of the DOI, and which greatly outweighs any responsibility of a prince to protect the state. Put in different words, the failure of a prince to rule justly mandates the taking of power by the people, and because (another point overlooked by Machiavelli) the prince has no power without the people, and in any state.
The DOI succeeds beyond Machiavelli on many levels, and rationality is the foremost. It is no document only expressing outrage. It carefully and logically enumerates every offense committed by the King, which combine to demand a separation of states. It must be remembered that the DOI in no way seeks to take action against the King. This is a part of its superior reasoning, in fact, because there is no suggestion of retribution. All that is desired is freedom from an unfit prince. Machiavelli writes: “Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.” This ignores the probable consequences, which take form in the DOI. The document in fact directly confronts the Machiavellian agenda: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people” (Jefferson et al). Consequently, the DOI is superior by virtue of the pragmatism so often attributed to Machiavelli. In plain terms, it sees what he cannot see.
Machiavelli is typically viewed as deeply cynical, and this is fair. The problem lies in how cynicism is often mistaken for insight or wisdom. The greater reality here, as “The Qualities of a Prince” reveals, is that such cynicism easily misses crucial realities of rulership. It is exactly this failure that is addressed by the DOI. The prince may succeed through deceit and manipulation, but his power always derives from the people and the people, historically speaking, do not endure tyrants when the tyranny is too oppressive. Ultimately, then, the Declaration of Independence is superior to Machiavelli’s “The Qualities of a Prince,” not by virtue of ethics, but by reason alone.