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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Men on Horseback

The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution

David A. Bell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs and peep about

To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

—Julius Caesar, act 1, scene 2

When Shakespeare’s character Cassius used these words to describe Julius Caesar, he evoked one of the most durable myths in human culture: there are giants among us—titans, heroes, Übermenschen. They may be mortal, but something about them nonetheless seems miraculous and supernatural. They have extraordinary genius, vision, courage, strength, virtue, sheer magnetism. They seem to burn with a flame that leaves the rest of the human race looking cold and gray. In a word—and it is a word that literally means “a gift of divine grace”—they have charisma.

But read the rest of Cassius’s speech, which this febrile, anxious conspirator, he of the “lean and hungry look,” makes to an audience of one: his fellow Roman senator Marcus Junius Brutus. Cassius has not come to praise Caesar, and his description of Caesar as a colossus comes slathered in thick, pungent irony. For Cassius, Caesar is a man like any other, despite his oversize reputation. The idea that Caesar is a superman both alarms and disgusts him. He recalls episodes in which Caesar (already aging in the play) showed himself weak and helpless, like a “sick girl,” and concludes, in a tone of heavy sarcasm, “And this man is now become a god.” To call Caesar a god is blasphemy; to call him a king, treason. If Caesar lives, and the Romans raise him to royal or divine dignity, then the Republic, in Cassius’s view, will die. Caesar’s charisma is something both false and dangerous, and Cassius’s intention is to enlist the wavering Brutus, Caesar’s protégé, into the conspiracy against him.

And yet, as is so often true with Shakespeare, the words have a power that goes beyond the characters’ intentions. Cassius wants to ridicule Caesar, to bring the false god down to earth, to smash the idol. But his description of Caesar as a colossus bestriding the narrow world is magnificent, and when his barbed condemnations of Caesar have faded from memory, these words remain, a glimmering reminder of the myth that Cassius wants so desperately to expose as a lie.

Both the lure and the dangers of charisma pointed to by Cassius remain with us today. Around the world, in both democratic and autocratic states, there is a perennial longing for leaders with magnetic appeal and extraordinary abilities who can unite viciously divided communities, overcome apparently intractable problems, and by sheer force of personality give whole nations a new start. But charisma also generates anxieties—especially in democracies. Modern democracies pride themselves on being governments of laws. What will happen if we treat ordinary, limited, and perhaps even corrupt and criminal individuals as superhuman, making them into idols? What if the intensity of attraction leads whole countries to follow such leaders blindly, unquestioningly, even as constitutions are flouted, human rights trampled, minorities oppressed and killed, and nations marched off to war?

Democracies are particularly suspicious of charismatic leaders. Yet, paradoxically, the longing for such leaders acquired new importance, and a distinct new shape, during the very same period that witnessed the first stirrings of modern democracy: the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was during the moment of extraordinary intellectual fermentation that we now call the Enlightenment, and then in the great revolutions that washed across much of the Western world between 1775 and the 1820s, that the powerful forms of political charisma we are familiar with today took shape. These forms of charisma posed challenges to democracy but were also symbiotically linked to it. Indeed, from this period onward the stories of charisma and democracy have wound tightly around one another in their own political version of the double helix. They have done so thanks to a revolutionary transformation in the relationship between ordinary people and their political leaders that began in the eighteenth century but that has never been fully understood. That transformation is the subject of this book.

* * *

What, exactly, is charisma, and what does it mean to write its history? In popular usage, the word serves as a rough synonym for personal magnetism. A famous photograph of John F. Kennedy greeting enthusiastic admirers on the beach in Santa Monica in 1962 perfectly illustrates this notion—he seems to be drawing people to him as if by invisible threads (figure 1). Kennedy remains, even many decades after his death, the paradigmatic example of a charismatic politician, in the United States and well beyond.

But this popular notion is vague and elusive. As the magazine Psychology Today puts it, “charisma is often said to be a mysterious ineffable quality—you either have it or don’t have it.” The magazine goes on to propose that charisma in fact inheres in qualities such as “confidence, exuberance, optimism, a ready smile, expressive body language, and a friendly, passionate voice.”1 This definition may seem more useful, but it quickly breaks down as well. Not only are these qualities impossible to measure in any meaningful way, but a moment’s reflection suggests that certain combinations of them could easily strike observers as overbearing and obnoxious, rather than as charismatic.

A better approach starts from precisely this last point, and from the recognition that charisma is not just an individual quality but a relationship.2 People deserve to be called charismatic only if they are recognized as such—if others believe they possess extraordinary qualities and feel an intense emotional attraction to them, even (as the photograph of Kennedy hints) erotic desire.3 The ability to appear charismatic depends not only on the individual in question but on which traits are likely to elicit such beliefs and feelings within a particular community. In other words, it is a question not just of psychology but of culture. Some things may remain forever mysterious about the appeal of particular individuals: a Kennedy, a Garibaldi, even a Hitler. But we can analyze how they interacted with admirers, how admirers discussed and represented them, and which of their specific qualities, traits, and actions appeared most attractive and emotionally resonant.

Historians have mostly discussed charisma in the course of writing biographies of figures like Kennedy—or Hitler.4 But the subject deserves broader historical attention. If we want to understand why certain democratic regimes have given way to the rule of charismatic authoritarians, we cannot simply ask why the regimes failed. It is also a question of the positive appeal of charismatic leadership itself within a particular culture. By creating a direct, intense, emotional bond between a political leader and followers, charisma can enable the circumvention or even destruction of existing political rules and traditions. It can also create new rules and traditions. To quote the great German social theorist Max Weber—who first developed the modern concept of charisma more than a century ago—it is a “revolutionary force.”5

This book tells the story of how the revolutionary force of charisma developed during the Enlightenment and then helped shape four of the greatest revolutions in history: in the United States, France, Haiti, and Venezuela (whose break with Spain led to the independence of what eventually became six separate nations). The book does not offer a general history of these revolutions or full biographies of the principal figures it examines: George Washington, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture, and Simón Bolívar. It does not look at charisma in nonpolitical contexts. And it is not a theoretical inquiry into the nature of charisma, although readers interested in learning more about the concept are invited to turn to the short excursus at the end of the book entitled “Writing Charisma into History.” My focus is on the way charismatic political leaders came to dominate each of the four revolutions and the consequences for the societies in question.

What historians have often called “the age of democratic revolutions” appears in a somewhat somber light when examined from this angle.6 But then, despite the hopes of many participants, democratic constitutional rule did not actually fare very well in these revolutions. None of them fully delivered on the promise of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to secure the equal rights of “all men,” to say nothing of women. Very few of the original constitutions survived more than a few years. Very few of the new states avoided calamitous bouts of civil war, and in all of them, dictatorship had a compelling appeal. The revolutionary states did experience what could be called democratization, as millions of men and women began to participate in politics in a newly active, conscious manner. But this participation could take many forms and did not necessarily contribute to the foundation of stable democratic regimes. Indeed, it could include actively supporting authoritarian rulers.7

Perhaps it is only at this moment in the early twenty-first century, when the forward trajectory of democracy has come to seem anything but inexorable, that we can clearly glimpse this other side of the age of revolution. It is at moments like the present that we are forced to confront the reality that charismatic authoritarianism in no sense represents a backsliding, an atavistic and presumably temporary return to the days of warlords and kings, before the onward march of liberal democracy continues. A potentially authoritarian charisma is as modern a phenomenon as any of the liberal ideas and practices that arose in the age of revolution, including human rights and democratic republicanism and constitutional government. And it had many of the same cultural and intellectual sources. As the epigraph to the book reminds us, even for thinkers considered to be architects of modern democratic theory, the line between democracy and authoritarian one-man rule could be vanishingly thin.8 The study of charisma reveals this darker potential of the age of revolution and of the Enlightenment culture out of which it emerged.

* * *

The book argues that while political charisma has existed throughout history, its modern forms started to develop only in the mid-1700s. In previous centuries, in Europe and the European overseas empires, political power had a very different visage from what we know today. It was intensely personal but largely concentrated in monarchs whose legitimacy derived from royal inheritance and from the blessing of established churches. While some rulers—Elizabeth I of England, Louis XIV of France—certainly had a strong charismatic appeal, their rule did not depend on it. Even Oliver Cromwell, the parliamentarian and military commander who rose to supreme power during the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, attracted a large and passionate following above all because his supporters saw him as the chosen instrument of divine Providence, not because they believed he had innate talents that set him high above other men.9 Nor did Cromwell manage to establish a lasting regime. For literate men and women in the early eighteenth-century West, the most prominent examples of leaders who had come to power thanks to their charismatic appeal were not their own contemporaries but ancient Romans and Greeks, who belonged to a seemingly closed chapter of history. The most prominent of these ancient figures was Julius Caesar.

But in the later eighteenth century, the tectonic plates of Western political culture shuddered and broke apart. Even before minutemen and redcoats opened fire on one another at Lexington in 1775, an intellectual and cultural revolution of sorts had already created the conditions under which figures without royal pedigrees or religious sanction could rise to supreme power on the basis of their charisma. On the one hand, powerful new ideas of human equality were circulating, according to which even the most ordinary of men—although not yet women—might well possess greater talent, leadership ability, and moral worth than nobles and princes. The century’s most audacious writers argued that it was the worthiest, most talented men who should rule. Meanwhile, a media revolution was under way. Striking changes in the world of print were making it possible for men and women from the most ordinary backgrounds to achieve unprecedented fame. They could become, to use a word invented in the period, celebrities.10 Periodicals reported on them on a daily basis—and not only on their public actions but on their private lives as well. Engraving technology made their faces (or, at least, what artists imagined they looked like) familiar to a broad public. And new literary styles associated with that dizzily developing genre, the novel, helped authors to present them as familiar, approachable characters with whom readers could imagine a close, even intimate connection.

Media revolutions tend to have powerful political consequences, because they so fundamentally alter the way ordinary people and their rulers perceive and relate to one another. The invention of the printing press in pre-Reformation Europe, and the invention of radio and television in the twentieth century, had such consequences. We are living today through yet another media revolution with enormous political consequences. In the age of revolution, similarly profound effects followed from new forms of print media, new genres and styles, and an exponential increase in the sheer amount of print in circulation. The changes played out unevenly across the different revolutionary states. But even charismatic leaders in largely illiterate countries were still creatures of print. They wrote constantly for publication and knew the importance of doing so. They paid close attention to the way newspapers, books, pamphlets, and engravings portrayed them. Their written correspondence bore the mark of prevailing literary styles. It was in large part through these engagements with print that they forged their bonds with their followers.

And these bonds, the book goes on to argue, deeply shaped the course of political events. In revolutionary regimes that were still fragile, untested, and forbiddingly strange to men and women raised in monarchies and empires, the ability to feel a bond of trust with leaders counted heavily indeed. Charisma mattered. It came to matter even more as the revolutions continued and frail new constitutional structures wavered and sometimes collapsed. In such moments of turmoil, the lure of charismatic leadership came to loom over all political life. No leader enjoyed as enthusiastic a degree of support as his admirers liked to boast, but each could still count on a base of genuinely fervent, indeed sometimes fanatical, followers.

It was in fact widely believed that the survival of the new states required powerful, charismatic leaders linked to citizens by strong emotional bonds that knit the entire body politic together into an indivisible whole, the way monarchs had done in earlier states. Was the mere “consent of the governed” enough to hold together fractious states, most of them new creations, riven by regional, ideological, and in some cases racial divisions? Such states needed to be “governed more by sentiments and affections than by orders and laws,” as an acolyte of Napoleon Bonaparte put it. They needed what Simón Bolívar called “acclamation,” a collective enthusiasm that served, in his view, as “the sole legitimate source of human power.” They needed what a well-known British writer called, in reference to an earlier charismatic hero, a “despotism founded … on the affection of love.”11 European monarchs certainly boasted of their subjects’ love, but they never relied on it as the basis of their legitimacy. The intense emphasis now placed on the emotional bond between rulers and ruled was something new, and it meant that the revolutionary leaders were in no sense simply substitute kings. Their political authority was of a fundamentally different sort.

Contemporaries acknowledged this difference. They did not, however, treat the new form of charismatic leadership as something wholly novel. Instead, most often they sought to legitimize the break with the recent past by appealing to a different, more distant past and depicting the new leaders as figures out of classical antiquity. Just as classically republican and democratic forms of government appeared to be reawakening in the Atlantic revolutions after a sleep of centuries, it now also seemed possible that new versions of Greek and Roman heroes could rise to power.12 In country after country, revolutionaries looked at one another and asked: Which one of us is Caesar? Which one Brutus? (In the same way, Russian revolutionaries in a later century would ask, Which one of us is Robespierre? Which one Bonaparte?) The revolutionary states revived Roman titles such as “consul,” “senator,” even “dictator” (an official granted temporary extraordinary powers). They crowned leaders with Roman-style laurel leaves and paraded them through Roman-style triumphal arches. Such language and practices came easily to cultures where formal education still consisted in large part of immersion in the Greek and Roman classics. Early modern European societies had always invoked the authority of antiquity, but the revolutionaries did so far more intensely and with far more literal intent, almost as if they could actually re-create ancient republics. During one debate in the French revolutionary assembly, a deputy extolled the progress that the human race had made since antiquity. Another immediately shot back, “If we have not been either Spartans, or Athenians, we should become them.”13

In reality, the world had changed far too greatly for the revolutionaries to revive anything close to genuine ancient political forms. True, the unanimous “acclamation” described by Bolívar recalled ancient Greek practices of collective decision-making that relied on “shouts and murmurs” rather than actual vote-counting, but the context of Greek city-states was far removed from that of large territorial states in the age of gunpowder and print.14 The classical idiom did, though, have important consequences for how the new forms of charismatic authority took shape—not least because, as Shakespeare’s play suggested, the name of Caesar could arouse such deep currents of suspicion and fear. The tradition of classical republican thought revived in the Renaissance warned sharply of the dangers of personal political ambition, what Shakespeare’s Mark Antony called that “grievous fault” for which Caesar had so grievously answered. No story out of Roman history had greater political purchase than that of the ambitious Caesar leading his legions across the Rubicon toward Rome and destroying the Republic. Classical republicanism taught that “government … is an empire of laws, not of men” (James Harrington, 1656), and throughout the revolutionary period, writers and politicians influenced by it warned sternly against treating fallible mortals as demigods.15 Some even accused their fellow citizens of projecting outsize hopes and desires onto mere “idols.” A dialectical tension played out between the lure of charismatic leaders and suspicions of the same. The classical idiom shaped both sides of it.

* * *

The period’s charismatic leaders, needless to say, were not all alike. Most came from the upper levels of their societies, but Toussaint Louverture was born into bondage, the son of Africans violently transported across the Atlantic to the hell of a Caribbean slave colony. Napoleon Bonaparte was a ceaseless self-promoter who sometimes seemed to spend almost as much energy celebrating his victories as he did winning them. George Washington, although scrupulously concerned about his reputation, received overly effusive praise with distinct unease and loathed familiarity. While all the men engaged with the great intellectual currents of the day, to an extent that would put virtually any twenty-first-century politician to shame, only Simón Bolívar qualifies as a genuinely original political thinker.

Still, many qualities remained largely the same from country to country and from decade to decade. Indeed, each figure in turn provided a model for the others. Bonaparte explicitly compared himself to Washington on many occasions. Louverture was called both the Bonaparte and the Washington of the Antilles. Bonaparte’s coronation made a lasting impression on the young Bolívar, who would later sometimes revel in the sobriquet “the Washington of South America.”16 These connections, and this modeling, which have attracted surprisingly little attention from previous historians, will serve as a major thread through the chapters that follow. Indeed, I will argue that images of charismatic leadership played just as important a role as formal political doctrines in helping revolutionary movements spread across the Atlantic world. In this sense, this book is very much a transnational history, although one that sets transnational relations and exchanges within the context of shared cultural and political developments.17

Three qualities common to all the leaders stand out in particularly high relief. They reflect a shared experience of revolutionary civil strife, large-scale war, and the founding or refounding of states. In the age of revolution, only figures who possessed these qualities were in a position to receive the sort of charismatic “acclamation” Bolívar described.

First, and crucially, these leaders were all, like Caesar, military heroes, renowned for their victories, their military talent, their stamina, and their sheer physical courage. Washington, Bonaparte, Louverture, and Bolívar all came to prominence as army officers who led men in battle personally, risking their lives and winning notable engagements. Each had a reputation for military expertise, with Bonaparte in particular considered, quite accurately, a true military genius, one of the greatest commanders in history. Although some currents of Enlightenment thought condemned war as destructive and futile, other, equally powerful currents defended it as a positive good and indeed exalted it in a way that even the most bellicose of traditional monarchs had not dared do. The revolutionary leaders all embodied this vision of war as potentially regenerative and sublime.

War and military leadership played into the second common quality as well. Each of these men was widely hailed as a redeemer who had arisen in the midst of frightful crisis and supposedly saved his people from otherwise certain destruction. Washington, in this view, single-handedly saved the newborn United States from defeat at the hands of the British. Bonaparte saved France from the chaos and strife unleashed in the French Revolution. Toussaint Louverture saved his fellow former slaves, who had carried out the largest and most successful slave revolt in history, from defeat and re-enslavement. Simón Bolívar saved South America from reconquest by the Spanish and from civil war. In each case, salvation was credited both to the men’s supposedly extraordinary military skill and also to their ability to inspire and unify entire populations behind them.

Finally, each of the figures was seen as a founder, a person who either brought a new nation into being or, in Bonaparte’s case, so thoroughly “regenerated” it as to amount to the same thing. Admirers referred to each as the “father of his country,” by which they did not just mean that he governed with a father’s tender care (the traditional sense of the term) but that he had effectively given it life. Each man had a close connection with his country’s written constitution—in Washington’s case from presiding over the American Constitutional Convention, in the three others’ as the effective author of the document. This position as founder also gave each of them a way of appearing to stand above his country’s divisions and partisan politics. Doing so could help foster the emergence of a political culture in which all parties had a commitment to a common good, but it could also encourage followers to consider the leader himself above the law.

As the importance of military heroism and the role of the father should make clear, these forms of political charisma also came deeply bound up with prevailing ideals of masculinity. Women can of course possess political charisma. Elizabeth I of England offers one of the greatest historical examples. In the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great of Russia made strenuous attempts to pose as a redemptive figure who elicited deep love from her subjects.18 But in the eighteenth century it was becoming more difficult, not less, for women to be perceived as charismatic saviors. Women were widely seen as lacking the sheer vital strength and energy necessary to accomplish great deeds—especially sublime military ones. Nor could women become the object of passionate, intimate connections with ordinary supporters—even purely imagined connections—without seeming to sacrifice their modesty and decency.19 Significantly, Western European accounts of Catherine II tended to oscillate between praise of her unusually “masculine” characteristics and voyeuristic condemnations of her sexual indecencies.20

In short, the paradigmatic charismatic leaders of the period were, as the title of this book has it, “men on horseback”—masculine military heroes riding in to save their states from destruction and, indeed, to give these states a new birth. The phrase “the man on horseback” itself has long served as a metaphor for a military leader seeking political power.21 But in the case of these leaders, it also had a quite literal meaning, for equestrian skills contributed powerfully to their charismatic appeal. Today, with cavalry long vanished from the battlefield and horseback riding largely associated with racing and the sports of a privileged elite, we easily forget just how impressive the spectacle could be of a commander in a brightly colored uniform wielding a heavy, sharpened sword from atop a warhorse that could weigh as much as twelve hundred pounds and cost many times a skilled artisan’s annual salary. It is no coincidence that Thomas Jefferson remembered Washington as “the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.”22 Louverture gained a reputation before the Haitian Revolution for breaking wild horses by leaping fearlessly onto their backs.23 Bolívar could reputedly stay in the saddle longer than any of his soldiers.24 Bonaparte was actually a mediocre rider but did everything he could to disguise the fact. It is no coincidence that the most famous image ever produced of him, by the painter Jacques-Louis David, shows him on a magnificent, rearing cavalry horse during his crossing of the Alps in 1800 (he actually undertook the journey on a mule, wrapped in a heavy blanket). When the British engraver Samuel William Reynolds sought to honor Simón Bolívar in 1824, he copied David’s image down to the smallest details (figures 2 and 3).25

As much as possible, the book will look not only at such representations but also at the way the followers and admirers of these charismatic leaders received and understood them. And this raises a tricky question. How can we know what these men and women really thought and felt? People may have cheered, voted for, or even fought for a charismatic leader, but they could have been coerced. Even diaries and private correspondence, which I have drawn on wherever possible, do not provide unmediated glimpses of inner thoughts and desires. Even in the most intimate forms of writing, people still followed established conventions and wrote what they felt was expected of them. They could lie to their friends and family, even to themselves. Much of the evidence in this book comes not from such private sources but from the much more copious public ones: newspaper articles, political pamphlets, printed biographies (many heavily fictionalized), printed memoirs, poetry, speeches, and visual sources (mainly engravings). Much of it was produced for what we would now call propaganda purposes.

We cannot know for certain what the people of the age of revolution thought and felt, but these sources, taken together, can still give us important clues. If we cannot know for sure how people understood what they read, we can determine, at least in part, what they liked to read best. We cannot know for sure how people reacted to propaganda, but we can trace, from the evolution of the material, what the propagandists themselves thought worked best. And while we may never know what emotions people experienced, the sources do give a sense of what people were expected to feel and what they tried to make one another feel. It is out of such shards and fragments that all histories of this sort are constructed.

It is important to emphasize here that emotions, like everything else, have a history. They obviously have a physiological basis as well, but culture shapes the way people understand, process, and control their emotional reactions, including how they come to consider some reactions natural and legitimate and others shameful or harmful. Historians and psychologists even speak of different “emotional regimes,” which can succeed one another in historical time.26 Historians of France have recently led the way in exploring the role of emotions in the age of revolution.27 In this book, I will use the sources as best I can to show how the emotion of love, and claims about it, powerfully contributed to the development of modern charismatic leadership.

Emotional regimes crossed the boundaries of literacy, but because of the nature of the source material, this book still deals, not entirely but to an unavoidably large extent, with people who could read and had access to printed matter. In the case of Toussaint Louverture, for instance, we have more direct evidence about how literate white colonists and soldiers reacted to him than we do about the reactions of the former slaves, a majority of them African born, and most illiterate, who fought under his command. To the extent that we have reliable information about this latter group—which vastly outnumbered the former—I will provide it. But the form of charisma about which we know the most in this period took shape and operated through print media, which aimed in the first instance at the literate segments of society. And as noted, the charismatic leaders, very much including Louverture, were themselves shaped by engagements with the written word.

It would also be wrong to equate the literate segments of society simply with “elites.” By the end of the eighteenth century, most adult men in Britain’s American colonies, and also in many French and British cities, were literate, as well as were a majority of women. All but the poorest of them had access to some printed material, whether by purchase or by frequenting coffeehouses and libraries that made it available to visitors. Everywhere, including in Haiti and South America, the circulation of printed matter exploded during the revolutionary period itself. Furthermore, illiterate people could hear speeches. They could hear literate relatives, friends, and neighbors read printed material out loud and follow campaigns on maps, as in Louis-Léopold Boilly’s painting of a French family following the bulletins of Napoleon’s Grande Armée (figure 4). They could view the printed images that circulated in large numbers. An extraordinary engraving from the 1820s shows a black or mixed-race couple in Venezuela holding up a picture of Simón Bolívar to their young children (figure 5). The caption reads: “Here is your liberator.”28 In short, ordinary people, including illiterate ones, could follow, and actively participate in, the extraordinary intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment and the age of revolution. They could conceive of overturning ancient customs and arrangements and rebuilding their society on new principles. And even before the revolutions began, they could look to a small number of apparently extraordinary men—charismatic men—as saviors.

Copyright © 2020 by David A. Bell