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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.

Copyright © 2020 by David A. Bell