How Cults of Personality Shaped the Age of Revolution

How Cults of Personality Shaped the Age of Revolution

David A. Bell’s Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution gallops through the eighteenth century to trace the modern emergence of charismatic leadership when romanticism met revolutionary politics.

Washington’s legend gained especial purchase in France among enthusiasts for the American cause, many of whom volunteered to serve under Washington in the fight for independence. He became a larger-than-life figure drawn from heroic antiquity. The neoclassical turn in art captured a sensibility that bolstered Washington’s heroic standing. He offered a republican role model just as monarchy fell into crisis when the French state failed to manage either finance or governance. Revolution in France then brought forth new leaders as its votaries beheaded the king, abolished the monarchy, and unleashed a prolonged European war.

NAPOLEON BONAPARTE, a Corsican who left home to pursue a military career in France which began before the French Revolution, admired Paoli before meeting and then breaking with the older man. He also paid respects to Washington and ordered public mourning on the American’s death. By then, Napoleon had seized power over the French Republic as the most successful and politically astute of its generals. Unlike Paoli and Washington, he deliberately crafted his own legend from well-known victories. The army Napoleon led in Italy had two newspapers—one for his soldiers and the other for civilians at home—to build a personal following. He recruited artists like Jean-Antoine Gros and Jacques-Louis David to paint him as the republic’s heroic victor. Theatrical gestures bolstered emotional ties with soldiers that reinforced the carefully framed narrative of a virtuous genius committed to the common good. Who else could save the French Republic from the politicians who had failed it?

Napoleon filled a gap that involved more than a power vacuum from cycles of revolutionary unrest. Beheading Louis XVI and rejecting monarchy shattered a political culture focused on the king and opened space for men striving to make the world entirely anew. A Committee of Public Safety ruled France, but alongside its collective leadership, a personality cult grew around Maximilien Robespierre. His fall and execution at the height of a reign of terror discredited the idea of personal power even as the French continued seeking a replacement for the king as a focus for their loyalty. Bell notes that no civilian leader under the Directory that ruled from 1795 to 1799 drew a significant personal following. Instead, the army, opened to talent by the flight of noble officers into exile and protracted war, brought forth men who animated the public.

Charisma fostered by military success and careful publicity aided the coup that brought Napoleon to power as First Consul, a title drawn from Ancient Rome. Peace with Austria and then Britain consolidated his authority by ending the strains of what had become an inconclusive war. His rule ended revolutionary upheaval and normalized relations with the Catholic Church. But rather than following the lead of George Monck, the English general who managed Charles II’s restoration, or Washington’s example, Napoleon gathered power to himself as a new Caesar. His brother Lucien made the parallel explicit in a pamphlet he instigated. Republic gave way to empire as Napoleon leaned in.

Napoleon envisioned ruling “with absolute, unmediated, and unquestioned authority over an adoring people thanks to the sheer force of his personality.” Propaganda underpinned the regime by elevating his personal abilities and undoubted military triumphs. Those triumphs spared France the cost of prolonged war laid instead on the vanquished and provided spoils to reward loyal followers. Napoleon’s modernization of government and rewriting the legal code highlighted his genius as an enlightened ruler. The bond he had with admirers, however, could not be transferred to the empire as an institution that depended upon him for its legitimacy. Bell astutely points out this failure as a key weakness of “regimes founded on a single person’s charisma.” A true founding required more than Napoleon could provide.

THE DRAMA of his story, however, pales beside the unlikely one of the ex-slave who became the Spartacus of the Caribbean for liberating Saint-Domingue from the French and ending slavery there. Toussaint Louverture not only inspired his followers in Haiti but also won admiration from readers in Europe and America captivated by his exploits. Subsequent neglect reflects both Haiti’s tragic history and the limited sources for understanding his appeal to the Haitians he led. Bell focuses on the charismatic authority Louverture gained over Europeans and North Americans while noting how it consolidated, for a time, his power at home. A legend constructed in print aided leadership on the ground.

Real accomplishments and a compelling story underpinned the legend. A freed slave known for his horsemanship and later called the “Centaur of the Savannah,” Louverture had a key role in the 1791 slave revolt and kept it alive by organizing resistance to colonial authorities. Spain, which ruled the other half of the island and had joined the coalition against Revolutionary France, gave him a military commission, but a French officer persuaded him to switch sides as the republic had abolished slavery. Their relationship brought him to prominence as Louverture led his men in the colony’s defense and protected whites from vengeance by mixed-race troops. He helped restore stability in the name of a French republic now committed to emancipation.

Louverture died a captive in France after Napoleon betrayed him, but earlier French officials promoted him as a friend to both whites and the revolution. Like Napoleon to whom he was sometimes compared, he worked to shape a public image that bolstered his standing. Personal warmth reinforced the impression of his military prowess and writings arguing for black equality. Ironically, racial prejudice made his merits stand out all the more in comparison with other Haitians. Believing his own publicity, however, made Louverture overreach in ways that forced him from power as a French expedition arrived to bring the island under control. “Encouraged from the start by Europeans to see himself as a providential savior figure,” Bell argues, pushed him on an authoritarian path that ended in exile. His story, like Napoleon’s, showed how charismatic authority rested upon enthusiasm for the leader.

SIMON BOLIVAR, who twice sought refuge in Haiti during his protracted struggle for Latin American independence, made charismatic leadership the foundation of post-colonial governance. Equality ruled out monarchy and its trappings, but he also believed South America’s character precluded British or American-style constitutionalism and demanded instead firm governance. Legitimate power, Bolivar told the Haitian president-for-life Alexandre Pétion who had sheltered him, could derive only from the free acclamation of fellow citizens. Bell rightly emphasizes the word “acclamation” as Bolivar insisted that national unity rested upon the popular devotion that gave a leader the authority to pursue the public good without law constraining him. The example he left putting these principles into practice had a lasting impact.

The eldest son of a prominent Venezuelan family who lost both parents as a child, Bolivar showed little early ambition, but that changed after extended travel in Europe. Napoleon, along with Washington and the Haitian regime, shaped his own evolving understanding of power even as he rejected aspects of the models they provided. Like many autodidacts conscious of their limited formal education, Bolivar read widely. Indeed, Bell describes these men on horseback as engaging ideas at a level that puts today’s public figures to shame. Bolivar was the most intellectual among them, albeit in an idiosyncratic way refracted by the prism of South America’s culture and emphasized by its distinctiveness with European, African, and indigenous influences. How did Enlightenment thought and romantic aspirations fit that world? Earlier reforms to enhance royal authority had created a further split by replacing office-holding creole elites, like Bolivar’s family, with men appointed from Spain. During a visit to Rome in 1805, Bolivar swore never to rest until he had broken the chains that bound his homeland to Spain.

The opportunity for revolt came when Napoleon’s seizure of Spain in 1808 shattered imperial governance. Local committees in various colonies refused to acknowledge the main junta in Cadiz and pledged direct loyalty to the imprisoned Ferdinand VII. Francisco de Miranda, known as “the Precursor” for his revolutionary efforts, declared a Venezuelan republic in 1811. With Bolivar among its leading figures, the republic fought a vicious civil war against Venezuelans loyal to the Spanish crown. Similar uprisings occurred elsewhere in Latin America. Miranda’s surrender and imprisonment in Spain opened Bolivar’s path to become Venezuela’s liberator in 1813, but the republic fell a year later.

A string of victories after he returned from exile in late 1816 won Bolivar control over most of northern South America. Diplomacy had brought chieftains leading irregular troops under his command while careful use of the press built his reputation as supreme leader. Bolivar reached the peak of his career liberating Peru. Fame abroad consolidated his standing at home. The love of the people empowered Bolivar to rule for their benefit and unite a fractious society. Popular art and public ritual celebrated the liberator, but the acclamation that held him in power faded and resistance grew by the late 1820s. Bolivar faced opposition as the Gran Colombia he had established fragmented. Driven again into exile, he died of tuberculosis in 1830 at a town on the Caribbean shore.