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.

Bolivar bequeathed South America a legacy of charismatic military leaders backed by their troops competing for power. It put a populist spin in practice on a combination of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the general will and the prestige military victory conferred. Bolivar thought leadership exercised by great men like him empowered by popular devotion could take the place of the republican virtue he believed his countrymen lacked. But government founded on personal will rather than law or monarchical legitimacy made for instability. Reliance on a charismatic leader to unite a fractious people became the tragic flaw of Latin America that impeded the emergence of political order and governance under impartial law.

THE AGE of revolution provided the environment for the charismatic leadership Bell explores to develop. Romanticism gave the hero worship it involved fuel to burn even as it inspired movements that created heroes. Passionate commitment, or feelings in a slightly lower key, fashioned a personal bond even over great distances as admirers made leaders the repository for their hopes. Much the same happened later with “the people” or “the nation” as a collective protagonist in history’s supposed onward march. Charismatic leadership involved more than just men on horseback who evoked figures from classical antiquity in ways that highlighted the seeming inadequacies of the more recent past. It also operated within a widening sphere of public debate even before mass politics while anticipating the twentieth-century phenomenon of political religion that cast revolutionaries and dictators as secular prophets.

Weber’s contemporary and fellow sociologist Emile Durkheim missed something important by dismissing charisma as “society creating sacred things out of ordinary ones” by elevating men who capture “the principle aspirations that move it.” His take has a passive tone at odds with historical experience. One need not share Thomas Carlyle’s view of history as the biography of great men to recognize that individuals do shape events, often decisively and in unexpected ways, as Donald Trump has recently demonstrated. Charismatic leaders translate accomplishment into acclamation, typically using media both old and new to connect with followers. Persuasion and seizing the moment to act translates accomplishments into the acclaim that confers authority, at least so long as it can be maintained.

Charismatic leadership guided reform movements along with revolutions. Andrew Jackson, a true man on horseback, led and symbolized a populist wave that changed the United States in the late 1820s. Two other lawyers had a similar impact across the Atlantic. Henry Brougham deployed a blend of parliamentary oratory, courtroom success, and deft management of the press to build a coalition behind political reform that transformed Britain. The political realignment he crafted established the Liberal Party as a dominant force until the 1880s. Daniel O’Connell mobilized Irish Catholics during the same years into a force that compelled Britain to end religious qualifications excluding them from the political nation. He transformed an elite-dominated protest movement for Catholic Emancipation into a mass organization committed to working within constitutional politics and the representative system. They present a different kind of charismatic leadership from Bell’s subjects, but one equally important to understanding the modern world.

William Anthony Hay is a Professor of History at Mississippi State University and is currently writing a history of British strategy in the American Revolution.