An immersive examination of why the age of democratic revolutions was also a time of hero worship and strongmen
In Men on Horseback, the Princeton University historian David A. Bell offers a dramatic new interpretation of modern politics, arguing that the history of democracy is inextricable from the history of charisma, its shadow self.
Bell begins with Corsica’s Pasquale Paoli, an icon of republican virtue whose exploits were once renowned throughout the Atlantic World. Paoli would become a signal influence in both George Washington’s America and Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. In turn, Bonaparte would exalt Washington even as he fashioned an entirely different form of leadership. In the same period, Toussaint Louverture sought to make French Revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality a reality for the formerly enslaved people of what would become Haiti, only to be betrayed by Napoleon himself. Simon Bolivar witnessed the coronation of Napoleon and later sought refuge in newly independent Haiti as he fought to liberate Latin America from Spanish rule. Tracing these stories and their interconnections, Bell weaves a spellbinding tale of power and its ability to mesmerize.
Ultimately, Bell tells the crucial and neglected story of how political leadership was reinvented for a revolutionary world that wanted to do without kings and queens. If leaders no longer rule by divine right, what underlies their authority? Military valor? The consent of the people? Their own Godlike qualities? Bell’s subjects all struggled with this question, learning from each other’s example as they did so. They were men on horseback who sought to be men of the people—as Bell shows, modern democracy, militarism, and the cult of the strongman all emerged together.
Today, with democracy’s appeal and durability under threat around the world, Bell’s account of its dark twin is timely and revelatory. For all its dangers, charisma cannot be dispensed with; in the end, Bell offers a stirring injunction to reimagine it as an animating force for good in the politics of our time.