Mr. Boswell Goes to Corsica

May 13, 2016

The surprising origins of modern democratic charisma

WHEN HISTORIANS WRITE ABOUT the 18th-century origins of modern politics, they usually set the scene in a great city, in the midst of a revolution. They might choose Philadelphia, in the sweltering summer of 1776, and describe the delegates to the Second Continental Congress hunched over a table signing the Declaration of Independence. Or they might look to Paris, in July of 1789, and tell how a crowd of ordinary Parisians, haphazardly armed but determined, confronted royal troops in front of the imposing fortress called the Bastille. One place they have not thought to single out, however, is the Mediterranean island of Corsica, in the early fall of 1765: not a prominent place and not a memorable year, or so it is usually thought. But in fact, it is here that we can trace, at least in part, the origins of a key element of modern political leadership: what is today referred to as “charisma.”

The word “charisma,” which originally meant a gift of divine grace, first entered the lexicon of political analysis a century ago, thanks to the great German social theorist Max Weber. He used it to denote a person’s ability to inspire exceptional devotion because of perceived personal magnetism. He contrasted it to the appeal of traditional, patriarchal rulers, which derives in the first place from their titles and ancestry. American journalists adopted the word in the mid-20th century and have applied it to political figures from John Kennedy to Donald Trump. Historians, meanwhile, have drawn on Weber’s concept in reference to everyone from George Washington to Hitler. But there has been relatively little research on how the phenomenon — which depends as much on the media in which charismatic individuals are represented as on the individuals themselves — first developed in its modern form. This is where Corsica comes in, and the story helps to illuminate the political world in which we live today.

On Oct. 13, 1765, a Scotsman landed on the northern tip of Corsica. He was just 25 years old, with a wide face; thick, well-groomed hair; and a ruddy drinker’s complexion. He was well dressed, and would have struck casual observers as just another well-off, dissipated young Briton guzzling his way through a Grand Tour of Europe. His name was James Boswell. Today, he is remembered as a great literary figure. His Life of Johnson virtually invented the modern art of biography. His vivid, intimately personal, sexually explicit London Journal, published for the first time only in 1950, provides an unforgettable portrait of a young man on the make and of his 18th-century milieu. But in 1765 he was still wholly unknown. Read more at Princeton Alumni Weekly.