In 1763, James Boswell was accompanied by his new friend Samuel Johnson to Harwich, from which the young Scot then travelled to Utrecht in the Netherlands. There he was supposed to study law, which he did with great energy. But he also energetically whored, proposed marriage to eligible young ladies of fortune, and traveled about Europe making the acquaintance of the great and good. One of these was Rousseau; and it was he who suggested that Boswell travel to Corsica, and visit the Corsican revolutionary Pasquale Paoli. So Boswell did, and the book the wrote about his experiences and Paoli made Boswell’s career, and made Pasquale Paoli an 18th century celebrity on either side of the Atlantic.
For David Bell, Boswell’s biography of Paoli is a significant moment of transition. Here was a man engaged in a democratic revolution, at the beginning of an age of revolutions fighting to establish democratic republics in North America, Europe, the Caribbean, and South America. Yet those revolutions were led by leaders who were literally men on horseback, and who had either nascent or actual cults of personality constructed around them by ardent admirers and zealous followers. So democratic republics, militarism, the cult of the dictator, all emerged simultaneously. For Bell, “the history of democracy is inextricable from the history of charisma, its shadow self.”
David Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions at Princeton University. He has previously written or co-edited seven books; Men on Horseback: Charisma and Power in the Age of Revolutions, is his eighth, and it is the subject of this week’s conversation.
For Further Investigation
David A. Bell, “What Donald Trump and George Washington Have in Common: Charisma doesn’t have to be earned for its impact on democratic politics to be very real.” Foreign Policy, August 17, 2020.