Men on Horseback: The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution

Farrar. May 2020. 352p. ISBN 9780374207922. $30. HIST
Bell (Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions, Princeton Univ.; Napoleon: A Concise Biography) examines the careers of five leaders from the 1760s to the 1820s: Corsica’s Pasquale Paoli (1725–1807), George Washington (1732–99), Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743–1803), and Simón Bolívar (1783–1830). His thorough analysis of these leaders during eras of revolutions shows how people in various parts of the world sought a new source of legitimacy, personalizing and epitomizing values they sought in their nations into single leaders, each of whom adopted a larger-than-life, charismatic nature. This is a broad brush, but a solid study of a new political phenomenon: the emergence of the hero as political leader and public acclamation as their source of confirmation. This new way of envisioning politics required changes in how subjects were portrayed, such as a hagiography (e.g., George Washington chopping down the cherry tree), where biographical accuracy mattered less than the personal connection between reader and subject. A new universe emerged, where leaders were celebrities as well as heads of state.
VERDICT Carefully argued, Bell’s study should appeal to history lovers at all levels of expertise.
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