Charisma and the Sacralization of American Politics, 1870-1940

Jeremy Young

Welcome to Jeremy C. Young, our guest blogger! Jeremy is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

The letter began simply enough.  “Dear Friend & Brother,” wrote S. B. Morris of Homer, New York, on October 31, 1896, “I am forty five years old. … I am a traveling salesman & travel all over N.Y. state.”  Next, Morris proceeded to the reason for his letter: a description of his recent conversion experience.  “On the night of August 2d while in my room in the city of Schenectady N.Y.,” he explained, “a convicting Power fell on and I was Brought to believe that you were advocating a righteous cause.”  After describing the aftermath of his conversion, Morris offered his correspondent a Christian blessing.  “Now I will close my letter,” he concluded, “by saying – may God bless you and keep you for His namesake.”

What made the letter surprising was that Morris wrote it not to a Protestant evangelist but to Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.  “From that night (Aug 2) until now I have done all I could to help your election,” Morris declared proudly, “and I am longing for the 3d of November when I can cast my ballot for you.”  Similarly, the “righteous cause” Morris mentioned was not Christianity but democracy, “the verry [sic] cause that Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln taught us.”  When Morris was not discussing his political conversion or using religious language, he was describing how he had disrupted a political meeting of William McKinley supporters by loudly championing his candidate.  “I yelled for Bryan and I got struck several times on the head,” Morris reported with satisfaction, “but I am still shouting for Bryan just the same.”

One of the central questions I had to answer in researching my book on turn-of-the-century charisma was how to determine whether a given leader was actually charismatic.  Charisma is an enigmatic quality, both ineffable and deeply subjective; who was I to say that Theodore Roosevelt was more or less charismatic than, say, Woodrow Wilson?  Ultimately, I realized that I was asking the wrong question; charisma was not a characteristic of leaders, but a relationship between them and their followers.  By observing how Americans described their leaders, then, I could let followers do the work of identifying charisma.

Consider two letters, written eight years apart.  “I have read with a good deal of interest,” wrote William F. Ryan to presidential candidate Benjamin Harrison in 1888, “every speech that you have made, and am free to say they are full of good American common sense. … I sincerely hope that you will be successful in the coming election for I think it essential to our country’s success.”  In 1896, Alphonse J. Bryan wrote William Jennings Bryan (no relation) a very different missive.  “I have watched…this campaign,” wrote Alphonse Bryan, “and its success was ordained by God, before it commenced. … I believe you the second Moses, not of Egypt but of America, who will lead back the poor blind oppressed laborer…to the road of Salvation. … When a man sees a Savior…elected for President then there is indeed cause for joy.”

In the hundreds of letters I read over the course of my research, the language of Protestant revivalism was an infallible indicator of the charismatic leader-follower relationship.  Letters that described merely a political affinity read much like Ryan’s: affable and encouraging, but largely unemotional.  Letters that described a charismatic emotional connection, on the other hand, drew heavily on the language of religious experience.  Comparisons with Moses, Jesus Christ, and other biblical leaders were commonplace.  Other writers openly declared Bryan to be a divine agent: “I feel (I Know) God sent Christ to save sinners, Abraham Lincoln to free the 4,000,000 black slaves and God has sent you to save 50,000,000 white slaves,” O. C. Coulter proclaimed without a hint of irony.

Bryan was not the only politician to receive this sort of letter.  In a letter to Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, Ethel Truman praised the leader’s “Christ mind” and assured him, “You are spiritual you are eternal;” after one of his speeches, she insisted, “I saw the Angel of Life hold your hand!”  “Comrade Jesus walks beside [you]; / and we – we throng behind,” wrote Miriam Allen De Ford in a 1920 poem about Debs.  Meanwhile, author Sara Cleghorn treated Debs’ apparel as a veritable saintly relic: “I wish,” she wrote, “when the coat wears out that Eugene Debs wore at his trial, I could have a little piece of it to keep in my Bible.”  African American leaders Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey received similar treatment.  “Garvey was sort of a god, an idol,” recalled UNIA member John Rousseau; “I was fully aware that he was our savior.”  “You are our Moses,” wrote W. J. Cansler to Washington, “destined to lead our race out of the difficulties and dangers which beset our pathway and surround us on all sides.” 

Why did charismatic followers think of politicians in this way?  Could they really not tell the difference between political leaders and Biblical ones, between the temporal and the spiritual?  Despite Alphonse Bryan’s protests to the contrary, it is doubtful he truly believed Bryan was a “Savior” in the way Jesus was.  More likely, followers turned to religious language in an attempt to come to grips with their own emotional experience.  Charismatic followership introduced into their lives emotions they had never felt before – emotions, in many cases, that they had never seen anyone experience outside of a religious setting.  They described their leaders in religious terms not to accentuate the mystery of charisma, but to dispel it: to connect the unfamiliar experience of charismatic followership with the familiar one of religious conversion.

This sacralization of followership, this blurring of the lines between the secular and the sacred, was the defining characteristic of American charismatic movements.  Charisma was not religion for followers, but it could feel quite similar; charismatic political interactions seemed suffused with spiritual energy.  “If you win this battle,” J. E. Tibbins wrote to Bryan, “you will not only be President, but you will be King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.”  Tibbins knew Bryan was not literally Jesus Christ, but for many turn-of-the-century Americans, the difference between the two did not seem so great.


Popular Posts