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The Architects of Nationalism: 10 Figures Who Shaped the 19th Century World

The 19th century was the age of nationalism. From Europe to the Americas to Asia, the 1800s witnessed the rise of nationalist ideologies and movements that redefined notions of political community and reshaped the global map. "The world of the 19th century was a world of empires," historian Benedict Anderson wrote in his landmark study Imagined Communities. "The world of the late 20th century is a world of nation-states." This epochal transformation was the work of countless activists, intellectuals, and political leaders. Here are ten of the most influential.

1. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

The French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was not just one of the greatest military commanders in history, but also an early proponent of French nationalism. As he sought to expand France‘s "natural borders" through conquest, Napoleon invoked the revolution‘s ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity to justify French expansionism as a means of spreading enlightened values. "We must take advantage of the moment for giving France the most suitable boundaries for her welfare and her glory," he declared in 1797.1

Yet the very nationalist sentiments Napoleon helped unleash soon inspired resistance to French domination across Europe. The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, for instance, issued his famous Addresses to the German Nation in 1808 calling for a united German resistance to the "tyrant from Corsica."2 Napoleon‘s conquests spurred the development of nationalist movements from Spain to Russia, setting the stage for his ultimate downfall.

2. Simón Bolívar (1783-1830)

Simón Bolívar was the most prominent leader of Latin America‘s independence movements against Spanish colonial rule in the early 19th century. Nicknamed "El Libertador" (The Liberator), the Venezuelan military and political leader helped lead a series of revolutions that liberated much of South America, including the nations of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia (which is named after him).

Bolívar was a complex figure who combined Enlightenment ideals with a ruthless militarism. "A state too extensive in itself, or by virtue of its dependencies, ultimately falls into decay," he wrote in his famous 1815 Jamaica Letter.3 While critical of European colonialism, Bolívar was also skeptical of democracy and favored a strong centralized state. Still, he is revered today as a founding father of Latin American independence, with numerous monuments and places named in his honor across the region.

3. Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872)

The Italian journalist and revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini was one of the key architects of the Risorgimento, the 19th century movement for Italian unification and independence. Mazzini founded a number of influential political organizations like Young Italy advocating for a united Italy, which was then divided into various states dominated by foreign powers such as Austria.

"We are the sons of the God of all Nations," Mazzini declared in his 1840 tract On the State and Rights of the People. "All men are our Brethren – all Nations our Sister Nations."4 Mazzini‘s tireless campaigning helped lay the ideological foundations for Italian nationalism, though the Kingdom of Italy proclaimed in 1861 fell short of his radical republican vision. His writings would prove hugely influential on later nationalist and revolutionary movements worldwide.

4. Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894)

Lajos Kossuth was the foremost leader of the Hungarian nationalist movement in the mid-19th century. A lawyer, journalist and politician, Kossuth became the voice and face of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution against Austrian rule in the Habsburg Empire. His stirring speeches before the Hungarian Diet electrified audiences and made him an international celebrity.

While the 1848 uprising was ultimately defeated, Kossuth‘s leadership helped awaken Hungarian national consciousness. "All for the people and all by the people. Nothing about the people without the people. That is Democracy," he famously declared.5 Kossuth spent his later decades in exile abroad, but his legacy as a martyr for Hungarian liberty was instrumental in the nation finally achieving full independence after World War I.

5. Theodor Herzl (1860-1904)

The Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl was the key founder of modern Zionism, the nationalist movement that called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Appalled by the anti-Semitism he witnessed as a journalist covering the Dreyfus affair in France, Herzl became convinced the Jewish people required a state of their own to escape persecution.

In his landmark 1896 book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), Herzl envisioned the founding of a Jewish nation as a "all-embracing modern solution to the Jewish Question."6 While his proposal was met with widespread skepticism at the time, Herzl‘s Zionist movement grew rapidly in the early 20th century amid rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Though he died decades before the establishment of Israel, Herzl is seen as the ideological father of the Jewish state.

6. José Martí (1853-1895)

The Cuban poet, journalist, and revolutionary philosopher José Martí was the most prominent leader of Cuba‘s independence movement against Spain in the late 19th century. Often referred to as "El Apóstol" ("The Apostle"), Martí‘s extensive body of writing on Cuban nationalism and anti-imperialism helped inspire the Cuban War of Independence that finally led to Cuba‘s liberation from Spanish rule shortly after his death in battle in 1895.

"It is my duty…to prevent, through the independence of Cuba, the U.S.A. from spreading over the West Indies and falling with added weight upon other lands of Our America," Martí wrote in 1895, foreshadowing later U.S. interventions in the region.7 Today, he is considered Cuba‘s greatest national hero and an important voice in the Latin American literary canon.

7. Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898)

The conservative Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck was the mastermind behind German unification in the late 19th century. As Prussia‘s minister president and later Germany‘s first chancellor, Bismarck relentlessly pursued a "blood and iron" policy to unite Germany under Prussian domination through a series of wars against Denmark, Austria, and France.

In a famous 1862 speech before the Prussian parliament, Bismarck declared that "not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided…but by iron and blood."8 When the German Empire was proclaimed in 1871 in Versailles‘ Hall of Mirrors, it represented the ultimate triumph of Bismarck‘s Realpolitik approach. Nevertheless, historians still debate Bismarck‘s commitment to German nationalism, as opposed to the interests of the Prussian monarchy.

8. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

The British political activist Emmeline Pankhurst was a leading figure in the early 20th century suffragette movement that fought for women‘s right to vote in the UK. A fierce and militant campaigner, Pankhurst founded the Women‘s Social and Political Union (WSPU) that waged an increasingly radical struggle for women‘s suffrage, engaging in tactics like arson, window-smashing and hunger strikes.

"We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers," Pankhurst declared in a famous 1908 speech.9 While the suffragettes‘ actions were hugely controversial in Edwardian Britain, their sacrifices are now credited with a pivotal role in achieving the full enfranchisement of British women by 1928.

9. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925)

Sun Yat-sen was a Chinese revolutionary and the first provisional president of the Republic of China. Often called the "father of modern China," Sun helped lead the 1911 Xinhai Revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty and ended millennia of imperial rule. A fervent Chinese nationalist, Sun outlined a vision of a free, democratic and prosperous China in his influential Three Principles of the People.

However, China‘s subsequent descent into warlordism and civil strife following the fall of the Qing frustrated Sun‘s dream of a strong, unified republic. Today, Sun occupies a complex legacy, claimed by both Communist and Nationalist Chinese traditions. "The revolution has not yet succeeded," he famously declared on his deathbed in 1925. "Comrades, you must carry on!"10

10. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma ("Great Soul") Gandhi, was the preeminent leader of India‘s independence movement against British rule in the first half of the 20th century. A lawyer and political ethicist, Gandhi pioneered the use of non-violent civil disobedience to resist colonial domination, as in the famous 1930 Salt March protesting British taxes.

"The nationalism of the West…is an aggressive and assertive force," declared Gandhi in 1925. "True nationalism is in harmony with the spirit of peace and non-violence."11 Gandhi‘s philosophy of non-violence would inspire later civil rights leaders worldwide like Martin Luther King, Jr. While Gandhi lived to see India‘s independence in 1947, he also witnessed the subcontinent‘s bloody partition into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

The Legacy of 19th Century Nationalism

The above ten individuals represent just a sampling of the countless leaders and thinkers behind the 19th century‘s age of nationalism. But their stories reflect the era‘s momentous transformations. At the dawn of the 1800s, the global political order was still dominated by sprawling multinational empires like the Ottoman Empire, Qing China, and Romanov Russia. By century‘s end, the world map was utterly redrawn by the rise of nation-states.

Statistics tell a striking story. According to data from the Correlates of War Project, there were just 23 internationally recognized nation-states in the world in 1816. By 1900, that number had risen to 59, reflecting the emergence of newly independent nations in the Americas and Europe.12 Meanwhile, data from the Varieties of Democracy Project show that the percentage of the world‘s population with access to elections rose from just 1% in 1800 to over 12% in 1900 amid the gradual expansion of suffrage.13

Yet the triumph of nationalism in the 19th century also came at a steep price. Scholars like the late Benedict Anderson have explored how nationalist ideologies had troublingly illiberal implications from the start. "In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals…to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other," Anderson wrote, "It is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love."14

More worryingly, the late 19th century saw the emergence of popular racist and authoritarian nationalisms that emphasized ethnic purity and exclusion. These toxic ideologies would nourish the fascisms of the 20th century, culminating in the cataclysm of World War II and the Holocaust. Political scientists like Samuel Huntington have argued that the dominance of liberal nationalism, with its commitments to individual rights and democracy, has been a more recent and fragile accomplishment.15

So the architects of 19th century nationalism bequeathed a mixed legacy. The nationalisms they nurtured yielded both heroic struggles for independence and democracy as well as the seeds of future totalitarianisms and world wars. For better or worse, these visionaries helped forge the world of nations we inhabit today. Understanding their achievements and shortcomings remains urgent in our own era of resurgent nationalisms both benign and menacing.


  1. Philip G. Dwyer (ed.), Napoleon and Europe (Routledge, 2001), p. 141.
  2. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, ed. George A. Kelly (Harper & Row, 1968), p. 111.
  3. Simón Bolívar, "The Jamaica Letter: Response from a South American to a Gentleman from This Island," trans. Frederick H. Fornoff, in David Bushnell (ed.), El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 16.
  4. Giuseppe Mazzini, "On the State and Rights of the People," in Nadia Urbinati and Stefano Recchi (eds.), A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini‘s Writings on Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations (Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 58.
  5. Lajos Kossuth, Memories of My Exile, trans. Ferencz Jausz (Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., 1880), p. 66.
  6. Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, trans. Sylvie d‘Avigdor (Dover Publications, 1988), p. 29.
  7. Esther Allen (ed.), José Martí: Selected Writings (Penguin Classics, 2002), p. 288.
  8. Otto von Bismarck, "Speech Before the Landtag," in Armin Grünbacher (ed.), The Making of Modern Germany 1815-1914 (Bloomsbury, 2021), p. 58.
  9. Jane Purvis and June Hannam (eds.), The British Women‘s Suffrage Campaign: National and International Perspectives (Routledge, 2021), p. 57.
  10. Henrietta Harrison, The Making of the Republican Citizen: Political Ceremonies and Symbols in China 1911-1929 (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 197.
  11. Louis Fischer (ed.), The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas (Random House, 2010), p. 174.
  12. Correlates of War Project, "State System Membership List, v2016,", accessed May 2023.
  13. Varieties of Democracy Project, "V-Dem Integrated – Version 13,", accessed May 2023.
  14. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (Verso, 2016), p. 141.
  15. Samuel Huntington, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony (Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 17.