Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Origins of a Famous Phrase

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Origins of a Famous Phrase

Though he gave per­ma­nent life to blood, toil, tears and sweat, Churchill’s best-remem­bered words did not orig­i­nate with him. Sim­i­lar expres­sions date very far back. (Excerpt­ed from my essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read the full arti­cle, click here.)

Quo­ta­tions schol­ar Ralph Keyes writes:

Cicero and Livy wrote of  “sweat and blood.” A 1611 John Donne poem includ­ed the lines “That ‘tis in vaine to dew, or mol­li­fie / It with thy Tear­es, or Sweat, or Bloud.” More than two cen­turies lat­er, Byron wrote, “Year after year they vot­ed cent per cent / Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions—why?—for rent!” In his 1888 play Smith, Scot­tish poet-play­wright John David­son wrote of “Blood – sweats and tears, and hag­gard, home­less lives.” By 1939, a Lady Tegart report­ed in a mag­a­zine arti­cle that Jew­ish com­mu­nal colonies in Pales­tine were “built on a foun­da­tion of blood, sweat, and tears”….Since this phrase was obvi­ous­ly famil­iar when Churchill gave his mem­o­rable speech the fol­low­ing year, even though he rearranged the words and added “toil” for good mea­sure, our ears and our mem­o­ry quick­ly returned them to the more famil­iar form.1

Blood, tears and (occasionally) toil

In the Boer War, impri­sioned in Pre­to­ria, he had a con­ver­sa­tion with Mr. Gro­belaar, the Boer Under-Sec­re­tary for For­eign Affairs. Churchill told Gro­belaar that Britain would win: “…as I think Mr. Gro­belaar knows, [it] is only a ques­tion of time and mon­ey expressed in terms of blood and tears.”In a 1900 arti­cle enti­tled, “Offi­cers and Gen­tle­men” he used the phrase again:

…the knowl­edge gained at every manoeu­vre must be used remorse­less­ly to con­trol the progress of mediocre men up the mil­i­tary lad­der; to cast the bad ones down and help the good ones towards the top. It will all seem very sad and bru­tal in times of peace, but there will be less blood and tears when the next war comes.3

Thir­ty years lat­er, in The World Cri­sis, he regard­ed the demise of Euro­pean empires—a pre­cur­sor, though he could not know it then, of the Sec­ond World War to come:

In the Par­lia­ments of the Haps­burgs bands of excit­ed deputies sat and howled at each oth­er by the hour in rival lan­guages, accom­pa­ny­ing their cho­rus­es with the cease­less slam­ming of desks which even­tu­al­ly by a sud­den crescen­do swelled into a can­non­ade. All gave rein to hatred; and all have paid for its indul­gence with blood and tears.4

* * *

“Toil” was in the mix as ear­ly as 1932. Leav­ing New York after a lec­ture tour, Churchill was asked whether “a war between two or more pow­ers is about to take fire.” He respond­ed with one of his few strik­ing­ly bad predictions:

I do not believe that we shall see anoth­er great war in our time. War today is bare—bare of prof­it and stripped of all its glam­our. The old pomp and cir­cum­stance are gone. War now is noth­ing now but toil, blood, death, squalor and lying pro­pa­gan­da.5

“Blood and tears” next appeared in when war was almost cer­tain, in 1939″

Although the suf­fer­ings of the assault­ed nations will be great in pro­por­tion as they have neglect­ed their prepa­ra­tions, there is no rea­son to sup­pose that they will not emerge liv­ing and con­trol­ling from the con­flict. With blood and tears they will bear for­ward faith­ful­ly and glo­ri­ous­ly the ark which enshrines the title deeds of the good com­mon­wealth of mankind.6

Toil, waste, sorrow and torment

An allied expres­sion came in an arti­cle Churchill wrote dur­ing late stages of the Span­ish Civ­il War, reprint­ed in his 1939 col­lec­tion of arti­cles, Step by Step:

Near­ly all the coun­tries and most of the peo­ple in every coun­try desire above all things to pre­vent war. And no won­der, since except for a few hand­fuls of fero­cious roman­ti­cists, or sor­did would-be prof­i­teers, war spells noth­ing but toil, waste, sor­row and tor­ment to the vast mass of ordi­nary folk in every land. Why should this hor­ror, which they dread and loathe, be forced upon them? How is it that they have not got the sense and the man­hood to stop it?7

Blood, sweat and tears

Churchill added “sweat” in 1931, in the last vol­ume of The World Cri­sis, as he described the dev­as­tat­ing bat­tles between the Rus­sians and the Cen­tral Pow­ers. His pages, he said, “record the toils, per­ils, suf­fer­ings and pas­sions of mil­lions of men. Their sweat, their tears, their blood bedewed the end­less plain.”8 Anoth­er piece on war in Spain car­ried the expand­ed phrase:

But at length reg­u­lar armies come into the field. Dis­ci­pline and organ­i­sa­tion grip in earnest both sides. They march, manoeu­vre, advance, retreat, with all the val­our com­mon to the lead­ing races of mankind. But here are new struc­tures of nation­al life erect­ed upon blood, sweat and tears, which are not dis­sim­i­lar and there­fore capa­ble of being unit­ed. What mile­stone of advan­tage can be gained by going far­ther? Now is the time to stop.9

Blood, toil, tears and sweat

Final­ly, on 13 May 1940, all four famous words came togeth­er in Churchill’s inspir­ing first speech as Prime Min­is­ter: “I have noth­ing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Clear­ly he had con­sid­ered and arranged the words for max­i­mum impact. His post­war record­ing of the speech comes down very hard on the“sweat.”10 The response to those words was elec­tric and grat­i­fy­ing, though Churchill was had mixed thoughts about it: “One would think one had brought some great ben­e­fit to them, instead of the blood and tears, the toil and sweat, which is all I have ever promised.”11

* * *

An inde­fati­ga­ble revis­er, like most good writ­ers, Churchill cre­at­ed an adden­dum to his famous phrase a year after he first used it, at a grim time. Rom­mel was rebound­ing in North Africa, Nazi sub­marines were tak­ing a dead­ly toll on the Atlantic, the Blitz con­tin­ued, and Britain was still alone. Churchill rec­og­nized the per­ils, but end­ed on a high note:

I have nev­er promised any­thing or offered any­thing but blood, tears, toil, and sweat, to which I will now add our fair share of mis­takes, short­com­ings and disappointments….When I look back on the per­ils which have been over­come, upon the great moun­tain waves through which the gal­lant ship has dri­ven, when I remem­ber all that has gone wrong, and remem­ber also all that has gone right, I feel sure we have no need to fear the tem­pest. Let it roar, and let it rage. We shall come through.12

A more hope­ful eval­u­a­tion of the cost of the war to date was offered just before the attack on Pearl Har­bor:

I promised eigh­teen months ago “blood, tears, toil and sweat.” There has not yet been, thank God, so much blood as was expect­ed. There have not been so many tears. But here we have anoth­er instal­ment of toil and sweat, of incon­ve­nience and self-denial, which I am sure will be accept­ed with cheer­ful and proud alacrity by all par­ties and all class­es in the British nation.13

Votes of no confidence

Although Rus­sia and Amer­i­ca had joined Britain in the bat­tle by the end of 1941, the sit­u­a­tion was bleak­er than ever when Churchill called for a vote of con­fi­dence in Jan­u­ary 1942. He hand­i­ly won, 464 to one. Wind­ing up for the Gov­ern­ment, he remind­ed the House that noth­ing had changed: “I stand by my orig­i­nal pro­gramme, blood, toil, tears and sweat, which is all I have ever offered, to which I added, five months lat­er, many short­com­ings, mis­takes and dis­ap­point­ments.”14

A more con­tentious vote of no con­fi­dence was faced down in July. After Tobruk had fall­en to Rom­mel, dis­si­dent MPs tabled the motion, but Churchill defeat­ed that one, too, 475 to 25, falling back on his old pre­scrip­tion and giv­ing it a new twist:

I have not made any arro­gant, con­fi­dent, boast­ing pre­dic­tions at all. On the con­trary, I have struck hard to my “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” to which I have added mud­dle and mis­man­age­ment, and that, to some extent, I must admit, is what you have got out of it.15

Hinge of fate

Final­ly in the autumn of 1942, the vic­to­ry at Alamein turned the tide of the war for Britain. It marked, wrote Churchill, “the turn­ing of ‘the Hinge of Fate.’  It may almost be said, ‘Before Alamein we nev­er had a vic­to­ry. After Alamein we nev­er had a defeat.’”16 Doubt­less he felt it right to reit­er­ate the orig­i­nal phraseology:

I have nev­er promised any­thing but blood, tears, toil and sweat. Now, how­ev­er, we have a new expe­ri­ence. We have victory—a remark­able and def­i­nite vic­to­ry. The bright gleam has caught the hel­mets of our sol­diers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts.17



1 Ralph Keyes, The Quote Ver­i­fi­er (New York: St. Martin’s, 2006), 15.

2 Win­ston S. Churchill (here­inafter “WSC,” Lon­don to Lady­smith via Pre­to­ria (Lon­don: Long­mans, 1900), 166.

3 WSC, “Offi­cers and Gen­tle­men,” The Sat­ur­day Evening Post, 29 Decem­ber 1900, reprint­ed in The Col­lect­ed Essays of Sir Win­ston Churchill(Lon­don: Library of Impe­r­i­al His­to­ry, 1975, 4 vols., I, 53.

4 WSC, The World Cri­sis, vol. V, The East­ern Front (Lon­don: Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, 1931), 21.

5 Mar­tin Gilbert, Win­ston Churchill: The Wilder­ness Years (Boston: Houghton Mif­flin, 1982), 45. From a radio inter­view in Boston on 10 March 1932. It is most unlike­ly that he would have made the same pre­dic­tion a few months lat­er. By May 1932 the Nation­al Social­ists had become the largest sin­gle par­ty in Germany.

6 WSC, “Will There Be War in Europe—and When?,” News of the World, 4 June 1939. Also pub­lished slight­ly abridged as “War, Now or Nev­er,” Col­liers, 3 June 1939 and reprint­ed in full in Col­lect­ed Essays I, 443.

7 WSC, “How to Stop War,” Evening Stan­dard, 12 June 1936, reprint­ed in Step by Step 1936-1939 (Lon­don: Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, 1939), 25.

8 WSC, The East­ern Front, 17.

9 WSC, “Can Fran­co Restore Uni­ty and Strength to Spain?,” Dai­ly Tele­graph, 23 Feb­ru­ary 1939; reprint­ed as “Hope in Spain,” in Step by Step, 319.

* * *

10  Win­ston S. Churchill: His Mem­oirs and His Speech­es 1918-1945, New York: Dec­ca Records (12 LPs), 1965.

11 WSC, House of Com­mons, 8 Octo­ber 1940.

12 WSC, House of Com­mons, 7 May 1941.

13 WSC, House of Com­mons, 2 Decem­ber 1941.

14 WSC, House of Com­mons, 27 Jan­u­ary 1942.

15 WSC, House of Com­mons, 1 July 1942.

16 WSC, The Hinge of Fate (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1950), 541.

17 WSC, Lord Mayor’s Day Lun­cheon, Man­sion House, Lon­don, 9 Novem­ber 1942, in The End of the Begin­ning (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1943), 265-66.

See also: “Churchill on the Broadcast.”

Churchill’s famous phrase began its long evo­lu­tion when he was cap­tured dur­ing the Boer War in 1899.

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