Excerpted from “Which Historical and Contemporary Figures were Churchill’s Inspirations?” Written for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project, February 2020. For Hillsdale’s complete text and illustrations, please click here.
We are often asked which historical and contemporary personages most influenced Winston Churchill’s thought and statesmanship. One is right to start with Lord Randolph Churchill, Napoleon, Clemenceau and Marlborough. The classics open another avenue. Readers can find pithy remarks by Churchill on many of the following figures in Churchill by Himself.
Lord Randolph Churchill
His father was the first of young Winston’s political inspirations, and the subject of his first biography. “Like Disraeli, he had to fight every mile in all his marches,” Winston wrote. “In his speeches he revealed a range of thought, an authority of manner, and a wealth of knowledge, which neither friends nor foes attempted to dispute.” Alas, Randolph died too young. His son remarked in My Early Life: “There remained for me only to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory.” See also John Plumpton, The Writing of Lord Randolph Churchill.
Seekers of Churchill’s inspirations must read his essay “The Dream”—an imaginary 1947 conversation with the ghost of his father, who died in 1895. Read also the excellent appreciation of the piece by Hillsdale College Churchill Fellow Katie Davenport. “The Dream” originated when, at the dinner table, WSC was asked what historical figure he would like to see filling an empty chair. His reply was instantaneous: “Oh, my father, of course.”
Bourke Cockran’s oratorical inspirations
There is no doubting Cockran’s significance. Churchill was quoting him to a later Democrat politician, Adlai Stevenson, in the mid-1950s. (Stevenson had to look him up!) Cockran was vital not only to Churchill’s oratory, but to his political thought:
It was not my fortune to hear any of his orations, but his conversation, in point, in pith, in rotundity, in antithesis, and in comprehension, exceeded anything I have ever heard…. He taught me to use every note of the human voice as if playing an organ. He could play on every emotion and hold thousands of people riveted in great political rallies when he spoke…. Above all he was a Free-Trader and repeatedly declared that this was the underlying doctrine by which all the others were united. Thus he was equally opposed to socialists, inflationists and protectionists… In consequence there was in his life no lack of fighting.
Is this not the very description of Churchill himself? There is a fine book on the subject. Becoming Winston Churchill, by Michael McMenamin and Curt Zoller, is the standard work on their relationship.
John Morley and “Mass Effects”
Like Cockran and Churchill, John Morley tried always to avoid war. Unlike Churchill, Morley was a pacifist. He resigned from the Cabinet when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. Earlier that year, Churchill paid Morley a fulsome tribute: “For many a year he was an ornament of our Debates, and his learning and intellectual elevation, his brilliancy of phrasing, and the range of his experience, constitute assets and qualifications which the Government value in the highest degree.”
Morley is Churchill’s first subject in his book Great Contemporaries. In it he refers to his famous essay, “Mass Effects in Modern Life,” which deplored the rise of the state and the homogenization of thought and politics:
Such men are not found today. Certainly they are not found in British politics. The tidal wave of democracy and the volcanic explosion of the war have swept the shores bare. I cannot see any figure which resembles or recalls the Liberal statesmen of the Victorian epoch…. The world is moving on, and moving so fast that few have time to ask, “Whither?” And to these few only a babel responds.
Clemenceau: faithful but unfortunate
Known as “The Tiger” for his aggressive politics, Clemenceau was twice Prime Minister, 1906–09 and 1917–20. His determination to win the war was legendary. In 1917 Churchill heard Clemenceau declare, “no more pacifist campaigns, no more German intrigues, neither treason nor half treason—war, nothing but war.”
One might say Clemenceau was a kind of French Churchill (or the nearest France came to one). They were alike in another respect: both were dismissed in their hour of victory. Churchill’s words about himself apply to Clemenceau, and remind us of the Churchill family motto, “Faithful but Unfortunate.” In 1940, Churchill wrote, “I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure for five years and three months of world war, at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.” Thus also Clemenceau, shortly after his own world war ended.
Churchill, a superb military historian, describes Marlborough’s campaigns with precision. But considering WSC’s inspirations, one might ponder the Great Duke’s geopolitical aspects. Leo Strauss, for example, called Marlborough: His Life and Times “the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding.” His essay is in Harry Jaffa, ed., Statesmanship: Essays in Honor of Sir Winston Churchill (1981).
Andrew Roberts places Marlborough among WSC’s inspirations in his Churchill: Walking with Destiny:
Churchill’s strategic views, already profoundly affected by the Great War, were to develop significantly during his writing of Marlborough as he considered how his ancestor approached coalition warfare. “It was a war of the circumference against the centre,” he wrote of the War of Spanish Succession, just as it was to be for Britain after the Dunkirk evacuation…. [Churchill] admired Marlborough’s single strategy above the “intrigues, cross-purposes, and half-measures of a vast unwieldy coalition trying to make war…. Not for him the prizes of Napoleon, or in later times of cheaper types.”
Napoleon: writer and statesman
Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon vies with Walking with Destiny in quality, a fine source for naming Napoleon among Churchill’s inspirations. Dr. Roberts explained that Churchill’s admiration was for the statesman and writer, not the dictator:
As an English Tory, I was expecting not to like Napoleon when I took up my pen…. Yet it was one of the most enjoyable parts of researching this book to discover that of course the Emperor had a hugely engaging personality and attractive character…. I like to think of [him] as the Enlightenment on horseback. The builder, the educator, the encourager of science and industry, the self-made man, the thinker, the writer, the giant and the genius. Instead my countrymen only see the soldier, the conqueror, the invader. They blame all the Napoleonic Wars on him—ignoring his pleas for peace and despite the fact that many more wars were declared on France than he declared against others.
Churchill’s inspirations extend to several classical authors or philosophers, like Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Xenophon and of course Thucydides. Paul Rahe, in “Why Read The River War?”, compares Churchill’s book with Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War: “Nowhere can one find a subtler depiction of the moral and practical dilemmas faced by the statesman in a world torn by conflict. Moreover, Thucydides’ environment was bipolar—as was ours in the great epoch of struggles on the European continent that stretched from 1914 to 1989….”
See also Justin Lyons’ “On War: Churchill, Thucydides and the Teachable Moment”: “Like Thucydides, Churchill wrote to teach. To convey what should be done, how it should be done, and why it should be done is the essence of political leadership.”
The works of William Shakespeare figured high with Churchill, who knew many plays by heart. He alluded to Shakespeare more often than any source other than the King James Bible. Shakespeare probably doesn’t’ qualify among Churchill’s inspirations. Rather, he was a rich source of the deathless phrases that punctuated Churchill’s expression.
Churchill read many more classics in his self-education as a young man. (For the full list, see his autobiography, My Early Life, Chapter IX, “Education at Bangalore.”)