Churchill’s Inspirations Bedizen the Pages of History

Churchill’s Inspirations Bedizen the Pages of History

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 Con­tem­po­rariesIn 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.

Marlborough’s parallels

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.

Classical philosophers

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.”)

3 thoughts on “Churchill’s Inspirations Bedizen the Pages of History

  1. Thanks. Great review. Sounds excel­lent then. I can for­give the author for over egging the pud­ding a bit in try­ing to prove his large­ly valid point. I’ll give it a whirl.

  2. Won­der­ful influ­ences. It helps explain why Churchill’s own words were always so per­fect­ly expressed.

    On the same sub­ject, is The Lit­er­ary Churchill: Author, Read­er, Actor by Jonathan Rose worth a look? I have it in paper­back and it cer­tain­ly sounds like an inter­est­ing and worth­while long study.

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