In Defense of Churchill (3): A Life Devoted to Constitutional Liberty

In Defense of Churchill (3): A Life Devoted to Constitutional Liberty

Text of my Zoom address to the Chartwell Soci­ety of Port­land, Ore­gon on 10 May 2021, 81st anniver­sary of Churchill tak­ing office as Prime Min­is­ter. “In Defense of Lib­er­ty” is part of as an iTunes audio file. For a copy, please email [email protected].


A Life Devoted to Constitutional Liberty (continued from Part 2)

Churchill was far more than the hero of 1940. His think­ing on con­cepts like lib­er­ty, rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment and the rule of law are as impor­tant today as ever. Hold­ing the Anglo-Amer­i­can rela­tion­ship cen­tral, he had a vast appre­ci­a­tion for and under­stand­ing of the British and Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tions, and the pros and cons of each.

Britain’s con­sti­tu­tion is unwrit­ten. Amer­i­ca wrote it all down. Churchill thought the British alter­na­tive rather bet­ter because, he thought, the mean­ing of a writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion can mis­rep­re­sent­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly by unelect­ed judges or bureaucrats.[24]

In 1936 he wrote an arti­cle, “What Good’s a Con­sti­tu­tion?”  He nev­er men­tions the USA, but the whole piece con­tem­plates the dan­gers of mis­in­ter­pret­ing America’s found­ing doc­u­ments. A con­sti­tu­tion, he says, is only a form for what a nation believes in. Mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion will alter that form.[25]

You should read this elo­quent arti­cle. It appeared only in Collier’s, and the rare vol­umes of his essays, but I can email it to  you. Here you will find all the argu­ments for and against activist courts. Read it and decide for your­self how rel­e­vant Churchill’s thought is today.

On the regulatory state

His 1931 essay, “Mass Effects in Mod­ern Life,” is in his book Thoughts & Adven­tures.[26] It describes the same reg­u­la­to­ry state which occu­pies our con­cerns today. In that bureau­cra­cy unelect­ed offi­cials, not rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the cit­i­zens, make most of the laws. This, Churchill says, removes the dif­fi­cul­ties of life which lay the grounds for the achieve­ments of life:

The indi­vid­ual becomes a func­tion. The com­mu­ni­ty is alone of inter­est: mass thoughts dic­tat­ed and prop­a­gat­ed by the rulers…. Sub­hu­man goals and ideals are set…. The Bee­hive? No, for there must be no queen and no hon­ey, or at least no hon­ey for oth­ers. There is not one sin­gle social or eco­nom­ic prin­ci­ple or con­cept in col­lec­tivist phi­los­o­phy which has not been real­ized, car­ried into action, and enshrined in immutable laws a mil­lion years ago by the White Ant.

Churchill then offers an uplift­ing alternative:

But human nature is more intractable than ant nature. The explo­sive vari­a­tions of its phe­nom­e­na dis­turb the smooth work­ing out of the laws and forces which have sub­ju­gat­ed the White Ant. It is at once the safe­guard and the glo­ry of mankind that they are easy to lead and hard to dri­ve.[27]

Churchill wrote this with dic­ta­tor­ships ascen­dant. He always main­tained that Hitler could be beaten—long before, and prefer­ably with­out war. Why? Asked Dr. Arnn. Answers: “1) He must be beat­en. And 2) Hitler’s world is not nat­ur­al. We won’t like it. Thus also for every gov­ern­ment unrep­re­sen­ta­tive of the peo­ple. They pre­tend to be val­ue-free, but they end up being prey to every pet­ty tyran­ny that comes along.”[28]

“The central principle of Civilisation”

As Chan­cel­lor of Bris­tol Uni­ver­si­ty in 1938, Churchill spoke of the word Civil­i­sa­tion [Eng­lish spelling]. The words are beau­ti­ful. One can read them in ten minutes—posted on our Hills­dale Churchill web­site.[29]

There are few words which are used more loose­ly than the word “Civil­i­sa­tion.” What does it mean? It means a soci­ety based upon the opin­ions of civil­ians. It means that vio­lence, the rule of war­riors and despot­ic chiefs, the con­di­tions of camps and war­fare, of riot and tyran­ny, give place to par­lia­ments where laws are made, and inde­pen­dent courts of jus­tice in which over long peri­ods those laws are maintained.

That is Civilisation—and in its soil grow con­tin­u­al­ly lib­er­ty, com­fort, and cul­ture. When Civil­i­sa­tion reigns in any coun­try, a wider and less harassed life is afford­ed to the mass­es of the peo­ple. The tra­di­tions of the past are cher­ished, and the inher­i­tance bequeathed to us by for­mer wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.

The cen­tral prin­ci­ple of Civil­i­sa­tion is the sub­or­di­na­tion of the rul­ing author­i­ty to the set­tled cus­toms of the peo­ple and to their will as expressed through the Con­sti­tu­tion. In this Island we have today achieved in a high degree the bless­ings of Civilisation.[30]

An inheritance always in jeopardy

Pro­fes­sor Dan Mahoney of Assump­tion Uni­ver­si­ty intro­duces this speech on our web­site. Civ­i­liza­tion, he says, is not a once-and-for-all achieve­ment. Lib­er­ty is  “an inher­i­tance that is always threat­ened by the temp­ta­tions of bar­barism and (quot­ing Churchill in 1940) “by the lights of per­vert­ed science.”[31] That means civ­i­liza­tion must be defend­ed, by what Churchill some­times called “Arms and the Covenant.”  Mahoney continues:

Peace­ful, law-abid­ing, and lib­er­al nations ought to form larg­er instru­ments and organ­isms of col­lec­tive secu­ri­ty, which would allow inter­na­tion­al law to be backed by what Thomas Pan­gle has called “a mighty sword in the hand of legal jus­tice.” In a world of destruc­tive tech­nol­o­gy and aggres­sive ide­o­log­i­cal despo­tisms, it is no longer enough to rely  on the pre­car­i­ous mech­a­nism of a not always reli­able bal­ance of power.[32]

In words meant to stir the civic virtue and courage of West­ern democ­rats, Churchill wrote:

Civil­i­sa­tion will not last, free­dom will not sur­vive, peace will not be kept, unless a very large major­i­ty of mankind unite togeth­er to defend them and show them­selves pos­sessed of a con­stab­u­lary pow­er before which bar­bar­ic and atavis­tic forces will stand in awe.[33]

The urgent need for confidence

In the absence of a con­fi­dent west­ern civ­i­liza­tion, ready to use not nec­es­sar­i­ly its pow­er but its influ­ence, the plan­et goes to hell. For exam­ple, Churchill didn’t have great hope for lib­er­ty in the Arab states he set up in 1921. His high­est hope was in what became Israel. Nev­er­the­less, he thought, the West must do what it could, hop­ing to use its influ­ence for good. Because that influ­ence is bet­ter than some of the oth­er influ­ences that occur from time to time. Sup­pose the Sovi­et Union had reor­ga­nized the Mid­dle East in 1921?

If Britain ceased to be the lead­ing world pow­er, Churchill saw Amer­i­ca as an accept­able sub­sti­tute. He knew that was the best alter­na­tive. Why? Lar­ry Arnn explains:

Churchill informs us that some­thing beau­ti­ful devel­oped in the Eng­lish-Speak­ing world. Think of what that means for a moment. There are two ways for human beings to get along: talk­ing and fight­ing, Pol­i­tics grows from talk­ing. And it’s a pro­found con­nec­tion when you speak the same lan­guage. Espe­cial­ly if it’s the lan­guage of Shake­speare. So what Churchill thinks is that, part­ly because of the acci­dent of the Eng­lish Chan­nel, and the pri­ma­cy of the Navy, and part­ly because the King could not over­whelm the Par­lia­ment, this idea grows. Soon it is on the oceans, spread­ing to anoth­er con­ti­nent. That is inspir­ing to Churchill.  [34]

Globalizing Liberty

The idea is not Anglo-cen­tric. As Churchill asks at Bristol:

Why should not the same prin­ci­ples which have shaped the free, ordered, tol­er­ant Civ­i­liza­tion of the British Isles and British Empire be found ser­vice­able in the orga­ni­za­tion of this anx­ious world? Why should not oth­er nations estab­lish a rule of law for the ben­e­fit of all?[35]

The idea of uni­ver­sal lib­er­ty orig­i­nat­ed in Eng­land, Churchill says, yet it may apply to any coun­try. The idea deserves, dare we say it, glob­al­iza­tion! Fail­ure to rec­og­nize this idea is what makes despots dangerous.

But how­ev­er things turn out, Churchill tells us, it is irrefutable that con­sti­tu­tion­al prin­ci­ples, and the great­est doc­u­ments from Magna Car­ta to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, are in Eng­lish. That was a thing of pride to Win­ston Churchill. And it should be to us.

Audi­ence ques­tions and answers in Part 4.


[24] Win­ston S. Churchill (here­inafter WSC), “What Good’s a Con­sti­tu­tion?,” Col­liers, 22 August 1936, 29, 39-40. Reprint­ed in Michael Wolff, ed., The Col­lect­ed Essays of Sir Win­ston Churchill, vol. 2, Churchill and Pol­i­tics (Lon­don: Library of Impe­r­i­al His­to­ry, 1975), 386-93. Avail­able upon request via email.

[25] Not­ed by Lar­ry P. Arnn in an inter­view with Mark Steyn, 2 March 2017,, accessed 2 May 2021.

[26] WSC, “Mass Effects in Mod­ern Life,” The Strand Mag­a­zine, May 1931, 474-85. Reprint­ed in WSC, Thoughts and Adven­tures (Lon­don: Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, 1932, many edi­tions since).

[27] WSC, Thoughts and Adven­tures (Lon­don: Leo Coop­er, 1990), 185, empha­sis mine.

[28] Arnn inter­view, ibid.

[29] WSC, “Civil­i­sa­tion.” Chancellor’s Address, Bris­tol Uni­ver­si­ty, 2 July 1938, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Win­ston S. Churchill: His Com­plete Speech­es 1897-1963 (New York: Bowk­er, 1974), 7 vols., VI, 5991.

[30] Ibid.

[31] WSC, “Their Finest Hour,” House of Com­mons, 18 June 1940, in Blood Sweat and Tears (New York: Put­nams, 1941), 370.

[32] Daniel Mahoney, Intro­duc­tion, “Churchill: What We Mean by ‘Civ­i­liza­tion,'” Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, 8 Feb­ru­ary 2019, accessed 1 May 2021.

[33] WSC, “Civil­i­sa­tion,” Speech­es VI, 5991.

[34] Arnn inter­view, ibid.

[35] WSC, “Civil­i­sa­tion,” Speech­es VI, 5991.





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