Lehrman on Churchill and Lincoln

Lehrman on Churchill and Lincoln

Lew LehrmanLewis E. Lehrman, co-founder of the Gilder Lehrman Insti­tute of Amer­i­can His­to­ry, offers a com­pelling two-part com­par­i­son of Abra­ham Lin­coln and Win­ston Churchill at the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. (To read in entire­ty, start here.)

Mr. Lehrman is author of Lin­coln at Peo­ria: The Turn­ing Point (2008) and Lin­coln “by lit­tles” (2013). Unique­ly among the Lin­coln schol­ars I’ve heard on Churchill, he has as fine a grasp of the Eng­lish states­man as he does the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent. He tells me he regards each as the out­stand­ing fig­ure of his respec­tive cen­tu­ry. No argu­ment there.

1. Lehrman on Preparation for Greatness

Excerpt: Pres­i­dent Lin­coln and Prime Min­is­ter Churchill found them­selves chal­lenged by wars of nation­al sur­vival. Even though their ear­ly lives appear to be dif­fer­ent, there are sim­i­lar aspects in their edu­ca­tion­al preparation.

“If a man will stand up and assert, and repeat and re-assert, that two and two do not make four, I know noth­ing in the pow­er of argu­ment that can stop him,” declared Abra­ham Lin­coln at Peo­ria on 16 Octo­ber 1854. In this case, he implied that Sen­a­tor Stephen Dou­glas, his polit­i­cal adver­sary, made irra­tional argu­ments on the sub­ject of slavery.

Young Lin­coln nev­er had much of a chance to study math­e­mat­ics. In June 1860, Lin­coln wrote to a jour­nal­ist that “when I came of age I did not know much….I have not been to school since. The lit­tle advance I now have upon this store of edu­ca­tion, I have picked up from time to time under the pres­sure of necessity.”

Mr. Churchill would echo these bio­graph­i­cal remarks of Mr. Lin­coln in his speech at the Mid-Cen­tu­ry Con­vo­ca­tion, Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, on 31 March 1949: “I frankly con­fess that I feel some­what over­awed in address­ing this vast sci­en­tif­ic and learned audience.…I have no tech­ni­cal and no uni­ver­si­ty edu­ca­tion, and have just had to pick up a few things as I went along.” Read more….

2. Lehrman on Statesmen of War

Excerpt: “We can­not escape his­to­ry,” Pres­i­dent Lin­coln declared in his Sec­ond Annu­al Mes­sage to Con­gress in Decem­ber 1862. “We of this Con­gress and this admin­is­tra­tion, will be remem­bered in spite of our­selves. No per­son­al sig­nif­i­cance, or insignif­i­cance, can spare one or anoth­er of us. The fiery tri­al through which we pass will light us down, in hon­or or dis­hon­or, to the lat­est generation.”

Churchill, gift­ed his­to­ri­an that he was, learned lessons from the his­to­ry he wrote. He cer­tain­ly under­stood the impor­tance of patience and hard work from writ­ing his four-vol­ume biog­ra­phy of John Churchill, First Duke of Marl­bor­ough. “The real rea­son why I suc­ceed­ed in my own cam­paigns is because I was always on the spot—I saw every­thing, and did every­thing for myself,” the Duke had observed.

Lincoln’s mem­o­ry was as good as Churchill’s, but Lincoln’s oppor­tu­ni­ty to study British his­to­ry had been very lim­it­ed. In Feb­ru­ary 1865, Pres­i­dent Lin­coln attend­ed a peace con­fer­ence in Hamp­ton Roads, Vir­ginia. After Lin­coln set stiff Union con­di­tions for any nego­ti­a­tions, one of the Con­fed­er­ate com­mis­sion­ers argued, as a prece­dent, that King Charles I had reached agree­ments with rebels dur­ing an Eng­lish Civ­il War.

“I do not pro­fess to be post­ed in his­to­ry,” said Lin­coln in con­clud­ing the dis­cus­sion. “All I dis­tinct­ly rec­ol­lect about the case of Charles I is that he lost his head in the end.”

When it came to the future judg­ments of his­to­ry, Win­ston Churchill had an advan­tage over Lin­coln. “His­to­ry will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” the British Prime Min­is­ter told World War II asso­ciates. Abra­ham Lin­coln, how­ev­er, had his own advan­tage. More even than Churchill, per­haps, Lin­coln was attuned to the real­i­ties of the present and the promis­es of the future. In his 1862 Mes­sage to Con­gress, Lin­coln revealed in a sin­gle line his abil­i­ty to adapt to what­ev­er came:

“As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” Read in full…

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