Scaffolding Rhetoric: Churchill in Congress, 1941
My co-author of “Scaffolding Rhetoric” is Richard Cohen. He conceived of laying out comparisons between Churchill’s 1897 article on Rhetoric and his famous Washington speech over four decades later. There is remarkable consistency between Churchill’s techniques at ages 23 and 67.
Here is a brief excerpt from our essay for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. To read the original with endnotes, see: “Rhetoric: How Churchill Scaffolded his First Speech to Congress.” To subscribe to articles from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bottom, and fill in your email in the box entitled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is never given out and remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
“The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” 1897
In 1897 young Winston Churchill wrote an essay, for years unpublished, called “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.” Inspired by the speeches of Lord Randolph Churchill and his Irish-American mentor Bourke Cockran, it influenced his oratory for half a century. A fine example of his technique is his first speech to the U.S. Congress, on 26 December 1941. Below are excerpts from that speech follow, with comments on its rhetoric and effect. Subtitles are from “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.”
A 32-minute audio and 16-minute video excerpt are available online. The accompanying inflections and body language were as much a part of Churchill’s rhetoric as his carefully chosen words. It strikes us as seemly that after finishing, Churchill did not stand there accepting the applause—or (vulgarly, as speakers sometimes do today), joining it. He simply sat down. This gesture of humility was as much intentional as his quips at the beginning. —Richard Cohen & Richard Langworth
“The orator is real. The rhetoric is partly artificial…”
Members of the Senate and of the House of Representatives of the United States, I feel greatly honoured that you should have thus invited me to enter the United States Senate Chamber and address the representatives of both branches of Congress. The fact that my American forebears have for so many generations played their part in the life of the United States, and that here I am, an Englishman, welcomed in your midst, makes this experience one of the most moving and thrilling in my life, which is already long and has not been entirely uneventful….
By the way, I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way around, I might have got here on my own. In that case this would not have been the first time you would have heard my voice. In that case I should not have needed any invitation. But if I had it is hardly likely that it would have been unanimous. So perhaps things are better as they are.
WSC wastes no time in mentioning his American heritage, suggesting that Congressional rhetoric was one of his ambitions. Next he quips in English understatement about his long and event-filled life. The senators and representatives laughed with appreciation. He already had them in his hands.
“From unresponsive silence to grudging approval”
I am a child of the House of Commons. I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy. “Trust the people.” That was his message. I used to see him cheered at meetings and in the streets by crowds of workingmen way back in those aristocratic Victorian days when as Disraeli said, “the world was for the few, and for the very few.” Therefore I have been in full harmony all my life with the tides which have flowed on both sides of the Atlantic against privilege and monopoly and I have steered confidently towards the Gettysburg ideal of government of the people, by the people, for the people.
If some listeners at first seemed non-committal, Churchill knew he was regarded by several as a reactionary aristocrat. So he strove to establish himself as a man of the people. He relied on his father’s rhetoric on “Tory Democracy” (even if Lord Randolph Churchill had given that term a fairly elastic interpretation). The “Gettysburg ideal” is a perfect analogy to remind Americans that his position, like theirs, is in the hands of the people.
“Before he can move their tears, his own must flow”
The wicked men and their factions, who have launched their peoples on the path of war and conquest, know that they will be called to terrible account if they cannot beat down by force of arms the peoples they have assailed. They will stop at nothing…. They will stop at nothing that violence or treachery can suggest…. We have therefore without doubt a time of tribulation before us. In this same time, some ground will be lost which it will be hard and costly to regain.
Churchill paints a clear picture as to why the Allies will be at an initial disadvantage. True to his long-time credo, he never shrinks from telling people the truth. Events could and would go wrong; the enemy is powerful. Hope cannot be built on lies. The ensuing year of 1942 would bear out his warnings.
“To convince them he must himself believe”
But now, at the end of December 1941, our transformation from easy-going peace to total war efficiency has made very great progress. The broad flow of munitions in Great Britain has already begun. Immense strides have been made in the conversion of American industry to military purposes. And now that the United States is at war, it is possible for orders to be given every day which in a year or 18 months hence will produce results in war power beyond anything which has been seen or foreseen in the dictator states.
Provided that every effort is made, that nothing is kept back, that the whole manpower, brain power, virility, valour and civic virtue of the English-speaking world, with all its galaxy of loyal, friendly or associated communities and states—provided that is bent unremittingly to the simple but supreme task, I think it would be reasonable to hope that the end of 1942 will see us quite definitely in a better position than we are now. And that the year 1943 will enable us to assume the initiative upon an ample scale.
Things could be worse, Churchill is saying. His penchant for alliteration is evident in his “three V’s”: Virility Valour and Virtue. Together, he assures, they will bring victory. Churchill was by and large a phenomenally accurate prophet.
“The end appears in view before it is reached”
Sure I am that this day, now, we are the masters of our fate: That the task which has been set us is not above our strength” That its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our cause, and an unconquerable willpower, salvation will not be denied us. In the words of the Psalmist: “He shall not be afraid of evil tidings. His heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord.”
The choice of words is critical. “Sure I am” sounds more powerful, more arresting than “I am sure.” He constantly refers to the worthy cause. The quotation from the Psalms is designed to strike a sympathetic chord with Congress.
“Waves of sound and vivid pictures”
[T]he glorious defence of their native soil by the Russian armies and people; wounds have been inflicted upon the Nazi tyranny and system which have bitten deep and will fester and inflame not only in the Nazi body but in the Nazi mind. The boastful Mussolini has crumpled already. He is now but a lackey and a serf, the merest utensil of his master’s will…. Our Armies of the East, which were so weak and ill-equipped at the moment of French desertion, now control all the regions from Teheran to Benghazi, and from Aleppo and Cyprus to the sources of the Nile.
For the first time we have made the Hun feel the sharp edge of those tools with which he has enslaved Europe…. I am so glad to be able to place before you, members of the Senate and of the House of Representatives, at this moment when you are entering the war, the proof that with proper weapons and proper organization, we are able to beat the life out of the savage Nazi. What Hitlerism is suffering in Libya is only a sample and a foretaste of what we have got to give him….
Getting down to specifics, Churchill paints pictures with words about the Russian resistance, Italy’s defeats, and his contempt for Mussolini and the Vichy French. He emphasizes victories despite bad news. He excels at demonising the enemy: “the Hun” and the “savage Nazi” personalizes them in the singular tense.
“Facts pointing in a common direction”
There are good tidings also from blue water. The lifeline of supplies which joins our two nations across the ocean, without which all would fail—that lifeline is flowing steadily and freely in spite of all that the enemy can do. It is a fact that the British Empire, which many thought 18 months ago was broken and ruined, is now incomparably stronger and is growing stronger with every month. Lastly, if you will forgive me for saying it, to me the best tidings of all—the United States, united as never before, has drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard.
Powerful imagery sparkles in Churchill’s message. Regardless of how some Americans look on it, he is not afraid to take pride in the British Empire and its renowned navy. “If you forgive me for saying it” is masterly understatement, repeated later in his memoirs: “No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy….”
“Words evolve by taste and experience”
All these tremendous facts have led the subjugated peoples of Europe to lift up their heads again in hope. They have put aside forever the shameful temptation of resigning themselves to the conqueror’s will. Hope has returned to the hearts of scores of millions of men and women, and with that hope there burns the flame of anger against the brutal, corrupt invader. And still more fiercely burn the fires of hatred and contempt for the filthy Quislings whom he has suborned.
Vidkun Quisling, who headed a collaborationist regime in Nazi-occupied Norway, had a name perfectly suited to Churchill’s invective and pronunciation. Though it was similarly used by Quisling’s political opponents in the 1930s, and by “Chips” Channon in Britain, it was Churchill who popularized “quisling” as a deadly synonym for a traitor.
“A tendency to wild extravagance of language”
We know that for many years past the policy of Japan has been dominated by secret societies of subalterns and junior officers of the army and navy, who have enforced their will upon successive Japanese cabinets and parliaments by the assassination of any Japanese statesmen who opposed or who did not sufficiently further their aggressive policy. It may be that these societies, dazzled and dizzy with their own schemes of aggression and the prospect of early victories, have forced their country—against its better judgment—into war. They have certainly embarked upon a very considerable undertaking.
The last sentence interjects unexpected humour into the moment. Damning the enemy with faint praise, it caused an eruption of laughter from the Senators and Representatives. But Churchill’s next words had them on their feet…
“The effect upon a cultivated audience is electrical”
After the outrages they have committed upon us at Pearl Harbor, in the Pacific Islands, in the Philippines, in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, they must now know that the stakes for which they have decided to play are mortal. When we look at the resources of the United States and the British Empire compared to those of Japan; when we remember those of China, which have so long valiantly withstood invasion and tyranny—and when also we observe the Russian menace which hangs over Japan—it becomes still more difficult to reconcile Japanese action with prudence or even with sanity. What kind of a people do they think we are? Is it possible that they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them until they have been taught a lesson which they and the world will never forget?
This passage with its three rhetorical questions forms the climax of his appeal, his supreme rallying cry. As he uttered with emphasis, “What kind of a people do they think we are?” almost the entire assembly—including many former hardbitten isolationists—rose and roared approval.
“The last words fall amid a thunder of assent”
If we had kept together after the last war, if we had taken common measures for our safety, this renewal of the curse need never have fallen upon us. Do we not owe it to ourselves, to our children, to tormented mankind, to make sure that these catastrophes do not engulf us for the third time?
“If we had kept together….” Anyone who had closely followed Churchill might have seen this subtle rebuke coming. He is fearless to mention it, but by now, having raised their passions, he draws applause from his listeners. They don’t seem to mind; probably many now agree with him. Boldly, Churchill then looks to a better future….
“Their ear is tickled…the enthusiasm rises”
If you will allow me to use other language, I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below of which we have the honour to be the faithful servants. It is not given to us to peer into the mysteries of the future. Still, I avow my hope and faith, sure and inviolate, that in the days to come the British and American peoples will, for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together in majesty, in justice and in peace.
The last sentence is from Bourke Cockran, after his father the greatest influence on Churchill’s rhetoric. Appealing to providence and destiny, Churchill winds up with words of unavoidable appeal. As he later wrote: “Now at this very moment I knew the United States was in the war, up to the neck and in to the death. So we had won after all!”
…is a lawyer living in Loughton, Essex, part of Churchill’s old constituency of Epping, later Woodford (1924-65). Mr. Cohen founded the Facebook page “Winston Churchill,” which in two years soared past 21,000 subscribers. As head of the Essex Branch of the Jewish Historical Society, he sponsored a podcast with historian Sarah Reguer on Churchill and the Middle East. “Masters of our Fate” was the formal title of Churchill’s speech to Congress. In his conversation with Tony Wilson of Speakola, Mr. Cohen offers further explorations of Churchill’s rhetoric at Washington. Click here.