Scaffolding Rhetoric: Churchill in Congress, 1941

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. 

Churchill address­es Con­gress, 26 Decem­ber 1941

“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!”

Richard Cohen…

…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.

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