Churchill on Paper
A library exhibit examines the great man as a prose stylist.

Winston Churchill at 10 Downing Street in 1940


Charles C. W. Cooke

This goal, to maintain the “urge and impulse of the ages,” motivated Churchill in war and in peace. In this he channeled his American heritage (his mother was born in Brooklyn, and he spent a not insignificant amount of time in the country as his fame as a writer grew). F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up that “England was a people, but America, having about it that quality of an idea, was hard to utter.” Churchill uttered it magnificently; at once straddling and bridging the divide, and championing Anglo-American liberty in its new and old forms. Not by accident did he elect to write his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He appreciated keenly the ideas that those peoples had generated — ideas that transcended them and of which he considered the colonies of the British Empire to be beneficiaries, white and non-white alike. Such convictions, noble though they were, could occasionally push him down a blind alley. Certainly, they explain his regrettable and dogged unwillingness to let go of India when it was clear to most that the independence of that country was an inevitability.

The ideas that underpinned the British Empire and American Republic creep freely into Churchill’s writing, even when dubiously relevant. In 1936, when condemning the Japanese bombing of China, he lamented to an indifferent House of Commons that the Japanese were attacking the “stately language” of the Declaration of Independence, and the Chinese were fighting for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” There he may have overstepped the bounds of credibility, but his oratory was generally better off for such enthusiasms. His readiness to separate the virtues of Anglo-American liberty from its authors and see freedom as a universal good formed an especially crucial distinction when contrasted with the crude appeal to exclusive racial superiority that emanated from Germany during its Third Reich.

In his post-war “Iron Curtain” speech at Westminster College in Missouri, Churchill adumbrated this line of thought. Britain and America’s role in the world, he affirmed, was to defend the “title deeds of freedom which should lie in every cottage home.” And, these being “the message of the British and American peoples to mankind,”

we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.

The war predominates, for obvious reasons. But the exhibition also deals with both Churchill’s formative years and the emotionally mixed days after victory had been won — days in which he suffered from depression (“black dog”), a surprising post-bellum defeat at the polls — and faced up to the task of warning a war-weary world that the “sunlit uplands” that he had promised would be the fruits of victory were, alas, subject to a new shadow cast by an “iron curtain.”

As a child, Churchill did not seem set for greatness — who does, really? — and struggled at school, ever remaining in the shadow of his famous father, Randolph. “The stupidest boy at Harrow who is the son of the cleverest man in England” was his schoolmaster’s evaluation, and the report card in the Morgan Library’s collection does little to contradict the opinion. (One verdict was simply: “Very bad — is a constant trouble to everybody.”) As was common at the time, being sent to boarding school was a virtual estrangement from his parents. The letters in the exhibition show a boy full of unrequited love and trapped within Victorian strictures that had little room for his effusive personality and specialized skills. Like many a great autodidact, he was unsuited to the confines of a curriculum. “Personally I’m always ready to learn,” he wrote, “although I do not always like being taught.” That he had written and had published two classic war memoirs by his 20th birthday vindicated his complaint.

It would be a grave mistake to presume that, after a rough school career, the boy magically transformed into a sage. Lord Birkenhead never spoke truer words than when observing, “When Winston’s right, he’s right. When he’s wrong, well, my God.” But while Churchill was often wrong, he was never unsure. Of the British government’s policy toward Nazi Germany he wrote, “so they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.” Whatever his flaws, these were words that could never have been spoken of him. Instead, he lived by his motto: “I never worry about action, only inaction.” The modern world owes that fact a sizeable debt — Herbert Spencer be damned.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.