Essay / Culture

Winston Churchill on George Washington and Abraham Lincoln

America has been blessed many times throughout its history with remarkable leaders. Winston Churchill, who many know as the Prime Minster of Great Britain during WWII, was keenly interested in American history. He was interested in American history partly because his mother was an American, but fundamentally because he believed that history gave insight on the pursuit of statecraft. James Humes,who was a speechwriter for three presidents, recounted a conversation he had with Churchill when he was a graduate student in England; Churchill said to Humes, “Study history, study history. In history lies all the secrets of statecraft.”

From 1929 to 1939, Winston Churchill was denied any position in the British government. This period was called the “Wilderness Years” by his official biographer Martin Gilbert. It was during that period Churchill began his now famous History of English Speaking Peoples. It is in this work Churchill shares his thoughts on two of the arguably most famous and important presidents in American history Washington and Lincoln, and in honor of Presidents’ Day it seems apropos to read what one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century had to say about two of America’s greatest presidents.

In volume 3 of his history he describes Washington in the chapter “The Quarrel with America.” Churchill certainly understood the early limitations of Washington as General of the new American army as he points out that he was the only one in the Congress who had any military experience which, “was limited to a few minor campaigns on the American frontier. He was not given command of all the forces that America could raise. Great calls were to be made on the spirit of resolution that was his by nature.” Churchill points to Washington’s “spirit of resolution” as being the key component to his eventual success and the success of the United States.

Later, in volume three, you can almost hear the admiration in his voice for America’s first Commander-in-Chief when Churchill reflects on the achievements of Washington’s Presidency.

George Washington holds one of the proudest titles that history can bestow. He was the Father of his Nation. Almost alone his stanchness in the War of Independence held the American colonies to their united purpose. His services after victory had been won were no less great. His firmness and example while first President restrained the violence of faction and postponed a national schism for sixty years. His character and influence steadied the dangerous leanings of Americans to take sides against Britain or France. He filed his office with dignity and inspired his administration with much of his own wisdom. To his terms as are due the smooth organization of the federal government, the establishment of national credit, and the foundational of foreign policy.

In writing of Abraham Lincoln in volume 4 of his history he remarks on Lincoln’s internal strength during the height of the Civil War.

The President’s faith in the Union cause was never dimmed by disappointments. He was beset by anxieties, which led him to cross-examine his commanders as if he were still a prosecuting attorney… Lincoln’s popularity with the troops stood high. They put their trust in him. They could have no knowledge of the relentless political pressures in Washington to which he was subjected. They had a sense of his natural resolution and generosity of character. He had to draw deeply on these qualities in his work at the White House.

Churchill describes Lincoln’s appeal to God for inner strength during darkest times of the war, and how God gave Lincoln the ability to withstand the most tumultuous of times.

When the toll of the war rose steeply and plans went wrong he appealed for strength in his inmost thoughts to a power higher than man’s. Strength was certainly given him. It is sometimes necessary at the summit of authority to bear with the intrigues of disloyal colleagues, to remain calm when others panic, and to withstand popular outcries–all this Lincoln did…  As the war drew on Lincoln became more and more gaunt and the furrows on his cheeks and brow bit deep. Fortitude was written on his countenance.

Churchill points out how in victory over the Confederacy, “at cabinet on April 14th he spoke of Lee and other Confederate leaders with forgiveness and goodwill.” Lincoln proved to be a man of great conviction both during the struggle to save the Union and in victory against Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy.

Churchill describes the devastating political fallout from the assassination of Lincoln,

Lincoln died the next day, without gaining consciousness, and with him died the only protector of the prostrate South. Others might try to emulate his magnanimity; none but he could control the bitter hatreds which were rife. The assassin’s bullet had wrought more evil to the United States than all of the Confederate cannonade…[T]he death of Lincoln deprived the union of the guiding hand which alone could have solved the problems of reconstruction and added to the triumph of armies those lasting victories which are gained over the hearts of men.

It seems that Churchill, arguably the most famous British Prime Minster, learned much from two outstanding American presidents. When Churchill’s “Wilderness Years” came to an end he was called upon by his people to lead them against the blitzkrieging German war machine during WWII. It was his steadfast, resolute, fortitude that guided the British people during some of the darkest days in the history of Great Britain, and ultimately to victory. He famously states his view of military conflict in this way, “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.” It sounds very much like something Washington or Lincoln would have said.

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