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The Great Democracies, the fourth volume of Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples, was the last volume in his long literary career. This fact by itself, however, would make it unworthy of study. What makes it valuable is that it serves as a distillation of Churchill’s political thinking and vision, especially in regards to his belief that there existed fundamental ties, cultural and political, among the English-speaking peoples. As a work of history, this volume covers the period from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the end of the South African or Boer War in 1902, and explores the development of six English-speaking societies: Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and the United States as they advance towards democracy. Churchill’s emphasis, however, is on Great Britain and the United States as central to progress and freedom in the world and the essential unity between the two societies. Readers aware of the current “special relationship” between Great Britain and the United States will find in Churchill’s treatment of nineteenth-century Anglo-American history the origins of this relationship. Moreover, reading this volume will also introduce to readers aspects of Churchillian philosophy that guided his actions as a participant in world affairs. Two, in particular, should be stressed at the outset. First, Churchill had a concrete philosophy of historical change: He believed in the inexorable progress of mankind and that this progress was best guided by peaceable change and reform in society rather than by violent revolution. Second, underscoring Churchill’s romantic temperament as a man attracted by action and adventure, he believed in the active role played by “great men” in which the outcome of events is determined by the heroism and courage of individuals. Finally, readers will see narrative and philosophy are presented in The Great Democracies through Churchill’s considerable writing skill. This skill included allusiveness, subtle insight into human character, a briskness in pace, a shrewd use of analogy and simile, and an ability to be vivid and to stimulate the reader.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965) is best remembered as one of the leading political figures of the twentieth century. Through a long political career that extended from 1900 to 1964, he achieved high-level positions in the British Cabinet, including serving as First Lord of the Admiralty during both World Wars as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer (a rough equivalent to the American position Secretary of the Treasury) from 1924 to 1929. Of course, Churchill reached his greatest fame as Prime Minister on two separate occasions, most memorably during the Second World War when his indomitable will and “bulldog” personality seemed to personify the British people’s will to survive and triumph over the Nazi threat. But Churchill also belonged to a select group of individuals, twentieth-century writer-politicians like: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Charles DeGaulle—political figures who could also be regarded as distinguished for their literary gifts. In Churchill’s case, the full recognition of his literary skills came when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. His body of literature included journalism (London to Ladysmith, via Pretoria , Ian Hamilton’s March ), essays about contemporaries (Great Contemporaries ), memoirs (The World Crisis and the Aftermath [1923-31], My Early Life , The Second World War [1948-54 ]), biographies (Lord Randolph Churchill , Marlborough: His Life and Times [1933-38]), as well as History of the English-Speaking Peoples. This last was published in two installments in 1957-58 with the fourth volume, The Great Democracies, published in the latter year, and had as its primary purpose the objective of reminding readers of the common heritage that connected peoples of the British Isles with the English-speaking peoples living in the Commonwealth, South Africa, or the United States. Churchill, himself, was half-American. His mother, Jennie Jerome, was the daughter of Leonard Jerome, a prominent New York financier, sportsman, and newspaper proprietor (he was part-owner of The New York Times). This American heritage helps to explain Churchill’s keen interest in American history and the emphasis given to it in The Great Democracies with its especially detailed account of the American Civil War. Churchill famously stated to the U.S. Congress in December 1941, “I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own,” suggesting that he personified the shared heritage of the British and Americans. The Americans certainly recognized Churchill’s ties to the United States when they granted him honorary citizenship in 1963.
As a young man, Winston Churchill was much influenced by the titans of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British historical profession: Edward Gibbon and Thomas Macaulay. Churchill borrowed the stately and oracular writing style of Gibbon, the author of the multi-volume eighteenth-century masterpiece Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In addition, Gibbon, in his classic study of Ancient Rome, described the existence of an enlightened empire whose laws and traditions helped to civilize the Western world, arguably serving as a model for the later British Empire. Churchill learned from Macaulay, in History of England, a style that was incisive and forcible, as well as the historical philosophy—the “Whig” philosophy—that informed The Great Democracies. The “Whig” philosophy, as understood by historians, sees history as a process of mankind’s development in which necessary, desirable ends are inescapably achieved. To Whigs like Macaulay (who could be seen as forerunners of Britain’s modern-day Liberals) such ends included the protection of life and liberty and the guaranteed pursuit of happiness.
Churchill saw Great Britain as playing a beneficent role in the world and accomplishing the goals of progress. A number of examples demonstrate this. In the context of the Congress of Vienna, the peace conference that concluded the Napoleonic Wars, Churchill saw the foreign policy of Viscount Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, complemented by the armed might led by the Duke of Wellington as serving as a restraint upon the appetites of the Continental Powers. He noted, “the moderating influence of Britain was the foundation of the peace of Europe” (book X, chapter I). The role played by Great Britain at the Congress of Vienna in achieving and maintaining a balance of power in Europe helped to preserve the general peace of that continent for two generations. And after narrating a century of history in which general wars were absent from the continent of Europe (not that war, itself, was absent), Churchill could conclude that “Nearly a hundred years of peace and progress had carried Britain to the leadership of the world. She had striven repeatedly for the maintenance of peace, at any rate for herself, and progress and prosperity had been continuous in all classes” (book XII, chapter XXI). Peace, prosperity, and progress were the characteristics of British development in the nineteenth century.
This peace and prosperity were achieved through the adoption of gradual, pragmatic reforms. Students of history, examining the nineteenth century, have often considered Great Britain and France as providing quite different models of political development. France, unlike Great Britain, frequently brought about change through the processes of violent revolution. Churchill was not unaware of dark clouds that occasionally hovered over the British political landscape. But to him, the British “genius” was to avoid the course of revolution and to expediently adopt reform when it was necessary—thereby escaping the travails of many other European states. One such instance was in the early 1830s: When revolution engulfed France, Belgium broke away from the Netherlands, and Poland tried to do the same from Russia. Meanwhile, Great Britain was saddled with a parliamentary system that largely disenfranchised the growing middle class. Churchill notes, however, that “In the growing towns and cities, industrial discontent was driving men of business and their workers into political action. Turmoil, upheaval, even revolution seemed imminent. Instead, there was a General Election” (book X, chapter III). Britain had, in other words, mechanisms that could serve to deflect more radical enterprises. A General Election swept into office parliamentarians who were more willing to adopt electoral reform that would give the vote to a larger number of people, making the British political system somewhat more representative. Progress and the growth of liberty and freedom came about through the nature of the British character—the ability to compromise and accommodate. This was a “genius” that did not extend to all English-speaking peoples as the case of the United States demonstrated. There, progress and liberty, as represented by the abolition of slavery, had to be accomplished by the use of arms. The result, the abolition of slavery, however, does conform to the “Whig” interpretation of history in that, inevitably, the march of freedom continually marches forward.
Winston Churchill may have had a philosophy of history, but he was not a determinist. He did not believe history was a process by which events moved according to invisible and impersonal laws. Instead, he placed great weight on the roles played by individuals. He subscribed to the concept of “the Great Man of History” in which dominant figures could will events or change the course of events. The reader of The Great Democracies will find the volume filled with crisp, sharp judgments on people who played leading roles in the course of the nineteenth century. Churchill was especially engaged by the roles played by political and military personalities. In his view, the heart of history lies in politics and warfare, and historical progress was made possible by heroes. Great men, according to Winston Churchill, possessed common virtues, principal among them being courage and honor. Therefore, we have this description of Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister from 1841 to 1846, who played a leading role in Britain’s adoption of Free Trade: “He was not a man of broad and ranging modes of thought, but he understood better than any of his contemporaries the needs of the country and he had the outstanding courage [italics are mine] to change his views in order to meet them” (book X, chapter III). We can also witness his rapturous observation of Robert E. Lee whose “…noble presence and gentle, kindly manner were sustained by religious faith and an exalted character” (book XI, chapter X). Churchill, a former military man himself and a keen student of military history, paid considerable attention to the attributes of military leaders engaged in the wars of the nineteenth century. For example, in his treatment of the American Civil War, there is an entire chapter devoted to the rivalry between Robert E. Lee and, to Churchill, the underrated George McClellan. Both, in their solicitude for the welfare of their soldiers and in their desire to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, characterize nobility of character. Churchill’s evaluation of McClellan is more sympathetic than it is for Ulysses S. Grant, whose campaign of “attrition” in 1864, albeit successful, seemed non-heroic as it probably foreshadowed, to Churchill, the butchery of the First World War.
American readers will be struck by the attention Winston Churchill paid to the United States in The Great Democracies. Nearly half the volume is devoted to American history in which particular attention is paid to the American Civil War, an event that, no doubt, engaged Churchill’s interest in military history. His interest in American history was partially due to his half-American heritage, but it was also due to Churchill’s belief in the intertwined heritages of Great Britain and the United States (deriving from a shared language and the similarity of political systems that respected liberties and allowed for representative government) and the need to promote, for the present and future, Anglo-American unity. The Anglo-American partnership, according to Churchill, dates back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 in which the American proclamation of resistance to interference in Western Hemispheric affairs by European powers is buttressed by the might of the British navy which “remained the stoutest guarantee of freedom in the Americas. Thus shielded by the British bulwark, the American continent was able to work out its own unhindered destiny” (book X, chapter II). This symbiotic relationship was tested by the British government’s flirtation with the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War and by the Venezuelan boundary dispute in 1895, a crisis resulting from Britain’s refusal to accept American mediation in a boundary dispute between Venezuela and the British colony of British Guiana. This rejection was seen by the United States as a violation of the Monroe Doctrine. In the end, however, war was averted, diplomacy prevailed, and, by the turn of the twentieth century, a firm partnership seemed to be possible, achieved finally by a common participation in the First World War and lasting to the present day.
Winston Churchill wrote History of the English-Speaking Peoples by depending upon the assistance of trained historians who helped him in his research and in the preparation of drafts. Even though this volume received favorable notices at the time of publication, as many critics cited its readability, the assistance Churchill received by others made The Great Democracies seem less “personal” than his various memoirs or the biographies of his father or his great ancestor, John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough. Critics may also note that The Great Democracies gives insufficient weight to economic and especially social history or that it fails to discuss significantly the arts or the many great engineering or scientific achievements of the nineteenth century. It is “history from above,” concentrating on politics, as practiced by great political figures, and military history, as practiced by the officer class. One might note, for example, that the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in Great Britain, seen as a central factor in the mobilization of radical opinion that helped create the climate in Great Britain for reform, is given fairly brief attention certainly by comparison with the space devoted to the personal conflict between King George IV and his estranged spouse, Caroline of Brunswick. Readers outside of the United States may feel a similar imbalance is demonstrated by the attention paid to the history of the United States by comparison with that of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Many Americans themselves may find some of Churchill’s interpretations of American history, especially regarding the origins of the Civil War, the Civil War itself, or the Reconstruction period to be questionable or outdated, a product of the historiography prior to the Second World War when Churchill first began writing History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Later historians of the Reconstruction period like Fawn Brodie, Kenneth Stampp, or Eric Foner would dispute Churchill’s observations that Radical Republicans like Zachariah Chandler or Thaddeus Stevens were animated by “ignoble motives” or were “ill-principled men” (book XII, chapter XVII).
These are fair criticisms, but The Great Democracies remains valuable reading. Not only does it serve as an example of Churchill’s notable literary craft, but it also serves as an encapsulation of Churchill’s world-view, his political philosophy. That is, it demonstrates his fundamental optimism that freedom and liberty are central to the advancement of civilization, and that the English-speaking peoples could serve as a model for the rest of the world. At the heart of his vision and central to what was an imperial, but beneficently transforming, mission was the Anglo-American partnership whose origins lie in the nineteenth century, but which was cemented by the experience of two World Wars and which continues to flourish to the present.