- Historic Sites
Sir Winston Churchill As A Historian
A famed British historian and poet looks at Churchill's two masterpieces.
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
With his treatment of American history, it is generally agreed that he gives disproportionate space to the Civil War—that is, if it is possible to give disproportionate space to the Civil War. My chief criticism of this volume is that it omits the western migration across the prairies that conquered a whole continent, and is one of the decisive folk movements of history: the grand epic of nineteenth-century America. So far as the Civil War is concerned he gives us, as we should expect, a most vivid account of the campaigns and the battles, set in a generous perspective: “Thus ended the great American Civil War, which must upon the whole be considered the noblest and least avoidable of all the great mass-conflicts of which till then there was record.” He sums up the losses, and the historic gain. As an old soldier his sympathies are with the soldiers on both sides, rather than with the politicians: “If these two Presidents had let McClellan and Lee fight the quarrel out between them as they thought best the end would have been the same, but the war would have been less muddled, much shorter, and less bloody.” As you would expect, his soldier’s admiration goes to Lee, but he has a fine tribute to Lincoln: “Lincoln’s political foes, gazing upon him, did not know vigour when they saw it.” And his own wartime experience shows in the knowledgeable comment: “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 misguided popular outcries. All this Lincoln did.”
Here, as one reviewer pointed out, is the most powerful criticism of the book—that the real history of the English-speaking peoples proceeds and finds a living unity “on levels of the historical process with which Sir Winston does not concern himself at all.” Englishspeaking ties in the nineteenth century were above all economic and social, demographic and popular. There was the fundamental interchange of British manufactures for American raw materials and food; the contribution of British shipping and capital investment, especially in railways, in opening up the new continent.
And there is the reverse process: the immense impact of America on Britain in this period, the constant influence of the great American writers from Fenimore Cooper onwards—sometimes their fame was first made in Britain; of American political and social ideas in the extension of democracy and equality; of American religious and revivalistic movements; of folklore and popular music and entertainment of every kind, from Negro spirituals to circuses; not to mention the humbler inventions that lightened millions of working class homes with paraffin lamps, sewing machines, harmoniums, rocking chairs, at length telephones.
If justice were to be done to this dual process of action and reaction at every level it would need another volume. But it is not Churchill’s subject, and he has done enough for one lifetime.
Perhaps we may sum up.
What are his qualities as a writer of history? They are allied to those of the maker of it, the man of action. The combination of powerful common sense with imagination is always a stronger one for a historian than any amount of ethical uplift—more in keeping with the facts of life, the subject matter of history. There is no humbug in Churchill, not a trace: it has been one of his disadvantages as a politician to be incapable of it. Nor is he in any way religious: he is at the opposite pole from any sort of mysticism—though he has pietas, like an ancient Roman, and in time of trouble, stoicism. His lifelong inspiration has been patriotism, an out-of-date virtue today. He is philosophically a rationalist, who sees life in terms of struggle; his intellectual outlook was much shaped by his reading of Darwin when young. He has always attached importance to the role of chance, luck, fortune in human affairs. In his own life, so closely bound up with politics, he has seen far too much of its changes and chances, its ups and downs, its course deflected by a mere pebble in the stream, not to appreciate the role played by mere chance in history. What are his values? Courage, resource, duty to country and mankind, achievement in all fields; for no one is so human or so enjoys fulfillment in all spheres of action, physical and mental.
All this appears in the historian: such a sense of life, such a way of re-creating the past; the choice of subjects of significance combined with the presentation of new material, marshaled like troops on a battlefield; vitality, perception, political understanding, and the style to express it: without these no historian can properly be called great.
Of course, he has had a double dose of vitality, a double inheritance. I have said that his chief inspiration has been patriotism, which he has come to broaden out to apply to the English-speaking peoples as a whole. In this, too, he has had the double advantage that in him the British and American strains are equally strong. He sees, prophetically, that our separate histories are tending to merge into one stream: his last words to us on his last page are, “Nor should we now seek to define precisely the exact terms of ultimate union.”