WINSTON S. CHURCHILL’S A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH-SPEAKING PEOPLES (4 vols., 1956-8) is the literary masterwork of the twentieth century’s greatest historical figure. Before the collection reached the press, Churchill’s stature as a writer was secure. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953, the same year he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. In the Nobel presentation speech, a member of the Swedish Academy wrestled with the problem of finding parallels to Churchill’s combined talents in writing and statecraft. Reaching for distant, and astonishingly lofty comparisons, author Sigfrid Siwertz thought of Churchill as “a Caesar who also has the gift of Cicero’s pen.” Maybe Churchill would have been pleased to be associated with the mere mortals that populate this book, The Age of Revolution, volume three of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Beginning with Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim in 1704 and ending with Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, Churchill recounts Britain’s rise to world leadership over the course of the eighteenth century. In this volume Churchill provides an excellent illustration of his unique literary voice, together with an introduction to his thoughts on the forces that shape human affairs. To read it is to savor something truly rare in literary history, a great book on a great subject written by a great man.
The contours of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill’s early life suggest that he was destined for greatness. His childhood years were set against the backdrop of centuries of public service in the Churchill line, as with his distant kin, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, the very soldier-statesman who dominates the opening chapters of this book. Winston Churchill was born November 30, 1874, to Lord Randolph Churchill and his American wife, Jennie Jerome. His parents thus personified a transatlantic connection that later shaped Churchill’s perspective on world events. But education came hard for Churchill, who struggled at his preparatory schools, including prestigious Harrow, before proceeding to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. A military career followed, though Churchill combined his tours of duty with writing; his service in Cuba, India, South Africa, Sudan, and elsewhere resulted in newspaper articles for the Morning Post and Daily Telegraph, as well as books like The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), The River War (1899), and Savrola (1900). Churchill entered the House of Commons in 1900 and several years later aligned with the Liberal Party. In 1908, he met and married Clementine Hozier, who eventually bore him four daughters and a son. Churchill acquired his first important post when he became first lord of the Admiralty in 1912 in order to hasten naval preparations for the anticipated Great War, only to be fired for advocating the disastrous Dardanelles campaign of 1915. This began a long period of estrangement from national politics, with occasional party switching and short stints in cabinet-level positions. During this period he began work on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and published The World Crisis and the Aftermath (5 vols., 1923-31) in which he narrated the events of the Great War and assessed the post-war international situation. Because of this work, and his consistent voice for preparedness in light of the rising fascist movement in Europe, Churchill once again became first lord of the Admiralty (1939) and rose to Prime Minster the next year. Yet, Churchill’s unflinching leadership of the Allied coalition during World War II could not help the Conservative Party stave off electoral defeat in 1945. Churchill returned as Prime Minster in 1951, a position he held until poor health drove him from office in 1955. He died on January 24, 1965, and his gravesite is located at St. Martin’s Church in Bladon near his ancestral home and birth-place of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire.
Given his background, Churchill warmed quite easily to the subject matter of The Age of Revolution. It is a book of imperial ambitions and epic battles, broad-minded heroes and self-interested fools. Churchill met the challenge of these grand themes with true literary craft, occasionally rewarding the careful reader with the sublime. For example, he described the aftermath of Marlborough’s greatest victory as a time when Englishmen “yielded themselves to transports of joy.” Churchill’s talent assiduously matched language with its intended purpose. William of Orange possessed not mere courage, but a “dauntless heart,” and William Pitt called “into life and action the depressed and languid spirit of England.” Here Pitt doesn’t merely inspire, he releases wellsprings of English virtue that few men could ever summon. As a writer, then, Churchill embodied the English ideal of subordinating form to function. Churchill was mindful of the destructive forces that threatened civilization in his own lifetime—nationalism, industrialism, and fascism. It was his unshaken belief that the character of individual statesmen inoculated the nation against the dangerous effects of improper policy in the face of these challenges. This voice pervades Age of Revolution. Churchill’s intent is captured in his reference to an inscription on William Pitt’s statue in London: “The means by which Providence raises a nation to greatness are the virtues infused into great men.” Thus we have Marlborough’s “serene, practical and adaptive” character providing the antidote to the spirit of party vexing the court of William and Mary, which was aggravated by the vacillation of the Dutch, the treachery of the Pretender, and of course the “perfidity” of Louis XIV. The figures change throughout the narrative, but Churchill’s voice remains steady.
It is tempting to attribute Churchill’s authorial voice to his advantaged upbringing. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that “historians of aristocratic ages, looking at the world’s theater, first see a few leading actors in control of the whole play.” Put simply, history’s plot is driven by the actions and preoccupations of her great men. The chief historians of England before Churchill’s time possessed this vision. Churchill admired the work of Thomas Babington Macaulay, the gentleman-scholar who also wrote a multi-volume history, The History of England from the Accession of James the Second (5 vols., 1849-61). Actually, Churchill shared much in common with Macaulay, including privileged birth, tenure in the colonial service, election to Parliament, cabinet posts, and of course a passion for the history of the British Isles. One of Churchill’s biographers noted that as a schoolboy, he impressed his Harrow headmaster by reciting one thousand two hundred lines of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome (1842). In keeping with this tradition of seeing great men behind the great events of history, the so-called “Great Man” theory appears on every page of The Age of Revolution. To Churchill, success in the Seven Year’s War “depended on the energies of this one man,” William Pitt; without him, Canada would still be French. To the east, Robert Clive was “the man who would reverse his country’s fortunes and found the rule of the British in India.” Military history and foreign affairs dominate Churchill’s account, and the generals and diplomats who carved out an empire for Britain supply the cast of characters. Occasionally the narrative mentions other items of importance, pausing to assess the political effects of the South Sea Bubble, and casually mentioning the litany of heroes that populate the English cultural pantheon—Swift, Pope, Defoe, Newton. The Industrial Revolution gets its own paragraph, nothing more. None of these themes can divert the author’s attention from the story of great men who steered England to the brink of global domination in the early nineteenth century.
It is even more tempting to attribute Churchill’s voice to his own experiences as a statesman during a time of great calamity for his people. He began History of the English-Speaking Peoples in 1932 as a way to produce much-needed income. He agreed to a contract worth twenty thousand pounds sterling and a five-year deadline, but events intervened. He continued to work part-time on the project in 1940 and 1941, despite the many demands on his time, though he set it aside after the war to complete his voluminous memoir of World War II. When opportunity arose to finish it, he was keen to revisit his earlier perspectives in light of the world-changing events during his tenure in office. The subject matter of the series, and The Age of Revolution in particular, suddenly took on new meaning. As such, Churchill saved his worst condemnations for spineless commanders like Rooke and Ormonde and for trimming ministers like Hawley, rather than known evils like Louis XIV or Napoleon. In the eighteenth century, Churchill saw a faint echo of his own, more contemporary difficulties in rousing a sleepy nation to meet the grave threats gathering in Europe. He lamented the “weakness and improvidence” in England’s leadership that followed the Treaty of Ryswick (1697), just as he castigated the English upper classes who “seemed to take as much interest in prize-fighting and fox-hunting as in the world crisis” created by the French Revolution. Churchill’s moral calculus weighed the selfishness and treachery of one’s own kind as heavier than the predictable malevolence of England’s historic rivals.
Churchill benefited from the advice of professional historians in the creation of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, but this series was very much a product of his own thinking and his own labours. By the end of his life, Churchill witnessed the advent of Social History among the academic historians. These writers were more apt to invest causal agency in broad, impersonal forces than in the genius of particular men and women. Christopher Hill, Keith Wrightson, John Brewer, Linda Colley, and others drew attention to class formation, urbanization, consumerism, and other sociological and economic phenomena, and along the way, they soft-pedaled political, military, and diplomatic themes. When the academy demanded renewed attention to politics, scholars responded with books on political culture, or political ideology, as in the work of Geoffrey Holmes, W. A. Speck, and J. C. D. Clark. In The Age of Revolution, there are hints of the changes that would eventually remake the world, and ultimately shape the consciousness of these postwar historians. Churchill traces the progress of freedom and equality through the American and French Revolutions in this volume, leading up to a climax in which liberty itself is imperiled by bloodthirsty Jacobins and would-be dictators. As the book closes, revolutionary nationalism is in the air, and Churchill dreads the coming of mass movements that will seek to undermine the gift of stability and peace that Castlereagh and Wellington brought to Europe. Socialism, communism, syndicalism, fascism, and the like came to dominate European politics, and prompted historians after Churchill’s time to interpret history’s plot as driven by underlying structures and forces.
Again, Tocqueville anticipated the degree to which historians of democratic societies—the kind of society England had become over Churchill’s lifetime—would be entranced by “general causes,” rather than the “actions of individuals.”
So, Churchill didn’t succumb to democratizing fashions in historical scholarship, either because of his elitist background or the perspective he acquired as Britain’s leading statesman. We should be glad he didn’t. This reprint of Churchill’s literary masterpiece makes available to modern readers a strong moral voice that is as relevant to our troubled times as it was to his own. Churchill’s insights justified the massive initial printing of one hundred thirty thousand copies. He illustrates, through his study of Britain’s leading eighteenth-century figures, how strength of character and commitment to principle can raise a nation to greatness. Then too, these virtues can be twisted into dogmatism and inflexibility in the absence of moderation and sound judgment. The value of Churchill’s narrative lies in the discovery of what he called “practical wisdom” in Thomas Jefferson and other leading figures of the age. Although it is a rare commodity, Churchill recognised—and we too must recognise—that it is the precious coin of democratic leadership, the thing that sustains the values and traditions of the Anglo-American world.