The books that… fill my Churchill shelf. PART 3: History of the English-Speaking Peoples
Churchill, The History of the English Speaking Peoples (hereinafter HESP), (my copy is the American edition, Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1962 reprint; first published 1956-1958). Volumes I-IV: The Birth of Britain; The New World; The Age of Revolutions; The Great Democracies.
The four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, begun by Churchill before the Secord World War, is the last book he completed and published. It’s a highly personal view of British and American history (with very little on the English speaking nations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even next-door Ireland. As for Indians, Africans, and other non-white colonials, for Churchill they are merely the beneficiaries of British imperial rule.). Largely written in the late 1930s, it was left unfinished when the war erupted. He returned to it after his second prime ministry ended in 1955. By that time, Churchill was in his early 80s and in ill health. As with his memoir, The Second World War (TSSW), a committee of accomplished historians and researchers helped him to finish the book.
Churchill’s histories, as critics have long pointed out, were largely limited in scope to brilliant and mediocre statesmen and generals in conflict. Or, as Clement Atlee famously joked about the author and his books, “Things in history that interested me.” In the case of HESP, Churchill puts the spotlight on kings, barons, generals, parliamentarians, other “Great Men” (and a few women, e.g., Boudicca, Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth), and not a few poltroons. By pushing against one another for power, forever scheming and negotiating, when not sword-thrusting and axe-chopping, Churchill’s parade of characters advanced and backpedaled their usually self-centered way toward liberty. In the process, they transformed England from ancient Rome’s 43rd province to the far-flung empire that, by 1900, turned most world maps half-pink, and, on the west side of the Atlantic, their cousins created and ensured the survival of the United States. Politics and battles fill HESP’s sixteen hundred pages, as Churchill describes an unsteady, uncertain, and, even to the author, questionable march of progress toward the rule of law among the English-speaking peoples. Englishmen (and their Welsh and Scottish cousins) and Americans stand, at the book’s end, poised as mankind’s best hope that Western civilization will survive. Society, science, economics, literature, art, and the lives of “the little people” made few demands on Churchill’s pen, except insofar as they contributed to his preferred story line. Fortunately, the upper crusty Churchill’s narrow idea of history was exactly what I was looking for in my youth.
Along with The Second World War, HESP stands as Churchill’s biggest selling book. Because of the author’s Victorian mindset, his narrow focus on politics and war, on the impact of great men, to the exclusion of economic and social forces, as well as his uncritical view of the British Empire as a nearly unalloyed force for good in the world, among other flaws and features, this is neither a great nor reliable history. And yet, because of the power of Churchill’s language, archaic-yet-accessible, utterly charmingly conversational in tone, unflaggingly witty, and yet never flinching from ugliness, it is one of the most engaging histories one is likely to read. It is, like virtually all of his books, first and foremost a human drama. I can think of no book likelier to launch readers on a hunt for more books on everyone from Julius Caesar to Queen Victoria.
Beyond that, the author, more than any historian since Caesar, brought to the written page an up-close-and-personal grasp of politics, statesmanship, and war. In Churchill’s case, this was acquired during several military campaigns as a young officer and combat journalist, as a battalion commander in the First World War trenches, and as a hard-charging, often brilliant, and often wrong-headed cabinet minister, back-bencher, and sometime political pariah. Few histories are as insightful about how people in power behave.
Finally, Churchill, writing the manuscript on the eve of the Second World War, was able to express in the History of the English-Speaking Peoples just why his countrymen would never surrender to the monstrous Nazi dictatorship when the war he predicted finally came. The very act of writing this book, along with Churchill’s earlier Marlborough: His Life and Times, was an educational and character-steadying process that readied Churchill for his nation’s and his own “finest hour.” This alone makes HESP valuable as a window into Churchill’s thinking about his country and himself on the eve of the greatest challenge they both faced. How often does any book do that?
Ironically, this work of roughly 500,000 words in four volumes is also the book that includes the most writing by Churchill’s collaborators. The book was originally written in the late 1930s, hurriedly so as Churchill increasingly concentrated his attentions on the growing Nazi threat. The resulting manuscript was deemed unsuitable by the publisher, and not until the mid-1950s did he return to it. By that time, he was no longer the writer he once was, and the final draft, much revised, was much less his own work. Still, volumes I and II “are wholly Churchill’s,” though with assistance from his background researchers, as he jumped into the project with no previous expertise on Britain before the 17th century. The first part of Volume III, a distillation of his Marlborough biography, is again Churchill’s, and so is the middle portion of Volume IV, covering the American Civil War. The bulk of volumes III-IV was largely the work of Churchill’s rotating band of hired experts, although they knew what he wanted and his was the final say.
Upon the publication of the final volume in 1958, New York Times’ book reviewer Harold Nicholson wrote of Churchill’s History,
“Few historians, moreover, have been gifted with a style of equal subtlety and vigor, a style at once classical and romantic, precise and imaginative, tolerant yet gently ironical, deeply sensitive to the tragedy of human failure and scornful only of those who are faithless to the virtue within them. These four volumes leave us with enhanced admiration for human character, and an added compassion for human fallibility. They are the legacy of a man of superhuman energy, great intellectual powers and utmost simplicity of soul.”[i]