Lincoln, Churchill & the Reids

Whitelaw Reid enjoyed a distinguished career as editor of the New York Tribune and as U.S. Ambassador to both Paris and London. But in the Civil War, Reid was a young journalist, not yet 30, covering Washington politics and the Lincoln Administration.

Because he was from Ohio, Reid was closer to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, a solemn but ambitious Republican who hoped to succeed Lincoln in office When Chase left the Lincoln Administration in 1864 after repeated conflicts with the president, the solemn Chase told Reid “that the root of the matter was a difficulty of temperament. The truth is that I have never been able to make a joke out of this war.”

Reid’s criticisms of the Lincoln Administration made him persona non grata at the War Department. When Reid showed up there on election night in November1864, he sent in his card to the President rather than Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, knowing that Stanton would bar him from entry. “Mr. Reid came in and was greeted by Mr. Lincoln, but not the Secretary,” observed Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana. After the war, Reid moved to New York and picked up Dana’s old duties at the New York Tribune.

While serving as U.S. ambassador in England in 1910, Reid delivered a speech on at the University of Birmingham – part of a series on “Makers of History in the Nineteenth Century.” Reid acknowledged: “I had the honour of knowing Mr. Lincoln a little before his nomination for the Presidency; in fact, of having been among the first, if not the first, of Republican Editors outside his State to propose his nomination in preference to our own State candidate. The acquaintance thus formed never of course became intimate… I was only an unimportant boy; but he was always kind to me.”

Reid and his wife were friendly with American-born Jennie Jerome Churchill. In 1900, Jennie Randolph Churchill had requested assistance from Mrs. Reid to recruit nurses for the Maine, an American hospital ship, th she was equipping (and directing) South Africa. Jennie declared: “The Maine is to be an essentially an American women’s ship. We are not only to aid the wounded, but are to show the world that American women can do the good work better than anyone else can do it. I am going to the Cape in the Maine, not because my son is there, for he will be a thousand miles away, but because I want the generous efforts of American contributors to be carried out under the personal supervision of a member of the Executive Committee.”

As she departed, she wrote Reid’s wife: “My youngest son [Jack] has joined the Natal Cavalry & has started for S. Africa. Of course it is a great source of anxiety to me – but I am thankful the other [Winston] escaped from Pretoria.”

It was fortunate that Winston escaped from Boer authorities because the notoriety of his escapades made Churchill overnight a well-known journalist and author before his 27th birthday. One of his books was about his father. When Theodore Roosevelt read Lord Randolph Churchill (which Reid had sent him at Churchill’s request), the American president commented to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: “I have been over Winston’s Churchill’s life of his father. I dislike the father and dislike the son, so I may be prejudiced…they both possess or posset such levity, lack of sobriety, lack of permanent principle, and an inordinate thirst for that cheap form of admiration which is given to notoriety, as to make them poor public servants.” In another letter, Roosevelt commented “that the older one was a rather cheap character, and the younger one is a rather cheap character.”

Ambassador Reid had reported back stories to President Theodore Roosevelt about Churchill’s vanity and eccentricities. But the real problem between the American president and the future British prime minister was, as Roosevelt’s daughter later observed, that they were “so much alike.” Meanwhile, TR wrote Reid in London: “I do not like Winston Churchill, but I suppose I ought to write him” and acknowledge receipt of his book.

Ambassador Reid died in Britain in 1912 at 75. The next year, his namesake grandson was born at the family estate in Westchester County. At 25, “Whitey” joined the Tribune, by then the family newspaper. In 1940, young Reid went to England to cover World War II for the Tribune – already older than his grandfather had been at the end of the Civil War.

There, Whitey reported on the blitz and met the new British prime minister, Winston Churchill, for lunch that August. “It is extraordinary that you should have time to ferret me out in the midst of your busy day – and I want you to know how deeply I appreciated both your kindness to me and the generous things you said about Mother. Meeting you in your distinguished home was a great privilege…”

In his letter, Reid then referred to the recent speech that Churchill had given in which the prime minister, not yet in office four months, spoke of growing Anglo-American cooperation: “I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it. Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along. Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broad lands and better days.” Reid remarked: “May your Mississippi roll on until it floods the nation!”

Abraham Lincoln might have appreciated the British prime minister’s words. After the Union capture of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, Lincoln had written out a speech to be delivered on his behalf to the a Springfield, Illinois rally “Now, the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” declared the American president.

Posted in Essays