Speaking at Cincinnati, Ohio in February 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln said: “I hold that while man exists, it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind; and therefore, without entering upon the details of the question, I will simply say, that I am for those means which will give the greatest good to the greatest number.” Lincoln’s early trials and tribulations did not incline him to passivity – either theologically or occupationally. Even as a child, Lincoln reached out – for knowledge, for strangers who might possess knowledge, for experiences that might lead to knowledge. Lincoln was an activist – pushing frontiers – moving away from his family, seeing the world by going to New Orleans, seeking new occupations and skills, acquiring new knowledge.
Lincoln was often not the person others wished him to be – either during his lifetime or in the 14 decades since his death. He clearly wasn’t the son his father wanted and frequently wasn’t the husband Mary Todd wanted. He wasn’t the studious and well-read partner William H. Herndon thought he should be. As president, he persistently confounded his foes – moderate, conservative, Jacobin – all while maintaining his personal integrity. Dr. William Jayne, a long-time acquaintance, wrote that Lincoln’s “integrity is proved by all his acts, private, public and official. He never betrayed a cause or party, friend or the people. His kindness and humanity were innate, he was always considerate of man, beast or bird.”
Lincoln had an ego – without being driven by egotism. Biographer Michael Burlingame wrote: “Lack of egotism, a quality at the core of Lincoln’s personality, won over many juries, colleagues, and judges. Judge [John M.] Scott noted, ‘No lawyer on the circuit was more unassuming than was Mr. Lincoln. He arrogated to himself no superiority over any one – not even the most obscure member of the bar.” Burlingame wrote that on one “occasion he told a potential client to seek out John Todd Stuart, explaining that ‘he’s a better lawyer than I am.’ As Joseph Gillespie said of Lincoln’s humility: ‘It required no effort on his part to admit another man’s superiority.’” Lincoln understood his strengths and weaknesses. Lincoln scholar Fred Kaplan wrote: “Lincoln, for his entire life, remained noticeably awkward entering a room for a social occasion, never confident that he would say the right thing, especially to women.” Friend Joshua Speed recalled: “Mr. Lincoln was a social man, though he did not seek company; it sought him.”
Sculptor Thomas Jones recalled: “Before the public Lincoln was a very grave and earnest man; in private, kind, modest, and replete with wit and humor. He never told a story for its zanyism, but purely for good humor, illustration, or ‘adornment of his speech,’ as Rabelais would say. As an evidence of Lincoln’s kindly nature in domestic life, an old milkman called to see his bust. He said he had served Lincoln with milk for several years; that Lincoln would walk over to his place in the morning barefooted with a little milk bucket in one hand, and his oldest boy sitting astride of his shoulders, chirping like a bird.”
Mr. Lincoln was particularly kind to young lawyers, young students of the law, and possible future students. He had a knack for extracting other people’s stories – especially from young men and boys. “The way for a young man to rise, is to improve himself every way he can,” Lincoln wrote his law partner. “Allow me to assure you, that suspicion and jealousy never did help any man in any situation. There may sometimes be ungenerous attempts to keep a young man down; and they will succeed too, if he allows his mind to be diverted from its true channel to brood over the attempted injury. Cast about, and see if this feeling has not injured every person you have ever known to fall into it.” Mr. Lincoln had a natural way of putting young people at ease. Robert Brewster Stanton, who met Lincoln as teenager when he visited the White House wrote: “My father took me to see the President when he called to discuss with him some of those problems of the country and the war. My father was his personal friend and I did not wonder at his reception. But is it possible that I ever can forget the way Abraham Lincoln received me— a mere lad? His cordial manner, the warm grasp of that large, kind, gentle hand, the fascinating though almost evasive smile, and the simple word or two of welcome, were so earnest and sincere that I thought he intended me to understand—and so I felt—that he received me not as a boy, but as a man, though very young. That first warm hand-clasp (though later I had many more) from that good and great man is one of the most cherished memories of my life.” Stanton wrote:
When sitting in his chair in quiet repose, leaning back listening to others; when he was preparing to reply, as he straightened up and even leaned forward; or while pacing the floor listening or speaking, I never saw him once when, as was so often said, he seemed in the least at a loss to know what to do with his hands or how to carry his large feet. His every movement, his every gesture, seemed so natural, so simple, so unconscious, and yet so suited to the matter in hand and the circumstances at the time, that they impressed me as singularly graceful. Graceful may seem to some a rather strong word to use.
It is true that his figure was tall, lean, possibly lank, and in a sense “ungainly.” Yet with all this he had that dignity of bearing, that purposeful, self-possessed, and natural pose which, to me, not only demanded admiration but inspired reverence on almost every occasion. In intimate association, the movements of his body and the gestures of his arms and hands were so pleasing that all impressions of ungainliness were swept away. So I say, Mr. Lincoln was singularly graceful.
“Except when he was in a melancholy mood, he was very fond of society and his business was largely done in concert with others, but he was at his best, and his effective work was done, when alone,” wrote attorney Henry C. Whitney. “His chief work of law, politics, diplomacy or statesmanship was done, by himself, in solitude; the highest efforts of his great life were achieved by solitary reflection; he relied more on the unaided results of self-introspection, probably, than any man of his age, if not of any age.” Whitney recalled that Lincoln “felt responsible for the shortcomings and misadventures of his generals – of Congress – of the armies: he bore the sins and misfortunes of the whole nation by himself: every battle was a source of intense anguish to him – every defeat of our armies was a source of more exquisite pain to him than to the army which was defeated: through the day he could, in the routine of business and telling of anecdotes, stagger out from under a load of heart-rending sorrow for a brief interval; but when night came, and his thoughts, of necessity, turned inward.”
New England writer George William Curtis recalled a visit to the White House: “He had a weary and anxious look in his sad eyes, and a tenderness of tone in talking that was very touching. He spoke without bitterness toward any person or party, and with the air of a man bearing a most solemn responsibility.” As the pair departed, Mr. Lincoln said “with a paternal kindness and evident profound conviction: ‘We shall beat them, my son – we shall beat them.’” But the air and tone with which he said the words were so free from any unworthy feeling that the most resolute and confident of his opponents would have been deeply impressed.” Whitney wrote that Lincoln’s “moral and intellectual honesty was ‘all wool and a yard wide,’ as the adage is, and was not set aside or trenched upon by the pressure or emergencies of a law-suit or a client’s wishes.” Illinois attorney Leonard Swett wrote of Lincoln’s “mental equipoise which is disturbed by nothing, and diverted from the pathway it has marked out by nothing. Although prosecuting the war for two years simply from a sense of duty and not from a belief in its success, yet he kept right on and was neither depressed by disasters nor elated by success. He seemed to comprehend the magnitude of the contest in which he was engaged more thoroughly than any other man.” Journalist Noah Brooks recalled that President Lincoln once said: “I am very sure that if I do not go away from here a wiser man, I shall go away a better man for having learned here what a very poor sort of man I am.”
Friend Joshua Speed recalled a conversation with President Lincoln at the White House after the president had just granted a favor to two Pennsylvania women: “It is more than one can often say that in doing right one has made two people happy in one day. Speed, die when I may, I want it said of me by those who know me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower when I thought a flower would grow.” Abolitionist Alexander Milton Ross remembered: “Mr. Lincoln was no ordinary man. He had a quick and ready perception of facts, a retentive memory, and a logical turn of mind, which patiently and unwaveringly followed every link in the chain of thought on every subject which he investigated. He was honest, temperate, and forgiving. He was a good man—a man of noble and kindly heart. I never heard him speak unkindly of any man; even the rebels received no word of anger from him.” Missouri Congressman James Rollins recalled: “Mr. Lincoln was a man, in my view, of unswerving v character; there was no malice in his composition, but the widest charity for all; he was devoted to the best interests of the State of his adoption, but at the same time he was a devoted patriot, loving his whole country, and an earnest defender of human liberty, and the perpetuation of the American Union, which, if broken up, might destroy the existence of free institutions upon the American continent; he had no prejudices against the Southern people; he was one of the best friends they ever had. This is the place that will be awarded to him in history in after times. The war gave him deep distress; there was nothing he would not have done, no sacrifice he would not have made consistent with his high sense of duty to his country and to humanity, if that would have stopped the war, and saved the Union from dissolution. In the deep sincerity of his heart, I have often heard him express these sentiments, and all His Messages to Congress and other similar papers, when carefully analyzed, will prove the correctness of this estimate of him.”
“Lincoln is my hero,” argued President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. “He was a man of the people who always felt with and for the people, but who had not the slightest touch of the demagogue in him,” wrote Roosevelt in 1905. Forty years earlier as a boy of six in 1865, Roosevelt had witnessed Lincoln’s funeral procession through New York City while watching from grandfather’s house on Union Square. “His unfaltering resolution, his quiet, unyielding courage, his infinite patience and gentleness, and the heights of disinterestedness which he attained whenever the crisis called for putting aside self, together with his far-sighted, hard-headed common sense point him out as just the kind of chief who do most good in a democratic republic like ours.” New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote: “the symmetry of a character which was already rounded and complete. Never before did one so constantly and visibly grow under the discipline of incessant cares, anxieties, and trials. The Lincoln of ’62 was plainly a larger, broader, better man than he had been in ’61; while ’63 and ’64 worked his continued and unabated growth in mental and moral stature. Few have been more receptive, more sympathetic, and (within reasonable limits) more plastic than he. Had he lived twenty years longer, I believe he would have steadily increased in ability to counsel his countrymen, and in the estimation of the wise and good.”
Unquestionably, Lincoln had grown over the years, but some characteristics of his personality remained unshaken. Aide William O. Stoddard wrote: “The President could receive any kind of tidings with less variation of face or manner than any other man, and there was a reason for it. He never seemed to hear anything with reference to itself, but solely with a quick forward grasping for the consequences, for what must be done next. The announcement of a defeat or disaster did not bring to him the blow only, but rather the consideration of the counterstroke. When the cannon ball struck Charles the Twelfth in the head, it did not kill him so quickly that his sword was not half drawn before he fell.” As president, Lincoln kept plowing the field in front of him. Stoddard recalled: “Lincoln’s characteristic as a worker was his persistency, his tirelessness; and for this he was endowed with rare toughness of bodily and mental fibre. There was not a weak spot in his whole animal organism, and his brain was thoroughly healthy; his White House life, therefore, was a continual stepping from one duty to another. There was also what to a host of men was a provoking way of stepping over or across unessential things, with an instinctive perception of their lack of value. Some things that he stepped over seemed vastly important to those who had them in hand, but at the same time he discovered real importance where others failed to see them.”
Attorney Henry C. Whitney wrote: “Mr. Lincoln had to perform many unpleasant duties, and to placate every variety of unreasonable man – there was the imperious Stanton – the dictatorial Greeley – the sardonic Stevens – the sarcastic Conkling – the prejudiced Sumner – the facile Seward – the sleek Fernando Wood – and they were but types of thousands with whom he must deal, disarm and conquer. He must refuse many reasonable requests – must lay his hand heavily upon many worthy communities – must force unpalatable policies upon the country: good humor must be restored to irascible spirits who came to him ‘fighting mad: and many who came on ardent missions must be sent empty, but good-naturedly, away. Neither reason nor force were the needed weapons, but pleasantry was: and one stroke of the President’s ready and facile wit was often more utility than a whole day’s debate in Congress.”
Both Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill took high public office amid widespread skepticism from governmental colleagues about their leadership abilities. In Lincoln’s case, he lacked sufficient preparation and Churchill’s case he perhaps had too much. Lincoln was still unknown. Churchill was too well known. Still, noted historian Richard Holmes: “On the day he first entered the Commons as Prime Minister it was Chamberlain, not he, who received a standing ovation from the Tories.” Churchill’s ambition and personality won him many critics over the years. One Cabinet colleague had noted in August 1912: “Churchill is illmannered, boastful, unprincipled, without any redeeming qualities except his amazing ability and industry. I doubt his courage to desert during a victorious cruise, but he would, without hesitation, desert a sinking ship.” Less that three years later, the colleague wrote: “Churchill as always, in a hurry to be conspicuous…Nervous, fretful, voluble, intolerably bumptious and conceited, he squanders our time and his own in increasing orations.”
By World War II, Churchill was still driven, but in a more purposeful way. Private Secretary John Martin observed a few days after assuming his post as a private secretary to Prime Minister Churchill in May 1940: “The P.M.’s confidence and energy are amazing. ‘Nobody left his presence without feeling a braver man’ was said of Pitt; but it was no less true of him.’” Churchill and Lincoln shared a supreme confidence in their fellow citizens. While fighting with Britain’s leaders in the 1930s Churchill had proclaimed that the British “are a tough people, a robust people….If you have told them exactly what is going on you have ensured yourself against complaints and reproaches which are not very pleasant when they come home on the morrow of some disillusion.” Churchill’s confidence was important. In his World War II memoirs, Churchill admitted: “The reader of these pages in future years should realise how dense and baffling is the veil of the Unknown. Now in the full light of the after-time it is easy to see where we were ignorant or too much alarmed, where we were careless or clumsy.” Churchill wrote “‘Depend upon it,’ said Dr. Johnson, ‘when a man knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ I was always sure we should win, but nevertheless I was highly geared up by the situation, and very thankful to make my views effective.” Still, Churchill was less disciplined than Lincoln. Churchill’s physician, Dr. Charles Wilson, observed: “Throughout his life Winston devoted more time to self-expression than to self-discipline. That was one of his favorite quips, and it is in that setting that we should measure the strength of will which kept his self-control intact.”
“Tradition, by inspiring Churchill and making him see the present in perspective, reinforced his confidence,” observed historian Manfred Weidner. “Anyone else would have been unnerved by the fall of France or by German penetration of Russia, but Churchill, with his experience of World War I, his study of Marlborough’s wars, and his knowledge of a thousand years of European military history, well realized, as Plumb remarks, that encircling alliances have failed only temporarily. His sense of the past, in short, gave him a sense of the future. The history he had always studied and courted now aided him in his leadership and thereby granted him a place of honor.”
For a public man, Churchill proved very insular and in some ways isolated. Churchill’s personal physician, Dr. Charles Wilson wrote of his patient: “We do not think of him as in any way subtle; if he talks, it is because he likes talking and is, at best, but an indifferent listener; and, if he dreads being left alone with a stranger, it may be because he can find nothing to say which will bridge the silences. His dislike of strangers, never very well disguised, often flusters the unfortunate intruder, who arrives full of what he is going to say, the arguments tidily and carefully arranged. And then somehow there is no time or so it seems, to say it in an orderly manner as he had planned; sometimes he even wonders if Winston is attending to what he is telling him. It is all very awkward and unexpected. After a little the Prime Minister holds out a limp hand with a rather unconvincing smile, and it is with a feeling of disappointment but also a sense of relief that the caller finds himself on the stairs.”
Churchill thought himself a student of human nature, but it was Lincoln who was probably the more astute judge of human character. Private Secretary John Martin recalled that Churchill approved his appointment after looking at him by the light of a window: “He believed he could sum up a man in such a swift scrutiny. It is only fair to add that it has been said that he was not a good judge of men and that he was hard to convince that his geese were not swans.” World War II nevertheless brought out the best in Churchill. Historian Richard Holmes wrote: “Winston was…the only man with the experience and moral authority necessary to impart some dynamism to the war effort.” Lord Alfred Keynes observed Churchill in September 1940: “I found him in absolutely perfect condition, extremely well, serene, full of normal human feelings and completely un-inflated. Perhaps this moment is the height of his power and glory, but I have never seen anyone less infected with dictatorial airs or hubris.” Churchill could be a master of graciousness. Alternately, he could be courtly or curt. He was a master of the well-timed thank you.
Harold Macmillan, Churchill’s representative in the Mideast during World War II, wrote: “He is really a remarkable man. Although he can be so tiresome and pig-headed, there is no one like him. His devotion to work and duty is quite extraordinary.” Churchill could be alternately infuriating and endearing. Friend Brendan Bracken observed: “Being friend with him is like being in love with a beautiful woman who drives you made with her demands until you can bear it not a moment longer and fling out of the house swearing never to see her again. But the next day she smiles at you and you know there’s nothing you wouldn’t do for her and she crooks her little finger and you come running.” Biographer Martin Gilbert noted at the beginning of World War II: “Those who expected Churchill to explode with anger at the slightest provocation were often disappointed. As the stress of events intensified, such explosions were more frequently feared.”
Churchill was an original. “Anybody who served anywhere near him was devoted to him,” recalled Churchill cabinet official George Mallaby. “It is hard to say why. He was not kind or considerate. He bothered nothing about us. He knew the names only of those very close to him and would hardly let anyone else into his presence. He was free with abuse and complaint. He was exacting beyond reason and ruthlessly critical. He continuously exhibited all the characteristics which one usually deplores and abominates in the boss. Not only did he get away with it but nobody really wanted him otherwise. He was unusual, unpredictable, exciting, original, stimulating, provocative, outrageous, uniquely experienced, abundantly talented, humorous, entertaining – almost everything a man could be, a great man.” Churchill sometimes sputtered but often sparkled. The only thing worse than being in Churchill’s presence was not being in his presence. Mideast advisor Macmillan wrote on May 21, 1945 of a visit to Chequers: “It is really great fun finding oneself alone with Winston at this critical moment.”
“In spite of all his preoccupations, Mr. Churchill constantly evidenced an intensely human side,” recalled General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “When London had to endure the ‘Little Blitz’ of February 1944 he took frequent occasion to urge me to occupy one of the specially built underground shelters in London. He even went to the extent of having an entire apartment, complete with kitchen, living room, bedroom, and secret telephones, fixed up for me. While I never used or even saw the place, yet he never ceased to show great concern for my safety although paying absolutely no attention to his own. His single apparent desire, during an air raid, was to visit his daughter Mary, then serving in an anti-aircraft battery protecting London.”
Churchill was “the most impatient man in Britain, who exhibited the patience of Job over what mattered most: winning a war that was like a marathon, which would neither be won nor lost in the foreseeable future. In everything else he was perpetually impatient, unforgiving of failure and of the real and perceived unwillingness of his military to take risks he believed necessary,” wrote historian Carlo D’Este. “Churchill was not easy to work for, particularly during the anxious days of the war,” wrote aide John Colville. “Patience is a virtue with which he was totally unfamiliar. A soon as he had ordered something to be done he expected that it had been completed. Many was the time when he told me to do something and before I had time to get to my telephone he had run the bell to enquire the result.” Under pressure, mistakes were made. As historian Geoffrey Best noted, Churchill “became irritable and impatient when told that things could not be done as quickly as he desired or, worse, could not be done at all.”
Churchill secretary Elizabeth Layton recalled his demeanor as he dictated a speech or letter: “Sometimes his voice would become thick with emotion, and occasionally a tear would run down his cheek. As inspiration came to him, he would gesture with his hands, just as one knew he would be doing when he delivered his speech, and the sentences would roll out with so much feeling that one died with the soldiers, toiled with the workers, hated the enemy, strained for Victory.” She noted “that great man – who could at any time be impatient, kind, irritable, crushing, generous, inspiring, difficult, alarming, amusing, unpredictable, considerate, seemingly impossible to please, charming, demanding, inconsiderate, quick to anger and quick to forgive – was unforgettable. One loved him with a deep devotion. Difficult to work for – yes, mostly; loveable – always; amusing – without fail.”
Whatever his virtues, Churchill could be exasperating to those who had to deal with him regularly. Effective face-to-face communication was required if one wanted to affect Churchill’s thinking. Harold Macmillan wrote on March 18, 1944 of a report he was preparing for Churchill: “It is no good trying to do it by telegram, because it is impossible in a short space to introduce any new idea to him with sufficient tact to prevent his exploding.” Leo Amery, secretary of state for India, wrote: “It is an awful thing dealing with a man like Winston who is at the same moment dictatorial, eloquent and muddle-headed.” After the war, Ismay wrote Field Marshall Brooke: “The trouble was that our beloved Chief regarded any disagreement with his views as a personal affront; he never understood that if you – and I in a more lowly field – had started saying we agreed with when in fact we didn’t, we would have been of no more use to him.”
Consistency was not always a Churchill virtue. General Ismay wrote that the night before the scheduled D-Day invasion, the timing was in doubt because of the weather. Before Churchill went to bed, Ismay asked the prime minister if he wanted to be wakened with the decision. “Of course not,” Churchill responded. “What can I do about it?” That morning at 5 AM, Ismay received the news that the invasion had been postponed. At that point, Ismay went to bed. He soon was awakened by a marine summoning him to Churchill’s room. “I suppose it never occurred to you to let me know at once. I suppose you think you are running this war? I would have you know that I too have some small responsibility.” Being part of Churchill’s entourage was like being part of a great drama. It was often entertaining and frequently exhausting. Mideast advisor Harold Macmillan wrote on November 16, 1943: “P.M. sent for me about 9 a.m. (He was having breakfast in his cabin) and talked till about 12.30. It was really a fascinating performance. The greater part was a rehearsal of what he is to say at the Military Conference; and he is terribly worried and excited about this. He naturally feels that the Mediterranean position has not been exploited with vigour and flexibility.”
“You can’t kick me around the room. I’m not kickable!” responded Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Australian pressure for greater assistance in facing Japanese military aggression in the Pacific basin early in World War. Churchill always preferred to be the kicker, not the kickee. One Conservative MP observed of the prime minister: “He can be very unattractive when he is in a bad temper.” President Lincoln was less prone to kick. Like Churchill, he would endlessly prod. But when provoked, he too could kick lost in temper on two notable occasions in his first month in office in March 1861. Once was with California politicians protesting the influence of Oregon Senator Edward D. Baker over California patronage. The petitioners derided Baker, arousing Lincoln’s loyalty for his friend and wrath against Baker’s enemies. “Mr. Lincoln rose to his full height, tore the protest to shreds, cast the fragments in the fire, and bowed the visitors out,” recalled Congressman James M. Scovell. Lincoln said: “Gentlemen, I know Senator Baker. We were boys together in Illinois, and I believe in him. You have taken the wrong course to make yourselves influential with this administration at Senator Baker’s expense.”
Abolitionist clergyman Moncure Daniel Conway recalled: “I believe there is but on instance of the President’s losing his temper. Many of the Northern people were scandalized that Kentucky should, in the beginning of the war, declare herself neutral in the contest; and also that, in dealing with slavery, the opinion of that State should be so much consulted by the President. On one occasion, when a senator of very decided opinions was in consultation with the chief magistrate, the latter said, concerning some proposition, ‘But will Kentucky stand that?’ ‘Damn Kentucky!’ exclaimed the senator. ‘Then damn you?’ cried Mr. Lincoln with warmth. But, much as he loved his native State, there were points on which he would ‘put his foot down,’ even to her. A Kentuckian wishing some government aid in recovering his slaves, escaped and escaping, ‘reminded him,’ he said, ‘of a little story. When I was going down the Ohio one on a steamer, a little boy came up to the captain, and said, ‘Captain, please stop the boat a little while; I’ve lost my apple overboard!’”
Aide John Nicolay reported another occasion for presidential displeasure: “This evening, 7 P.M. the Sec. of War came in, and after locking the door read the President two dispatches from the Gen. The first one reported that the bridge (pontoon, at Harper’s Ferry) had been thrown in splendid style by Capt [James C. Duane] & Lieuts [Orville E. Babcock, Chauncey B. Reese,] & [Charles E. Cross] whom he recommended for brevets. That a portion of the troops had crossed – that although it was raining; the troops were in splendid spirits and apparently ready to fight anything. The President seemed highly pleased at this. ‘The next is not so good,’ remarked the Sec. War. It ran to the effect that the ‘lift lock’ had turned out to be too narrow to admit the passage of the canal boats through to the river (as one of the facilities and precautions, arrangements had been made to build a permanent bridge of canal-boats across the Potomac, and a large number of canal-boats across the Potomac, and a large number of canal-boats had been fathered for that purpose.) That in consequence of this, he had changed the plan and had determined merely to protect the building of the bridges and the opening of the road. (Leaving the obvious inference that he proposed to abandon the movement on Winchester. In fact he so stated [because] the impossibility of building the permanent bridge as he had expected would delay him so that Winchester would be reinforced from Manassas, &c.).
‘What does this mean?’ asked the President.
‘It means,’ said the Sec. War, ‘that it is a d—d fizzle. It means that he doesn’t intend to do anything.’
President Lincoln’s exasperation sometimes was reflected in his comments about those generals like George B. McClellan who seemed to specialize in stationary maneuvers. After receiving a telegram from General Don Carlos Buell about the impossibility of launching an offensive in eastern Tennessee in January 1862, Lincoln wrote: “It is exceedingly discouraging. As everywhere else, nothing can be done.” President Lincoln was well aware of the limits of his power. He once told a visitor: “I am as powerless as any private citizen to shape the military plans of the Government. I have my generals and my War Department, and my subordinates are supposed to be more capable than I am to decide what movements shall or shall not be undertaken. I have once or twice attempted to act on my own convictions, and found that it was impracticable to do so. I see campaigns undertaken in which I have not faith, and have no power to prevent them; and I tell you that sometimes, when I reflect on the management of our forces, I am tempted to despair; my heart goes clear down into my boots.”
Both Lincoln and Churchill could become temporarily depressed by the variety of reverses they faced. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden noted times when Churchill became depressed by military and political situations. In January 1942, as the prime minister was under attack in Parliament. ‘Winston was tired and depressed, for him. His cold is heavy on him. He was inclined to be fatalistic about the House, maintained that bulk of Tories hated him, that he had done all he could be only too happy to yield to another, that Malaya, Australian Government’s intransigence and ‘nagging’ in House was more than any man could be expected to endure.”
By the time he became prime minister in 1940, Churchill’s impatience, still strong, had waned somewhat. Clementine Churchill noted that the “writing of Marlborough had produced a real effect upon her husband’s character; he had discovered that Marlborough’s patience became the secret of his achievements,” wrote historian David Dilks, who observed that there were some subjects, such as India, that exacerbated Churchill’s impatience and irritability. L.S. Amery, the secretary of state for India, recalled one cabinet-level meeting about India’s future, which Churchill thought would quickly degenerate in civil war: “What really killed the whole discussion was Winston’s complete inability to grasp even the most elementary points of the discussion. After one had spent ages explaining the effect of enabling a province to stand out he still harped back to the iniquity of any body on which there was a Congress majority, as if majority mattered in such a case. He seems quite incapable of listening or taking in even the simplest point but goes off at a tangent on a word and then rambles on inconsecutively.”
Churchill felt particularly strongly about India from his service in India and the Colonial office. His animus to Mohandas Gandhi was deep and visceral. On April 12, 1942, Churchill responded to a telegram from FDR critical of British colonial policy regarding India: “As your telegram was addressed to Former Naval Person I am keeping it as purely private and I do not propose to bring it before the Cabinet officially unless you tell me you wish this done. Anything like a serious difference between you and me would break my heart, and would surely deeply injure both our countries at the height of this terrible struggle.” At a cabinet meeting in early February 7, 1943, Churchill took a strong line against the Indians’ fast in prison: “Winston thundered at the Cabinet, reported General John Kennedy. “Gandhi should not be released on the account of a mere threat of fasting. We should be rid of a bad man an enemy of the Empire if he died.” Churchill was also infuriated by any American attempt to interfere with the status of India.
General Alan Brooke recalled an incident at Chequers in April 1941 when General John Kennedy was roasted by Churchill for suggesting a possible withdrawal from Egypt. “The Kenney incident was a very typical one, poor old John had only intended to express that there might be worse things to lose than Egypt. It was, however, at once taken by Winston as being a defeatist attitude, and Kennedy was relegated amongst those ‘many generals who are only too ready to surrender, and who should be made examples of like Admiral Byng!’ The more Kennedy tried to explain what he meant, the more heated Winston got.”
Argument was fundamental to how Winston Churchill communicated, but it was not always as productive as the discussions which Abraham Lincoln conducted. Even when angry, however, both Lincoln and Churchill had an extraordinary capacity for change while maintaining their good sense and perspective on the world. General Hastings Ismay observed that Churchill “is a mass of contradictions….he is either on the crest of a wave, or in the trough, either highly laudatory, or bitterly condemnatory: either in an angelic temper, or a hell of a rage: when he isn’t fast asleep he’s a volcano. There are no half measures in his make-up.” Friends and colleagues described Lincoln as “unlike any man I had ever known.” Lincoln scholar Rufus Rockwell Wilson wrote: “Mr. Lincoln had a continuing capacity for growth which, setting him apart from and above other leaders of his generation, enabled him to meet and master every problem of statecraft presented to him.”
For Further Reference
- Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 9.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 78 (William Jayne speech to Springfield chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, February 12, 1907).
- Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, pp. 317, 351.
- Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, p. 23.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 19.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 265 (Thomas Jones).
- CWAL, Volume I, p.497 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William H. Herndon, July 10, 1848).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, pp. 340, 342-343 (Century Magazine, February 1920).
- Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 141, 191.
- “Abraham Lincoln: The Thirtieth Anniversary of his Assassination,” (Letter from George William Curtis to R.R. Wright, undated), pp. 107-108.
- Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, p. 231.
- Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 563.
- Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 54.
- William H. Herndon and Jesse Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, p. 425 (Letter from Joshua Speed to William H. Herndon, December 6, 1866).
- Osborn Hamiline Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-immortelles, pp. 422, 490.
- (Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Sir George Otto Trevelyan, March 1905).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 459 (Century Magazine, July 1891).
- Abraham Lincoln: Tributes from His Associates, Reminiscences of Soldiers, Statesmen and Citizens, p. 45.
- Abraham Lincoln: Tributes from His Associates, p. 45 (William O. Stoddard, “Lincoln’s Vigil).
- Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 193.
- Richard Holmes, In the Footsteps of Church: A Study in Character, p. 203.
- David Dilks, Churchill and Company, pp. 15-16.
- John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years, p. 11.
- William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill ; Alone, 1932-1940, p. 683.
- Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour, pp. 143-144.
- Charles McMoran Wilson Moran, Churchill, Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran: the Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965, p. 759.
- Manfred Weidnor, Sword and Pen, p. 141.
- Charles McMoran Wilson Moran, Churchill, Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran: the Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965, pp. 157-158.
- John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years, p. 4.
- Richard Holmes, In the Footsteps of Church: A Study in Character, p. 202.
- Lord Skidelsky, John Maynard Keynes, Fighting for Britain, 1937-1946, p. 80.
- Max Hastings, Winston’s War, Churchill 1940-1945, p. 361.
- Paul Addison, Churchill: The Unexpected Hero, p. 173.
- Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 693.
- Basil Liddell Hart, History of the Second World War, p. 199.
- Harold Macmillan, War Diaries: The Mediterranean 1943-1945, p. 762.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, pp. 242-243.
- Carlo D’Este, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, p.
- John Colville, The Fringes of Power, p. 126.
- Geoffrey Best, Churchill and War, p. 170.
- Elizabeth Nel, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary, p. 16.
- Harold Macmillan, War Diaries: The Mediterranean 1943-1945, p. 388.
- J. Barnes and D. Nicholson, editors, The Empire at Bay, p. 836.
- David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 69.
- Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, pp. 355-356.
- Harold Macmillan, War Diaries: The Mediterranean 1943-1945, p. 294.
- David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 52.
- Robert Rhodes James, editor, Chips, The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon, p. 272 (November 5, 1940).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 522.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 182.
- Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, p. 72 (February 27, 1862).
- CWAL, Volume V, p. 95 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Simon Cameron, January 10, 1862).
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 513.
- Anthony Eden, The Reckoning; the Memoirs of Anthony Eden, Earl of Avon., p. 369.
- David Dilks, Churchill and Company, pp. 58, 61.
- Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 89 (Telegram from Winston Churchill to Franklin D. Roosevelt, April 12, 1942).
- Andrew Roberts, Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945, p. 350.
- Alex Danchev, Daniel Todman, editors, Lord Alanbrooke War Diaries, 1939-1945, p. 154.
- R. W. Thompson, Winston Churchill: The Yankee Marlborough, p.283.
- Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 138, 7.