Rivals & the Wilderness Years

Stephen A. Douglas
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas
Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas and Their Friend John Calhoun

When on May 8-9, 1940, a pivotal debate was held in the House of Commons, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston S. Churchill defended Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s government – of which Churchill was a part. Both he and Commonwealth Secretary Anthony Eden voted to support the Chamberlain government, which narrowly prevailed in a 281-200 vote. One in five Conservative MPs voted against the Conservative prime minister. “Labour and Liberal MPs,” wrote historian Lynne Olson, joined “rebels, leaped to their feet, cheering, shouting, and waving their order papers, while Chamberlain’s dumbfounded supporters remained in their seats.”1 The closeness of the vote – given the pressure that the Chamberlain government put on its immense Conservative Party majority – signaled that Chamberlain was in trouble and a new prime minister was needed to lead a party-coalition government. Within 24 hours, the Chamberlain was out and the Nazi-fighter Churchill was in. Churchill had been on the wrong side of the vote, but generally was perceived to be on the right side of history. He benefitted from a coalition of erstwhile allies who decided to stand up to the incompetence of a prime minister whom Churchill now loyally supported after years of criticizing Chamberlain, publicly and privately.

At the outset of the Civil War and World War II, citizens of both the Union and Britain took a while to understand what war portended – and the national legislature took a while to mobilize for war. When Churchill became prime minister on May 10, 1940 and Abraham Lincoln became president on March 4, 1861, they brought a sense of urgency to a political and military stalemate that had effectively been allowed to drift by their ineffective and uninspirational predecessors, Neville Chamberlain and President James Buchanan – both of whom thought party loyalty would save them and that peace was the ultimate goal. Neither was serious about preparing for war. Like Churchill, Chamberlain was the son of a famous politician – Joseph Chamberlain, a Conservative Party leader whom Churchill once said “made the weather.” Neville Chamberlain was a decent man who desperately wanted to avoid war, but who short-sightedly provided Nazi Germany with the time it needed to rearm and build its military capacity into a war machine that could crush neighbors with impunity, evade the Maginot line to defeat the vaunted French army, and then nearly smash the Russian army.

Chamberlain first reacted tentatively to threat to Poland in the spring of 1939 but finally his “pledge to lend the Polish Government all the support in their power” and introduced military conscription, wrote historian Lynne Olson. “He had not broadened his government, as they had demanded, but he had finally taken a stand against appeasement, ordering his government to prepare – if not full throttle, then at least half throttle – for war….but Chamberlain’s dramatic about-face was not what it seemed. He had no plans to live up to his pledge of going to war if Poland was attacked. Indeed he had not given up his hopes of keeping the peace by reaching an agreement with Germany.”2 Moreover, there was no shakeup of his government and no submission to newspaper pressure to add Churchill to the Chamberlain government. Olson noted that only The Times and the papers controlled by Churchill’s erstwhile friend, Lord Beaverbrook, did not join in this clamor. Churchill himself refused to contribute to this groundswell. Chamberlain continued to react tentatively when 1.5 million German soldiers invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Churchill was offered a cabinet post, first without portfolio and then on September 3, the post of First Lord of the Admiralty. There was a growing realization that Churchill was providing the governmental leadership and rhetorical inspiration that Chamberlain did not. Churchill’s speeches – in Parliament and radio – drew increasing public support, especially when contrasted with the weak and vacillating comments of Chamberlain. “We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defence of all that is most sacred to man,” declared Churchill on September 1 after Germany invaded Poland. “This is no war of domination or imperial aggrandizement or material gain; no war to shut any country out of the sunlight and means of progress.”3

Both Lincoln and Churchill could be considerate of longtime rivals. Paradoxically, their most prominent rivals died in early in war. A hero requires a worthy antagonist. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas was that for more than two decades for Abraham Lincoln. Historian David Potter wrote: “Between 1850 and 1858, Stephen A. Douglas had occupied a crucial command post in three titanic conflicts in Congress. First, in 1850, he had led the forces of conciliation against proslavery and antislavery militants who resisted Henry Clay’s proposals for compromise. Then, in 1854, he had led the southern Democrats in applying popular sovereignty in Kansas, despite the opposition of many northern Democrats, who wanted to keep the slavery exclusion adopted in 1820. Then, finally, in 1858, he had led the northern Democrats and many Republicans against the southern Democrats in a fight to show that popular sovereignty could mean slavery exclusion as well as slavery extension.”4

Lincoln and Douglas debated repeatedly, beginning in 1838 when Douglas was running for Congress against Lincoln’s law partner. A more substantive series of encounters took place in 1854 when Lincoln and Douglas debated in Bloomfield, Springfield, and Peoria regarding the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its impact on the extension of slavery. These appearances constituted Lincoln’s impressive reentry into politics. Journalist Horace White recalled: “If political honors were awarded according to the rules of quantum meruit, Abraham Lincoln would have been chosen Senator as the successor of James Shields at this juncture, since he had contributed more than any other person to the anti-Nebraska victory in the state. He had been out of public life since his retirement from the lower house of Congress in 1848. Since then he had been a country lawyer with a not very lucrative practice, but a very popular story-teller. He belonged to the Whig party, and had followed [Henry] Clay and Webster in supporting the Compromise measures of 1850, including the new Fugitive Slave Law, for, although a hater of slavery himself, he believed that the Constitution required the rendition of slaves escaping into the free states. He was startled by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Without that awakening, he would doubtless have remained in comparative obscurity. He would have continued riding the circuit in central Illinois, making a scanty living as a lawyer, entertaining tavern loungers with funny stories, and would have passed away unhonored and unsung. He was now aroused to new activity, and when Douglas came to Springfield at the beginning of October to defend his Nebraska Bill on the hustings, Lincoln replied to him in a great speech, one of the world’s masterpieces of argumentative power and moral grandeur, which left Douglas’s edifice of “Popular Sovereignty” a heap of ruins. This was the first speech made by him that gave a true measure of his qualities. It was the first public occasion that laid a strong hold upon his conscience and stirred the depths of his nature. It was also the first speech of his that the writer of this book, then twenty years of age, ever listened to. The impression made by it has lost nothing by the lapse of time. By then, Douglas was one of the more prominent national Democratic leaders – having shepherded through Congress the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1864 the Peoria speech of October 16, 1854, as it was delivered at Peoria, after the Springfield debate, and subsequently written out by Lincoln himself for publication in the Sangamon Journal. The Peoria speech contained a few passages of rejoinder to Douglas’s reply to his Springfield speech. In other respects they were the same.”5 Historian Allen Guelzo noted: “The only concession Douglas made to the uproar over the Nebraska bill was to permit the division of the enormous Nebraska domain into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. Otherwise, rather than simply defend the bill as a useful piece of pragmatic politics, he bounded into the congressional arena.”6 Kansas-Nebraska would help destroy the Whig Party, divide the Democratic Party, and ultimately end the presidential ambitions of Senator Douglas.

In the wake of Douglas’s differences with President James Buchanan over the fraudulent 1857 Lecompton Constitution in Kansas, some Republicans in 1858 thought that Douglas should be supported for reelection. Lincoln disagreed. He understood that Douglas’s support for popular sovereignty was an open door to slavery’s expansion – as indeed the Kansas-Nebraska Act had shown. In May 1858, Lincoln wrote that “there remains all the difference there ever was between Judge Douglas and the Republicans.”7 Lincoln kicked off his campaign with his House Divided speech at the Illinois Republican State Convention in June. In July, Lincoln traveled to Chicago to reply to campaign-opening speech by Douglas. Seeking to avert a repetition of 1854 when Lincoln seemed to follow Douglas around the state, Douglas agreed to a proposal for joint debates in congressional districts where the two had not previously spoken together. The next three months were exhausting at they cris-crossed the state. Douglas traveled in pomp, Lincoln in near poverty. In some ways, the 1858 campaign was a David and Goliath contest with Lincoln more than willing to assume the role of David.

The debates were major political entertainment for Illinois residents. Historian Sean Wilentz wrote: “The reports in the crowd were swept up in the show, and described the seven contests as packed with suspense and revelation, like champion prize fights. And so the Lincoln-Douglas debates have become lodged in the national memory. In fact, the candidates said little of substance that they had not already said before the debates began. Lincoln mainly stuck to the themes of his ‘House Divided’ speech, asserted that Douglas had departed from the designs of the Founding Fathers, and repeated that the nation could not forever stand half slave and half free. Douglas countered that the Founders (including the slaveholder Jefferson) had left the establishment of slavery up to the individual states, that Lincoln’s talk of slavery’s ultimate extinction was ‘revolutionary’ and would ensure civil war, and that his distortions of American political principles were driven by the monstrous heresy that ‘the Almighty…intended the negro to be the equal of the white man.’”8 Douglas tried to paint Lincoln into a political corner. Robert A. Ferguson, a scholar of rhetoric, noted that Douglas “accused his more obscure opponent of ‘dangerous radicalism.’ Lincoln, was a ‘Black republican’ who would abolish slavery, welcome racial mixing, and disobey the Supreme Court.”9

In addition to the seven debates, which were recorded by rival newspaper stenographers, both candidates made numerous separate speeches. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley wrote of the 1858 race that “the two champions traversed the prairies, speaking alternately to the same vast audiences at several central, accessible points, and speaking separately at others, until the day of election; when Douglas secured a small majority in either branch of the legislature, and was reelected, though Lincoln had the larger popular vote. But while Lincoln had spent less than a thousand dollars in all, Douglas in the canvass had borrowed and dispensed no less than eighty thousand dollars; incurring a debt which weighed him down to the grave. I presume no dime of this was used to buy up his competitor’s voters, but all to organize and draw out his own; still the debt so improvidently, if not culpably, incurred remained to harass him out of this mortal life.”

Lincoln, it was said, was beaten; it was a hasty, erring judgment. This canvass made him stronger at home, stronger with the Republicans of the whole country, and when the next national convention of his party assembled, eighteen months thereafter, he became its nominee for President, and thus achieved the highest station in the gift of his country; which but for that misjudged feat of 1858 he would never have attained.10

Even Greeley, however, did not immediately recognize Lincoln’s growth through defeat. With help from a malapportioned legislature, Douglas narrowly won reelection. After the 1858 election, Douglas reportedly told Massachusetts Congressman Anson Burlingame: “Burlingame, I am elected Senator for six years; I have got Joe Lane’s head in a basket, and shall soon have Slidell’s, Bright’s and Fitch’s. Won’t it be a splendid sight, Burlingame, to see [James] McDougall returned from California, [Edward D.] Baker from Oregon, and Douglas and ‘Old Abe,’ all at Washington together — for the next President is to come from Illinois!” Historian Robert W. Johannsen wrote: “The conversation, reported in the press, damaged Douglas’ southern support.”11 Douglas had twice been denied the Democratic presidential nomination – in 1852 and 1856. But he had been weakened by events in Kansas and the debates in Illinois. Douglas was no longer the man who could unite the northern and southern wings of the Democratic Party. Most southern Democrats no longer trusted him after the bitter battle over the Lecompton Constitution in 1857-1858. Once a “doughface” on whom southerners could count, Douglas had lost much of his political base. In 1860, Douglas was infuriated by the dissolution in April of the Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. He engaged in a long and acrimonious debate with Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis. Historian Roy Morris wrote: “Pale, grim-faced, and in obvious discomfort, Douglas shot back: ‘In regard to the Senator’s declaration that he will grant no quarter to squatter sovereignty, I can only say to him that it will remain to the victor to grant quarter, or to grant mercy. I ask none.’ He withdrew from the floor and immediately took to his bed, gripped by another severe attack of bronchitis. Advice poured in from all sides. ‘Do not under any circumstances be drawn into a debate which will degenerate below the dignity of your position,’ William Richardson implored. ‘For God’s sake don’t peril interests not only dear to you but to your friends and the country when you have nothing to gain, but everything to lose. He needn’t have bothered. Douglas was too ill to return to the Senate; he missed the final vote in which the congressional slave code was adopted, 36-19. Concerned that he might have to endure another operation on his throat, Douglas suffered an unexpected emotional blow when his eight-month-old daughter Ellen suddenly sickened and died in early May.”12

At first, noted biographer Robert W. Johannsen, Douglas discounted any intention to play an active role in the campaign and strain his always sensitive vocal cords. “Convinced of the need for drastic action, he decided to enter the campaign personally, in a vigorous effort to carry the issues of the election directly to the people.” Douglas said: “We must make the war boldly against the Northern abolitionists and the Southern disunionists, and give no quarter to either.”13 But once Vice President John Breckinridge had been nominated for president by southern Democrats, patching together the disparate parts of the Democratic Party would prove impossible for Douglas. Historian Douglas R. Egerton wrote in the summer of 1860: “William A. Richardson, the Democratic governor of the Nebraska Territory, toured New England and assured Douglas that things were ‘much better than we had hoped for.’ With a little effort, the ticket could ‘carry Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island & Conn[ecticut].’ Ever the optimist, Douglas believed his momentum was ‘gaining every day.’” Lincoln took the more traditional approach of presidential candidates (one which would prevail until the 20th century) of remaining at home and receiving visitors. Egerton wrote New Hampshire Republican leaders George Fogg wrote Lincoln “that his ‘quiet and dignified retirement’ in Springfield appeared statesmanlike in comparison to Douglas’ search for ‘his father’s grave,’ and his ‘anxious mothers’ pantry.” ‘Everything was secure in New England,’ Fogg added. ‘The election is ours now.’”14 For the first time in American history, a presidential candidate campaigned actively. In Manchester, New Hampshire, Douglas said of Lincoln: “He is a very clever fellow – a kindhearted, good natured, amiable man.”15 Egerton wrote of Douglas’s 1860 campaign. “His voice grew hoarse, and he medicated his throat each evening with yet heavier drinking. During a speech in Atlanta, one spectator noted ‘a stony glare about Douglas’ eyes, particularly the left one.’ On another occasion, Douglas appeared confused and stammered throughout his oration.”16

Lincoln resisted the temptation to match Douglas and stayed home in Springfield. He adopted the position that Douglas first took in June – that his views were well enough known and did not need to be repeated. Historian William C. Harris noted: “During the campaign, Republican newspapers and speakers, politically sensitive to northern white racism, refused to respond to the Democratic charges that Lincoln supported black equality. They riveted voter attention on their candidate’s commitment to the republican principles of the Founding Fathers, on the national Democratic violation of these principles in Kansas, and on the corruption of the Buchanan administration.”17 Douglas effectively wore himself out campaigning. He only narrowly carried Missouri and New Jersey. Unlike the mathematics of the Illinois legislature in 1858, this time the Electoral College math worked in Lincoln’s favor who won only a plurality of popular votes but a clear majority of electoral votes.

On March 4, 1861, Senator Stephen a Douglas held Abraham Lincoln’s hat as the president delivered his First Inaugural Address. Even the negotiator, Douglas favored compromise with the South in the first three months of the year. After the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12-14, Massachusetts Congressman George Ashmun pushed Douglas to go visit President Lincoln. Obviously at the president’s request, Ashmun sped to the home of Stephen A. Douglas, “unfolded his mission and urged Douglas: ‘Go at once to the President, and take him by the hand and tender him all the aid you can give.’ Adele put her hands on Douglas’ shoulders and urged him to go, and he said decisively that he would.”18 Ashmun recalled: “We fortunately found Mr. Lincoln alone, and upon my stating the errand on which we had come, he was most cordial in his welcome, and immediately prepared the way for the conversation which followed, by taking from his drawer and reading to us the draft of the proclamation which he had decided to issue, and which was given to the country the next morning.”

As soon as the reading was ended, Mr. Douglas rose from the chair and said: ‘Mr. President, I cordially concur in every word of that document, except that instead of a call for seventy-five thousand men I would make it two hundred thousand. You do not know the dishonest purposes of those men (the Rebels) as well as I do—‘ and he then asked us to look with him at the map which hung at one end of the President’s room, where in much detail he pointed out the principal strategic points which should be at once strengthened for the coming contest….I venture to say that no two men in the United States parted that night with a more cordial feeling of a united, friendly and patriotic purpose than Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas.”19

Douglas then went back to Illinois to rally support for the Union cause, speaking repeatedly to crowds throughout the Midwest. “The patriotic conduct of Douglas earned for him the warm commendation of Northern newspapers, many of which had hitherto been incapable of ascribing honorable motives to him,” noted Douglas biographer Allen Johnson. “ No one who met him at the President’s levees would have suspected that he had been one of his host’s most relentless opponents. A correspondent of New York Times described him as he appeared at one of these functions. ‘Here one minute, there the next – now congratulating the President, then complimenting Mrs. Lincoln, bowing and scraping, and shaking hands, and smiling, laughing yarning and saluting the crowd of people whom he knew.’ More soberly, this same observer added, ‘He has already done a great deal of good to the administration.’ It is impossible to find the soured and discomfited rival in this picture.”20

By early June, an exhausted Douglas was on his death bed. Later, during the Civil War, an Upstate New York journalist, Ellis Henry Roberts, spent an evening with President. “He related many pleasant incidents connected with his contest with Douglas. He told me that he spoke, in all, sixty-four times – nine or ten times face to face with his antagonist. His estimate of the Little Giant is generous. He concedes to him great hardihood, pertinacity and magnetic power. Of all men he has ever seen, says Mr. Lincoln, he has the most audacity in maintaining an untenable position. Thus, in endeavoring to reconcile Popular Sovereignity [sic] and the Dred Scott decision, his argument, stripped of sophistry, is ‘It is legal to expel slavery from a territory where it legally exists!’ And he has bamboozled thousands into believing him.”21

Unlike James Buchanan, whose grudge match with Stephen A. Douglas doomed his presidency to failure, Lincoln had no grudge matches. Although personally not vindictive, he often found himself surrounded by people who were – law partner William H. Herndon, wife Mary, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. He let Mary hold the grudges for the family. She couldn’t stand Secretary of State Seward and wanted him fired, but she adored Seward’s foreign policy rival, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. Rather than isolating the prickly Charles Sumner, he drew him into the presidential court where Mary Todd cultivated his friendship while the president cultivated Seward. Lincoln did not need to be surrounded by people who liked each other – not in his family, not in his cabinet, not in politics.

Lincoln had a strong memory for those who have proffered him favors in the past. In 1860, Lincoln had written an Ohio friend that he should “do no ungenerous thing toward Governor Chase, because he gave us his sympathy in 1858, when scarcely any other distinguished man did.” As secretary of the Treasury, however, Salmon P. Chase did not return that respect. He undermined Lincoln with Congress and conspired to replace Lincoln as the Republican presidential candidate in 1864. On October 29, 1863, Presidential aide John Hay wrote: “I told the Tycoon that Chase would try to make capital out of the Rosecrans business. He laughed & said, “I suppose he will, like the bluebottle fly, lay his eggs in every rotten spot he can find.” He seems much amused at Chase’s mad hunt after the Presidency. He says it may win. He hopes the country will never do worse.” Hay wrote: “I said he should not by making all Chase’s appointments make himself particeps criminis.22 Eventually, Chase’s presidential campaign fell apart. That, Lincoln could forgive, but when Chase resigned once too often in June 1864, Lincoln accepted the resignation and replaced him.

Like Lincoln in the 1850s, Winston Churchill spent a long period in the political wilderness By the 1830s, Churchill had been in politics for three decades. Although very well known, Churchill was also very often disliked – for his policies, for his party switching, for the controversy that seemed to surround him – whether it was opposition to dominion status for India or support for King Edward VIII in his abdication crisis. Churchill’s position in the 1930s was different from Abraham Lincoln’s in the 1850s. Churchill bodyguard Walter H. Thompson observed: “Why Churchill should have fallen out of favor so often – and for such long periods – no man will ever quite know. He seemed an outcast in the eyes of [Prime Minister Stanley] Baldwin. Perhaps, the man was merely too dazzling, infallible and prescient to be believable. This could explain why he could be only half appreciated by those who so deeply respected and loved him and why, for those who feared him or envied his genius or his bearing of command, it was a pleasure and even a relief to see him shelved from time to time.”23 Churchill did not waste his time in the wilderness. Historian Robin Edmonds wrote: “A backbencher in Parliament, outside the House of Commons Churchill was well served by a broad network of friends. Together, they provided him with the information that formed the background to his speeches and articles: in scientific matters, Frederick Lindemann, in secret intelligence, Desmond Morton, and at the head of the Central Department in the Foreign Office itself, Ralph Wigram, until his death in December 1936. From April 1935 onwards, moreover, both Churchill and Lindemann were members of the Air Research SubCommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Churchill took care to keep in close touch with successive French governments; and from 1936 onwards, with the Soviet Ambassador in London, [Ivan Mikhailovich] Maisky.”24 Clearly, Churchill had much more time to get to know and evaluate the important political players, domestically and internationally, than did Lincoln.

The 1930s helped to reestablish Churchill’s credibility on what would become the most important issues facing Britain. “Churchill had been right about Germany,” noted historian Kenneth Weisbrode. “He was right about the weakness of his country’s armed forces, right about Hitler, right about Chamberlain and appeasement, and right about the stakes for Britain and her empire. No other major political figure detected the immediate future so clearly, or appeared to have os accurate a perception of the mood and capacities of his country, save Hitler himself.”25 Even before the British people were prepared for combat, Churchill was convinced that they would be prepared when the time came. MP Harold Nicolson recorded a Churchill tirade delivered to columnist Walter Lippmann and U.S. Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy in June 1939: “It may be true, it may well be true, that this country will be at the outset of this coming and to my mind almost inevitable war be exposed to dire peril and fierce ordeals. It may be true that steel and fire will rain down upon us day and night scattering death and destruction far and wide. It may be true that our sea-communications will be imperilled and our food-supplies placed in jeopardy. Yet these trials and disasters, I ask you to believe me Mr Lippmann, will but serve to steel the resolution of the British people and to enhance our will for victory….Nor should I die happy in the great struggle which I see before me, were I not convinced that if we in this dear dear island succumb to the ferocity and might of our enemies, over there in your distant and immune continent the torch of freedom will burn untarnished and (I trust and hope) undismayed.””26 Churchill’s opposition to Nazi Germany allowed him to reinvent himself as an Old Testament prophet with a moral cause. Journalist Jeremy Havardi has written: “Churchill was more than just a sniping critic of government policy for he offered alternative ways of dealing with the Nazi threat. But, contrary to the self-serving portrait offered in The Gathering Storm, his alternatives were fraught with difficulties and, even if implemented, might not have prevented a European war. Nonetheless, Churchill had an astonishing grasp of the core issue: that Hitlerism represented a grave threat to European peace and security and could not be tackled from a position of military weakness. Churchill possessed the intuitive sense, and the bravery, to interpret Hitler as a revolutionary ideologue rather than an aggrieved nationalist.”27 In response to Chamberlain’s 1838 Munich agreement on Czechoslovakia, Churchill told the House of Commons: “The utmost my right hon. friend the Prime Minister has been able to secure by all his immense exertions, by all the great efforts and mobilisation which took place in this country, and by all the anguish and strain through which we have passed in this country, the utmost he has been able to gain for Czechoslovakia in the matters which were in dispute has been that the German dictator, instead of snatching the victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course.”28

In the wake of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Churchill was invited into the Chamberlain cabinet. The eight months during which Churchill served as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939-1940 was a curious epilogue to the 1930s in which Churchill had been the leading “voice in the wilderness” crying about the danger of Nazi Germany and the need for Britain to rearm. It was a very cold, depressing, stressful winter in London – especially for those Conservative who had fought Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Historian Lynne Olson noted: “For the Tory rebels who had battled so hard against appeasement, there was an especially profound sense of uselessness. Now that their country was at war, they wanted to serve it, but one, it seemed, had anything for them to do. Certainly not Chamberlain, who, having been pressed to bring the two most prominent dissidents, Churchill and Eden, into the cabinet, made very clear he wanted nothing to do with the rest.”29 Churchill was caught in the middle – between the anti-Chamberlain rebels who looked to him for leadership and Chamberlain, who looked to him for loyalty. One rebel, Leo Amery, once a fellow Harrow student with Churchill, thought Chamberlain “a civilian to the very marrow, hating war, obsessed by the sufferings I would cause and determined to avoid them if it were humanly possible…He had no conception…of the demonic drive behind the enemy, or of the heights of sacrifice and achievement to which our own people were ready to rise if rightly led.”30 Still, Churchill sought to be part of the governing team. Historian David Dilks noted: “Regarding almost all the main issues of the war, Churchill found himself in harmony with Chamberlain and the other members of the War Cabinet.” But Churchill aimed for greater coordination of war efforts – under his leadership. “By March 1940, the First Lord was making it plain that he wished to be Minister of Defence, with substantial powers over the War Office and Air Ministry. The Prime Minister would not go so far, but did appoint him to be Chairman of the Military Coordination Committee. The experiment failed, amidst recriminations.” Dilks noted that “the first eight months of the war had done nothing to calm the apprehensions, widespread among politicians, civil servants and serving officers, that Churchill was the Churchill of old: impulsive, sometimes bullying, self-centred.”31 Nor did the Chamberlain administration do much to calm the apprehensions among its critics that it was not engaging in the serious administration and rhetorical work to prepare Britain for war.

Historian Andrew Roberts wrote: “When he was brought back from ‘the Wilderness’ by [Joseph] Chamberlain at the outbreak of war in September 1939, Churchill had, as one historian has put it, ‘been able to dream, while [the appeasers] had become accustomed to the sober chores of tailoring hope to reality.’ As a result, Churchill could enthuse the nation during the Blitz using vocabulary which simply would not have occurred to the workaday Respectable Tendency politicians on the Government Front Bench who had spent the previous decade trying to avoid giving any verbal hostages to fortune.”32 Lynne Olson wrote that Churchill “not only boosted his countrymen’s spirits but gave them a better understanding of why this war was being fought. In doing so, he became the most popular public figure in the nation.”33 By the spring of 1940, Churchill’s dynamism was clearly guiding the government’s military policies. Churchill bodyguard Walter H. Thompson wrote that Churchill’s “prediction of invasion [of the Low Countries] was repeated a day later by Prime Minister Chamberlain. It served more to increase the public demand for a Defense Minister than to anneal the public confidence in Chamberlain. Winston’s appointment came (he was named Defense Minister in the Cabinet) a few weeks later. It was received joyfully throughout England. But Hitler nearly had apoplexy. ‘Bloodthirsty amateur strategist’ came roaring over the German radio, as soon as the appointment was confirmed. ‘Drunkard,’ ‘gabbler,’ ‘hypocrite,’ and the one that amused Mr. Churchill the most: ‘Lazybones.’” Churchill’s experience in war leadership – and understanding of war strategy – made him the natural choice to be not only minister of defence but to be prime minister succeeding Neville Chamberlain.” Thompson wrote: “Political comment is not my field but no man in England – irrespective of his insight, degree of education, courage or basic intelligence – could by that time have any other notion about Chamberlain that they he had very little conception of war itself. And I do not today have any doubt that had Chamberlain continued in power for another six months we would have been defeated.”34 Still, noted historian Roberts, at the critical moment when he was being considered to succeed Chamberlain, he “was universally regarding as lacking that essential quality for Prime Minister: Judgement.”35

Lord Edward Halifax is sometimes portrayed as something of a cardboard cartoon – pious, patrician, appeasing – he once suggested that Britain could negotiate with Germany so long as Hitler was not in power. Biographer Andrew Roberts described Halifax as “a calm, rational man of immense personal prestige and gravitas, his career an uninterrupted tale of achievement and promotion.” Foreign Secretary Halifax was a complex man – “a shrewd, patriotic and tough politician, ever alive to the swings of public opinion and expert at the art of getting his way. He was certainly not above deft use of the political knife when occasion demanded. His part in championing and then in dismantling the policy of appeasement is a case study in statesmanship,” wrote historian Andrew Roberts, who noted that “for all his pious and patrician reputation, Halifax was as wily and quick-witted as any of his opponents.” Roberts observed that it was untrue “that Halifax never wanted the job. His nonchalant air of ambivalence towards high office was a stock feature of the make-up of any grand Tory politician of that period. In different circumstances he would, especially if it had been presented to him by friends as being his patriotic duty, undoubtedly have accepted the Premiership. The supreme prize of British politics was there for the taking and he had merely to nod for it to be his. But he knew in his heart that he was not the calibre required for a wartime premier, and that Winston Churchill was.”36

Churchill succeeded to the prime ministership once Chamberlain lost the confidence of both the Labour Party and a significant portion of the ruling Conservative Party. “The following two days saw the spectacle of the House of Commons at its most theatrical, powerful and merciless,” wrote historian Andrew Roberts. “The mood of the House turned against Chamberlain when he made the error of trying to treat the debate as any other, calling on his ‘friends in the House to support him when it came to the division. This was correctly portrayed as a blatant attempt to win the debate through a narrow and conventional appeal to party loyalty.’” Never an inspiring speaker, Chamberlain’s task was made more difficult by his lacklustre track record. Churchill loyally but unsuccessfully tried to support the Chamberlain government.37 Events and emotions had quickly overtaken the expectations of the Chamberlain government. Although Chamberlain tried to turn into a partisan roll call, Roberts wrote that Chamberlain faced a case “of parliamentary spontaneous combustion.”38 Change was in the Westminister air.

The key spokesman for the Chamberlain opposition turned out to be Leo Amery, who long had a prickly relationship with Churchill and had never been noted for his oratorical skills. In contravention of established rules, the House of Commons speaker, a Chamberlain loyalist, consistently avoided recognizing Amery until most of the MPs had gone to dinner. When he was finally called to speak, Amery had to postpone his well-prepared speech until allies could round him enough members to fill the chamber. Avery then launched into a withering condemnation of the “©ompromise and procrastination” of the government.” Then, Amery used the explosive conclusion that he had prepared “great reluctance because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine. But they are words which I think are applicable to the present situation.” The rebel Tory concluded: “This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing! Depart, I say, and let us have done with you!” And then he added the stinging words: “In the name of God, go!”39 Within 24 hours, Avery’s words would prove prophetic.

Despite the failures of the Chamberlain-Halifax government, however, Halifax was still Chamberlain’s logical successor. Andrew Roberts wrote that when the three met on May 10, “Chamberlain told Halifax that all parties had to be brought into the Government immediately, although Churchill, still furious with Labour after the debate, had been doubtful about it the night before. As all-party government was precisely the policy he had been pushing since before Munich, Halifax was enthusiastic.”40 After Chamberlain first met with Halifax in the morning, Halifax believed that “he could do the job. He also felt that Churchill needed a restraining influence, according to Halifax subordinate R.A. Butler. Could that restraint be better exercised as Prime Minister or as a Minister in Churchill’s government. Even if he chose the former role, Churchill’s qualities and experience would surely mean that he would be ‘running the way anyway’ and Halifax’s own position would speedily turn into a sort of honorary Prime Minister,” said Halifax to a Foreign Office subordinate. Halifax was too political savvy to become a figurehead.41 Roberts noted that Lord Halifax used his peerage as an excuse, himself having suggested that a constitutional way might have been found around his seat in the House of Lords. Biographer Roberts argued that Halifax had decided “to restrain Churchill from below rather than above.”42 Both Chamberlain and Halifax understood that only Churchill had the background and skill set to be a prime minister in war. Given his longtime close relationship with the royal family, Halifax was far more likely to win King George’s support than Churchill. Historian Kenneth Weisbrode noted that Halifax, former viceroy of India, “was practically a member of the king’s family; the two spoke each other’s language had dealt familiarly for a long time.”43

The inner thinking of Halifax remains shrouded in mystery – as does exactly what transpired that afternoon when the three met at 10 Downing Street. Halifax and Churchill both had reasons to adjust the report of the facts to fit their own later historical narratives. The famous “silence” that supposedly afflicted the effusive Churchill (after Halifax said his peerage might be an impediment) may not have been a silence at all. As Halifax related the story of the meeting the next day, he had maintained that “for all the reasons given the PM must probably go, but that I had no doubt at all in my own mind that for me to take it would create a quite impossible position. Quite apart from Winston’s qualities as compared with my own at this particular juncture, what would in fact be my position? Winston would be running Defence, and in this connection one could not but remember how rapidly the position had become impossible between Asquith and Lloyd George [in World War II], and I should have no access to the House of Commons. The inevitable result would be that being outside both these vital points of contact I should speedily become a more or less honorary Prime Minister, living in a kind of twilight just outside the tings that really mattered.” Both Chamberlain and Churchill were forced to agree.44

Churchill’s reputation as a party maverick rather than a party stalwart made him acceptable to the Liberals and Labour. The immediate cause of his ascent was a disastrous British expedition to Norway – for which Churchill himself was partially responsible. Prime Minister Churchill was forced to move quickly. Churchill biographer Paul Addison wrote: “While avoiding a purge, Churchill began to disperse the inner circle of the ‘men of Munich’. Sir Horace Wilson, the head of the Treasury and eminence grise of the Chamberlain regime, was banished from 10 Downing Street. [Former Foreign Secretary Samuel] Hoare was sent into exile as ambassador to Madrid, and [Chancellor of the Exchequer John] Simon removed to the Lords as Lord Chancellor.”45 The use of foreign ambassadorships as ways to dispose of political opponents or less useful allies became standard operating procedure for Churchill as prime minister. Churchill effectively manipulated his top rivals – Lord Halifax to be ambassador in Washington in late 1941 and Stafford Cripps to be Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House in early 1942.

Notable, however, was Churchill’s use of David Margesson, who had been Chamberlain’s chief House whip and continued in that role for Churchill until was moved to the War Department. “It has been my deliberate policy to try to rally all the forces for the life and death struggle in which we are plunged, and to let bygones be bygones. I am quite sure that Margesson will treat me with the loyalty he has given to my predecessors.”46 Churchill told the House shortly after he became prime minister: “I say, let pre-war feuds die; let personal quarrels be forgotten, and let us keep our hatreds for the common enemy. Let Party interests be ignored, let all our energies be harnessed, let the whole ability and forces of the nation be hurled into the struggle, and let the strong horses be pulling on the collar.”47 Margesson was moved to secretary of war in December 1941 – a position in which he served competently until his head was needed in February 1942 as atonement for the British loss of Singapore.

Churchill’s kindness and consideration to Neville Chamberlain was rather remarkable.
The deposed prime minister was appointed First Lord President. Though Chamberlain was ailing, Churchill was considerate of Chamberlain’s feelings. He wrote him a long letter on August 31 asking for his “counsel and assistance.” After illness forced Chamberlain to resign from the War Cabinet in September 1940, Churchill wrote the former prime minister to “to express to you my admiration for the heroic effort you have made to do your duty and to see this grim business through, and my sincere sorrow that, with nerve unshaken and mental prowess unimpaired, your physical strength no longer bears you up in a public station. I trust indeed that having put down this burden you find life more endurable, and that a real improvement will set in.” He added: “I have greatly valued our comradeship and your aid and counsel during these five violent months, and I beg you to believe me your sincere friend.”48 In the midst of German bombs and strategic difficulties, Churchill wrote thoughtful updates to Chamberlain and offered to show him confidential documents about the war effort. Chamberlain’s doctor wrote Churchill: “Your letter to Neville has so touched my heart that I am impelled to tell you so. And I add that your gentle and skilful handling of a sick comrade during the vagaries through which his mind has been passing has put even me to shame! You have greatly softened the blow and I want to thank you.”49 Curiously, Lincoln never eulogized Douglas or left many notable quotes about his long-time adversary. Himself eulogizing Chamberlain before the House of Commons on November 12, 1940, Churchill said: “Since we last met, the House has suffered a very grievous loss in the death of one of its most distinguished Members, and of a statesman and public servant who, during the best part of three memorable years, was first Minister of the Crown.”

The fierce and bitter controversies which hung around him in recent times were hushed by the news of his illness and are silenced by his death. In paying a tribute of respect and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history; but at the Lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.

It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart – the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.

But it is also a help to our country and to our whole Empire, and to our decent faithful way of living that, however long the struggle may last, or however dark may be the clouds which overhang our path, no future generation of English-speaking folks – for that is the tribunal to which we appeal – will doubt that, even at a great cost to ourselves in technical preparation, we were guiltless of the bloodshed, terror and misery which have engulfed so many lands and peoples, and yet seek new victims still. Herr Hitler protests with frantic words and gestures that he has only desired peace. What do these ravings and outpourings count before the silence of Neville Chamberlain’s tomb? Long, hard, and hazardous years lie before us, but at least we entered upon them united and with clean hearts.

I do not propose to give an appreciation of Neville Chamberlain’s life and character, but there were certain qualities always admired in these Islands which he possessed in an altogether exceptional degree. He had a physical and moral toughness of fibre which enabled him all through his varied career to endure misfortune and disappointment without being unduly discouraged or wearied. He had a precision of mind and an aptitude for business which raised him far above the ordinary levels of our generation. He had a firmness of spirit which was not often elated by success, seldom downcast by failure, and never swayed by panic. when, contrary to all his hopes, beliefs and exertions, the war came upon him, and when, as he himself said, all that he had worked for was shattered, there was no man more resolved to pursue the unsought quarrel to the death. The same qualities which made him one of the last to enter the war, made him one of the last who would quit it before the full victory of a righteous cause was won.

I had the singular experience of passing in a day from being one of his most prominent opponents and critics to being one of his principal lieutenants, and on another day of passing from serving under him to become the head of a Government of which, with perfect loyalty, he was content to be a member. Such relationships are unusual in our public life. I have before told the House how on the morrow of the Debate which in the early days of May challenged his position, he declared to me and a few other friends that only a National Government could face the storm about to break upon us, and that if he were an obstacle to the formation of such a Government, he would instantly retire. Thereafter, he acted with that singleness of purpose and simplicity of conduct which at all times, and especially in great times, ought to be the ideal of us all.

When he returned to duty a few weeks after a most severe operation, the bombardment of London and of the seat of Government had begun. I was a witness during that fortnight of his fortitude under the most grievous and painful bodily afflictions, and I can testify that, although physically only the wreck of a man, his nerve was unshaken and his remarkable mental faculties unimpaired.

After he left the Government he refused all honours. He would die like his father, plain Mr. Chamberlain. I sought permission of the King, however, to have him supplied with the Cabinet papers, and until a few days of his death he followed our affairs with keenness, interest and tenacity. He met the approach of death with a steady eye. If he grieved at all, it was that he could not be a spectator of our victory; but I think he died with the comfort of knowing that his country had, at least, turned the corner.

At this time our thoughts must pass to the gracious and charming lady who shared his days of triumph and adversity with a courage and quality the equal of his own. He was, like his father and his brother Austen before him, a famous Member of the House of Commons, and we here assembled this morning, Members of all parties, without a single exception, feel that we do ourselves and our country honour in saluting the memory of one whom Disraeli would have called an “English worthy.”50

Although traditional politics were interrupted by World War II, criticism of Churchill continued throughout the conflict. When Winston Churchill announced the sinking of the Bismarck in May 1941, noted aide John Peck, “Facing Winston sat the two most persistent critics of his conduct of the war – Emanuel Shinwell and Aneurin Bevan. Shinwell looked across and caught Winston’s eye, grinned broadly and gave him a friendly and encouraging nod. Bevan sat with shoulders hunched and hands in pockets; a black scowl on his face unable to conceal his chagrin that Churchill should have a victory to record.”51 Several members of Parliament persistently attacked the policies of his government. At one point in May 1942, Churchill prepared a BBC addressed in which he was prepared to state: “Our critics are not slow to dwell upon the misfortunes and reverses which we have sustained, and I am certainly not going to pretend that there have not been many mistakes and shortcomings. In particular I am much blamed by a group of ex-ministers for my general conduct of the war. They would like very much to reduce my power of direction and initiative.”52 Before delivering the broadcast, however, Churchill decided not to make the statement.

Churchill Private Secretary John Colville observed that the prime minister, although “disliked by so many in his youth and presumably both snubbed and thwarted, he never spoke ill of his critics in his later days. He remembered kindness he had received and opportunities he had been given.”53 In February 1942, Churchill told Violet Bonham Carter, daughter of Prime minister Herbert H. Asquith, that “your father fell because he was stabbed in the back by [Lloyd George]. I never stabbed Neville Chamberlain in the back. I supported him.”54 Churchill was magnanimous to former political opponents, but he also could be unforgiving to military subordinates who crossed him. Lincoln was also easier on staff and co-workers. Lincoln “never chided, never censured, never criticized my conduct,” said law partner William H. Herndon, whose drunken sprees might have given Lincoln an opportunity to do so.

Still, Lincoln and Churchill were big men who learned from and triumphed over adversity before leading their nations through it.

For Further Reference

  1. Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, p. 304.
  2. Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, p. 192.
  3. Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, p.
  4. David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, p. 328.
  5. Horace White, The Life of Lyman Trumbull, p 38-40
  6. Allen Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, p. 17.
  7. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 446 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Jediah F. Alexander, May 15, 1858).
  8. Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, p. 740.
  9. Robert A. Ferguson, “Hearing Lincoln and the Making of Eloquence, American Literary History, Winter 2009, p. 692.
  10. Albert Shaw, editor, Abraham Lincoln: His Path to the Presidency, p. 194.
  11. Michael S. Green, Lincoln and the Election of 1860, p. 93 (Illinois State Journal, September 11, 1860).
  12. Roy Morris, Jr., The Long Pursuit, pp. 156-157
  13. Robert Walter Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, p. 777-778
  14. Douglas R. Egerton, Year of Meteors, p. 201.
  15. Robert Walter Johannsen, The Frontier, the Union, and Stephen A. Douglas, p. 175.
  16. Douglas R. Egerton, Year of Meteors, p. 205.
  17. William C. Harris, Lincoln’s Rise to the Presidency, p. 244.
  18. George Milton Fort, The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War, p. 519.
  19. Paul M. Angle, editor, The Lincoln Reader, p. 357 (George Ashmun).
  20. Allen Johnson, Stephen A. Douglas, p. 470.
  21. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 302.
  22. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 103 (October 29, 1863).
  23. Walter H. Thompson, Assignment: Churchill, p. 164.
  24. Robin Edmonds, The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt & Stalin in Peace and War, p. 83.
  25. Kenneth Weisbrode, Churchill and the King, p. 48.
  26. Nigel Nicolson, editor, Harold Nicolson: Diaries and Letters, 1907-1964, pp. 212-213 (June 14, 1939).
  27. Jeremy Havardi, Greatest Briton: Essays on Winston Churchill’s Life and Political Philosophy, pp. 163-164.
  28. William Manchester, The Last Lion, Winston Churchill Visions of Glory 1874 – 1932, p. 368 (October 5, 1938)
  29. Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, p. 232.
  30. Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, p. 235.
  31. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, pp. 36, 38.
  32. Andrew Roberts, A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900, pp. 274-275.
  33. Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, p. 265.
  34. Walter H. Thompson, Assignment: Churchill, pp. 158-159.
  35. Andrew Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: A Life of Lord Halifax, p. 1.
  36. Andrew Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: A Life of Lord Halifax, p. 1-3
  37. Andrew Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: A Life of Lord Halifax, pp. 196-197.
  38. Andrew Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: A Life of Lord Halifax, p. 195
  39. Lynne Olson, Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, pp. 294-295.
  40. Andrew Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: A Life of Lord Halifax, p. 198.
  41. R.A. Butler, The Art of the Possible, p. 84.
  42. Andrew Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: A Life of Lord Halifax, p. 200.
  43. Kenneth Weisbrode, Churchill and the King, p. 7.
  44. Andrew Roberts, ‘The Holy Fox’: A Life of Lord Halifax, p. 205.
  45. Paul Addison, Churchill: The Unexpected Hero, p. 162.
  46. Martin Gilbert, Continue to Pester, Nag and Bite: Churchill’s War Leadership, p. 35.
  47. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations, p. 274 (May 8, 1940).
  48. (Letter from Winston S. Churchill to Neville Chamberlain October 4, 1940).
  49. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 817.
  50. Martin Gilbert, editor, Churchill: The Power of Words, pp. 275-276 (Speech by Churchill at the House of Commons, November 12, 1940)
  51. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 1095.
  52. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 107.
  53. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 11.
  54. Mark Pottle, editor, Champion Redoubtable, The Diaries and Letters of Violet Bonham Carter, 1914-1945, p. 236 (February 11, 1942).
Posted in Essays