As a young politician, Abraham Lincoln had said: “I know the American People are much attached to their Government; – I know they would suffer much for its sake; – I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another.”
As national leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were separated by eight decades, but they were united by a common conception of democratic nationalism and belief in the patriotism of their citizens. Both tried to align their public comments with the best in their countrymen’s hearts. British General Hastings Ismay wrote that when he tried to give Prime Minister Churchill credit for the role his speeches had played in inspiring the United Kingdom, Churchill responded harshly: “Not at all. It was given to me to express what was in the hearts of the British people. If I had said anything else, they would have hurled me from office.”
Lincoln’s message of national unity remained consistent from the moment in February 1861 he left Springfield for Washington until his death in April 1865. “I stand by the flag of the Union, and all I ask of you is that you stand by me as long as I stand by it,” said President-elect Lincoln at Dunkirk, New York. In his First Annual Message to Congress, Lincoln declared: “The Union must be preserved; and hence all indispensable means must be employed.” Scholar Christopher Hager noted that Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address showed Lincoln’s “belief in rhetoric’s power to create political unity: ‘Speaking to “both parties,” who ‘read the same Bible, and pray to the same God,’ Lincoln enjoined both ‘to bind up the nation’s wounds.’”
Through the Civil War, the President had to worry not just about the secession of the South, but also of the Border States where loyalty remained conflicted. Furthermore, noted historian Michael Burlingame, Lincoln worried about the loyalty of his old neighbors in the Old Northwest: “The region, so dependent on the commercial artery of the Mississippi, might decide to cast its lot with the South.” To keep the Union together, Lincoln had to keep the North and Border States together. “In saving the Union Lincoln…played a major role in the two major prizes of the conflict, both foundational to the nation’s democratic government,” wrote historian Phillip Shaw Paludan. “With the Union secure from successful secession, no state could ever again defy the peaceful ways established by the Constitution and change the government.”
Regarding the United Kingdom, “Churchill was a romantic.” His son Randolph wrote “Tears came easily to his eyes when he talked of the long story of Britain’s achievement in the world and the many deeds of heroism which had adorned it.” In May1938, before Churchill emerged from his decade in the political wilderness, he asked: “What is the purpose which has brought us all together? It is the conviction that the life of Britain, her glories and message to the world, can only be achieved by national unity, and national unity can only be preserved upon a cause which is larger than the nation itself.”
Churchill “was a great complex of a man, compounded by warring ingredients, and full of passion, as well as sentiment,” wrote historian Reginald Thompson. “For a little while with him we became dangerous children pursuing visions of glory. In England’s desperate need he renewed her youth and fortified her spirit. For him it was never England right or wrong, but simply, England!’”
Britain’s cause came before any partisan priority. Churchill told the House of Commons 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.” Historian David Dilks noted that Churchill “said that he had always faithfully served two public causes which I think stand supreme – the maintenance of the enduring greatness of Britain and her Empire and the historical continuity of our island life.”
Especially in the early days of World War II, Churchill managed to the embody the whole weight of Britain’s historic legacy and its determination to persevere in the faith of fearful odds. That is why perhaps so many of his early wartime statements echo Shakespeare’s Crispin Crispian Day speech delivered by Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt. “Churchill, with his long political experience and extensive historical knowledge, was the logical inheritor of this British emphasis on perseverance and flexibility,” wrote historian Maxwell Philip Schoenfeld. “His capacity to cling tenaciously to a position and his skillful political instincts for examining all possible doors to find the one which would yield most swiftly to his pressure linked his character to the political and historical tradition which he served.”
Speaking at Bristol in April 1941 after a devastating Luftwaffe raid, Churchill told residents: “I go about the country whenever I can escape for a few hours or for a day from my duty at headquarters, and I see the damage done by the enemy attacks; but I also see side by side with the devastation and amid the ruins quiet, confident, bright and smiling eyes, beaming with a consciousness of being associated with a cause far higher and wider than any human or personal issue. I see the spirit of an unconquerable people. I see a spirit bred in freedom, nursed in a tradition which has come down to us through the centuries, and which will surely at this moment, this turning-point in the history of the world, enable us to bear our part in such a way that none of our race who come after us will have any reason to cast reproach upon their sires.”
Like Lincoln in America, Churchill understood the soul of the British nation – and he was more willing than Lincoln to use emotion unashamedly to stir that soul to action. General Ismay recalled Churchill’s visit to the London docks in September after a night of heavy German bombing. Churchill “broke down completely and I nearly did, and as I was trying to get to you through the press of bodies, I heard an old woman say ‘You see, he really cares, he’s crying.’”
They not only understood, but they were prepared to galvanize that spirit as an essential component of the war effort they led. In 1901, Churchill had observed that “Comfort is not the end of human existence. It is the moral character of men.” Churchill was deeply impacted by the confidence of the British people in his leadership. “They have such confidence. It is a grave responsibility,” he said after visit to the bombed city of Bristol in April 1941.
For Lincoln, his only communication vehicle was the printed word, published through newspapers. For Churchill, radio was a primary weapon in galvanizing Britain. Military aide Hastings “Pug” Ismay observed of Churchill “failed to realise that the upsurge of the national spirit was largely his own creation. The great qualities of the British race had seemed almost dormant until he had aroused them. The people then saw themselves as he portrayed them. They put their trust in him. They were ready to do anything that he asked, make any sacrifice that he demanded, and follow wherever he led.”
Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill used the power of rhetoric to mobilize public opinion. But Churchill was impatient with Roosevelt’s reluctance aggressively to lead public opinion…and to lead America into the war. In August 1941, a frustrated Churchill wrote his son: “The President, for all his warm heart and good intentions, is thought by many of his admirers to move with public opinion rather than to lead and form it. I thank God however that he is where is.”
As Prime Minister, Churchill was very careful to observe the traditions of parliamentary and cabinet government. Historian Norman Davies wrote of the leaders in World War II: “Some of them, like Hitler and Stalin, gradually took everyday control of their country’s supreme military command, handling military and political business as an indivisible whole. Others, like Churchill and Roosevelt, kept a greater distance from the military hierarchy but in all important matters the ultimate decisions were theirs.”
Churchill understood the responsibility of power – and his responsibility to the British people. After the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, Britain faced an election campaign to determine whether Churchill would remain in power. “The British people are good all through,” said Churchill in an election broadcast. “You can test them as you would put a bucket into the sea, and always find it salt. The genius of our people springs from every class and from every part of the land.” The genius of the British people, however, did not contemplate Churchill’s retention in power. The Conservatives were overwhelmingly defeated by the Labour Party.