by William H. Benson
January 15, 2004
For Christmas this year I received two books, and coincidentally both were recent biographies on Winston Churchill. Considered the greatest Englishmen who has ever lived and also the greatest leader of the twentieth century, his story is an amazing adventure in force of will, determination, and leadership.
He was born on November 30, 1874 into wealth and privilege to an English father and an American mother. His father, John Churchill, Lord Randolph and the Duke of Marlborough, was only twenty-five in April of 1874 when he married the twenty-year-old Jennie Jerome, the American daughter of a New York City financier who owned race tracks.
Neither parent provided Winston with any direction during his childhood years, preferring to enjoy their own lives separately without any interference from their son. Winston had a non-relationship with his father and a semi-relationship with his mother. Early on they turned the parenting duties over to a hired nanny, Mrs. Everest, who then became the central emotional prop in Winston’s life.
Eventually this troublesome lad was packed off to Harrow, a boarding school for boys devoted to the classics. His teachers there considered him a very poor student, but Winston refused to get his mind wrapped around the numerous verb conjugations of Greek, Latin, or French. However, he enjoyed narrative history, and he learned to write tolerable essays due to a Mr. Somervell.
Winston later said that “this teacher was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. . . . I had three times as much as anyone else. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.”
His father then died when Winston was just twenty-years old, and Winston was then on his own. But by age twenty-six Winston was world famous, a war hero, a best-selling author, a millionaire, and a member of Parliament where he would then serve for most of the next sixty years. Seemingly coming from nowhere and without help from anyone he pushed himself into a position where people had to listen to him and then follow him. How had he done these things?
Certainly determination and ambition had always been there, but underlying those qualities was a superior talent in delivering the English language to his listeners and readers. For six decades his spell-binding speeches in and out of Parliament captivated audiences. And he could write histories and biographies that pulled his readers into new areas of scholarship and into fascinating facts and ideas that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
For Churchill the English language was his primary tool to accomplish his and Great Britain’s goals in defeating Germany in both world wars. Sincerity always underscored his words. When he said, “We shall never surrender,” his friends and enemies understood that he meant exactly that.
His speeches included a strong beginning and an emotional ending. He organized them around a single theme, and frequently he drew pictures. “We shall fight on the seas and oceans. . . . We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Always he preferred the one-syllable Anglo Saxon word over the polysyllabic Latin or French word.
Churchill died Sunday morning, January 24, 1965, less than two months after his ninetieth birthday, but coincidentally on the same day that his father–John Churchill, Lord Randolph, the Duke of Marlborough, the dad who had failed so miserably at parenting–had died seventy years before.
Winston frequently laced his speeches with words such as freedom and victory and loyalty and sacrifice and bravery and fighting to the bitter end. All lovers of truth and freedom in every generation need to hear such words again and again. We should hear them today.