Churchill's History of English-Speaking Peoples

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Sixty years ago, in the spring of 1956, Winston Churchill’s first volume of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples was published by Dodd, Mead & Company in New York. Over the next two years, three additional volumes appeared. Churchill in his early-to-mid eighties had continued to revise and rewrite this work that he originally conceived and partially wrote in the late 1930s before joining the war cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty and later as Prime Minister and Defense Minister.

On April 6, 1955, Churchill had submitted to the Queen his resignation as Prime Minister. The next day, he returned to his beloved Chartwell to work again on the history. “Within forty-eight hours of his retirement,” Martin Gilbert wrote, “he had found a new focus of activity.”

Churchill’s writing of history, we have learned, was the product of his own prodigious efforts and the work of a remarkable group of research assistants and consultants, including William Deakin, Lord Ismay, Henry Pownell, A.L. Rowse, Allan Bullock, Alan Hodge, Denis Kelly, and others. Some of those assistants would draft whole chapters that Churchill would subsequently edit. Others would help rewrite sections of the book that Churchill drafted in the late 1930s.

Churchill spent much of the 1930s in the political wilderness, repeatedly warning the British government and the world about the growing danger of Hitler’s Germany. Kept from Cabinet office by the leaders of his own party, Churchill supplemented his Parliamentary income by writing—articles on current events and books on history. He began writing A History of the English-Speaking Peoples while also completing his final volume of his great biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. Churchill had written more than 500,000 words of the history when Germany invaded Poland to ignite the European phase of the Second World War.

The book lay dormant for the next 16 years while Churchill saved Western Civilization, sounded the alarm about the Soviet threat to the West, wrote his Nobel Prize-winning history of the Second World War (six volumes), and served a second premiership in the early-to-mid 1950s.

At the age of 81, Churchill worked sometimes daily on revisions to the work. His physician, Lord Moran, noted in his diary one evening that he visited Churchill at Chartwell, observed him dictating to his secretary, and glanced at four books on British history piled by his bed. “Do you read all these books?” Moran asked. Churchill replied, “Oh no, I’m not rewriting my book. But when a difficult point arises I fatten my own account by referring to them.” On another occasion, Oxford historian A.L. Rowse lunched with Churchill at Chartwell and noticed the long galleys of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples stretched out across the bed on a tray-desk. Churchill also took the galleys with him when he traveled to the south of France.

In the Preface to the first volume, subtitled The Birth of Britain, Churchill explained that at the outbreak of the war he had written and delivered to the publisher “about a half a million words ... [but] there was still much to be done in proof-reading when I went to the Admiralty on September 3, 1939.” The purpose of the book, he explained, was to “present a personal view on the processes whereby the English-speaking peoples throughout the world have achieved their distinctive position and character.”

Volume I covered the beginning of the English race, its subjugation by Rome, the rise and growth of Christianity, the Viking age, Alfred the Great and Saxon rule, the Norman Conquest, the evolution of British common law, Magna Carta and the foundation of Parliament, Scotland and Ireland, the Black Death, Richard II, Henry V, the Wars of the Roses, Edward IV, and Richard III.

In Volume II, subtitled The New World, which appeared at the end of 1956, Churchill reviewed the impact of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, the Spanish Armada, the English Civil War, the rise of Cromwell, the settlement of America, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The next year saw the publication of Volume III, subtitled The Age of Revolution, where Churchill recounted England’s rise to world power, the wars of Marlborough, the struggle with France in Europe and North America, the birth of the United States, the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s Empire, and the War of 1812.

The fourth and final volume appeared in 1958, and was subtitled The Great Democracies. There, Churchill wrote about the Concert of Europe, domestic reform in Britain, the founding of Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, the growth of the United States and the American Civil War, the rise of Germany under Bismarck, Gladstone, Disraeli and the Victorian era, the war in South Africa, and the United States as a world power. “The vast potentialities of America,” Churchill concluded, “lay as a portent across the globe ...”

Churchill’s history emphasized great statesmen leading a productive and mostly virtuous people through the vicissitudes of life for almost two thousand years. Churchill believed in the superiority of Western Civilization as it evolved in the English-speaking world—the rule of law, democracy, free enterprise, and limited government. He devoted his long public career and his many historical writings, including A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, to preserve and promote the Western way of life. We who benefit from that civilization should be thankful, in the words of Churchill’s wartime chief of staff Alan Brooke, “that occasionally such supermen exist on this earth.”

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