The Magazine

Crescendo in C

An unexpected ending for Manchester’s Churchill.

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Manchester rightly offered that “an American is struck by the facility with which so many British intellectuals slight the man who saved their country.” Yet he comes close to doing much the same thing with the unconscious way he embraces an essentially historicist approach to Churchill himself. Manchester’s most questionable assessment is that Churchill is to be explained and understood as a figure emanating from the “parochial grandeur” of the Victorian era, that his greatness in the struggle against Hitler is due precisely to his being wedded to obsolete, even reactionary values. In fact, without Hitler to summon “enormous stores of long-suppressed vitality within him,” it is not clear Manchester would have found Churchill interesting or admirable. In many other respects, Manchester sides with the current conventional wisdom that Churchill was an unthinking racist, imperialist, and anti-Communist.

Churchill’s Victorian roots are what make Churchill, for Manchester, the last lion, whose like we can’t expect to see on the world stage again. But it is an all-too-easy trope: Peter Canellos called Senator Edward Kennedy the Last Lion in his 2010 biography. Moreover, the suggestion that Churchill is some kind of remnant of a bygone age does readers a disservice. To be sure, Churchill had his own doubts about the possibilities of heroic virtue and high statesmanship in the 20th century. But for all of Manchester’s fulsome admiration for Churchill and his magnificence in describing Churchill’s life, his premise is wrong. Roy Jenkins has said that explaining Churchill as a product of Victorian aristocracy is “unconvincing. .  .  . Churchill was far too many faceted, idiosyncratic and unpredictable a character to allow himself to be imprisoned by the circumstances of his birth.” And another biographer, John Lukacs, adds: “Contrary to most accepted views we ought to consider that [Churchill] was not some kind of admirable remnant of a more heroic past. He was not The Last Lion. He was something else.” 

The “something else” at the root of Churchill’s greatness in 1940 derived not from his being a Victorian man, but from his being, in a larger sense, an ancient man—the kind of “great-souled man” contemplated by Aristotle, among other classical authors. Manchester doesn’t go back far enough in explaining Churchill, and deprives readers of reflecting on the eternal nature of courage, greatness of soul, and practical judgment that are the summa of statesmanship in any age.  

Paul Reid’s summary judgment in this third volume is more sound: “He may have been born a Victorian,” writes Reid, “but he had turned himself into a Classical man. He did not live in the past; the past lived on in him.” This is just one, though the most important, of Reid’s departures from Manchester’s Churchill. And while Reid has produced a more restrained and disciplined narrative, it is nonetheless stirring reading because of the subject matter. Reid’s contribution is worthy of a place among the best Churchill books. Despite the subtle confusions and runaway grandiosity of Manchester’s first two volumes, they remain resplendent reads—so long as readers remember not to take the “last” part of the title literally.  

As Reid reminds us, Churchill said that the British people had “the lion heart.” Churchill himself only supplied “the roar.” So long as the British, or any, people still have a lion heart, there will be statesmen capable of giving a suitable roar.

Steven F. Hayward is the Thomas Smith fellow at the Ashbrook Center and the William Simon distinguished visiting
professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy.