Friday, January 28, 2011

Democracy's Greatest Leaders -- Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill

This address was delivered at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum on January 27, 2011.

I study leaders. I search out the traits, virtues, upbringing, and challenges that make a few of the human beings among us great leaders. This evening, I’d like to do something that’s long been on my mind, and that is to compare two modern democratic statesmen whose deaths were separated by exactly 100 years – Abraham Lincoln, who died in 1865, and Winston Churchill, who died in 1965.

They do not make a natural pairing, these two. In some ways, they could hardly be more different. But that’s instructive because it shows the range of leadership that arises when a democracy is under stress and its survival is at stake.

Some Differences

Let’s begin in the spirit of that great ancient biographer, Plutarch, by doing a broad comparison of these two fascinating individuals. The goal, like Plutarch's, is to get a better picture of their moral strengths and weaknesses.

Their ancestry was different. Lincoln’s British ancestry was populated by commoners, rabble to the government in London. Today they might be called white trash. These simple folk were encouraged to remove themselves from England’s pretty green hills and take up a strenuous life in the colonies. Over the generations, this white trash morphed into the rough-hewn frontiersmen who built a transcontinental empire from sea to sea.

Churchill, by contrast, came into the world with a gilded pedigree, the child of America’s upper class and England’s upper crust. His most famous ancestor was Sir John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, whose victory at Blenheim helped establish the transoceanic British Empire on which “the sun never set.”

The circumstances of their birth were different. Lincoln was born in a dirt-floor log cabin measuring 16 by 20 feet in the hardscrabble Valley of Democracy (the Ohio River Valley).

Churchill, by contrast, was born in a marble-floored Baroque palace spanning 175,000 square feet. Blenheim Palace is just outside of Oxford in the heart of Old England, amid the fine houses, horses, and hounds of ancient aristocrats. Churchill always said that one of the most important decisions he ever made was to be born at Blenheim Palace. The other most important decision, by the way, also occurred at Blenheim, when he asked Clementine Hozier to marry him (and she accepted).

Their appearance was different to a comical degree. Lincoln grew to a lanky 6 foot 4, and weighed 180 pounds. Mathew Brady’s black & white photographs capture the shock of coarse, black hair, as well as the beard he sported beginning with the presidential campaign of 1860. He knew that he was not one of the beautiful people of his day, so he developed self-deprecating humor as a defense. When Stephen Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced, Lincoln shot back, “My dear sir, if I had two faces, why would I ever go out in public with this one?”

Churchill stood only 5 foot 6, and weighed 215 pounds. The grainy newsreels show a balding pate with wispy hair. Once when he went to a barber and asked for a haircut, the barber asked, “How would you like me to style your hair?” Churchill scoffed, “Style? When a man has as little hair as I do, there’s no such thing as style. Just cut.”

Their education was different. Lincoln called his formal schooling “deficient.” In the lonely forests of the Kentucky-Indiana frontier, it amounted to all of one year at a passel of ABC schools where he learned to read, write, and reckon to the rule of three. So he educated himself by reading anything he could get his hands on – the Bible, Shakespeare, Aesop, Euclid, Burns, and the law – always deep reading in the law – with roots in Magna Carta, the Declaration, the Articles, and Constitution.

Churchill was raised in the typical blueblood manner. He was initially brought up by a nanny, then sent to boarding school at age 7, then on to Harrow, then on to Sandhurst – a fine pedigree, indeed. Ironically, until he got to Sandhurst, Churchill did poorly in most of his studies. One of his teachers called him “the naughtiest small boy in the world.” Nevertheless, he dedicated himself to a program of reading history and literature that was second to none. This passion for reading the great cadences of our language showed in the 20 million words he would compose as an adult (10 million of them in the wilderness years). Late in life, when Churchill had amassed honorary doctorates from around the world, he confessed, “As life has unfolded, I’ve been astonished to find how many more degrees I’ve received than examinations I passed.”

Mention of his school years brings me to an off-color story. (You can’t talk about Churchill for long without mentioning one of the off-color stories.) Once a man in the men’s room disapproved of Churchill not washing his hands after visiting the urinal. “At Eton,” the man said, “we were taught to wash our hands.” “At Harrow,” said Churchill, “we were taught not to piss on our hands.”

This reminds me of another off-color latrine story. Clement Attlee, who defeated Churchill in the 1945 election, was a strong proponent of government intervention in private industry, a policy that Churchill opposed. When Churchill met Attlee in the House of Commons' men’s room one day, Churchill took the urinal farthest away from Attlee.

Attlee said, "Feeling standoffish today, are we, Winston?"

Churchill replied, “When you Socialists see something big, you rush to nationalize it."

Perhaps this encounter in the latrine is what’s behind Churchill’s famous characterization of Attlee as “a modest man, with much to be modest about.”

These two statesmen came out of different professions. Lincoln was an attorney who made a good living as a trial lawyer back in Springfield. Churchill was a professional politician for more than six decades and made his living from his writing, which made him a millionaire and ultimately earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Certainly their social status was different. Lincoln’s intense childhood poverty and rustic frontier upbringing made him socially awkward most of his life. At one extreme, he was embarrassed by his cracker relatives, and he tried to live down his dirt-farmer origins. At the other extreme, he detested silk-stocking pretension in all its forms, especially the self-appointed “plantation aristocrats” in the Democratic Party of his day. At the height of his career in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln lived in a comfortable but unpretentious house and never hired more than 1 or 2 servants to help his wife Mary.

Churchill, by contrast, trumpeted his aristocratic lineage. He wrote a two-volume biography of his father, and a four-volume biography of his famous ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough. Throughout his adult years, Churchill maintained a lavish lifestyle, including going to the south of France two to three times a year. It’s one of the reasons he was always hustling for money by writing books and going on the lecture circuit. His capacious old house, Chartwell, required 12 servants.

Their personal habits differed. Lincoln rose at sunrise. He was a teetotaler and didn’t smoke – a bit unusual on the frontier.

Churchill woke up at 8 and began reading the morning papers and going through mail, but didn’t get out of bed until almost noon. He drank prodigiously: 9 strong scotches a day, along with wine and champagne at lunch and dinner. Have you ever seen a candid shot of him without a smoke? He consumed 9 cigars a day.

Churchill usually held his liquor well. But he could have an acerbic tongue by the end of the day if he were crossed. In one famous encounter, Bessie Braddock said to Churchill, “Sir, you are drunk.” He replied, “And you, madam, are ugly. At least in the morning I shall be sober.”

Another famous exchange occurred when Lady Nancy Astor said, “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d poison your tea.” He said, “Nancy, if I were your husband, I would drink it.”

Their war experience was dramatically different. At 23 years of age, Lincoln became a captain in the Black Hawk War but never saw combat. The only blood he saw in that war, by his own admission, was from swatting mosquitoes. This is ironic given that he would later become commander in chief during the war that caused more American deaths than all other wars combined.

Churchill was a war hero by his 25th birthday. In the Boer War, he was in an armored train that got ambushed. He managed to remove many of the wounded to safety, then returned to action. A newspaper article said about him, “Lieut. Churchill behaved through the engagement like a hero. He rallied the party trying to clear the line again and again by saying, ‘Be men,’ and moved about fearlessly exposing himself.” Then he was taken prisoner. But he soon escaped, hid in a mine, and got out of enemy territory disguised as a woman. All this made the 25-year-old swashbuckler “a Modern Prince Charlie,” as one headline put it.

Churchill also served as First Lord of the Admiralty and as a lieutenant colonel on the Western Front in the First World War, and became First Lord of the Admiralty again at the outset of the Second World War – the most catastrophic war in human history – before becoming prime minister.

Some Similarities

Continuing in the spirit of Plutarch, we see that Lincoln and Churchill also shared a number of traits. Indeed, some of their similarities are striking.

In their youth they did not inspire the confidence of their peers. Neither Lincoln nor Churchill would have been picked by high-school classmates as “most likely to succeed.”

The religious outlook of both was unorthodox in its day, as neither was a practicing Christian or much of a praying man -- not for most of their lives, so far as we can tell.

Both mastered English to such a degree that it has been said they mobilized the English language to wage war. Their words were at once so powerful and graceful that they also added to our literary treasure.

Both these wartime leaders were tender-hearted. As a young boy, Lincoln so regretted shooting a turkey that he vowed never to hunt again. Churchill was devoted to feeding all his fish, ducks, and geese, whom he named, and he had a little poodle named Rufus that he was devoted to. Most days, that is. One afternoon Churchill was on the phone with an important minister. Rufus was getting tangled up in the phone cord, and Churchill snapped, "Get off the line, you damned fool!" At which words, the minister hung up, taken aback. Churchill immediately had to call him back and explain: "I didn't mean you! It was Rufus I was yelling at."

Both these men had a tough time finding a woman who would marry them; both had challenging marriages; both lost young children.

Both spent long years out of the limelight until a national crisis propelled them back into the arena. For Lincoln the national crisis was the threat of slavery spreading into the Western territories. For Churchill the national crisis was the outbreak of the Second World War. Both men believed they had been prepared by experience and appointed by history to confront the task before them – a task that was nothing less than civilizational in scope.

Both had unusual foresight – pronoia in Thucydides – perceiving before others that there was a civilizational challenge that had to be confronted and resolved. For Lincoln, the issue was whether slavery would defeat the American cause (whether by constitutional crises over sovereignty or by artificially sustaining the peculiar institution in Western territories). For Churchill, the issue was whether Nazism would take down Western civilization.

Both were physically attacked in front of their wives: Churchill, by a suffragette who tried to push him in front of an oncoming train; and Lincoln, of course, by a troubled actor whose bullet found its mark.

Both, as leaders, had the capacity to make tough decisions. So it is no surprise that these two strong personalities were reviled because of the decisions they made. Abraham Lincoln has been viewed by a vocal minority of Americans to this day as a tyrant because of the way he interpreted the Constitution and prosecuted the Civil War: 626,000 Americans died as a result of his decision to go on the offensive against the South. There’s an African connection to the criticism as well: He personally profited from the sale of slaves; he represented a slave owner in a case against a slave; the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves that could actually have been freed in 1863; and by today’s standards, he was a confirmed racist because he did not think blacks were the social equals of whites. He wanted free blacks to leave America and resettle in Liberia. All these factors, critics say, cast doubt on his reputation as the “Great Emancipator.”

Winston Churchill was also reviled by many over the course of his long career. He was alternately hated by organized labor, suffragettes, the Irish, the French, Brits who lost loved ones in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, and people everywhere who were colonized by the Brits. Also, because Churchill was one of the architects of the Palestine Mandate (1923), he's regarded as the source of many of the problems in the Middle East to this day. There’s an African connection for him, too: Recently the Churchill bust in the Oval Office was packed up and shipped away because the British had imprisoned and tortured President Obama's grandfather during Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion. It is well to remember that Churchill took criticism in stride. As he calmly put it, “History will be kind to me, for I shall write it.”

The Most Significant Parallel –
The Courage to Persevere

None of the foregoing parallels, while illuminating of their inner life, really explains why Lincoln and Churchill became great. If you are looking at what puts these two leaders in the company of the 100 most influential people of all time, I would argue that it was their inner strength. They had exceptional psychological resilience and the courage to persevere. For the remainder of our time, I’d like to focus on this most significant trait that they share.


What perennially intrigues people is how Abraham Lincoln became a great leader. It’s a riveting question because of how humbly he started, and how high he rose, in a relatively brief time.

Russell Kirk put it this way: Lincoln was “a man who, until late in his life, seemed thoroughly unlikely ever to be a leader of opinion or of party, let alone a statesman…. We see him, only three years before he won the presidential election, still an obscure and gawky Western attorney, attending court in Cincinnati, in his rumpled clothes … snubbed by Stanton and the other distinguished lawyers. The man still seemed pathetic at best, if not downright ludicrous; all the majesty and loneliness of his tragedy was yet to come.”

I like to put Lincoln’s surprising rise in the context of something Booker T. Washington observed. Washington gave his rousing Great Emancipator speech in 1899, when he said that the true measure of a person is not how many accolades they receive, but how many obstacles they overcome, to achieve what they do in life. By that measure, Abraham Lincoln overcame more obstacles than any other president to reach the White House.

He overcame geographic isolation on the frontier. He overcame the hardscrabble poverty of his youth. He overcame the lack of formal schooling, the lack of scholarly credentials. He overcame his family’s lack of inheritable wealth, the lack of political connections. He overcame the fact that he was neither handsome nor athletic nor charismatic. He overcame losing jobs and losing elections – numerous times. Isolated, poor, unschooled; without connections or nice looks or a winning record – this is hardly a recommendation to run for president of the United States.

The biggest liability Lincoln overcame was what Michael Burlingame has called emotional poverty. Early in life, he had to cope with a cascading succession of tragedies that would have broken many of us but that built up in him an unconquerable spirit. His only natural brother died early. His mother died an agonizing death – of the milk sickness – when he was nine and cooped up in the cabin with her during her painful demise; he helped his dad make her coffin. The sister he was close to died after she gave birth. Then when he was in his mid twenties, his first love, the love of his life, Ann Rutledge, died.

With all those deaths, you’d hope Lincoln would be close to his father. Not so. They were alienated from each other at an early age. Young Abe was not like the other boys on the frontier. He didn’t like to hunt. Didn’t like to fight. Didn’t like to farm. What he liked to do was read and think. His father thought his son was lazy. The boy would sometimes get beat when he didn’t do his chores. Because he didn’t fit into the frontier life, or his father’s expectations, he was estranged from his dad. In fact, he did not even go to his father’s deathbed or funeral.

Given all this emotional poverty, Lincoln was prone to severe depression, or melancholy as they called it in the 19th century. The melancholy was once so bad he could not get out of bed in the morning. After Ann Rutledge died, he literally threw himself on her grave during a storm because he couldn’t stand the thought of rainwater reaching her body. At one point, his good friend Joshua Speed was so concerned that he took Lincoln’s knife and razor away so he wouldn’t hurt himself.

Given all this loss, Lincoln had to develop inner strength, psychological resilience, to deal with his grief. Perhaps that accounts for why he was always wise beyond his years. Sophocles observed long ago that we only learn when we suffer.

More than 2,500 years ago, the Greeks created their archetypal hero out of Odysseus, a man who made an impossibly difficult journey. Maybe the possibilities of the American odyssey are best illustrated in our prairie hero, Abraham Lincoln. As my colleague Brian Flanagan likes to point out, Lincoln grew into a kind of mythic figure by passing test after test after test. His triumphs in 1860, 1864, and 1865 owed much to the emotional strength long forged in the crucible of hardship and defeat.

Lincoln earns a place in the history books because he was commander in chief during the greatest trial our nation ever faced. He earns a spot in the pantheon of great presidents because of the courage he showed in office. He earns a cradle in our hearts because his character – even in its vulnerability – inspires us and gives us strength. We look to our American Odysseus – at Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable odyssey from log cabin to White House – and think, what an example for us all. If he could overcome the obstacles he faced and complete the task appointed him by history, then there is hope that each of us can reach our potential. The American Dream can never die so long as we know Abraham Lincoln’s odyssey.


Let’s complete this little study in the spirit of Plutarch by looking at the most important element of Churchill’s leadership – his lionhearted courage to deal with demons inside and out.

What makes biography a good read is when it shows how people handle adversity. As a historian, I always imagine taking a snapshot of a leader at various stages and showing how unlikely it would be for that person to amount to much. Those of you who have heard my talks on Washington, Grant, Gandhi, and Eisenhower know my method. Regarding Churchill, we can point to several times when we might take a snapshot and call him finished.

Consider his childhood, when he mostly had to deal with his inner demons. If we were to take a snapshot of Churchill when he was, say, 16, we would have seen a deeply troubled boy who spoke with a lisp, a point referenced in the blockbuster movie, The King’s Speech. He had been written off by his father and, worse, emotionally starved due to the neglect of both parents. In poignant letters we see a boy hungry for his mom and dad. The lack of emotional support from his parents caused deep psychological wounds that would haunt Churchill for the rest of his life.

One way Churchill salved these deep wounds was by pursuing worldly ambition. If he couldn’t be loved, then he would be admired. It’s actually not a bad strategy for surviving an unhappy childhood. By his 27th birthday, Churchill had distinguished himself in a staggering number of arenas – at Sandhurst, on the battlefield, as a derring-do war correspondent, as a best-selling author, as a self-made millionaire from his writing, and as a Member of Parliament. Accomplishments that are never attained by most, he achieved just a few years into adulthood.

It must be said: the salve of success was only partly successful in suppressing his demons. His granddaughter, Celia Sandys, observed that all the accolades, adoration, and reverence Winston enjoyed in later years never made up for what the little boy in him really craved, which was “for his father to look down … and to know that the son, whom he always said would be a failure, had been such a success.”

It was not just when he was young that it seemed Churchill wouldn’t amount to much. If we were to take a snapshot of him when he was about forty-two, after the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, we would hear Churchill say in his own words that he was ruined by his own poor judgment – finished off by the inner demon of despair, and the outer demon of a ruined reputation. Tens of thousands of British soldiers and sailors were killed in the invasion. To Clemmie, it was doubtful whether he could ever recover from such a grievous mistake.

But he showed uncommon resilience against these demons as well. He did two things. After the Dardanelles, he left the First Lord of the Admiralty and volunteered to fight on the Western front. It does not get any grimmer than the inferno of no man’s land. But risking his own life in the mud of a Flanders trench seemed the right thing to do after the sacrifice he had asked of so many others.

Another way he showed resilience after the Dardanelles debacle was by taking up painting. As if he had not already achieved so much, he became a highly accomplished painter of more than 500 canvases. (Because he took up painting after his 40th birthday, I can’t think of a better poster child for the AARP.)

There were other times when Churchill’s career was poised to fall off a cliff. If we took a snapshot of him in his mid-fifties, in the so-called wilderness years, we would see one midlife report card offered by Victor Wallace Germains, who wrote a book titled The Tragedy of Winston Churchill. On it is currently selling for about $250 – but don’t buy it; it’s not worth it. Published in 1931, this ad hominem holds Churchill up as an object lesson in everything a public servant shouldn’t be. His career, which had begun with such promise, had been stalked by repeated failure inside the Cabinet and out, due to overarching ambition and bad judgment. He hardly seemed a worthy descendent of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough.

Eight years later, a determined Churchill was leading his plucky people to victory over the fiercest war machine ever created.

Where did such resilience and lionhearted courage come from? I think Churchill was able to fight outer demons like Hitler and his Nazi thugs because he’d had so much practice wrestling with inner demons like his “black dog” – the famous allusion to his depression. Throughout life, he seemed able to parlay his depression into vigorous action. This is not uncommon in great leaders. Psychologists have long known that depression can act as “a spur to those of a certain temperament and native ability. Aware of how low they will sink at times, they propel themselves into activity and achievements the rest of us regard with awe.”

Churchill does indeed awe those of us who come under his spell. He earns a place in the history books because he helped save Western civilization. He earns a spot in the pantheon of great prime ministers because of his refusal to negotiate a separate peace with Hitler. And he earns assent in our hearts because his lionhearted courage inspired his people and gave them strength during their most desperate hour.

There are many speeches from which I could quote at this point. But the one that strikes me as most fitting is among his shortest. The setting is the fall of 1941, before he knew whether the United States would totally commit its vast resources to the war. In the west, Britain felt alone in what seemed like a death struggle against the Nazis. Returning to Harrow to listen to some traditional songs he had learned there as a youth, he was asked to say a few words to the boys. Churchill told them:

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never…. Never give in.”

Those words reveal a man determined to wrestle his inner demon of despair to the ground, and kick the outer demon of war into surrender. I wouldn’t be surprised if those words were Churchill’s mantra, said to himself again and again in the dark underground War Rooms, to get through that fall of 1941, when most all of Western Europe was under Nazi control, and Britain stood alone against the dreadful Wehrmacht. Churchill believed he was the man appointed by history to face down Hitler and save his people, and he did it. Against all odds, he did it.

Leaders and Followers

I began this talk telling you that I study leaders. I search out the traits, virtues, upbringing, and challenges that make a few of the human beings among us exceptional. There are scores of explanations of what makes leaders great. But I think what made Lincoln and Churchill great was their inner strength. Their uncommon emotional resilience and courage sustained them during their darkest trials. And because they were so gifted with language, they were able to translate that strength into the language of Everyman, and thus give their nations hope.

Isn’t this what is required in a democracy, in rule by the many? Democracy requires leaders to be strong. And it requires citizens to be as strong as their leaders. Maybe that's democracy's genius, that it cultivates followers who can be as strong as their leaders.

Since the Second World War, we have enjoyed a long run of relative peace and prosperity. No worldwide conflagration has required us to sacrifice the way Ralph Hauenstein’s generation had to between 1939 and 1945. But it is not the end of history. Hard times come to democracies. Citizens need leaders who are strong. Whether you identify with the party of innovation or the party of conservation, “we the people” also need to be strong.

I think we will be okay if we always tell the rising generation the stories of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and leaders like them.

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