Winston Churchill as American

Editor’s Note: The following is a toast given by the author at the Portland Chartwell Society dinner on November 30, 2021, in Portland, Oregon.

Imagine that today, in the year 2021, the fifty sovereign American states set out to draft a new constitution. I challenge you to name even a half dozen of our political leaders in whom you would have confidence to devise a constitution that would last as much as a decade, let alone 235 years. I can think of few such individuals now occupying seats of power in our national capitol or in our fifty state houses. Now no doubt there is something in familiarity that breeds contempt, but even looking back a century, such leaders seem few and far between.

However, one individual in particular, though an American only by birth and Congressional declaration, comes to mind—Sir Winston Churchill. At a time when not insignificant numbers of Americans question the legitimacy of our Founding, the honor and morality of our Founders, and the adequacy of our Constitution, it is worth reflecting on the insights Churchill would have brought to such a monumental task and his appreciation for what historian Forrest McDonald called “the miracle of the age, and of the succeeding age, and of all ages to come.”

That Churchill was a great leader should be beyond question, although judging from Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s new book Churchill’s Shadow, described by Andrew Roberts as “character assassination,” it seems distance, or more likely ideology, can also breed contempt. But being a great leader does not necessarily qualify one to design a durable constitution for a democratic republic. More important is an understanding of human nature and of the history of civilizations—of the paradoxical passion for one’s own liberty yet willingness to constrain the liberties of others.  

What too many American leaders lack today is an understanding of the core principles underlying a democratic republic. Churchill understood those principles. In a 1936 article in Colliers Magazine titled “What Good’s a Constitution?” Churchill wrote:

No one can think clearly or sensibly about this vast and burning topic without in the first instance making up his mind upon the fundamental issue. Does he value the State above the citizen, or the citizen above the State? Does a government exist for the individual, or do individuals exist for the government?

Five years later in a speech to a joint session of the United States Congress Churchill stated:

I have been in full harmony all my life with the tides which have flowed on both sides of the Atlantic against privilege and monopoly and I have steered confidently towards the Gettysburg ideal of government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The Gettysburg ideal, Churchill might have added, is the ideal of the Declaration of Independence. Contrary to the claims of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, the revolution made official by the Declaration of Independence sought to secure rights equally endowed in all men, with government instituted and deriving its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” It is objected by some, today, that the Declaration refers only to men and that it was written by a man and endorsed by other men who owned slaves. But few, if any, among us would have done better. As Holman Jenkins wrote not long ago in the Wall Street Journal:

It’s good to remind ourselves that the human virtues that are most admirable—courage, truthfulness, resistance to injustice—are admirable because they are rare. Ninety-nine percent of us assume we’d have been among the 1% who actively opposed the Nazis; we’d have been abolitionists if born in the Deep South. Unfortunately [concluded Jenkins] we’re kidding ourselves.

The visionary language of the Declaration of Independence set America on an irreversible journey toward equal liberty. Progress along that pathway has often been slow but is and will always be reason for celebration and any reversals of course will be without any plausible or defensible justification.

Churchill, the first foreign national to be recognized by Congress and the President as an honorary American citizen, could as well have been one of those gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 when he posited these five tests for the civilization of any community:

  • What is the degree of freedom possessed by the citizen or subject?
  • Can he think, speak and act freely under well-established, well-known laws?
  • Can he criticize the executive government?
  • Can he sue the State if it has infringed his rights?
  • Are there also great processes for changing the law to meet new conditions?

In his History of the English-Speaking Peoples Churchill observed that the American constitution

presents a sharp contrast with the store of traditions and precedents that make up the unwritten constitution of Britain. Yet behind it lay no revolutionary theory. It was based not upon the challenging writings of the French philosophers who were soon to set Europe ablaze, but an Old English doctrine, freshly formulated to meet an urgent American need. The Constitution was a reaffirmation of faith in the principles painfully evolved over the centuries by the English-speaking peoples.

Now some of those who will have objected to Jefferson’s use of the word men in the Declaration will also object that Churchill attributes principles undergirding both the English and American constitutions to English-speaking peoples. But it is an historical fact that the rule of law has nowhere else played the central role it has in Anglo-American law and culture.

Churchill understood that majoritarian tyranny contradicts the very foundations of Anglo-American constitutionalism.

Churchill shared with the American Founders an insistence on the importance of the separation of powers and an independent judiciary. But I will conclude, though not too hastily, on another subject about which the American Founders and the British Prime Minister agreed—majoritarian democracy. Better than most politicians and citizens today, Churchill understood that while democracy is the only means for implementing popular sovereignty it also poses hazards for the very liberty of which popular sovereignty is an expression. In his Colliers article Churchill wrote:

All forms of tyranny are odious. It makes very little difference to the citizen, father of a family, head of a household, whether tyranny comes from a royal or imperial despot, or from a Pope or Inquisitor, or from a military caste, or from an aristocratic or plutocratic oligarchy, or from a ring of employers, or a trade union, or a party caucus—or worst of all, from a terrified and infuriated mob.

Monuments to Churchill have been defaced in London, Edmonton, Alberta, and elsewhere. For his part, Churchill would surely have defended the right of protestors to object to his or any other person being honored with a monument, but in the spirit and conviction of the American Founders he would have objected vehemently to the lawless behavior of the mob.

Over the last several decades many Americans have come to believe that the core premise of our Constitution is majority rule. Today most American elections are decided by narrow majorities and sometimes only pluralities, yet the winners set out to rule as if the views and interests of those who supported the losing candidate are irrelevant. Rather than proceed with a humility appropriate to such narrow margins of victory, the prevailing party, whether red or blue, embraces a we-won-you-lost, winner-takes-all, mob-rule approach to governance. Churchill understood that such majoritarian tyranny contradicts the very foundations of Anglo-American constitutionalism.

Following on his condemnation of mob rule, Churchill observed:

The founders of the Union, although its corpus was then so much smaller, realized this with profound conviction. They did not think it possible to entrust legislation for so diverse a community and enormous an area to a simple majority. They were as well acquainted with the follies and intolerance of parliaments as with the oppression of princes.

He went on to note that:

 It is so hard to build the structure of a vast economic community, and so easy to upset it and throw it into confusion. The onus must lie always upon those who propose a change, and the process of change is hardly ever beneficial unless it considers what is due to the past as well as what is claimed for the future.

Churchill continued:

The so-called “rigidity” of the American Constitution is in fact the guarantee of freedom to its widespread component parts. That a set of persons, however eminent, carried into office upon some populist heave should have the power to make the will of a bare majority effective over the whole of the United States might cause disasters upon the greatest scale from which recovery would not be swift or easy.

Finally, Churchill would later note in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples that

A prime object of the Constitution was to be conservative; it was to guard the principles and machinery of state from capricious and ill-considered alteration.

Churchill understood the central challenge of establishing and maintaining a government founded on popular sovereignty and dedicated to equal liberty. He would have been good company for James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney, Oliver Ellsworth, Gouverneur Morris, Luther Martin, and the other ordinary and extraordinary men who met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. So please join me in raising a glass to Sir Winston Churchill, a man who understood and valued the American Constitution, a man who, were he here today, would stand by and defend that Constitution, a man who offered this caution, which Americans of every political persuasion should heed: “Do not let us too readily brush aside the grand, simple affirmations of the past. All wisdom is not new wisdom.” To Churchill and the American Constitution.