The Great Republic : A History of America, by Sir Winston Churchill; edited by Winston S. Churchill
The president of my beloved alma mater, Hillsdale College, is so fond of quoting Winston Churchill that it is a joke among my friends to refer to the greatest Briton of the 20th century as “Winston Churchill, that great American.” Churchill, undoubtedly, would be flattered. Our country has never had such a close and admiring friend who was also a head of government, a scholar, and a writer of the first degree of excellence. No other foreign head of government has addressed the US Congress multiple times, been awarded honorary degrees by US universities, and been finally, to his great satisfaction, granted honorary United States citizenship.
The Great Republic is a history of our nation gathered from chapters out of Churchill’s magisterial History of the English-Speaking Peoples, collected and edited by his grandson, and including articles, broadcasts, and speeches written by Churchill concerning America in the 20th century. It also includes a few chapters from the earlier part of the larger History, covering the development of the English Common Law, the Magna Carta, and the birth of parliament, all of which contributed directly to the American heritage of constitutional representative government.
The kinship and common cause of the United States with Great Britain is the central theme, especially of the latter part of the book. Churchill, having an English father and an American mother (a fact to which he repeatedly drew attention with pride), reiterated over and over again what a vital and natural bond it is to share a language with another nation, and how closely all the English-speaking nations are allied in our commitment to certain basic societal principles: rule of law, limited government, and the freedom of a self-governing people. He repeats in a few places that Otto von Bismarck observed that the most significant fact of the 20th century was “that the North Americans speak English”. Whether or not you agree that the United States’ political future lies in closer cooperation with Britain and the Commonwealth, it is undeniable that the English language, with all its history and legacy, is central to our identity and heritage.
A few other features of the book make it a worthwhile and interesting read, besides, of course, Churchill’s magnificent style.
One is his focus on personality. In an age where so much prominence is given to the impersonal forces of economics, class warfare, disease, and developing technology, where humanity is portrayed as suffering rather than acting, it is refreshing to read an account in which the individual personalities of truly great men are at the forefront. The courage and wisdom of our forefathers can and should inspire us to live our own lives nobly – tracts on inevitable economic forces are unlikely to have the same effect.
Another is the fairness and compassion with which Churchill regards both sides in conflicts. In the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, he never portrays one side as the heroes, the other as the villains. He examines everyone’s views in light of the men that held them, and he recognizes everywhere both great flaws, and great heroism. He is unshakably certain that it was necessary for the South to lose the War Between the States – yet he is effusive in his praise of Robert E. Lee, unstinting in his condemnation of Reconstruction and the Radical Republicans, and appends an alternate history in which the South won, much to the world’s benefit – an alternate history, by the way, which has been praised by no less a historian of the Recent Unpleasantness than Shelby Foote.
Perhaps the most important thing any reader could take away from this book is the love and admiration that the author had for our country. His account of her birth, of her progress, of her triumphant ascent in the 20th century to become the greatest nation in the world, is profoundly moving and inspiring. Such inspiration is needed now more than ever. It seems in our age that the love of the many has grown cold. Patriotism is vilified as nationalism, and the old homelands are either riven by faction, or absorbed by the internationalist movement. To combat the twin evils of factionalism and rootlessness, we need not so much convince minds, as enkindle hearts. This book might just be the spark to set aflame a true love for the land on which we were born, for our neighbors and our neighborhoods, and for the kinship we share with those who “must be free or die, who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spoke.”