It takes rare skill to write a satisfactory biography in under 200 pages, and even more so when the subject is Winston Churchill. However, this is exactly what esteemed historian Paul Johnson has done in his book, Churchill, which is an enthusiastic tribute to the man Johnson believes to be the 20th century’s most titanic hero.
Johnson captures the book’s primary tone and thrust in the first chapter:
Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity, and also the most likable. It is a joy to write his life, and to read about it. None holds more lessons, especially for youth: How to use a difficult childhood. How to seize eagerly on all opportunities, physical, moral, and intellectual. How to dare greatly, to reinforce success, and to put the inevitable failures behind you. And how, while pursuing vaulting ambition with energy and relish, to cultivate also friendship, generosity, compassion, and decency.
In a sense, these lessons are what truly develop the book’s content and ethos. Johnson writes not only to chronicle a great life, but also to champion that life as one worth careful study and subsequent emulation. I personally found his direct-application approach refreshing, and Johnson’s broad take on Churchill’s life makes the book easily accessible for readers of all ages.
Because of Churchill’s monumental impact during the World War II years, it is easy to forget that the rest of his life was in many ways just as remarkable as his finest hour. Moreover, the study of his early years provides a depth of context that makes his rise to power and leadership in the 1940s even more exceptional. Johnson’s recognition of this fact is reflected in the relatively small amount of time he devotes to discussing the war (only one out of seven chapters), and his approach endorses the need to study Churchill’s life in its entirety for a full appreciation of the lessons it offers.
I agree with Johnson that Churchill’s resilience provides the basis for the most important of these lessons. Incidentally, that lesson happens to also be encapsulated in one of his most famous quotes: “Never give in.”
[He] never allowed mistakes, disaster – personal or national – accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism to get him down. His powers of recuperation, both in physical illness and in psychological responses to abject failure were astounding.
This resilience reached its height when Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, accomplishing a political comeback the likes of which have rarely been seen during any era of history, much less in the increasingly unforgiving, media-saturated 20th century. Common consensus would have ruled him down for the count not once, but twice during the preceding twenty-five years: first with his forced resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty after taking much of the blame for the disastrous Gallipoli landings during the First World War, and second with his political exile during the 1930s after a series of unpopular and sometimes foolish stances in the House of Commons.
Each episode could well have heralded the end of his public life, yet Churchill’s refusal to be internally defeated eventually led to perhaps the most memorable – and timely – public vindication in history. His ascent to the Prime Minister’s seat was not only the vindication of his prophecies against the Nazi menace, but also of the courage it took to continue making those unpopular prognostications to a society that had been lulled into a naïve and ignorant slumber. Says Johnson:
He had courage, the most important of all virtues, and its companion, fortitude. These strengths are inborn but they can also be cultivated, and Churchill worked on them all his life. In a sense, his whole career was an exercise in how courage can be displayed, reinforced, guarded, and doled out carefully, heightened, and concentrated, conveyed to others. Those uncertain of their courage can look to Churchill for reassurance and inspiration.
Winston Churchill’s legacy to the world is indeed one of undaunted resolve and indomitable fortitude, and Paul Johnson puts both virtues on full display with a biography that belongs on the shelves of all who love freedom, perseverance, and courage.
The basic ideas, ideals, and values that generally define and characterize the central tenets of what today might be termed "modern conservative thought."
We believe that a proper understanding of history, economics, and theology leads to certain conclusions. Many of these are the same conclusions our Founding Fathers arrived at in constructing a "more perfect union."
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