Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Review of The Great Democracies by Winston Churchill

This one is for Urquhart, he of the extraneous Us and proxy dominator of the German Empire (um, maybe still). It's easy to fit him into the Victorian world of Punch magazine and heady diplomacy. Whatever kind of conservative Urquhart may be, I imagine (quite unfairly) that it involves formal dress, horses, and drinks with gentlemen in private clubs as much any specific political philosophy. I (also unfairly) picture an aged, bald Churchill jovially composing these histories in such a setting, dictating around a cigar and between the evening's many highballs, a team of secretaries furiously copy-editing and eliding the more caustic quips. I can see Urquhart jawing brilliantly with that guy in front of the fireplace, over cards.

The Great Democracies is the last volume of Churchill's longer A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and I didn't read the other three. It covers the period between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the death of Queen Victoria, focusing on British and American history mostly, gliding over (like everyone else) Canada and Oceania, and covering the affairs of the other peoples in Europe, Africa, and Asia so far as Churchill saw it affecting the goings-on of those treasured progeny of the British Empire.

It's well known that he had done time as a war correspondent and as a fighting man, and evidently esteemed himself highly as a writer and a historian. And he does have some strengths. Churchill ably puts realistic human faces on the historical actors of those hundred years. Even though they're pumped up large, the style is like modern reporting, and over the space of a century or two, these great men come off less like mysterious primitives in powdered wigs than they do twentieth-century humanized celebrities. Churchill carries on the narrative of their doings in a conversational tone that makes for a comfortable read, almost as if he's storytelling. Their State founders on uncertain international and domestic seas, to which those leaders respond well or badly, and the waters must be navigated with aggression or avoidance as circumstances dictate. He paints pictures of men who rise or fail to the occasions, and there may be great movements among the masses, but it is the prerogative of the leaders to ignore or respect them. It's not a world without principles (he harps against Protectionism some, for a sort of Democracy, for honoring commitments, although he dances carefully through ideas of monarchy and colonialism), but there are no slices of life of the little guy in this history. If he avoids the small theaters of human experience, he did have a fine sense of large-scale drama, however, and this book is really a gripping read.

Like many authors of American histories (and commentary), Churchill sees his own country as having attained the closest thing yet to a perfect system, and the past is interpreted in the context of where we have arrived. I can't much agree with that take. Modern politics looks like so much more of the same--making contemporary parallels when reading history is damn near unavoidable. Churchill opens up in the Britain in 1815 or so, where after the defeat of Napoleon, the British parliament wrestled with a half-century of moribund two-party politics and defective kings. He takes us in sections through the various evolutions of the Tory and Whig governments, which differed mainly in their effectiveness within the system, their justifications for foreign intervention, and the extent to which they included Radical (closer to classic Liberalism of Burke than any Socialist philosophy). On American shores the dynamic looks familiar too. Churchill outlines the then-new demographics of the antebellum U.S.A., with free-spirited and democratic rubes from the west against notheastern con artists and patricians, the still-familiar strawmen that are nearly as ugly and as banal as the nasty old English class categories. He treats American radicals a lot more contemptuously than the British variety, and while American Reconstruction was rotten, I don't think I can get behind the author's universal views on the horrors of weakening the executive.

U.S. history from this period is actually a good half of the book, and it's interesting to see it told from the English perspective. Churchill isn't shy, for example, at pointing out the flagrant land-greed of the nineteenth-century states (even as he's cautious about discussing British colonialism), which at points made Canada uneasy and Mexico bereft. The U.S. Civil war looms large through that century, and as Churchill's preferred perspective is a military one, there are great exciting swaths of text describing maneuvers, strategy, and execution. His version is not overly susceptible to Lincoln hagiography: although the take-charge moves are presented as necessary, the cause (both with respect to slavery and preserving the union) just, and his altruism commendable, he blames the mess of Union political pressures, to which Lincoln often caved, for extending the war.

If Churchill is comfortable with politics as a gentlemen's club, he positively loves generals, and his respect for Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee is deep. Americans tend to forget that there was a lot of other military action going on in the world in those decades, and it's particularly interesting to compare Churchill's laudatory treatment of Jackson and Lee to that of Otto von Bismarck, whom he respected but obviously deplored. Even as Churchill complains about failure to trust the generals, and tries to find a unified version of British imperialism, he criticizes German realpolitik as without honor. We, of course, do it for the right reasons. Always the diplomat, eh?


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Jon Wasey said...

"Churchill opens up in the Britain in 1815 or so, where after the defeat of Napoleon, the British parliament wrestled with a half-century of moribund two-party politics and defective kings."
Defective kings eh?! This was 150-odd years after the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. I'm afraid that if you can't grasp some key historical landmarks from the history of Anglophone democracy, such as these, then you probably shouldn't be reviewing Churchill yet. The monarch had long been more or less constitutionally defunct by 1815. To illustrate, the last time a monarch vetoed an act of parliament was in 1709. I won't even get started on your rather unusual assertion about "moribund two-party politics".

Keifus said...

Well, I suppose it's nice to get a commen 5 years later and all...

He opens this volume describing the declining years of George III, whom "defective" fits quite well by then, and of the state of the monarchy in general. His successor, George IV makes a fine case study against royalty. Churchill, at least so as I remember, paints this volume as the ascent of a golden parliamentary age in Britain. He was a lot more impressed with Disraeli and Gladstone than he was with their predecessors who picked up the mantle after the war.

Thanks though!