Winston Churchill and the Fourth of July

Originally published in the Putnam County News & Recorder (Cold Spring, NY), July 4, 2017

“I shall always remember how each Fourth of July my Mother would always wave an American flag before my eyes,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill told Congress in December 1941.  Churchill, the romantic, was prone to bursts of emotion; and he knew how to evoke the emotions of others.

            “My mother was American and my ancestors were officers in Washington’s army, I am myself an English-Speaking Union,” Churchill observed after World War II ended.  During Churchill’s first visit to America in 1895, he wrote his mother: “What extraordinary people the Americans are!  Their hospitality is a revelation to me and they make you feel at home and at ease in a way that I have never before experienced.”

            Churchill’s rhetoric, combined with FDR’s politics — and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — converted a previously isolationist Congress.  “Lastly, if you will forgive me for saying it, to me the best tidings of all is that the United States, united as never before, has drawn the sword for freedom, and cast aside the scabbard.”  Prime Minister Churchill had good reason to remind Americans of his American mother and his knowledge of American history.  In 1940-41, Britain stood alone in combatting Nazi aggression — after the fall of France in June 1940.  The German attack on Russia in June 1941 would make Stalin’s Soviet Union part of the Grand Alliance.  Above all, Churchill knew he desperately needed Lend-Lease American assistance and never stopped cultivating President Roosevelt in order to maximize American aid.

            Churchill used radio addresses on the BBC in World War II the way Abraham Lincoln used state papers and public letters in the Civil War.  Lincoln maneuvered to keep England out of the Civil War, just as Churchill maneuvered to get the United States into the Second World War.  It was Churchill who caused the British people to rise to the occasion of the Nazi challenge.  Addressing the British nation on February 15, 1942, Churchill declared: “When I survey and compute the power of the United States and its vast resources and feel they are now in it with us, with the British Commonwealth of Nations all together, however long it lasts, till death or victory, I cannot believe there is any other fact in the whole world which can compare with that.  That is what I have dreamed of, aimed at, and worked for, and now it has come to pass.”

            As a war leader, Churchill understood the significance of the Declaration of Independence.  On the way to the Yalta summit in February 1945, both Churchill and Roosevelt stopped in the Mediterranean at the British-held island of Malta where they were joined at lunch by several subordinates.  U.S. Admiral William Leahy recalled that the talk concerned “the high purpose of the so-called Atlantic Charter, and his complete devotion to the principles enunciated in America’s Declaration of Independence.” 

            That theme was not new for the Prime Minister.  The Americans had entered war in 1917.  And in 1918, while World War I was still being fought in deadly earnest, Churchill had declared that “great harmony exists between the spirit and language of the Declaration of Independence and all we are fighting for now. A similar harmony exists between the principles of that Declaration and all that the British people have wished to stand for, and have in fact achieved.”

            Speaking to Britain after Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Russia in June 1941, Churchill evoked the spirit of the Declaration of Independence: “This, then, is the message, which we send forth today to all the States and nations bond or free, to all the men in all the lands who care for freedom’s cause, to our allies and well-wishers in Europe, to our American friends and helpers drawing ever closer in their might across the ocean: this is the message — Lift up your hearts.  All will come right.  Out of the depths of sorrow and sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind.”

            Churchill’s words stirred Americans in World War II.  Even in World War I, he had attempted to rally them.  “Germany must be beaten; Germany must know she is beaten; Germany must feel she is beaten,”  Churchill told an Anglo-American luncheon on July 4, 1918, “Her defeat must be expressed in terms and facts which will for all time deter others from emulating her crimes and will safeguard us against their repetition. No compromise with the main purpose, no peace til victory, no pact with unrepentant wrong.”

            As a politician and a historian, Churchill understood the Declaration’s impact.  One aide recalled: “Unlike most Englishmen, he knew the history of the United States, and American poems were well represented in his repertory.  ‘The Great Republic’ was always in his thoughts.”  Out of office, Churchill made his living as a writer and historian.  He would also write that the Declaration of Independence “was in the main a restatement of the principles which had animated the Whig struggle against the later Stuarts and the English Revolution of 1688…But the purpose of the colonies was proclaimed…There was no turning back.”

Lewis E. Lehrman, co-founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, is author of “Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point” (Stackpole, 2008) and “Lincoln `by littles’.” (TLI, 2013).