April 22, 2006

Churchill on his ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough

A reader writes:

If any of your readers are tempted to read one book on that military history reading list, I would recommend Churchill's biography of Marlborough. It is the best book written by the only man who, so far in history, was both the Caesar and Cicero of his age. The Marlborough story is the only major work Churchill wrote when he was not doing several dozen other things, during his wilderness years in the 1930s.

But in writing about his famous ancestor, Churchill was doing a number of things all at once. He was showing the professional historians of his time, some of whom had criticized his earlier work, that he could compete with and better them at scholarly research and judicious interpretation of evidence. He was refuting an attack on John Churchill by the historian whom he otherwise adored and learned about writing from, Macaulay. He was giving not only a narrative of a long series of battles, but explaining why they turned out as they did. As a former soldier and future commander of armies, it was not enough for Churchill to simply describe Marlborough's tactics. He needed to understand why he won so decisively and consistently, which had to do with the early adoption by the British and Dutch armies of the new musket and bayonet, which gave these Protestant soldiers something like a six-to-one advantage over an equivalent number of French soldiers, as least for a while.

Marlborough was also the first Englishman to make his country great by leading a selfishly unstable coalition of countries in repelling a Continental tyrant, so Churchill was training himself for his role in World War II. And he was chronicling the sudden, almost accidental, development of the two-party system in the English Parliament. Since practical democracy in all countries works on a party system, Churchill was describing a decisive stage in the rise of democracy, first in England and America, then several centuries later across the world.

Running through the whole story is the theme of an astounding marriage, rare in any time and almost unheard of in Marlborough's day. The second volume ends with a line by the widowed Sarah Churchill about her dead husband that reminded me of Mary Tyrone's final line about her husband in "Long Day's Journey. . ."

You don't get much more than all that in two volumes.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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