Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill led their nations to victory in the Civil War and World War II. Their rise to supreme power was unlikely; Lincoln was an obscure frontier lawyer whose national experience was only a single term in Congress; Churchill was a wayward aristocrat dogged by controversy throughout his long service in government. They were blessed with extraordinary literary gifts, rallying their citizens with inspirational prose. “We shall fight on the beaches,” Churchill declared in June 1940, and the British people were prepared to do just that. “The struggle of today, is not altogether for today–it is for a vast future also”, wrote Lincoln in 1861, and the American people sustained a fight for Union and freedom over four long and bloody years.
But on the surface, their lives could hardly have been more different.
Churchill was born in England’s grandest palace and enjoyed a sybaritic lifestyle of fine food and drink; Lincoln entered the world in a tiny log cabin and cared nothing for luxury. Churchill’s father was one of the most famous statesmen of the age, and his mother was a society beauty who used her charms and contacts to further her son’s career. Lincoln’s father was an illiterate carpenter and his mother died when the future president was nine. His rise to the highest office from the poverty and squalor of his origins remains an inspiration.
Churchill relished military combat, hurling himself into imperial conflicts all over the world; Lincoln, however, only served only a brief stint in the state militia, enduring, as he later recalled, only “bloody struggles with the mosquitoes.”
Despite these differing backgrounds, each wielded vast power as warlords. Though an inexperienced commander in chief, Lincoln possessed a natural strategic genius. Two years into the Civil War, his private secretary marveled that the president, “…is in fine whack. I have rarely seen him more serene and busy. He is managing this war, the draft, foreign relations, and planning a reconstruction of the Union, all at once.” Churchill drew on a lifetime of experience on the battlefield and in the Cabinet, organizing the war effort under his direction not only as Prime Minister but also as Minister of Defence. The constant meetings of his Defence Committee were often fractious affairs, with Churchill and his service chiefs airing vehement disagreements, but because of his skill and tenacity, the coordination of the war effort was vastly superior to what it had been under his predecessor.
On the last full day of his life, Lincoln took a carriage ride with his wife, Mary, and spoke about the future. The peace at Appomattox just five days before meant that he could devote the rest of his second term to healing the nation, and—even-contemplate his future retirement. Lincoln spoke of his longing to visit California and the Holy Land. But his fatal visit to Ford’s Theatre that evening turned him a martyr and freed him from dealing with the vexing consequences of the peace.
Churchill, on the other hand, lived on for nearly two decades after the Allied victory in Europe. Defeated in the general election of 1945, he took up the unaccustomed role of Leader of the Opposition and planned his literary future. Unlike Lincoln, whose only historical analysis of the war over which he presided was his brief, elegiac Second Inaugural Address, Churchill chronicled World War II and his role in it in six massive volumes. He made history and shaped our understanding of it.
In his biography of Churchill, the future British prime minister, Boris Johnson, marveled that the “spirit of derring-do just pumped through his veins, like some higher-octane fuel than the one the rest of us run on.” This spirit–this indomitable courage–marked the character of both Lincoln and Churchill, two giants born in the nineteenth century and destined to shape history as few others have.
Michael F. Bishop is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.