Historian Lewis Lehrman compares the characteristics of two wartime leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, both of whom faced comparable challenges leading their countries through horrible conflagrations, and who both excelled at using language as a strategic weapon to mobilize and inspire their countries.
The book is organized first by subject area, such as the unlikely emergence of each as leaders of their countries; “Virtues of Great War Leaders”; “Managing Ministers and Legislators”; and “Finding and Managing Generals.” This is followed by chronological details for each year of the war: 1862/1942, 1863/1943, 1864/1944, and 1865/1945. Throughout, several themes predominate:
Both mobilized the English language as a weapon of persuasion:
“Lincoln and Churchill believed public sentiment in a democracy to be essential to victory. They would by word and action mobilize the people and resources of their countries to fight a relentless struggle for unconditional surrender of the enemy. Defeat was unthinkable.”
Both had a keen sense of the importance of the sound of language:
“They had mastered the natural rhythms of their native tongue. They would practice its poetic cadences aloud. They would experiment with word order, refining it to their purpose. Their reading dwelt on masterpieces of English prose and poetry upon which they would draw for their writing and speeches.”
Importantly, neither subscribed to moral relativism, and both opposed appeasement, in spite of intense political pressure in both eras to end the war. Lincoln would not agree to the retention or resumption of slavery, and Churchill would not allow totalitarianism to consume the West.
Much of the book consists of observations from other historians, and, best of all, a recapitulation of some of the greatest speeches of Lincoln and Churchill. Because Lehrman’s emphasis is on the flights of prose of these two men, their shortcomings are not dwelt upon. No matter; the book is worth having as a compendium of some of the most stirring and uplifting expressions of the English language you will ever read outside of Shakespeare.
Note: Lehrman provides extensive endnotes, selected bibliographies of the best Lincoln and Churchill scholarship, a timeline of Lincoln’s and Churchill’s lives, and more than three dozen photographs and cartoons. The author also has a website for the book on which you will find essays, photos, and links to other resources about the two leaders.
Evaluation: The research in this book may not be original, but it is a competent distillation of the findings of others, and a fine disquisition on the qualities of leadership that brought us through some of the most significant events of modern history. The moral fiber of these two men, their unwillingness to compromise with evil, and the power and beauty of their words can almost make you weep for what we no longer have.
Published by Stackpole Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot, 2018