Come on now all you young men, all over the world. … You have not an hour to lose. … Twenty to twenty-five! These are the years! Don’t be content with things as they are. ‘The earth is yours and the fulness thereof.’ Enter upon your inheritance, accept your responsibilities. … Don’t take No for an answer. Never submit to failure. Do not be fobbed off with mere personal success or acceptance. You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was made to be wooed and won by youth.
This high-hearted summons is issued by Winston Churchill in 1930, when he was in his fifty-sixth year and had known a thing or two for a long time. It appears at the end of Chapter IV of My Early Life, Churchill’s book about his own growth into young manhood. This is the point in the book where Churchill is about to turn his attention to the years 1895 to 1900, which form “the staple” of his book and during which he was himself aged twenty to twenty-five. These years and his young manhood lay a third of a century behind Churchill now, in a “vanished world,” a world swept away in part by the Great War. That war had consumed in slaughter the young men of Europe as no war had done before; it had torn the heart out of European civilization. But not out of Winston Churchill. It is of the essence of his greatness that he never lost heart.
As he might say: Never, Never, Never.
Looking back upon his early twenties, Churchill writes that these years
So it should be. But what did young Churchill do in these years—years for which he is so grateful to the high gods? A glance at how he began them and how he ended them offers a reliable clue to how he spent them. Having graduated from the Royal Military College of Sandhurst and been commissioned in the Fourth Hussars at the age of 20, Churchill found himself with some time on his hands. He keenly felt a young officer’s yen for “active service” and the pride and glory that come with it. He “searched the world for some scene of adventure or excitement,” and he found it: thousands of miles and an ocean away, in Cuba, where the Spanish empire was attempting to suppress rebellion. He arranged to travel with a comrade to the scene of action, stopping for some entertainment in America on the way.
In Cuba, where he accompanied Spanish troops seeking engagement with the rebels, Churchill succeeded in discovering on his twenty-first birthday (November 30, 1895) some of the excitement he was looking for:
One of these bullets “certainly passed within a foot of [his] head” and killed a horse standing behind him. Churchill ponders the mystery of young manhood that shimmers in the details of this episode. “What is it that we … want?” he asks, on behalf of the young subaltern. “It is that lure of youth—adventure, and adventure for adventure’s sake. You might call it tomfoolery.” You might, indeed. “To travel thousands of miles with money one could ill afford, and get up at four o’clock in the morning in the hope of getting into a scrape in the company of perfect strangers, is certainly hardly a rational proceeding.” No disagreement there. “Yet we knew there were very few subalterns in the British Army who would not have given a month’s pay to sit in our saddles.”
On his twenty-fifth birthday (November 30, 1899), Churchill found himself an occupant of the State Model School in Pretoria, capital of the Transvaal Republic in south Africa. Though technically a war correspondent and not a combatant, he had, through heroic exertions, managed to be captured as a prisoner of war by the Boers in the Boer War. This is one of several “misfortunes” to befall Churchill in his extravagantly active and aspiring youth, to say nothing of his somewhat eventful later life. One of the recurring themes of My Early Life is Chance—Luck, Fortune—and how it is interwoven with Fate and Free-will in ways that are and must always remain inexplicable:
What seems to be—what is!—a stroke of bad luck, a setback, a misfortune, so often turns out in the unfathomable future to have been a necessary condition for fulfilling one’s noblest ambitions. “Life is a whole, and luck is a whole, and no part of them can be separated from the rest.”
In prison on his birthday, young Churchill quite naturally and reasonably cursed his luck. “I am 25 today,” he wrote in a letter, “—it is terrible to think how little time remains!” But he was then, as he would be always, irrepressible. He never surrendered to misfortune, however crushing it might be—never. Perhaps that is how he concluded, despite all paradox, that Destiny and Free-will are ultimately one and the same.
Within two weeks Churchill would escape from captivity and begin a daring flight to freedom which won him great fame throughout England and the British Empire and even caught the attention of the wider world. Riding the crest of this fame, he would win his first election to Parliament two months before his twenty-sixth birthday.
Between the unsuccessful bullet at twenty-one and the successful ballot at twenty-five, Churchill’s experiences were, indeed, remarkably vivid, various, and exerting. They included providing for himself an education when “the desire for learning came upon me,” several bold scrapes with death in “active service” on more than one continent, writing and publishing many articles and several well-received books, and falling in love with “the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.” (This last item he chivalrously leaves out of his own account.) I leave aside his devotion to polo competitions in India as a subject of such gravity as to require a separate treatment.
Writing about these youthful exertions in 1930, Churchill could not know, of course, that his greatest and most fateful exertion lay still many years ahead of him—leading England, the British Empire, Europe, and the free world in resisting and defeating the tyranny of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany. This Churchill would do between his sixty-sixth and seventy-first year. Compared with this, his youthful endeavors—astonishing in themselves—are as child’s play. You cannot find in fiction greater drama, suspense, tragedy, triumph, and heroism than are found in the daily facts of this chapter of Churchill’s life. Never in the history of Romance has a fair maiden been in such distress as was the World in May, 1940; nor been so nobly rescued by a young Prince Charming, and so ardently and eloquently wooed and won, as was the World by that great man in his Finest Hour, which came in the “late fall” of his life.
It boggles the mind to reflect that, even when he had finished with this Herculean task, Destiny still held historic labors in store for him, such as rallying the free world to resist the tyranny of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Through it all and to the end he remained as high-hearted, as generous and true—and also as fierce—as in the glorious days of his youth. Indeed, the “tomfoolery” of his greener days was a preparation for his Finest Hour.
Now, young men under the age of twenty-five who happen to be reading this essay should, in just a moment, put it aside and proceed immediately to obtain a copy of Churchill’s My Early Life and read it.
It is one of the best true-life adventures you will ever find. You get an idea of what it is about in the statement of “Theme” (slightly enlarged by me) of Volume I of the official Churchill biography, which covers the same period of his life. It is about
If, perhaps, you are like that young man that my old friend Peter Schramm wrote about in the February On Principle—if you are one who has never heard of Winston Churchill because your teachers were too busy teaching you about politically correct mediocrity—well, as a wise and good teacher of mine used to say, “You have something to look forward to.” Churchill was the greatest statesman of the twentieth century—and that does not begin to tell you how inexhaustibly interesting he is or how much good it will do you to get to know him better. Like the best of friends, to know Churchill is to become a better man yourself, and the more you get to know him, the more good he will do you. If My Early Life stirs your interest, there is a lot more where that came from! Drop me a line or write Peter Schramm: We’ll put some books in your hands that will knock your socks off and part your hair.
Now you young men go off and get that book, while I say a few words to others with a less urgent—though by no means trifling—stake in the matter: your fathers and
mothers, aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers, and maybe your sweethearts.
It seems to me our young men need to hear Churchill’s appeal, and see his heroic example, more than ever these days. I understand full well that young men are savages much in need of civilization. What is it that young boys, if left to their own devices, generally want to do? In my experience, as a rule they are not infrequently inclined to play soldier, move about and knock into things, take things apart, and make loud noises. When they grow up and refine these robust natural inclinations, they want to—well, they often want to play soldier, move about and knock into things, take things apart, make loud noises, and win the love and admiration of some
beautiful girl. Not inconsiderable progress! But still, admittedly, some civilizing is in order. Have we not, however, lost our perspective in some measure? What are we to make of a society that frets over boys playing with “war toys” and with holy fervor urges girls to put on combat fatigues? What kind of a people is it that displays girls bloodying one another in boxing matches on television and prescribes powerful drugs to boys so they won’t be hyperactive?
So far as I can tell, our professional hand-wringers seem intent upon taking the pluck out of our boys. By the time they finish the four years of obligatory sensitivity training that is often called college, it is no wonder that some of our young men appear a bit wan, have a kind of droop about them, a furtive, brooding look. If they had any urge to seek out adventure and rescue the fair maiden Fortune from distress, they have been taught by highly
mis-educated experts to suppress it. They have learned, so to speak, to wait to be asked to the Dance of Destiny.
But I ask you, does America at the beginning of the twenty-first century offer her young men less scope for noble adventure than the British Empire at the end of the
nineteenth? Has the world no further need of heroes? Will she be content to place her Fate in the hands of role-models of sensitivity? If not, let us say again to our young men, “as in the olden times,”
Come on now. … You have not an hour to lose. … Don’t be content with things as they are. ‘The earth is yours and the fulness thereof.’ Enter upon your inheritance, accept your responsibilities. … Don’t take No for an answer. Never submit to failure. Do not be fobbed off with mere personal success or acceptance. You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her. She was made to be wooed and won by youth.
Christopher Flannery is a Professor of Political Science and Chairman of the History and Political Science Department at Azusa Pacific University and an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center.