Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02
Abstracts by Chris Hanger
Todd Ronnei: “Churchill in Minnesota.” Minnesota History 57:7, Fall 2001, pp. 347-55.
At the dawn of the 20th century, citizens desiring nighttime entertainment could attend plays, operas, poetry readings, or lectures. Fresh from his election to Parliament in 1900, young Winston Churchill agreed to a series of lectures in the United States and Canada before he took his seat in February 1901. He had already embarked upon a very successful British lecture tour, entitled “The War as I Saw It,” which recounted his exploits in the Boer War.
These tours were undertaken for Churchill to generate cash quickly. At the time, House members received no salary for their service in the Commons. A member needed to be either independently wealthy, or have an ongoing business on which to rely for income. Despite the financial success of his first books, an unsuccessful Parliamentary race in 1899 made his finances precarious. More cash was needed quickly. He had just won election to Parliament and had hoped to be at least as successful with his lectures in North America as he had been in Britain. However, because of widespread sympathy for the Boers in their war against what they felt was British imperialism, some lecture receptions were less than rousing.
The first lecture in Philadelphia was well received by his audience and the local press. The next was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, where Churchill was introduced by an elderly Mark Twain. Twain prefaced his introduction with a condemnation of British and American wars with the Boers and the Spanish respectively. However, he gave Churchill a warm welcome to the audience. Although Churchill defended his nation’s actions against the Boers, he was equally respectful toward the Boer fighters, describing them as formidable. His sense of fairness toward the Boers, coupled with his wit, readily converted any skeptics in the audience.
Churchill encountered rougher sailing during his Chicago lecture, which was attended by several Irishmen. But with a slight prevarication on history, Churchill wove into his talk a story about how the Dublin Fusiliers had saved the day during an important South African battle. This sleight-of-hand history won over his Irish audience.
Churchill’s arrival in Minneapolis on 18 January 1901 was met with an immediate request for an interview by a local reporter. Timing was inopportune because Churchill, only just checked into his hotel, was in his bath. Nevertheless, the interview was conducted. Churchill’s audience that evening at the Lyceum Theater was complete with the “Microsoft PowerPoint” program of its day, the “magic lantern,” which used glass slide photographs to give a positive visual effect to his talk. The audience and press were favorably disposed, with one newspaper stating that the lecture was, “as absorbingly interesting as it was unaffected and unhackneyed.” Another paper noted that Churchill had a dry sense of humor; that he had discussed the positive aspects of the Boer fighters while refraining from any negative thoughts he might have harbored about them.
After the lecture, Churchill visited the home of a Mr. Young, a local real estate mogul noted for acquiring inscribed books for his library. How Churchill came to be invited, or whether he inscribed any books for his host is unknown.
The following night found Churchill in St. Paul, presenting his lecture to an audience at People’s Church, selected because it had the largest seating capacity in that city. Again, his lecture was well received by audience and press. Discussed in the media were Churchill’s remarks about the failing health of Queen Victoria. At Young’s home for dinner the next day, Churchill continued to lament the Queen’s condition to a local reporter. To most people then alive, Victoria was the only British monarch they had ever known.
Churchill next took his lecture to Winnipeg, after which he again returned to Mr. Young’s home in Minneapolis. Discussion continued on what effect, if any, the Queen’s death would have on the integrity of the British Empire. Young and Churchill, equally adamant, bet £100, Young wagering that the British Empire would cease to exist within ten years of the Queen’s death. In the event, the Empire’s demise would take rather longer than that, but it is not known if Churchill sought to have Young make good his bet.
The only unfavorable publicity in Minnesota was caused by two separate incidents. One involved a local widow of an officer who was killed in action after being released from a Boer prison which Churchill had helped to liberate. Rebuffed by Churchill, who rudely refused to see her, the widow reported his insensitivity to the local press. Another such incident occurred when Churchill failed to respond promptly to an invitation extended him by a prominent area family.