Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012
Great Contemporaries – Churchill’s Rosebery: “The best study in the book”
By James W. Muller
Professor Muller is chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and of The Churchill Centre Board of Academic Advisers. He is the editor of several new and upcoming Churchill titles, including the classic two-volume 1899 work, The River War.
I am very pleased that the editor of Finest Hour is able to reprint the Rosebery essay from the new edition of Churchill’s Great Contemporaries that I edited for the new ISI Books edition. Great Contemporaries was one of three books of essays, all published earlier in magazines or newspapers, that Churchill proposed to his publisher Thornton Butterworth early in his “wilderness years,” his most fruitful decade as a writer.
Thoughts and Adventures, published in 1932, included essays on spies, cartoons, flying, and the future. Great Contemporaries, published in 1937, offered brief lives of twenty-one “great men of our age”; an expanded edition with four additional essays followed in 1938. A proposed third volume of essays on American subjects was not pub-lished in Churchill’s lifetime but, posthumously edited by his homonymous grandson, appeared in 1999 as The Great Republic.
In his preface, Churchill explains that “the central theme” of Great Contemporaries
is of course the group of British statesmen who shone at the end of the last century [the 19th] and the beginning of this [the 20th]—Balfour, Chamberlain, Rosebery, Morley, Asquith and Curzon. All lived, worked and disputed for so many years together, knew each other well, and esteemed each other highly. It was my privilege as a far younger man to be admitted to their society and their kindness….Those to whom these great men are but names—that is to say the vast majority of my readers—may perhaps be glad to gain from these notes some acquaintance with them. (9–10)
Churchill begins the book with Lord Rosebery, who he tells us “was probably my father’s greatest friend.” Lord Randolph’s son “inherited this friendship, or rather the possibility of renewing it in another generation” (14). Churchill enjoyed talking to Rosebery about many things, especially about his father. His work on the official biography of Lord Randolph drew them often together, and in the first decade of the 20th century both were out of sympathy with their parties and vainly seeking “middle courses,” which made them closer (15). Their friendship lasted long after Rosebery’s political career was over: Churchill tells us in the preface to his life of Marlborough how the aged statesman encouraged him to write that book by teaching him that Macaulay’s slanders against his ancestor had been refuted.
One theme of Great Contemporaries is friendship: friendship that transcends political differences, which Churchill observed in his father and the parliamentarians of his generation; and friendship that transcends generations, which often takes the form of of the old offering encouragement to the young.
“At first,” Churchill recalls, Rosebery “did not seem to approve of me,” but after the Boer War and his election to Parliament the statesman showed him “marked kindness” (14). Churchill was taken with Rosebery’s “air of ancient majesty,” for “often, when listening, one felt in living contact with the centuries which are gone, and perceived the long continuity of our island tale” (17). By the 1930s, Churchill’s own conversation offered this acquaintance with Britain’s history to younger friends, and in writings like Great Contemporaries he performed the same office for his readers.
Churchill begins his essay on Rosebery with this arresting sentence: “It might be said that Lord Rosebery outlived his future by ten years and his past by more than twenty” (13). We soon discover what Churchill means by this enigmatic remark: Rosebery’s future appeared bright when he became prime minister in 1894, but that promise was dashed when his government fell in 1895. Still, he remained in political life for another ten years, until he declared himself against Irish home rule in 1905, and then “his political career was closed for ever.”
The Earl of Rosebery lived on as a has-been for more than twenty years, dying in 1929 (13). In short, the political career of this remarkable man was a failure, and Churchill means to discover why: he avers that Rosebery’s “actions, and still more the character and personality which lay behind them, are worthy of most careful study, not only for the sake of their high merit, but at least as much for their limitations” (14).
The trouble with Rosebery in a democratic age was that he was not a democratic politician: “he was essentially a survival from a vanished age, when great Lords ruled with general acceptance and strove, however fiercely, only with others like themselves” (18). Rosebery was the last prime minister who never served in the House of Commons, which meant that he never fought an election. Churchill remarks:
Whatever one may think about democratic government, it is just as well to have practical experience of its rough and slatternly foundations. No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections. Here you come in contact with all sorts of persons and every current of national life. You feel the Constitution at work in its primary processes. Dignity may suffer, the superfine gloss is soon worn away; nice particularisms and special private policies are scraped off; much has to be accepted with a shrug, a sigh or a smile; but at any rate in the end one knows a good deal about what happens and why.
Rosebery was cut off from all this by being an earl. Churchill describes him as moody and ill at ease in a crowd, unable to win the hearts of ordinary voters, “to express their passion and win their confidence” (18). Our author concludes that in modern times one must go through “laborious, vexatious and at times humiliating processes” to achieve “great ends,” but Rosebery would not do it (19).
The new ISI Books edition of Great Contemporaries follows the text of the second edition published in 1938. Seventy-five years after the book first appeared, it seemed good to add new footnotes identifying people, places, events, and references in the essay.
Two wonderful collaborators helped me prepare the new edition. Paul H. Courtenay drafted the lion’s share of these notes, and I edited them. Nearly 1200 footnotes were added to the book, and Mr. Courtenay drafted ninety-five percent of them; of 110 footnotes in the essay on Rosebery, he drafted 101. Notes at the end of the new edition (not reproduced here) explain differences between earlier published versions of each essay and the final version in Great Contemporaries. Erica L. Chenoweth and I prepared these notes in collaboration; notes on the Rosebery essay are on pages 425–27.
“The Earl of Rosebery,” which Churchill told Thornton Butterworth he considered “the best study in the book” (Churchill Archives Centre, CHAR 8/558/72), was first published as “Lord Rosebery” in Nash’s Pall Mall 84 no.437, October 1929: 10–13 (Cohen C326), with four sub- heads:”The story of the One Man who foresaw the War and dared to proclaim his prophecy,” “His was the voice crying in the wilderness—if his colleagues had listened—What then?” “Everyone is fed up with War, the idea is odious to men of every nation, class and temperament,” and “In Rosebery’s time all the issues were invested with a false glamour and shrouded in opaque ignorance.”
This new ISI Books edition of Great Contemporaries is part of a larger project which the then-International Churchill Society set out to do in 1989: returning Churchill’s out-of-print books to print. Early accomplishments—the Boer War volumes, Savrola, My African Journey, My Early Life, Thoughts and Adventures and Great Contemporaries itself—were unsatisfying in the choice of texts. Efforts in the 1990s, including the editor’s edition of India (1990) and the Easton Press editions of The World Crisis, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples and The War Speeches, contained Churchill’s final approved texts and new introductions.
In 2002 came the two-volume University of Chicago reprint of Marlborough: His Life and Times, followed by the ISI Books edition of Thoughts and Adventures (2009), which I edited with assistance from Paul H. Courtenay and Alana L. Barton. My edition of The River War, with a new foreword by Lady Soames, will be published in two volumes by St. Augustine’s Press, along with Patrick Powers’ edition of Savrola. Paul, Erica, and I have also begun work on an annotated edition of My Early Life. In these endeavors I am grateful for help, advice, and support, particularly from my fellow academic advisers and the editor of Finest Hour.
Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.