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Dr. Larry Arnn On The Early Days Of Winston Churchill

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HH: It’s that time of the week that for many of you is the most favorite time of the radio week, the Hillsdale Dialogue hour when I sit down via the radio with either Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, or one of his many wonderful colleagues, sometimes many different people from Hillsdale. All of these dialogues about the most important issues of Western Civilization going back to the beginning, back to the book of Job forward, and they are all available free, absolutely, all of them that began in January with the Iliad, I think, at There’s a button at There’s also, of course,, where you ought to have signed up long ago for the speech digest that they are willing to send to you absolutely free, Imprimus. And Dr. Larry Arnn, welcome back, it’s always a pleasure to speak with you.

LA: How are you doing?

HH: I’m good. We’re in our Churchill series, because leadership matters so much right now. Last week, we began with an overview. This week, we’re going to tackle the early years of Winston Churchill. Before we do, though, since we have been talking a great deal about it, this week, the House has passed its CR free of Obamacare in it, and defunding Obamacare. It’s gone over to the Senate. I think this is unfolding according to the Dr. Arnn plan.

LA: Yeah, yeah, well, you know, if you follow the Constitutional process, then the House should pass something it believes in, and the Senate should pass something it believes in, and then they should compromise. And that’s why we have a bicameral legislature.

HH: Now interesting, I talked to Congressman John Campbell on Wednesday, and he suggested that it wouldn’t be a conference, it would be Ping-Pong, that the House bill would be turned down, and the Senate would send back a bill that would be turned down, and then it would be sent back, as opposed to going to a conference. I think, actually, the Constitution is open to either of those under the category of regular order, don’t you?

LA: It is, yeah. Yeah, sure.

HH: And I also want to confirm…

LA: And…

HH: Go ahead.

LA: Yeah, well they have to, the thing is they each have their prerogatives, and the conflict between them is supposed to, and will, call attention to the differences, and people can make up their minds. And that’s, and in the end, it has to come down to a conference committee, and that can take more than one form. It’s possible that the leadership of the two houses get together. And as long as they do what they should do, which is declare strongly what they’re both for, and then pass something in between the two, because eventually, that has to be done. You know, one of these days, there has to be funding of the government. And so that’s what the Constitution requires. And one hopes that’s what we’ll get.

HH: Now I also want to be accurate with the audience. I believe you went to the House Republican retreat and gave them a speech encouraging that they move in this direction. Am I correct about that?

LA: Yeah, you know, I think that we have to learn, you know, the Constitution of the United States has been very considerably abandoned, but it hasn’t been changed all that much. I mean, in a couple of very important respects, it has been changed, but that was a long time ago. So what should really happen now is that we should by example start showing how constitutional government would work. And that starts with each of us doing our part. I thought that what they ought to say, and I followed my friend, Charles Kessler, about this, I thought that what they ought to have said to the resolution about Syria was they should have said look, that’s not our job. We’ve given you the money to run the Defense Department. That’s our job. And your business is to run it. You have the executive power. We have the legislative power. If you want us to declare war, or you want more money, either one of those two things, then we’re here and open for business. But if you want us to pass a resolution that says you can run the executive branch the way you want to, you already can do that, and you should be willing to bear the responsibility for it.

HH: Now Dr. Larry Arnn, last question about things current before we turn to Winston Churchill’s early life. I urged Ted Cruz yesterday, and will continue to urge everyone that will read the website or listen to the show, that they engage in a filibuster of Harry Reid’s first draft of the continuing resolution, not with the hopes that they can win that, but that they can focus America’s attention on Obamacare, and that our rhetoricians there, Cruz, Lee, Rubio and Paul, all take advantage of the opportunity of a focused country. And it is quite a dramatic thing, Rand Paul showed us this before, to have a teach-in of sorts. And I believe their gifts are equal to that. What do you think?

LA: Yeah, I do. Some of those you named are for sure, ones I know. And they should be making a point. And that’s what can be done right now. You know, my own view is that it’s not likely to play out, that with one house, that Obamacare is effectively repealed. But…and maybe that’ll happen, I don’t know. I’d celebrate if it did. But certainly, we can have an argument about it. And that’s, you know, because that’s one of the issues of the age.

HH: Yeah, I’ll make a suggestion to you, Larry Arnn. You probably have already anticipated this, that you jump on that private jet they keep behind the Hillsdale library, and you fly to Washington, D.C. to the beautifully appointed Kirby Center, and it is beautifully appointed, and you invite the key senators and their staffs to come over and think through and talk through the arguments they will make during next week, because next week, they get a chance to make an argument that will actually involve not just Obamacare, it ought to be involving the funding of our military, it ought to be involving out of control and completely uncontrollable organizations like the new Financial Services Protection Bureau, which is a nightmare in a Constitutional sense, and our NSA surveillance, that they actually choreograph this. And I don’t know how much they do, or how much forethought they give, or the arguments that the make. Do you think that they are actually sitting down and organizing their arguments in, say, the way that Hamilton and Madison, and a little bit of Jay, decided how they would tackle the advocacy for the Constitution?

LA: Well, all of what you just said is possible except the private jet.

HH: Oh, we could arrange for one to be donated to Hillsdale.

LA: If somebody’s got one and would give it to me, I’d gladly receive it, although I’m not sure we could afford to run it. But a lot of what you’re talking about does go on at the Kirby Center. I was there early in the week, and will be back again late tomorrow. And in fact, one of my boys, as I call them, who just finished clerking on the Supreme Court and getting married on Saturday, and I will see some of them this weekend. And some of them do talk a lot. And it’s not my business to discuss or recommend much about what their strategy is. I don’t know, you know, I’m not in the middle of all that. But what I do know is how things like this have worked in the past. And there are several of them, including several of those that you named, who are very interested in that. And we’ve got a new guy at the Kirby Center, an old friend of mine named Matt Spalding, who’s just started work there as the associate vice president to run that, and is the dean of the teaching programs we do there. And so yeah, there’s, we do hope very much to provoke fundamental deliberation. Where does this fit in the context of American history and the American Constitution, and the principles of the country? And a lot of them take that seriously.

HH: And I would encourage everyone listening that there is now planted right in the heart of Capitol Hill a center where ideas are taken seriously, and these sorts of arguments are made. And it is the Kirby Center. And if Dr. Arnn has not yet begun a friends of the Kirby Center fundraising program, by which people write a thousand dollar check a year or something to keep the Kirby Center going, he ought to have done so. Have you done so, yet?

LA: We do, and anybody who wants to give for that, I will make a public commitment to them that I will not spend the money on a private jet.

HH: Oh, but I like the private jet. That would be, by the way, I have to ask you something about the news this week as well. Tom Delay was exonerated this week in a political prosecution.

LA: Yes.

HH: I thought of Ray Donovan, the former Reagan Labor Department, secretary of Labor Department, said where do I go to get my reputation back? The organs of justice were used to ruin a good man, though a controversial one, and a principled one, though one who was not enamored of talking to the press very much. And it’s truly atrocious. It was almost Soviet-style, Larry Arnn.

LA: You know, I missed that news, Hugh. I’m glad you told me that. I know Tom Delay, and I’ll say two things about him. First of all, I did not agree with the direction in which he took the Republican Party, in some important ways. And having said that, I was heartsick at the way he was treated. And we ought not to be criminalizing politics. And from what I know of him, and I knew him fairly well, I never thought that he was guilty of…and what would he be guilty of? Selling his votes for personal enrichment. Those are things that people must not do when they’re representing the public of the United States of America. I would have been astonished if he were guilty of either of those things.

HH: And he wasn’t, and the Appeals Court said there wasn’t even a minimum amount of evidence to bring that prosecution.

LA: Yeah, you know, the guy, I’m thinking back now, because it’s been a long time, and it brought his career to an end.

HH: Yes.

LA: And it changed things in important ways.

HH: Impoverished him.

LA: And the person who prosecuted him, if memory serves, was himself a partisan.

HH: Yes, Ronnie Earle.

LA: And that’s, you know, politics are ugly, and they mustn’t be ugly in that way. It destabilizes things.

— – – – –

HH: Larry Arnn, there’s a lot here, and Ulysses S. Grant used to say he didn’t care much for biographies, didn’t dwell much on a boy’s childhood, or a man’s childhood, because it was a boy. As a boy, he became the man. What is it that we really ought to know about the young Churchill?

LA: Well, so I’ll just tell you a story. By the time he was 25 years old, Winston Churchill distinguished himself in three wars and wrote three bestselling books about the wars, by the end of his 25th year. And he was a heck of a soldier, and he was a force of nature. And so once there was in South Africa an armored train, and Winston Churchill was a journalist at the time. And the reason he was a journalist was they kept passing rules. They got tired of this second lieutenant, in American terms, being the foremost expositor of these three wars. And he would be critical of generals, and he was the one everybody was reading, and more than anybody else. And so they got tired of it, and they passed a rule that you couldn’t be writing for the press if you were a serving officer. And so he would resign his commission and go be a journalist for a while, and write a bunch of articles, and then he’d go back and serve for a while. And he was unstoppable. And he’s on this armored train as a journalist, and an armored train is a very stupid idea, because you can make them feel very strong, but the tracks are vulnerable. And the Boers in South Africa piled a bunch of rocks on the track, and they derailed it, and then they started artillery fire going through a valley with rocks on either side. And they opened artillery and small arms fire, and the train’s going backwards at the time. And the railway engineer, the engineer, hit these rocks and derailed the train. And so now they’re all stuck there, and they’re under fire. And eventually, more than a dozen of them were killed. And the fire was heavy. And Churchill went to the captain, Haldane was his name, and volunteered to help. And Haldane knew him, and said he’s the one who persuaded him to come along anyway. And he said oh, yeah. And so Churchill gets out of the train, and walks a semicircle with bullets coming all around him, and walks back and opens the door, and says I need volunteers, we can get this thing moving. And then for an hour, exposed to gunfire, he led an effort, and they got it free. And people were agape. They couldn’t believe what they had seen. And people put him up for the Victorian Cross, and he wasn’t an officer. He couldn’t win it. It’s like the Congressional Medal of Honor for them. So then the train gets going, they put the wounded on it. At one point, the engineer, did I tell you this story already to your listeners?

HH: No.

LA: Because it’s a fantastic story. It’s one of the great stories about Churchill. And the engineer said at one point, he said, you know, he got wounded. He got hit a little bit. And he was bleeding. And he was going to run. And Churchill said buck up, man, nobody’s ever wounded twice in the battle. You’re safe. And then he said anyway, you’re going to win a medal. He stayed. Churchill eventually is home secretary years later. He couldn’t get him a medal. He tried. So Churchill gave him a medal, years later. So then the thing gets going. Churchill’s on the locomotive, and the wounded are on, and the engineer is on, and the idea is the men are going to run along the side and be shielded and get away, but he can’t keep the train going slow enough. And it leaves them behind, and Churchill sees them all being captured. And so he jumps off and goes to help them, and he gets captured, almost gets shot in the time that he’s captured. And then he surrenders. He hated that. Then he’s under guard on a train for several hours, no, sorry, first, they walk. It starts raining. And they walk for hours in the rain. And then they get on a train, and he’s got a gun pointed at him all the way, and he goes to Pretoria, that’s the capital of this rebel part of South Africa, rebel, I guess they call them, the Boer part. And along the way, he has a great talk with his guards, and he finds out a bunch of stuff. They get out of the train, and somebody takes a photograph, and it’s, if you email me, I’ll send you a link to the photograph, it’s one of the most telling documents in the whole Churchill story, because everybody is standing, and the townspeople of Pretoria, they’re right in the center of town, the train is behind them, and everybody’s gaping at them. And all of the soldiers, British soldiers, are in ranks. And they’re looking bedraggled and down. Nobody’s looking up except one other guy. Off to the side, Winston Churchill is standing with his weight on one leg, and cocked a little bit to the right, his hands are behind him, and he’s staring directly at the crowd. And it looks to me like he’s holding them in contempt.

HH: I’m looking at the photo as you speak. He is holding them in contempt, isn’t he?

LA: It’s just wonderful, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And then he gets to the, so, he gets, and by the way, he wrote several newspaper articles on the train, sent them off, got them published, and we have copies of them now. Also, he fires off a bunch of letters protesting that he’d been arrested. He’s a non-combatant. He gets to the prison for the officers. It’s a place called the State Model Schools in Pretoria, and he’s learned that the men, the enlisted men, are being held in the stadium. And so he arrives with a plan that he put to the British commanders of the captured men. He says we can overpower our guards, take their weapons, go to the stadium, free the enlisted men, seize the capital, and end the war. And he’s just devastated and angry that they won’t do it. And so instead, he escapes. When he escapes, he gets to, at one point, he’s desperate. He stumbles into a village, a mining village, and there’s a whole bunch of houses there. Only one of the houses is occupied by a British person. That’s the door he happens to knock on. The guy hides him, gets him on a train, gets him out of the country. He becomes a national hero, and is elected to Parliament.

HH: And his book, London To Ladysmith Via Pretoria?

LA: Yeah, well, that’s right. The book, but My Early Life is a later book, he wrote that in the 30s, is the book that really tells that story. But he doesn’t tell it as well as I just told it, and the reason is, here’s another thing about Churchill. He wrote fifty books, and he wrote his own speeches, and they are brilliant. And they are not generally about himself. And they are not in a bragging tone, though they’re fun to read.

HH: And how old was he, how old was he when this adventure in the Boer war occurred?

LA: Well, this adventure was in 1898, ’99, sorry, I’m forgetting. He was born in 1874, so he was 24 or 25. He was 25, I think, by this time.

— – – —

HH: Dr. Arnn, I neglected to tell people, and we just added Salt Lake City as an audience, so I have to kind of always remind myself that our friends on 1430 up in KLO land won’t know this. You were part of the Churchill biographical team in England for many years.

LA: I was. There’s a great man named Sir Martin Gilbert. He has health problems and is incapacitated now, but back in the late 1970s, I had a Rotary fellowship, and some others, and I became his director of research. And the most important thing I did while I was there was I married his other assistant, Penelope Houghton, now the mother of my four children, our four children, I guess I would say. She thinks she had something to do with those four children.

HH: Well someday, I’m going to find out how you tricked Penny, and get to the bottom of that, because it was clearly, it was larcenous in many respects that you have trapped her.

LA: Good wine. Good wine.

HH: So now the big question is I know the story of his parents, an American mother, the highest of high aristocrats for a father, a terrible set of, I mean, their parenting skills are zero by modern terms. Tell the audience about Lord Randolph and Jenny.

LA: Well, see, you have to understand about Churchill that he was, first of all, his father was the second son of a duke. And duke is as high as you can get without being the monarch. And so, and there are about 25 dukes in Britain today. Actually, there might be 32 today, and there were 25 then, and they are usually only created, in modern times, for some heir to the throne, or some direct connection of the monarch. And so if Churchill’s father had been a few months older, Churchill, he was the eldest son, Churchill was, so he would have been a duke. But as it was, he was nothing. He was a commoner. His father got a courtesy title, they call it, Lord Randolph Churchill, but those are not heritable. So Churchill was a commoner. And then there are only three things you can get from being a member of the aristocracy. You could get a title. Churchill didn’t get that. You could get money. The Duchy of Marlborough, which was created for Churchill’s great-great-great, seven times removed grandfather, the first duke of Marlborough, a great general, is a notoriously poor one. Churchill didn’t get any money. He was never rich. He had to earn his way through. The third thing you can get, Churchill got a lot of that, and that was you got connections. People knew who you were. And so he wasn’t just anybody. He was the Churchill family. And his father had lots of friends, and lots of enemies. His father was a parliamentarian. And so when Churchill set off on his life, and his father died early, by the way, which might have been somewhat helpful to Churchill, because his father was a very polarizing figure. But of course, there was as sympathy for him in his grave. And so anyway, Churchill, doors were opened for him, is what you would say. And on the other hand, Churchill’s politics were not aristocratic, ever, in fact, early, especially anti-aristocratic, and that ruffled a lot of feathers among the aristocracy. And Churchill was a democrat. Churchill believed in the course of independence. Churchill believed the whole basis, is the quote, of our political system must be the equality of rights. But he was born, and he happened to have been born in Blenheim Palace, which his parents were visiting, and that’s one of the greatest houses in the world.

HH: Yes.

LA: You should go there. It’s near Oxford in England, and it’s amazing. And Churchill was always welcome there, and went there a lot through his life, got on well with his uncles, the dukes of Marlborough. And so yeah, he’s connected to the aristocracy, but in another way, he’s just like you and me. He’s the guy that’s got to make a living. And in those days, to be in the army, you needed money. And then to be in the House of Commons, you needed money. And he had to earn it. And he earned it by writing. And he could really write.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, I said before the break that Winston Churchill was an indifferent student at Harrow, and then he had to go to Sandhurst, or chose to go to Sandhurst. What are those schools? And how did they form him?

LA: Well, Harrow and Eton are the great public schools, which means private schools, in Britain, very old, very established. And Churchill went to Harrow, and then he went to Sandhurst, the military academy, where he was taught in the cavalry. And at Harrow, he had three modes that he was in. He was negligent, he was competent, and he was brilliant. And he didn’t get those three things in the right proportion.

HH: (laughing)

LA: But he was often brilliant, and understood to be. He had a tremendous memory, and at Sandhurst, he just loved it. He was riding horses, he barely got in and passed the examination to get in. But when he did get in, he just found himself, and he was just great. He graduated near the top of his class. And he also found a desire for learning. And I’m going to assert three themes if I’ve got time before we end today. Can I?

HH: Yes, you can. Take the floor.

LA: Okay, so we need to understand that first of all, Churchill had this glorious, adventuresome life, and I’ll tell you stories about it. It’s just the most fun thing in the world to learn. But I’m going to mention three things you should know. One is Churchill understood better than any politician I have ever seen with my own eyes the meaning of liberal education. And he stood up for it all his life. And by that, I mean education that raises the soul to a place to understand the best things – God and nature and man. And he defended that all his life, and he wrote a lot about how he went seeking that. And he met people from university who weren’t getting that. So the first thing is Churchill loved learning, and he wrote fifty books, and they’re worth reading. Now the second theme, one’s about war and the third one’s about peace. We’re going to have to understand Churchill can teach us something about our age. We live in a time in which war is dangerous in different and worse ways than it has ever been. And we live in a time in which peace gives rise to ideologies that threaten to reduce us to mere matter. And those are for connected reasons, those two dangers. And Churchill saw them early, and he spent his life in a struggle against them, against the devastation that’s possible in modern war, which he saw years before it came, and he thought the solution to that was strategy. We have to talk about how he meant that. And then these ideologies, which Nazism and Communism abroad, and socialism and bureaucracy at home, and Churchill thought that all of those things threaten to reduce us, to treat us, you know, like the way we do education in politics today, and mostly, Republican and Democrat, by the way, is we look at the student simply as a factor of production. And we think that the purpose of education is to make them into something, whereas in any legitimate understanding, the purpose is to help them make themselves into what they are meant to be. And that’s a dignity that none of us can engineer or manipulate. Churchill understood that, and that understanding is why he was such a friend of human freedom.

HH: Now Larry Arnn, when did he begin to evidence his worldview, this vast understanding of history and the role of the British empire, because he was a huge proponent of the English-speaking peoples, and primarily the British empire. And when did that arise?

LA: Churchill was elected to Parliament just after his 26th birthday in the year 1900. And he gave a beautiful speech in March of 1901 about the problem of modern war, why it is made worse by certain features of liberal democracy and modern society, and why we have to look at the world differently because of that. So he’s still 26 years old.

HH: And he had brought to that the last cavalry charge, a war in Cuba, deployment in India and Africa. He traveled the world, and was open to all sorts of people. And was he the enemy of anyone? Often, people, we have about two minutes, talk about that he was racialist. And I don’t really see that. I know he believed in the empire, and he believed in the British government of India. But what was his views vis-à-vis non-Englishmen?

LA: Well, Churchill believed that every people had the right and innately the ability to govern themselves. He believed that some peoples are not ready for that, yet. And he believed that some few of them with which the British have developed a relationship, need the British to continue that relationship until the time when they can do, which might be distant. That’s what he thought.

HH: And he also saw early on, and we’ll talk more about this next week, but he saw Communism for Communism early on. And I don’t know if it’s because of the Bolsheviks in London, or it’s because of the Russian revolution, or in between. When did he develop his antipathy towards the Leninists and the Marxists?

LA: Well, Churchill wrote a novel in 1897, so he’s, what is he, he’s 23. And in the novel, there’s a radical, terrible man who believes in the community of property and the community of women. And that man’s name is Karl, and it’s spelled with a K. And that means that Churchill, and see, Churchill, the political situation in which Churchill came was coming to an end, a period in which the aristocracy had had a privileged place not just in all the titles and money, they had control of the Parliament, including the House of Commons. And they used that to keep a, until the middle of the 19th Century, to keep a system of protective tariffs in place that basically transferred wealth from poor people to them. And Churchill hated that. His father did, too. And Churchill rebelled against that, and he saw people rebelling against that. And meanwhile, the Socialist Party has been born, and Churchill hates it and fears it all his life.

HH: We pick up that life next week in 1901 when he begins his Parliamentary career. Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you. For all of the Hillsdale Dialogues, including the first few parts of our series on Churchill, go to

End of interview.


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