When Churchill Was Twenty-Three

This article was written more than sixty-six years ago, in 1898. The author, a war correspondent with a position in England similar to that of Richard Harding Davis in America, met young Churchill aboard ship when both were returning from the Sudan wars. So great was the impact of the twenty-three-year-old Churchill on the veteran newspaperman that he devoted an article to the young man in a series entitled, “Twentieth Century MenPeeps into Futurity.”In it, Mr. Steevens predicted that the time would come when Parliament and England itself would not provide a large enough stage for Mr. Churchill.

MR.Winston Spencer Churchill, who goes to India tonight for a few months, is the youngest man in Europe. A gallery of young men’s pictures could not possibly be complete without him, for there is no younger.

In years he is a boy; in temperament he is also a boy; but in intention, in deliberate plan, purpose, adaptation of means to ends, he is already a man. In any other generation but this he would be a child. Anyone other than him, being a junior subaltern of Hussars, would be a boisterous, simple, fullhearted, empty-headed boy. But Mr. Churchill is a man, with ambitions fixed, with the steps toward their attainment clearly defined, with a precocious, almost uncanny judgment as to the efficacy of the means to the end.

Winston Spencer Churchill can hardly have seen much of government and Parliament and forensic politics at twenty-three, but he moves in and out among their deviations with the ease, if not with the knowledge, of a veteran statesman.

Inheritance alone would not give him his grip and facility at twenty-three; with us, hereditary statesmen and party leaders ripen later. Perhaps it is his American strain, to which he adds a keenness, a shrewdness, a half-cynical personal ambition, a natural aptitude for advertisement, and happily, a sense of humor.

At the present moment he happens to be a soldier, but that has nothing whatever to do with his interest in the public eye. He may and he may not possess the qualities which make a great general, but the question is of no sort of importance. In any case, they will never be developed, for if they exist, they are overshadowed by qualities which might make him, almost at will, a great popular leader, a great journalist, or the founder of a great advertising business.

He will shortly leave the army; in the meantime, his brief military career is interesting mainly as an illustration of the versatility, the pushing energy, and — its complement — the precocious worldly wisdom of the man. In less than four years he has seen something of three campaigns, not an ungenerous allowance for a field oflicer of longer service than Mr. Churchill counts years of life.

He saw his service, it is true, more in the irresponsible way of a war correspondent than on the plodding grind of a subaltern with his regiment; but then, that is the only way — bar miracles — in which a man can see three campaigns in four years. Having to give the first years of his manhood to war-making, he characteristically gave them in the way that was likely to prove most fruitful of experience for use afterward.

It is not possible that a man who has done so much so well at twenty-three would be altogether popular. Enemies he has probably none, but precocious success is not the way to win facile friendship. In the army especially, where the young are expected not to know better than their elders — or, at least, to keep their knowledge to themselves — his assurance has earned him many snubs. One general will delight in his lighthearted omniscience; the next, and the next, and the next will put a subaltern in his place. But Winston Churchill cannot be snubbed. His self-confidence bobs up irresistibly, though seniority and common sense and facts themselves conspire to force it down.

He is ambitious and he is calculating, yet he is not cold, and that saves him. His ambition is sanguine, runs in a torrent, and the calculation is hardly more than the rock or the stump which the torrent strikes for a second, yet which suffices to direct its course. It is not so much that he calculates how he is to make his career a success — how, frankly, he is to boom — but that he has a queer, shrewd power of introspection, which tells him his gifts and character are such as will make him boom.

The master strain in his character is the rhetorician. Platform speeches and leading articles flow from him almost against his will. At dinner he talks and talks, and you can hardly tell when he leaves off quoting his one idol, Macaulay, and begins his other, Winston Churchill. A passionate devotion to the matter in hand, an imperturbable self-confidence, a ready flow of sonorous, halfcommonplace, half-lofty English, a fine faculty of striking imagery — we shall hear more about this in the course of ten years.

As yet, naturally, he knows little more than many clever boys, whether of facts or of men. But he has put himself in the directest way of learning all that. At present he calls himself a Tory Democrat. Tory (the opinions) might change; democrat (the methods), never. For he has the twentieth century in his marrow.

What he will become, who shall say? At the rate he goes, there will hardly be room for him in Parliament at thirty or in England at forty. It is a pace that cannot last, yet already he holds a vast lead of his contemporaries. Meanwhile, he is a wonder: a boy with a man’s ambitions and, more wonderful yet, a very mature man’s selfappreciation — knowledge of his own powers and the extent to which each may be applied to set him forward on his road.

Reprinted from the London DAILY MAIL.