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Thursday, December 12, 2013

On This Day in History: When Winston Churchill Met Mark Twain

By Joseph Tartakovsky

Mark Twain
On the evening of December 12, 1900, in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, 26-year-old Lieutenant Winston S. Churchill arrived to speak about his adventures as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. He had already been an officer in the army, serving in Sudan and Egypt, but came to South Africa as a journalist. Shortly after arriving, a train carrying him was attacked, and Churchill the journalist led a brave but futile defense against the well-armed burghers. Churchill was captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, but within a month he made a daring escape. Hunted through Pretoria with a bounty on his head, he hid in mines and railway cars, eventually to return to England a hero.

"The grand ballroom was crowded to the doors," said the December 13, 1900 New York Times. Churchill's gift for language was already known--he had books to his credit--but some of the attendees, at least, must have been drawn by his introducer, Mr. Mark Twain.

Mark Twain, now 65 and internationally famous, began:
Winston Churchill
Mr. Churchill and I do not agree on the righteousness of the South African war, but that is of no consequence.... For years I have been a self-appointed missionary, and have wrought zealously for my cause--the joining together of America and the motherland in bonds of friendship, esteem and affection--an alliance of the heart which should permanently and beneficently influence the political relations of the two countries. Wherever I have stood before a gathering of Americans or Englishmen, in England, India, Australia or elsewhere, I have urged my mission, and warmed it up with compliments to both countries and pointed out how nearly alike the two peoples are in character and spirit. They ought to be united....

...yet I think England sinned in getting into a war in South Africa which she could have avoided without loss of credit or dignity--just as I think we have sinned in crowding ourselves into a war in the Philippines on the same terms.

Mr. Churchill will tell you about the war in South Africa, and he is competent--he fought and wrote through it himself. And he made a record there which would be a proud one for a man twice his age. By his father he is English, by his mother he is American--to my mind the blend which makes the perfect man. We are now on the friendliest terms with England. Mainly through my missionary efforts I suppose; and I am glad. We have always been kin: kin in blood, kin in religion, kin in representative government, kin in ideals, kin in just and lofty purposes; and now we are kin in sin, the harmony is complete, the blend is perfect, like Mr. Churchill himself, whom I now have the honor to present to you.
"Mr. Churchill was greeted cordially by the audience," said the New York Times. "He showed nervousness at first, but soon forgot himself in his subject, and held the attention of his listeners by a clear recital of some of the most striking episodes of the struggle between Boer and Briton. A touch of humor, introduced half unconsciously, lightened up the lecture considerably."

Churchill returned to England, became a renowned politician, was appointed the empire's Home Secretary, and held a number of high posts during World War I. Twenty years later, he would save Western civilization. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. In 1930 he published a biography, My Early Life: 1874-1904, in which, three decades after his speech in New York, he recalled his encounter with Twain:
Throughout my journeyings I received the help of eminent Americans¦and my opening lecture in New York was under the auspices of no less a personage than 'Mark Twain' himself. I was thrilled by this famous companion of my youth. He was now very old and snow-white, and combined with a noble air a most delightful style of conversation. Of course we argued about the [Boer] war. After some interchanges I found myself beaten back to the citadel 'My country right or wrong.' 'Ah,' said the old gentleman, 'When the poor country is fighting for its life, I agree. But this was not your case.' I think however I did not displease him; for he was good enough at my request to sign every one of thirty volumes of his works for my benefit; and in the first volume he inscribed the following maxim intended, I daresay, to convey a gentle admonition: 'To do good is noble; to teach others to do good is nobler, and no trouble.'
And there you have it: Twain on Churchill, and Churchill on Twain. We celebrated both their birthdays yesterday. But more celebrating needs to be done. Tomorrow night, almost exactly 105 years later, in a hotel's grand ballroom, at a dinner convened on Winston Churchill's account, another Mark--like Twain, a renowned and witty man of letters, and, like Churchill, a man who has sounded the alarm against our age's totalitarian aggressors--is to speak. This is Mark Steyn. And his introducer? The parallels amaze: a fellow dedicated to preserving the memory and legacy of both great men: Bruce Sanborn.


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