Day 2: Churchill & Son – Josh Ireland
If you’ve listened to our Best Books of 2022 podcast, you’ll already know two things. First, this was one of my books of the year (in the spot reserved for the best Churchill book of the year). Second, I was initially hesitant to read this one. I’m happy to say that the first point triumphed over the second; this is a well-researched, very enjoyable look at Winston Churchill’s tumultuous family life.
There’s no better way to begin than to observe how difficult it is to be the son of a great man. In fact, you might summarize the whole book with this point. In the end, Randolph Churchill’s life was probably more influenced by his father than any other factor. The shadow of Britain’s greatest statesman and one of the towering figures of the century would be too much for anyone to bear.
All of this is true, but there’s another intriguing angle that can’t be missed. Winston Churchill was also the son of a famous man. Why did that lead to Winston’s success but Randolph’s downfall?
The difference might be that Winston Churchill’s father Randolph was a famous man but not really a great one. He was a parliamentarian, a gifted orator, and a shrewd politician. He was far worse than Winston as a father and all but ignored his young son, who he was convinced would never amount to anything. With his own son Randolph, Churchill could not have been more different. He was intimately involved in his son’s life, believed great things about him – probably to his detriment – and stayed connected to him during some of the most difficult and embarrassing seasons. The elusive question is why they turned out differently. The weight of having a famous father gave Winston something to prove. It gave him the drive and the chip on his shoulder that led him to attempt great things. In Churchill’s biography of his great ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, he includes this autobiographical line, “It is said that famous men are unusually the product of unhappy childhood. The stern compression of circumstances, the twinges of adversity, the spur of slights and taunts in early years, are needed to evoke that ruthless fixity of purpose and tenacious mother-wit without which great actions are seldom accomplished.”
It is possible Randolph was spared too much. He was spoiled. He was someone. He was given many things not because of his own skill, merit, or worth, but because of his father’s. He struggled with entitlement. He never learned to control his temper. He gave in to his vices. The story of Churchill & Son is one of tragedy in the end, but it is not without its bright spots. Winston Churchill was a very good father, even if he was too indulgent. There were bright spots of harmony and success, true love and mutual admiration between Winston and Randolph that make the book worth reading. Even if, in the end, the relationship between the two men turned sour, it reads like real life. Family life can be hard, even for the best people. The account of the Churchills may serve to shore up the relationship between other fathers and their sons. Or it may just be another angle into an extraordinary – flawed – life. Either way, it’s worth the read.
Today's winner of a copy of Churchill & Son is Patty Hickson!
Dr. Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.