The Battle for Britain

Historian Anne Sebba Discovers an American Woman at the Heart of Britain’s National Identity

It’s no surprise the Brit that re-united England with its former colonies was raised by an American Mom. Called the “Lion of British Politics,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill united the two countries during WWII to create a Special Relationship: a cooperation of economic activity, trade and commerce, military planning, execution and operations that remains unparalleled between any major powers. Contributor BRENDA WENSIL chats with Anne Sebba about her new book, and discovers how an American Socialite created a British icon in “Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother.”

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Jennie Churchill. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

She called him “My Brilliant Winston;” shaping a frail and depressive boy into a man that would one day coin the phrase, calibrate the mission, and single-handedly commandeer the historic Battle for Britain. Indeed, Winston Churchill’s life was a trajectory of events leading to his crowning achievement: the deconstruction of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. He was a soldier, Member of Parliament, prisoner of war and Statesman. Yet long before his legendary roar, Winston Churchill was a boy. “Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother” explores the apparent contradiction of an American socialite with libertine values raising perhaps the most iconic Prime Minister of the 20th century. I recently spoke with the author in London.

Born to an aristocratic family on November 30, 1874, Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was raised with loyalties on both sides of the proverbial pond. Part aristocrat, part commoner, he would display traits of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a British statesman from an established English family, and his mother, Jennie Jerome, an independent-minded New York. Often judged as absentee parents, outsourcing children to nannies and boarding schools was nevertheless an accepted way of life for the Victorian Upper Classes. But Churchill proved to be an independent and rebellious student. He did poorly in his studies and by April 1888 was sent to the renowned Harrow School, where, within weeks of his enrollment, he joined the Harrow Rifle Corps which put him on the trajectory to a military career. Sebba, however, scribbles an important sidebar into Churchill’s story. “She was a woman ahead of her time,” the author says, “in the way she accommodated her son’s peculiarities.” Teaching Winston to paint, learn languages and write became the tools with which Churchill would not only stave off the depressions he referred to as his “Mad Dog,” but to temper and translate political destiny, too.

Though his father died when he was only 21, Churchill later said “I knew him more by reputation than by any personal relationship we actually shared.” Effectively becoming a single parent, Jennie’s focus on her son was shaped by the sudden and complete destruction of his father’s career shortly before his death. Politics, after all, was the family business, and Jennie the American heiress underwriting the family firm. The Churchill’s moved feely amongst the inner circles of the monarch, society and members of parliament. But at the peak of his prominence as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Randolph resigned. In a miscalculated power play, Randolph opposed the demands made on the Treasury by the naval and military ministers. The cabinet however did not react as Randolph expected, and instead appointed a new Chancellor in his place. His career as the Conservative party’s chief was over.

She was a woman ahead of her time in the way she accommodated her son’s peculiarities.
Anne Sebba

This fall from political grace and isolation from social circles was further complicated by declining health and dementia, and the patriarch’s early death ensured that Jennie would shift her focus to his heir apparent. Called Winnie, Winston had every conceivable disadvantage for social and military distinction from a scant 5’ 6” frame, to the nearly indisputable fact that he’d been conceived out of wedlock. Parental failures often shape prominent children into complex social figures. But Sebba is bemused that history has been so kind to Randolph, whilst denoting Jennie as a distant mother. Sebba observes rightly that “It was Jennie who protected Winston from his ever-devolving father who could be cruel, volatile and dismissive. She established a safe distance between her husband’s terrible condition and her son’s rise on the military and political scene, and provided Winston with what few mothers could—access. She ensured that doors were opened for him to people of position, power and influence. She encouraged him to take on more and greater positions, to engage in potentially dangerous military campaigns, and moreover to chronicle his adventures with what she referred to as the “power of the pen.” Indeed, his role as a War Correspondent in the Sudan and Second Boer War enabled him to analyze and project military operations in a way that would prepare him in due course as a prolific military strategist.

Sir Winston Churchill stepped into that destiny as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1940. Though his mother had been dead nearly 20 years, his role as a conciliator was fixed in his youth by parent’s whose political destiny and progressive social attitudes combined to create a very modern crusader. Named the Greatest Briton of all Time, Sebba says Churchill should also be remembered as “the first person to ever be made an honorary citizen of the United States.” Indeed, a Special Relationship endures to this day, and was forged by a man who uniquely understood and advocated for both when he wrote, “It was the nation and the race dwelling all around the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”


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