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History Archives

April 3, 2016

Churchill was paid like a star athlete

A historian with a background in finance has produced what promises to be a memorable addition to the voluminous literature on Winston Churchill.

David Lough’s study, No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money, examines the great Englishman’s precarious and extravagant finances, and draws out from them a yet another striking adventure in a life full of adventure, above all the adventure of statesmanship. For instance, he finds that, as a young and mostly untested writer, Churchill managed to command a freelance war correspondent’s salary, adjusted to the 21st century level, of nearly $400,000 per year — i.e., roughly on par with a replacement-level professional athlete today — for going to South Africa to cover the Boer War for The Morning Post.

Reviewing this book in The New Criterion, Timothy Congdon, a British economist and one-time UK Independence Party candidate for Parliament, avers that Lough’s salary adjustment is inadequate. According to his way of thinking, on a purchasing-power basis Churchill’s war correspondent’s earnings were far more impressive: closer to that of a star professional athlete of today. Congdon reckons that Churchill hauled in the equivalent of $5 million annually for his coverage of the Boer War.

Churchill had great luck in the Boer War. He was captured by the enemy but was treated well by them and somehow managed to escape. The British public loved derring-do, particularly when performed by aristocratic daredevils in the cause of imperial expansion. Churchill’s journalism became even more valuable. He was soon in possession of a clear £10,000, which his American counterparts would look at in the same way that their successors today look at over $10 million.

Adventures indeed. Winston Churchill was to war correspondents of his day what Von Miller is to outside linebackers or Steph Curry to shooting guards.

It would a colossal exaggeration, of course, to suppose that Churchill’s remuneration in this profession was entirely the consequence his good fortune. Its foundation lies firmly in his own native excellence. Mr. Lough’s fascinating book, by all accounts, also makes clear that this excellence, along with his many others, sustained Churchill in what was a staggering prodigality. He consumed the income he earned at a rate comparable to a modern star athlete.

Now human excellence resists precise categorization; while it can never be separated from circumstances, it retains an indelible measure of mystery even when history supplies us with abundant resources for study and comparison.

In a word, there is, truly, an ineffable human magic in Churchill’s prose which, by a somewhat strained analogy, is also observable in Curry’s jump shot. The financial reward confirms the phenomenal excellence. Many were the men who, around the turn of the 20th century, could compose clear English competently: None could pour it on like Churchill. Many are the men today who can dribble and shoot a basketball serviceably: None can pour it in like Curry.

A sample. From the Preface to Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times:

“There are few successful commanders,” says Creasy, “on whom Fame has shone so unwillingly as upon John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough.” I believe this is true; and it is an interesting historical study to examine the causes which have made so great a contrast between the glory and importance of his deeds and the small regard of his countrymen for his memory. He commanded the armies of Europe against France for ten campaigns. He fought four great battles and many important actions. It is the common boast of his champions that he never fought a battle that he did not win, nor besieged a fortress he did not take. Amid all the chances and baffling accidents of war he produced victory with almost mechanical certainty. Even when fighting in fetters and hobbles, swayed and oppressed by influences which were wholly outside the military situation, he was able to produce the same result, varying only in degree. Nothing like this can be seen in military annals. His smaller campaigns were equally crowned by fortune. He never rode off any field except as a victor. He quitted war invincible: and no sooner was his guiding hand withdrawn than disaster overtook the armies he had led. Successive generations have not ceased to name him with Hannibal and Caesar.