With the continued popularity of the film, The Darkest Hour, since it’s been heavily promoted on streaming services, I have even more reason than usual to point out bogus Churchill quotes. But I thought I’d talk about something that Churchill actually said, and that was a well-known saying in his day, to show how certain phrases that were certainly commonplace in the late 19th century and early 20th century, have been Churchill-ized by people after World War II.
On the 13th of May 1940, Churchill gave his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister. In it, he was mostly concerned with laying out the reasons for forming a wartime government made up of members of all the major political parties, not just his Conservatives. Here’s what he went on to say.
I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.’ We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
“Blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” would often be shortened as “blood, sweat, and tears,” and, as such, it’s become one of the most quoted Churchill-isms.
But like so many things he actually said, Churchill did not coin this phrase, nor did he invent the concept. It may go back to the ancients. Cicero and Livy both wrote of sacrifices requiring “sweat and blood.” In English, it’s certainly as old as John Donne, writing in a poem in 1611, “Tis in vaine to dew, or mollifie/ It is with thy Teares, or Sweat, or Bloud.” From there, it appears pretty frequently. Lord Byron used it in 1823. In 1888, Playwright John Davidson described poor Scottish farmers, who, with their “blood-sweats, and tears,” led, “haggard, homeless lives.”
And the idea of a leader offering nothing but sacrifice and pain during a time of crisis was famously used by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian revolutionary and general, who steeled his troops in 1842 with, “I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battle, and death.” And we know that Churchill was an admirer of Garibaldi, and read translations of his speeches and writings.
In an 1897 speech, Teddy Roosevelt said, “in the past, the nation has triumphed; because of the blood and sweat and tears, the labor and the anguish, through which, in the days that have gone, our forefathers moved on to triumph.” Churchill was also an avid reader of Roosevelt’s speeches. So it was a well-worn phrase used to inspire people who were about to go through trying times. And Churchill certainly knew that it was needed in 1940.
After all, what goes around comes around. Or, as the 60-70s band, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, said, “what goes up must come down.” Or was that Sir Isaac Newton?
By the way, Buzzkillers, I owe a lot of research direction for this blog post and for the podcast episode to excellent scholars such as Ralph Keyes, the author of The Quote Verifier. Check out his website: https://quoteinvestigator.com/
Richard Langworth (ed.), Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations (2011).
Churchill by Himself is the first fully annotated and attributed collection of Churchill sayings–edited by longtime Churchill scholar Richard M. Langworth and authorized by the Churchill estate–that captures Churchill’s wit in its entirety.