A Newsreel of Winston Churchill Presented with the Society Insignia at Anderson House
In January 1952, Americans prepared with great excitement for a visit from Sir Winston Churchill during the first months of his second term in office as prime minister of Great Britain. The popular leader had coined the phrase "the special relationship" to describe the connection between the United States and Great Britain, particularly to emphasize the bond forged out of their shared trials in the Second World War. For the Society of the Cincinnati, the transatlantic visit was an opportunity to welcome Churchill on the basis of a special relationship born through joint struggles in a much earlier conflict—the Revolutionary War. Cameras rolled in the ballroom of Anderson House as the prime minister was presented with his Eagle insignia and certificate of membership for the Society of the Cincinnati on January 16, 1952.
In fact, Churchill's relationship with the Society had begun almost five years before with his admission as a member of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Connecticut . At first glance the connection may not be readily apparent between the leader of America's adversary during the Revolutionary War and the patriotic society founded to perpetuate the memory of "the separation of the colonies of North America from the domination of Great Britain." But even the throes of the Revolution that separated the two nations politically did not completely sever the binding ties of common heritage and language. In the centuries ahead, faced with international conflict and change, the countries became natural allies. The marriage of American wealth to British tradition was common in personal as well as national alliances throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
This intertwining was demonstrated perhaps nowhere more clearly than in the union of Winston Churchill's parents—Lord Randolph Churchill, scion of an ancient English family and a staunch conservative in Parliament, and Jeanette "Jennie" Jerome, the American daughter of a wealthy stock market promoter from New York. Through his mother's family, several of Winston Churchill's ancestors had fought in the Revolution on behalf of the American cause. This dual heritage allowed him to straddle both sides of what he called the "War between Us and We" while championing the current alliance between the two nations.
Churchill's American ancestry did not escape the notice of the Society of the Cincinnati. In April 1947, Col. Bryce Metcalf, president general of the Society, wrote to Churchill stating that it gave him "great satisfaction to report that the Society holds you to be eligible to hereditary membership in the right of your ancestor, Lieutenant Reuben Murray of Burrall's Regiment, such membership being in the Society in the State of Connecticut." Colonel Metcalf was also president of the Connecticut Society at the time and likely anxious for Churchill to settle his membership with the Society in that state rather than through his other ancestors, who had served in Massachusetts and New York. Churchill wrote back granting permission for his name to be put forward for election, which duly occurred on July 4, 1947, in Hartford. The former prime minister's acceptance into membership of a select American hereditary society was an event highlighted in newspapers around the country.Read More<
Sir Winston evidently prized his membership in the Society, using it as an example of Anglo-American friendship in at least one speech. Asked by the American Society in London to give a speech in honor of Independence Day on the Fourth of July 1950, Churchill remarked:
Among Englishmen, I have a special qualification for such an occasion. I am directly descended through my mother from an officer who served in Washington's Army. And as such I have been made a member of your strictly selected Society of the Cincinnati ... There is no doubt that I was on both sides then and it gives me a comfortable feeling of simplification as the years have passed to feel that we're all on the same side now.
In 1947, Metcalf had hoped that Churchill would soon be able to visit in order to receive his Eagle and diploma—the official emblems of membership in the Society. Due to the business of Churchill's schedule during the following years, he was unable to receive the insignia during Metcalf's lifetime. It would fall to Edgar Erskine Hume—the Society's acting president general since 1950 and a major general in the United States Army, having served with distinction in both world wars—to take advantage of the announcement of Churchill's visit in 1952 to bring the event to fruition. In a brisk exchange of letters and telegrams even while Churchill was en route to America, Hume planned a grand reception for the British Cincinnatus.
The prime minister's time in the United States would only last a few weeks, every moment of it precious. Hume and Churchill's aides strained to make space in the schedule packed with important speeches, private dinners, meetings with President Harry Truman, and even a quick trip to Ottawa to cement ties with Britain's other former North American colony. The final date was settled to be five o'clock in the afternoon on Wednesday, January 16 with the entire ceremony to take less than an hour. Invited dignitaries included President Truman, heads of the branches of the armed forces, Foreign Service officials, as well as many members of the Society of the Cincinnati. Though the president was unable to accept, the final attendees included Vice President Alben Barkley, Chief Justice Fred Vinson, and five ambassadors from the British Commonwealth in addition to 140 members of the Society.
The momentous occasion was also well attended by prominent news outlets. Touring the location in advance, one of Churchill's press secretaries took careful note in the Ballroom of the musician gallery's prime location as camera perch. In addition to housing still cameras, this vantage point allowed the proceedings to be captured on film by the venerable Movietone News Corporation. A pioneer in sound on film technology in the 1920s, the company was still the leading newsreel producer three decades later. Fittingly for the subject, the firm had transatlantic reach as well—it was known as Fox Movietone News in the United States and as British Movietone News across the pond. A copy of the newsreel segment sent by Fox Movietone to the Society preserves a remarkable depiction of the day's events.
Only one minute and twenty-one seconds long, the film is brief but compelling. Churchill can be clearly seen first seated in the center of a small platform erected in front of the fireplace in the Ballroom at Anderson House. On a table immediately before him, next to the microphones for audio recording, lay his signed diploma of the Society of the Cincinnati—printed from the original copper plate designed by Pierre L'Enfant in 1783. With the banner of the Cincinnati behind him, the prime minister stood while General Hume placed a Society Eagle suspended from a ribbon around his neck. Churchill then delivered a short speech, a full transcript of which can be found in the Society's archives along with Hume's opening discourse. Though the newsreel footage only includes Churchill's closing remarks, his final words of gratitude reverberate with characteristic intonation and spirit:
I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the kindness which you have shown me. I value this honor and let it be a help to all of those forces – they are, in my opinion, irresistible forces – which draw our two nations together; not for any unworthy purpose of combination or gathering strength, but in order that we may defend the freedom of the world.
Following the remarks, General Hume and Churchill removed to the Great Stair Hall for photographs. The ceremony closed with time for Churchill to greet guests while whiskey and champagne were served upstairs. Newspaper coverage of the event the following day highlighted the fact that the prime minister spoke without notes and the visible emotion with which he ended his speech.
After his visit to Anderson House, only a few days remained in Churchill's time in America. On January 22, 1952, he sailed for Great Britain from New York. Just two days after Churchill's departure, the Society was stunned by the sudden death of Gen. Edgar Erskine Hume—whose last major act with the Society was to be Churchill's reception. Receiving notice of the tragedy aboard the Queen Mary while in the midst of the crossing, Churchill immediately wired back a note of condolence the same evening.
Churchill never again met with the Society in person, but the lines of communication remained open from afar. After a request in 1963 for members to submit works of their authorship, Sir Winston—who had received the Nobel Prize in Literature ten years earlier—contributed an autographed copy of his biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill. It would be the last direct connection between Churchill and the Society. On January 24, 1965—exactly thirteen years after the death of General Hume—the world mourned the loss of Sir Winston Churchill.
Though brief, the time the prime minister spent at Anderson House as a member of the Society of the Cincinnati is rich in meaning. The words Hume wrote to Churchill in officially inviting him to the insignia ceremony still ring true today: "Your name will illuminate our rolls with undying brightness beside the other great men who have been members of this body." From Washington to Winston, many celebrated leaders have had the honor of wearing the Society Eagle—but few have been captured in the act with as much grace, or have as profoundly demonstrated the ties of shared valor and honor across nations as well as generations.Read Less<