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Mark Twain and Winston Churchill: When great men meet

Anything can happen when two great men meet.

On one ordinary day, Nov. 30, two of the brightest, most distinct spirits to enter this sphere were born: Mark Twain in 1835 and Winston Spencer Churchill in 1874. Both were influential in the affairs of men. Both had power to touch, inspire the heart and to alter the perceptions and behavior of those around them.

Both men were individualists, one of a kind. Diverse as were their gifts, both had great hearts.

Mark Twain, or Samuel Langhorne Clemens as he was christened, was raised in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri. His life was all about adventure. At a young age, he trained as a printer’s apprentice, learning typesetting and writing articles for the newspaper run by his older brother, Orion. At age 18, he set out on his own, working as a printer for papers in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and New York, getting the first taste of seeing his stories in print.

Twain’s enchantment with the Mississippi River led him to the arduous task of training for that all-romantic role as river boat pilot. The romance was tied to a discipline that required over two years of intense study — study of 2,000 miles of that great river and her literally hundreds of ports — before he earned the coveted pilot’s license in 1859. He lived and worked on the river until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

Here, too, he obtained the name he was to go by for the rest of his life. The cry raised of "Mark Twain" meant that the river at that point was two fathoms deep.

When Orion was appointed secretary to Gov. James W. Nye of Nevada in 1861, Twain joined him, and his experiments with mining in Virginia City and other rough-and-ready experiences sparked a multitude of new adventures that itched their way into his pen.

Winston Churchill, son of Lord Randolph Churchill and the famous American beauty, Jennie Jerome, chafed at the restraints of education and custom. Once released, he took just as eagerly as Twain to adventure and to the reproduction of his adventures in print. Traveling as a reporter in India, Egypt and South Africa, Churchill was involved in many hot engagements until he was captured and imprisoned in Pretoria. He staged a bold escape from his jail and traveled over 300 miles alone to safety — making him at once a national hero.

His political career — brilliant, bold and brave, as all things about him were — gave full rein to Churchill’s power with words. His war speeches stand as some of the most splendid phrases and sentiments in the English language.

Both Churchill and Twain lost their fathers. Twain's father, an attorney and judge, died when his son was 11; Lord Randolph Churchill when his son was 21.

Both men wed the one love of their lives: Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain married in Elmira, N.Y., in 1870; Clementine Hozier and Churchill married in 1908.

What happens when two such men — each powerful and unique in his own right — meet?

It was the evening of Dec. 12, 1900, in the Grand Ballroom of New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Churchill, a 26-year-old hero with several published books already to his credit, had come to tell of his adventures during the Boer War. Twain, now a seasoned 65, introduced him. After cleverly conversing about the politics of the day, the American icon said:

"Mr. Churchill will tell you about the war in South Africa, and he is competent — he fought and wrote through it himself. And he made a record there which would be a proud one for a man twice his age. By his father, he is English; by his mother, he is American. To my mind the blend which makes the perfect man. We are now on the friendliest terms with England. Mainly through my missionary efforts I suppose; and I am glad. We have always been kin: kin in blood, kin in religion, kin in representative government, kin in ideals, kin in just and lofty purposes; and now we are kin in sin(referring to the political scene), the harmony is complete, the blend is perfect, like Mr. Churchill himself ... "

Twain was warmly impressed, but Churchill was elated. Thirty years later he wrote: "Throughout my journeyings, I received the help of eminent Americans, and my opening lecture in New York was under the auspices of no less a personage than Mark Twain himself. I was thrilled by this famous companion of my youth. He was now very old and snow-white, and combined with a noble air a most delightful style of conversation ... He was good enough at my request to sign every one of 30 volumes of his works for my benefit; and in the first volume he inscribed the following maxim intended, I daresay, to convey a gentle admonition: ‘To do good is noble; to teach others to do good is nobler, and no trouble’" (see The Claremont Institute's "When Winston Churchill Met Mark Twain").

Churchill was named the greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 poll. He was the only British prime minister to receive the Nobel prize.

And of his own hero, Ernest Hemingway wrote of Twain in "The Green Hills of Africa": "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called '(Adventures of) Huckleberry Finn.'"

We merely touch here upon the overwhelming, really priceless, contributions of these two men. Let us honor, remember — and increase our best efforts to emulate what they have given us — and all that they represent.

And as an extra bit more to charm and delight us, here are a few quotations from each:

Mark Twain

"A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval."

"Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t."

"Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first."

"Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear."

Winston Churchill

"The price of greatness is responsibility."

"We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."

"For myself, I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use to be anything else."

"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it."

"Continuous effort — not strength or intelligence — is the key to unlocking our potential."

"To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often."

"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense."

"We are all worms — but I do believe I am a glow-worm!"

Sources:,, The Quotations Page

Susan Evans McCloud is author of more than 40 books and has published screenplays, a book of poetry and lyrics, including two songs in the LDS hymnbook. She has six children. She blogs at Email: