AMAC Exclusive by Herald Boas
Three titanic figures from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries have something remarkable in common: they each changed history in important ways before they ever became famous and then changed history again!
George Washington did so at 22 years old; Napoleon Bonaparte at 26; and Winston Churchill at 39. Each of them would be remembered today for those key historical actions even if they had not lived longer, although their earlier exploits have now been mostly forgotten.
In 1755, Lt. Colonel George Washington, commanding a British colonial force, mistakenly ambushed a small French diplomatic mission near what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing the leader of the mission and several French soldiers — and inadvertently started the French and Indian War. This conflict in turn grew into the Seven Years War on the European continent and its worldwide colonies. In effect, the young Washington started the first global war, a distinction overshadowed by his role decades later as commanding general of the Continental Army during the American revolution, and then as the first U.S. president and the “father” of our nation. His choice to spurn becoming king, and to retire voluntarily from power after two presidential terms, made him a globally admired figure.
In 1795, an obscure Corsican French Army officer was hurriedly placed in charge of defending the Directorate, or government of the recent French Revolution, from a serious attack by royalists seeking to restore the monarchy. His brilliant strategy saved the revolution, changed European history forever, and made the young officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, a famous figure. Paradoxically, the same officer overthrew the same Directorate several years later, becoming First Consul, and then declared himself emperor. Napoleon’s subsequent military campaigns then changed the map of Europe—and North America, too, after he sold the huge Louisiana territory to the United States. Although he was defeated in 1815 and exiled—and the old French monarchy was briefly restored—Napoleon remained the dominant global figure of the 19th century.
Winston Churchill was always a precocious figure, born in a prominent aristocratic family, who in his youth joined the Army at 20, then went to India, Cuba, and the Second Boer War in South Africa as a journalist, escaped as a prisoner of war from a Boer military prison, wrote books, and became a member of the British Parliament—all before he was 25 years old. In 1911, he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, putting him in charge of the world’s largest fleet of military ships just before World War I. Challenged by Germany for naval supremacy, Churchill set about to modernize and expand the British fleet. In 1913 he made a fateful decision—he ordered that all new ships had to have oil-burning engines instead of coal-burning engines.
This action not only revolutionized shipping, shipbuilding, and global naval strategy, it almost overnight transformed the oil industry, founded in 1851 with the discovery of oil in northwestern Pennsylvania, into the gigantic business which eventually enriched much of the Middle East, Texas, and other global locations where oil was found.
After a military disaster at Gallipoli, for which Churchill was blamed, his public career temporarily declined. He remained in Parliament, becoming in the 1930s a lonely voice warning of the danger and serious threat of Hitler and Nazism. When war broke out in 1939, he was reappointed First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1940, he became prime minister. After Hitler conquered most of continental Europe, Churchill almost singlehandedly rallied the British people facing Nazi nightly bombing and imminent German invasion, and became regarded as one the greatest democratic figures of the century.
Churchill lost the 1945 election, prior to the end of World War II. He retired to paint and write more books, and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. He became prime minister again in 1951. Having presciently warned of Nazism in the 1930s, by the 1950s he was warning of communism’s “iron curtain.”
Washington, Napoleon, and Churchill: three huge figures who changed history in their mature years, each made an indelible mark in their youth. It’s one of history’s most curious stories.
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