Winston Churchill learned to appreciate a good cigar, free trade, and fine oratory from an Irish-American orator who was his mother’s lover—and believed in young Winston more than his own father ever did.
The Oscar-nominated movie Darkest Hour, though compelling, misleads on this part of the British Bulldog’s biography. Winston Churchill never needed to wander around wartime London seeking his muse. He had found him 45 years earlier in Gay Nineties’ Manhattan.
Actually, Churchill was only one of many of W. Bourke Cockran’s seductions—and fans. When this Irish immigrant turned super-lawyer, spellbinder, and legislator died suddenly in Washington in March, 1923, two hours after a dinner celebrating his 69th birthday, the nationwide mourning had nothing to do with Churchill, who was by then a political has-been. Cockran’s mentorship of Churchill offers a relevant epilogue to a rich all-American life that dazzled turn-of-the-century Americans with colorful prose and crystal-clear logic delivered theatrically in a resonant Irish brogue.
Great political oratory must compel and entertain, entrancing the crowd. It must instruct and command, propelling the crowd. And long after the applause, even the listeners, have died, some phrases must be memorable, transcending the crowd. Cockran consistently delivered all three.
It’s fitting that a great American orator, post-Daniel Webster and pre-Franklin Roosevelt, was Irish. So many born on the Emerald Isle master English and melodrama as first languages. Holding an audience in these pre-radio days required grandeur not intimacy, pathos more than humor, bombast rather than empathy. The Irish-American actor Barney Williams described Irish melodramas as “full of poetry and romance, for there never was an Irish play written where virtue was not rewarded, vice punished, and heroism, in some phase or other, exhibited.”
This formula turned William Bourke Cockran’s political speeches into morality plays, while Cockran’s charisma made every interaction with him epic. “When he entered a room, it was like someone turning on the electric light,” the Anglo-Irish politician, Sir Horace Plunkett, gushed.
Cockran was born on February 28, 1854, into a well-off Sligo County family. He received classical and Catholic training in France, mastered Latin and Greek at St. Jarlath’s College in Athlone, Ireland, then studied law in Dublin.
A trip to America in 1871, dazzled and derailed him. Studying law there earned him admission to the bar within five years. He soon married his first wife. He would be widowed twice—marrying the wife who outlived him in 1906.
As with matrimony, he was in and out of Congress starting in 1888, retiring three times and serving seven terms overall. This revolving door benefited his law practice—which had him averaging $100,000 annually, $2.5 million today.
Cockran was a loyal Democrat—except when he wasn’t. Believing “Democracy is a faith; Republicanism is an appetite,” he detested the rival party—but his soul was too grand to be tamed by partisan loyalty. In 1892, this contrarian enjoyed delivering a passionate convention speech defying the Democratic National Convention and opposing Grover Cleveland’s third presidential nomination.
Entertaining even those who wished to throttle him, Cockran acknowledged the ex-President’s “extraordinary popularity. After all, Cleveland lost in the Electoral College in 1888 despite winning 94,530 more votes than Benjamin Harrison. But, Cockran smirked, Cleveland was so popular “every day in the year, except one, and that is election day… It is a popularity based upon the fact that his opponents speak well of him, but will not vote for him. So it is delusive. It may “arouse enthusiasm four months before election,” but produces “disappointment for four years after election.”
Four years later, Cockran abandoned the Democrats, too responsible a lawyer to stomach William Jennings Bryan’s demagogic Silver Crusade to expand the currency by subverting the Gold Standard. “In a contest for the existence of civilization, no man can remain neutral,” Cockran said portentously. “Whoever does not support the forces of order aids the forces of disorder.” Years later, he quipped: “Because” Bryan “was sincerely wrong, he forced the Republican politicians to become insincerely right.”
Nevertheless, when Democrats renominated Bryan in 1900, Cockran endorsed Bryan. The money question was settled, Cockran reasoned, and Republicans’ imperialism now threatened the Republic. Although other Gold Standard Democrats detested Bryan, Cockran opposed escaping into a third party. That’s like abstaining, he sneered, and “abstention from civic duty is never commendable. When the Republic is in danger, the only place for the patriot is in the ranks of its active defenders. Absence from the field of contest or shooting in the air can never be justified.” Bryan lost—but, with Cockran’s endorsement, won New York City by almost 30,000 votes after losing it by more than 60,000 in 1896.
Cockran’s most remembered line is not because he delivered it so brilliantly but because his protégé Winston Churchill did. In March, 1946, 23 years after Cockran’s death, the recently unseated British statesman flew to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Before proclaiming that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent,” Churchill denounced “War and Tyranny.” Turning to “poverty and privation” Churchill declared: “I have often used words which I learned fifty years ago from a great Irish-American orator, a friend of mine, Mr. Bourke Cockran. ‘There is enough for all. The earth is a generous mother; she will provide in plentiful abundance food for all her children if they will but cultivate her soil in justice and in peace.’”
At a low moment late in his life, Churchill hailed a now-obscure mentor who had stepped in at another low moment, shortly after his father’s death in 1895. Cockran and Winston’s widowed mother had a fling in Paris that spring. That November, the already-accomplished 41-year-old Irish-American hosted the drifting 20-year-old Brit extravagantly.
Beyond developing his cigar habit at Cockran’s home on Fifth Avenue and 58th Street, Churchill long marveled at “the strong impression which this remarkable man made upon my untutored mind. I have never seen his like, or in some respects his equal.” In this week-long host-a-thon that launched a mutually adoring correspondence, Churchill said Cockran’s “conversations, in point, in pith, in rotundity, in antithesis, and in comprehension, exceeded anything I have ever heard.”
Churchill absorbed Cockran’s sympathy for the underprivileged, which had led Cockran to proclaim in 1894: “I demand now, as I have always demanded, one citizenship, one country, one law, one Democratic faith, one common plane of equality for all people, without distinction of wealth, of birth, of race, or of creed. Churchill absorbed Cockran’s faith in democracy, both believing: “In a society where there is democratic tolerance and freedom under law, many kinds of evils will crop up, but give them a little time and they usually breed their own cure.”
This democratic egalitarianism also made Cockran Churchill’s Free Trade guru. “I wish you would send some good Free Trade speeches that have been made in America,” Churchill would write Cockran. Cockran was fighting “protection,” high tariffs he and his fellow Democrats feared unfairly burdened America’s workers by quashing competition and boosting prices arbitrarily – by as much as fifty percent. Churchill fought to keep trade flowing – and in 1904 bolted the Tory Party over the issue. “It is rather an inspiring reflection to think that so many of us on both sides of the Atlantic are fighting in a common cause….” Churchill would write Cockran. “I think what the double victory would mean for the wealth and welfare of the world.”
Visiting London in 1903, Cockran proclaimed: “Since Government of itself can create nothing, it can have nothing of its own to bestow on anybody… If it undertakes to enrich one man, the thing which it gives to him it must take from some other man.” Four months later in Birmingham, Churchill insisted: “Governments create nothing and have nothing to give but what they first have taken away—you may put money in the pocket of one set of Englishmen, but it will be money taken from the pockets of another set of Englishmen….”
Hal Gordon, a Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, explains that Churchill wasn’t plagiarizing—he missed Cockran’s speech. The similarity proves that, as Churchill would write Cockran, “you have powerfully influenced me in the political conceptions I have formed.…”
Cockran tutored Churchill on style not just substance. Churchill followed Cockran’s two lodestars in public speaking: “first, speak the truth,” then “Make one simple bold point and keep pounding on it with many illustrations and examples.”
In 1965, shortly before both died, Adlai Stevenson, no speaking slouch, asked Churchill who his oratorical gold standard was. “It was an American statesman who inspired me and taught me how to use every note of the human voice like an organ,” Churchill acknowledged. “He was my model. I learned from him how to hold thousands in thrall.” Stevenson seemed unaware of Cockran.
Worshipped in his time as “the greatest orator using the English language today,” in the words of President William Howard Taft, Bourke Cockran today lies forgotten. Serving as a diverting Irish-American footnote to Churchilliacs represents a steep fall. But great orators are like great stage actors: their power lives in their live performances. It’s only when great oratory boosts significant policy, when deeds not words dominate, that speechmakers become history-shapers like Churchill, and thus truly memorable.
FOR FURTHER READING
James McGurrin, Bourke Cockran: A Free Lance in American Politics, 2012.
Martin Gilbert, Churchill and America, 2005.
Michael McMenamin, Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and His American Mentor, 2009.