On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill was giving a speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri titled The Sinews of Peace, better known as the “Iron Curtain” speech. During this, one of his greatest speeches, he said, “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” (Glueckstein). It was Irish-American politician William Bourke Cockran (1854-1923) who had taught him the skills he needed to become a leader on the world stage.
Born in Silgo, Ireland, Cockran proved tremendously intellectually gifted, excelling at memorizing and understanding information as well as becoming fluent in French, Greek, and Latin. In 1871, at the age of 17, Cockran visited New York City and loved the city so much he decided to stay there.
Wanting to be influential in New York City as an attorney, he joined the Tammany Hall machine in 1883 only to leave the following year over policy disagreements. As Tammany district boss George Washington Plunkitt said of him, “…I’ll admit he’s a grand gentleman and the greatest orator in the land, but take it from me, he’s not a dependable politician. He calls himself a Democrat but his heart was never in Tammany Hall. One look at him will tell you that he’s as much of an aristocrat as old Lord Salisbury himself. He wouldn’t lower his dignity to mix with the boys who work late and early to keep the organization going; and while he was in Congress he never darkened the door of a Tammany clubhouse” (Stovall, 17). He could best be described as a Bourbon Democrat in his politics, sometimes conservative and sometimes liberal. Indeed, his lifetime MC-Index score is 54%. In 1886 he won election to Congress but didn’t stay long as he found he couldn’t run his law firm while effectively serving his constituents. After growing his practice, he returned to Congress, serving from 1891 to 1895. Cockran became renowned as the most impressive orator of his day. An example of his style comes from his speech to the Liberal Club in London on July 15, 1903: “As I speak, men are tending flocks on Australian fields and shearing wool which will clothe you during the coming winter. On western lands, men are reaping grain to supply your daily bread. In mines deep underground, men are swinging pickaxes and shovels to wrest from the bosom of the Earth the ores essential to the efficiency of your industry. Under tropical skies, hands are gathering, from bending boughs, luscious fruits which in a few days will be offered for your consumption in the streets of London” (Leggett, 5). Although Cockran had spoken against nominating Grover Cleveland a third time in 1892, he nonetheless proved supportive of his policies, particularly the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.
In 1895, he traveled to Paris in mourning over the death of his second wife and in the process, met and started a relationship with the recently widowed Jennie Churchill, and through her met her son Winston. He saw great potential in young Winston, who he mentored in the art of oration as well as politics. He advised him, “One should avoid scurrility, affections and cant, what people want to hear is the truth—it is the exciting thing…speak the simple truth” (Glueckstein). Cockran would have many discussions over brandy and cigars with Churchill on politics and all sorts of other matters. In 1896, Cockran was unable to stomach Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan’s support of free silver and thus he supported William McKinley. During the McKinley era he backed intervention to free Cuba from Spanish rule, but disapproved of the imperialist acquisitions resulting from the war. Cockran also supported freeing the Boers of South Africa from British rule.
In 1900 he returned to the Democratic fold, backing Bryan as he opposed American imperialism. That year, Cockran delivered a speech before the Race Conference in Montgomery, Alabama, in which he called for the repeal of the Fifteenth Amendment as he regarded it as unenforceable and “lauded the Southern people in their generosity to the colored race” (Louisiana House of Representatives, 302). Yet, he also supported women’s suffrage. Although on some issues, such as his support for the gold standard and his staunch opposition to socialism, Cockran was conservative, he proved liberal on others, such as his lifelong opposition to the death penalty, his support for limiting campaign contributions to $50 (not adjusted for inflation), and his opposition to compulsory arbitration in labor disputes, the latter he viewed as too favorable to business in practice. In 1904, he returned to Congress, serving until 1909. In 1912, Cockran again declined to endorse the Democrat, instead backing Theodore Roosevelt as he supported his type of moderate progressivism. Like Roosevelt, he also backed military preparedness as war raged in Europe despite his pacifistic views. In 1918, Cockran managed to appeal a death sentence for Tom Mooney, a socialist labor activist accused of murdering five people with a bomb on a July 22, 1916 Preparedness Day Parade, resulting in President Wilson commuting it to life imprisonment. His trial had been conducted in a lynch mob atmosphere and there were allegations that the San Francisco District Attorney, Charles Fickert, had coached witnesses.
In 1920, Cockran again was elected to Congress, where he largely opposed the Harding Administration. In 1922, he notably changed his tune on race, speaking in favor of and voting for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Although Cockran had won reelection in 1922, he died of a stroke on March 1, 1923, three days before the next Congress. Former Speaker Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) eulogized him, regarding him as “…one of the most brilliant ornaments of statesmanship. His great speeches made us think of Burke, Sheridan and Fox in England and of our own Webster, Clay and Calhoun” (Stovall, 22). Winston Churchill wrote of his mentor in the 1930s that he was “A pacifist, individualist, democrat, capitalist, and a ‘Gold-bug’…He was equally opposed to socialists, inflationists, and Protectionists, and he resisted them on all occasions” (Roberts, 35). Cockran never reached the political heights of Churchill as he was far too independent in thought to even think of running for president, but that a seemingly obscure representative could bear so much influence on one of history’s greatest leaders its nothing short of astonishing to me.
Glueckstein, F. (2016, February 24). Great Contemporaries: William Bourke Cockran. The Churchill Project.
Leggett, B. (2011, September 30). Bourke Cockran: a model for Winston Churchill’s Wartime Oratory. IESE Business School University of Navarra.
Official Journal of the Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the State of Louisiana. (1900).
Roberts, A. (2018). Churchill: Walking with destiny. New York, NY: Viking Books.
Stovall, R.L. (1975). The Rhetoric of Bourke Cockran: A Contextual Analysis Dissertation. Ohio State University.