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“THE EARTH IS A GENEROUS MOTHER” – William Bourke Cockran: Churchill’s American Mentor

Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002

Page 14

By Curt J. Zoller

When young Winston Churchill traveled to New York in 1895 on his way to Cuba, he was greeted by William Bourke Cockran1, a New York lawyer, U.S. congressman, friend of his mother’s and of his American relatives. Clara Jerome,2 Jennie’s sister, was married to Moreton Frewen, the peripatetic “Mortal Ruin” who would commit all those typos in the editing of Churchill’s first book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. For many years Frewen had been a friend of Cockran, who would grow to become one of Winston Churchill’s lifelong inspirations.

Churchill later wrote of “the strong impression which this remarkable man made upon my untutored mind. I have never seen his like, or in some respects his equal. With his enormous head, gleaming eyes, flexible countenance, he looked uncommonly like a portrait of Charles James Fox. It was not my fortune to hear any of his orations but his conversations, in point, in pith, in rotundity, in antithesis, and in comprehension, exceeded anything I have ever heard.”3

William Bourke Cockran was born on 28 February 1854 in County Sligo, Connaught Province, Ireland. The family name was derived from the old Irish Corcoran or O’Corcorain.4 Bourke’s father Martin owned a large farm and had other business interests. His mother, Harriet, was from a distinguished and well-to-do family, descendants of John Bourke of Cahirmayle, County Limerick, who had lost all his property during the reign of William III.

The Cockrans had five children; Bourke was the third son. He attended the local school until the age of nine, when he was sent to France to study at the Institut des Petits Frères de Marie at Beauchamps, near Lille. A brilliant student, he had (like Churchill), an amazing gift to memorize and retain facts, and became (unlike Churchill) fluent in French. After five years at Beauchamps, Bourke returned home and was sent to St. Jarlath’s College in Athlone, Ireland where he won highest honors in Latin and Greek.

Having completed College, he went to Dublin and became interested in Law and Irish politics. Isaac Butt, a famous orator and advocate, who later founded the Home Rule Movement and was active in Irish politics in Britain, inspired Bourke to study law.

In 1871 at the age of 17, Cockran traveled to America. The United States was recovering from its Civil War, and Bourke, enjoying the excitement of New York City, decided to remain there permanently. New York in those days was run by the political machine of “Boss” Tweed and the Democratic Party.

For a while Bourke supported himself by teaching French, Latin and Greek at a private school where wealthy New York Catholics sent their daughters. Later he became principal at a public school at Tuckahoe, in Westchester County.

A famous justice of the New York Supreme Court, Abraham B. Tappan, further encouraged him to study law, and in 1876 Cockran was admitted to the Bar. He opened an office in Mount Vernon, New York, where he married Mary Jackson, a 22-year-old former student of his. Unfortunately she died in childbirth within a year. In 1888 Cockran married Rhoda Mack, the daughter of a prominent financier. But she died ten years later at the age of 31. His final marriage in 1906, was to Anne Ide, daughter of Judge Henry Clay Ide of Vermont.

Friends started a movement to send Cockran to Congress, and in October 1887 he was nominated for New York’s 12th Congressional District. Two months later he was elected by a large majority. When Cockran realized he could not simultaneously serve both his new business and his constituents he decided not to run for re-election, and during 1889-90 he concentrated on enlarging his law firm. That accomplished, he returned to Congress in 1891 for the 10th District, where he served in various capacities until March 1895.

In the spring of 1878 Bourke had moved back to New York City and had opened an office on lower Broadway. Gradually he developed a reputation as an outstanding orator, and was much in demand at political rallies. In 1880 he was sent by the Democratic National Committee to help deliver speeches supporting its candidates for New York governor and for Congress. He even spoke for Democrats in the Middle West. His famous saying was “Democracy is a faith; Republicanism an appetite.”5

In the autumn of 1883 Cockran had become a member of Tammany Hall, the key Democratic organization in New York. He continued to express independent opinions, however, and in 1884 had left Tammany over policy disagreements: the first of three separations.

Cockran’s reputation in the party grew through his support of causes like Free Trade and Irish Home Rule. But, as Richard Stovall comments, he “was above all else an orator. He chose the public platform as his communication channel and he used this channel to expound his views of those issues to which he was committed or believed important.”6 He was compared to Edmund Burke, the great English orator of the eighteenth century.

In his speeches Cockran demonstrated deep understanding of complex subjects and presented his material with emotion, deploying brilliant retorts, particularly when addressing hostile audiences. Audiences loved his tall, commanding figure, expressive features and authoritative voice. According to his biographer James McGurrin, “His skill in construction, in antithesis, in balancing periods, in leading up to the lofty climax which crowned the whole, was that of a finished literary craftsman.”7

By 1885 Cockran had achieved great success as a lawyer; his practice was growing. Among his clients were the American Tobacco Company, the International Steam Company, the New York Central Railroad, and Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The World. He was considered an authority on public utility law and was retained at various times by nearly every important gas and electric company in New York City.

In 1895 Cockran greeted Churchill in New York and put him up at his house. On November 2nd Churchill wrote to him from Havana:

We had a very comfortable journey which was entirely due to your kindness in getting us a state room. The food all along was execrable but the passage was good and the weather perfect. Early this morning a violent rain storm woke me up and I went on deck as soon as it cleared up. There, on our port under towering and stormy clouds, lay the shores of Cuba. We got into the harbour without incident and live in a convenient hotel….

We start tomorrow for Santa Clara where are rumours of great things doing. The route is by rail and an additional interest will be lent to it – by the fact that the insurgents do all they can to wreck the trains and occasionally succeed. As to our return, we propose to leave the island on Monday 16th prox. (three fronts a week in December). Can you get us a state room from here to New York ? If you can – will you ? I cannot tell you what a difference it made on our journey here and we shall be quite spoiled going back by the ordinary method.

I must reiterate my thanks to you for your kindness and courtesy in putting us up all the time we were in New York. We had many delightful conversations – and I learned much from you in a pleasant and interesting way. I hope in England to renew our discussions and though I can never repay you for your kindness I trust you will take the hospitality of the 4th Hussars ‘on account.’8

After returning to England Churchill had further observations on Cuba for his American friend:

I hope the United States will not force Spain to give up Cuba – unless you are prepared to accept responsibility for the results of such action. If the States care to take Cuba – though this would be very hard on Spain – it would be the best and most expedient course for both the island and the world in general. But I hold it a monstrous thing if you are going merely to procure the establishment of another South American Republic – which however degraded and irresponsible is to be backed in its action by the American people – without their maintaining any sort of control over its behaviour…I commend rather a good book to your notice, The Red Badge of Courage, a story of the Civil War. Believe me it is worth reading.9

Cockran frequently spoke out on behalf of the Cuban patriots struggling to free their country. In 1896, he spoke in commemoration of Cuban medical students who had been arrested, court-martialed and executed for allegedly picking a rose from a Spanish grave in 1871. The New York Times commented: “….when Mr. Cockran told the story of the murdered students many wept until they became almost hysterical….”10

When war broke out between the British and the Boers in 1899, a wave of anti-British fervor swept republican America. Cockran addressed pro-Boer meetings in New York, Chicago and Boston, receiving great publicity for his speech in Carnegie Hall on 12 October 1900, blaming Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary, and the Salisbury Government. He appealed to President William McKinley to intervene and stop the war. In a speech in Boston he blamed the English aristocracy, stating that the war was “a renewal of the old attempt by the governing class to undermine the institutions to which the English people have always been attached.”11

After attending a lecture by the pro-British Churchill, Cockran was accused of deserting the Boer cause. He put out a statement saying:

I cannot understand how anybody can regard my attendance at Mr. Churchill’s lecture as an evidence of sympathy with the British invasion of the Transvaal. I certainly have not changed in the slightest degree my belief that the South African war is the greatest violation of justice….12

Bourke Cockran would today be called a “maverick politician” because of his devotion to principle over party. In 1896 he bolted the Democrats for Republican presidential candidate William McKinley, in support of the Gold Standard. In July 1900 he rejoined the Democrats, only to bolt again, for Bull Moose insurgent Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Tammany Hall evicted him twice. If Churchill later mastered the practice of “re-ratting,” Cockran set the standard by re-re-ratting!

His native Ireland was one of Cockran’s great passions, and he was a strong advocate of Irish Home Rule. Speaking as an American, he considered it an international issue affecting the peace of the world. He endorsed Gladstone’s 1893 Home Rule Bill, speaking in words which Churchill undoubtedly filed away for future use: “Never before in the history of the English speaking people has there been a victory which was so great a triumph as that attained by Mr. Gladstone.”13

In London, the Irish Parliamentary Party praised Cockran’s efforts, and held a banquet in his honor in the Members’ Dining Room in June 1903. A well-known M.P ., author and journalist T. P . O’Connor, claimed that it was Cockran who kept after Churchill to support Home Rule.14 The two corresponded regularly on the subject. From Churchill’s letter of 12 April 1896:

Now to turn to your speech. It is one of the finest I have ever read. You are indeed an orator. And of all the gifts there is none so rare or so precious as that. Of course my dear Cockran – you will understand that we approach the subject from different points of view and that your views on Ireland could never coincide with mine. Finally, let me say that when I read your speech I thought that Ireland had not suffered in vain – since her woes have provided a subject for your eloquence.15

Cockran responded: “I was so profoundly impressed with the vigor of your language and the breadth of your views as I read your criticisms of my speech that I conceived a very high opinion of your future career, and what I have said here is largely based on my own experience.”16

By 1903 Churchill and his American mentor were heavily engaged over Free Trade, an issue close to both their hearts. But in his letter of 12 December 1903, Churchill showed he was not quite ready to follow Cockran’s lead and switch parties:

I was glad to get your letter and also to read in the Democratic Campaign Guide of Massachusetts your excellent Free Trade speech. We are fighting very hard here, but I think on the whole, the outlook is encouraging. I believe that Chamberlain will be defeated at the General Election by an overwhelming majority. What will happen to the Free Trade Unionists by whose exertions this result will have been largely attained is quite another matter, for I regret to say that the Liberal party think a great deal more of winning a seat here and there by destroying a Unionist Free Trader than for the principles for which we are fighting in common. I do not think people like Lord Hugh Cecil and myself will be shut out of Parliament. The freedom which we possess here, of standing in any constituency, enables those who are well known and looked upon as permanent politicians to find another road back [to] the House of Commons when one particular constituency rejects them. But I fear the rank and file of our small party will suffer terribly many of them being altogether extinguished and ending their public life once and for all….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 – you to attack protection, we to defend Free Trade. I think what the double victory would mean for the wealth and welfare of the world.17

On 22 April 1904 Churchill spoke on the Trade Union and Trade Disputes Bill. Towards the end “he hesitated, having lost the thread of his argument, and stopped speaking. He seemed confused and began to fumble for notes which might have prompted him. Having not found what he wanted he abruptly sat down and covered his face with his hands, muttering, ‘I thank the honourable members for having listened to me.’”18

In a letter to Cockran five weeks later Churchill explained what had occurred—and provided Cockran with a great compliment:

You need not be worried by my losing my thread in a speech some weeks ago. The slip was purely mechanical, and was due to my style of preparation, which as you know, is very elaborate. I had reached the very last sentence in my speech, and as the concluding phrases were not in the nature of argument but of rhetoric, when my memory failed me….I shall look forward immensley [sic] to having some long talks with you. You are in some measure responsible for the mould in which my political thought has been largely cast, and for the course which I have adopted on these great questions of Free Trade….Whether American competition would not become much more formidable…I do not now examine….”19

Churchill had hoped to come to America for the 1904 Democratic Convention. He was forced to cancel in July, but in a rare declaration to a citizen of another country he told Cockran he considered himself a “Democrat as far as American politics are concerned. I beg you to send me as much of your political literature as you can.”20

Through his cousin, Shane Leslie, Churchill wrote to Cockran in 1906: “Tell him that while our political views on the Irish question differ, I regard his as the biggest and most original mind I have ever met. When I was a young man he instantly gained my confidence and I feel that I owe the best things in my career to him.”21

A highlight of Bourke Cockran’s later years was his defense of labor leader Tom Mooney, who was accused of participation in a bomb plot during a Preparedness Day Parade in July 1906. Mooney was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Since the others accused were acquitted, President Wilson appointed an investigatory commission which in 1918 reported that the trial had been unfair owing to perjured testimony. Cockran spoke all over the country in support of a new trial, even carried his plea to the White House; yet Mooney remained in prison. Five California governors refused to review the decision, as did the Supreme Court of the United States. Mooney was not released until Governor Olsen gave him an unconditional pardon in 1939.

In 1919 Cockran returned to Tammany for good. He supported Al Smith at the Presidential Convention of 1920, was nominated to represent New York’s 16th Congressional District, and again took his seat in the House of Representatives on 4 March 1921. Two years later on March 1st, 1923, he spoke in the House against the Rural Credit Bill, and then went to dinner with friends to celebrate his 69th birthday. Two hours after the dinner he died of a brain hemorrhage.

Churchill often used Bourke Cockran’s phrases in his own speeches, and in his famous “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri in 1946, Churchill paid his American mentor due credit:

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 peace.”22


The indicated Churchill and Cockran letters are courtesy of the New York Public Library (citation below). Other letters are courtesy of the Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge, England.

Churchill, Randolph S., Winston S. Churchill, vol. I Youth, 1874-1900; vol. II,Young Statesman, 1901-1914 and the relevant Companion Volumes, London: Heinemann, 1966, 1967.

Churchill, Winston S., Thoughts and Adventures, London: Thornton Butterworth Ltd., 1932.

Cockran, William Bourke, In the Name of Liberty. Selected addresses by William Bourke Cockran, William Bourke Cockran Papers, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation, New York City.

Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform, New York: Vantage Books, 1955.

Kennedy, Ambrose, American Orator/Bourke Cockran/His Life and Politics, Boston: Humphries, 1948.

McGurrin, James, Bourke Cockran/A Free Lance in American Politics, New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1948.

Martin, Ralph G., Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, vol. 2, The Dramatic Years, 1895-1921, New York: Signet, 1971.

Rhodes James, Robert, Winston Churchill. His Complete Speeches, 1897-1963, 8 vols., New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1974.

Stovall, Richard Lee, “The Rhetoric of Bourke Cockran: A Contextual Analysis.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, 1975.


1. Martin, Jennie, vol. 2, 37-38.

2. Stovall, “The Rhetoric of Bourke Cockran,” xxvi.

3. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures, 52.

4. McGurrin, Bourke Cockran, 3.

5. Ibid., 47.

6. Stovall, 47.

7. McGurrin, 74

8. William Bourke Cockran Papers. (Letter not in the Churchill official biography.)

9. Ibid.

10. The New York Times, 28 November 1896.

11. McGurrin, 199-200.

12. The New York Times, 15 December 1900.

13. The New York Times, 27 March 1893.

14. McGurrin, 232.

15. WSC to Cockran, 12 April 1896, William Bourke Cockran Papers.

16. Cockran to WSC, 27 April 1896, Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.

17. WSC to Cockran, 12 December 1903, William Bourke Cockran Papers.

18. Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, vol. I, Young Statesman 1901-191, 79.

19. WSC to Cockran, 31 May 1904, Cockran Papers. (Letter not in the Churchill official biography.)

20. WSC to Cockran, 16 July 1904, Cockran Papers. (Letter not in the Churchill official biography.)

21. McGurrin, 232.

22. Rhodes James, Complete Speeches, VII, 7288.

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