Cockran: A Great Contemporary

Cockran: A Great Contemporary

Q: How impor­tant was Con­gress­man Bourke Cockran’s influ­ence on the young Churchill? 

William Bourke Cock­ran, 1854-1923. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

A: Very. The late Curt Zoller was the first to write in depth about Bourke Cock­ran. This man played a vital but lit­tle under­stood role in form­ing young Churchill’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy. In 1895, Zoller wrote, when young Churchill trav­eled to New York on his way to Cuba,

…he was greet­ed by William Bourke Cock­ran, a New York lawyer, U.S. con­gress­man, friend of his mother’s and of his Amer­i­can rel­a­tives. Winston’s Aunt Clara was mar­ried to More­ton Frewen. (The peri­patet­ic “Mor­tal Ruin” would lat­er bad­ly edit Churchill’s first book, 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.”

Cockran’s Influence

CockranThe New York con­gress­man, there­fore, was cru­cial­ly impor­tant. Churchill based much of his domes­tic polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, par­tic­u­lar­ly his life­long belief in Free Trade, on Cockran’s think­ing. Thanks to Churchill’s his capa­cious mem­o­ry, he was still quot­ing Cockran’s famous line, “the earth is a gen­er­ous moth­er,” forty years lat­er. In the 1950s, Churchill told Adlai Steven­son, Demo­c­rat nom­i­nee for Pres­i­dent  in 1952 and 1956, that his mod­el was a Demo­c­rat con­gress­man. Steven­son had to be remind­ed of who Cock­ran was.


In 2007 Curt Zoller teamed with Michael McMe­namin to write Becom­ing Win­ston Churchill: The Untold Sto­ry of Young Win­ston and his Amer­i­can Men­tor. This excel­lent book is well worth a read, thor­ough and accu­rate. 

Recent­ly a Churchill author named 1899 as the pin­na­cle of young Winston’s devel­op­ment. Per­haps, but 1895 was far more influ­en­tial. I always like to quote the elo­quent Robert Pilpel, author of Churchill in Amer­i­ca (1977):

We can nev­er know for cer­tain how a per­son would have devel­oped if one or anoth­er aspect of his life had been dif­fer­ent. But what is clear with regard to Churchill—as his let­ters at the time and his writ­ings in lat­er years attest—is that a life which before 1895 seemed des­tined to yield a nar­row range of skimpy achieve­ments became from 1895 onwards a life of glo­ri­ous epit­o­mes and stun­ning vindications.

Cred­it Bourke Cock­ran, New York’s over­flow­ing hos­pi­tal­i­ty, the rail­road jour­ney to Tam­pa and back, or the ram­pant vital­i­ty of a nation out­grow­ing itself day by day. Cred­it what­ev­er you will, but do not doubt that Winston’s expo­sure to his mother’s home­land struck a spark in his spir­it. And it was this spark that illu­mi­nat­ed the long and ardu­ous road that would take him through tri­umphs and tragedies to his ren­dezvous with greatness.

One thought on “Cockran: A Great Contemporary

  1. Won­der­ful. I don’t think there is any doubt that Churchill felt in his bones that Britain would nev­er be alone and that the strength and good­ness of the USA would always be there, as it were in reserve, to anchor the Eng­lish-speak­ing peoples.

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