Winston Churchill was once asked on whom or on what he had based his oratorical style. He replied—and I quote—“It was an American statesman who inspired me and taught me how to use every note of the human voice like an organ … He was my model. I learned from him how to hold thousands in thrall.” End quote.
The statesman to whom Churchill referred was in fact an Irish-American statesman named William Bourke Cockran.
You’ve never heard of him, right? Nor have most people. He’s been almost completely forgotten. And yet without him, Churchill might never have acquired the soaring rhetorical power he needed to sustain the British people through their darkest hours.
Cockran was born in Ireland in 1854, but emigrated to America at age 17. He settled in New York.
There, he became a successful lawyer, a member of the U.S. Congress, and a friend and confidant of some of the leading men of the time; men like inventor Thomas Edison, publisher Joseph Pulitzer, writer Mark Twain and Presidents Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt.
He also became known as America’s greatest living orator.
But how did this man become the model for Winston Churchill?
In the spring of 1895, Cockran visited Paris. There, he met the beautiful and vivacious widow of an English lord. The widow was Jennie Churchill, widow of Lord Randolph Churchill and mother of Winston.
Cockran and Jennie were instantly drawn to each other. They had a brief but torrid love affair. And though they ceased to be lovers, they would remain devoted friends until Jennie died in 1921.
Some months after Cockran returned home from Paris, he heard from Jennie. Her son Winston—then 20 years old—was making his first trip to America. Would Cockran please host the young scamp when he passed through New York?
Cockran was then 41 and a widower. He had always wanted a son of his own. It was natural that he would have fatherly feelings towards the son of his beloved Jennie. And young Winston, who had just lost his own father, certainly needed a father figure at that time in his life.
I wonder: Is it possible for us to clear our minds, even for a few moments, of all we know of Churchill the great man, and imagine him as he was at 20, when he first met Cockran?
In 1895, Churchill was a newly-minted subaltern, just out of Sandhurst. He was short, lean, brash and athletic, with a full head of copper-colored hair. Up to that time, he had shown few signs of his future greatness. He excelled at subjects that engaged his interest, and funked those that bored him.
During one of young Winston’s rare conversations with his father, Lord Randolph asked him what he knew about the Grand Remonstrance—Parliament’s challenge to King Charles I in 1641.
After some hesitation, Winston replied, “In the end, Parliament beat the King and cut his head off. This seemed to me the grandest remonstrance imaginable.”
Lord Randolph was not amused. He would regularly send his son severe letters, chiding him for his “total want of application.” But these parental admonitions seem to have had little effect on young Winston’s restless spirit or his cocky self-assurance.
In short, when Churchill met Cockran, he rather resembled another thoroughly exasperating young man, a character from a play by Bernard Shaw: “He knows nothing; and thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”
Nevertheless, Cockran saw in Churchill the potential that even his nearest and dearest had missed. Churchill’s son Randolph, in his massive biography of his father, said this about young Winston’s first meeting with Cockran:
“Bourke Cockran must certainly have been a man of profound discernment and judgment of character. As far as we know, he was the first man or woman Churchill met on level terms who really saw his point and his potentialities… Cockran in some ways fulfilled a role that Lord Randolph should have filled if he had survived.”
Churchill was Cockran’s guest for a week early in November of 1895. According to Churchill, they had “great discussions on every conceivable subject from economics to yacht racing.”
They found that they had certain principles in common. One was a passionate love of liberty.
Because they loved liberty, Churchill and Cockran believed in free trade.
Free trade would be crucial to Churchill’s career after he was elected to parliament in 1900. When Churchill met Cockran, Britain had free trade, but there were prominent Tories who wanted to make the British Empire a self-contained, closed market.
Churchill would leave the Tory Party over this issue in 1904. He would return, twenty years later, only when the Tories themselves had returned to free trade.
America at that time had staggeringly high tariffs—nearly 50 percent on average. Tariffs were favored by the Republicans, who represented manufacturing and moneyed interests, and were opposed by Democrats like Cockran, who represented the farmers and the workers.
Churchill and Cockran were free traders for similar reasons; chief among them was the fact that free trade meant lower prices for the working poor.
How much influence did Cockran have on Churchill’s free trade stand?
Let me quote from a major speech that Cockran delivered at the National Liberal Club in London on July 15, 1903. Cockran said: “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.”
Now let me quote from a speech that Churchill gave in Birmingham just four months later.
Churchill said: “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…”
Was Churchill “plagiarizing” Cockran? No. Churchill had not been present at Cockran’s Liberal Club speech and Cockran did not send him the text until after Churchill had spoken in Birmingham. But the striking similarity between their two speeches demonstrates just how deeply Churchill had absorbed Cockran’s arguments.
Churchill left the Tories for the Liberals at the end of May the following year. Shortly afterwards he wrote to Cockran. “I beg you,” he said, “to send me as much of your political literature as you can—particularly your own speeches. As I have told you before you have powerfully influenced me in the political conceptions I have formed…”
So Churchill wanted Cockran’s speeches. What else did he get from Cockran? How, exactly, did Cockran help Churchill become one of the greatest orators of all time?
For one thing, Cockran introduced Churchill to his own favorite orator—the great Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke. Cockran told Churchill that Burke “mastered the English language as a man masters a horse.”
Burke was also a man of wide learning. Churchill’s own education had been spotty. In 1896, about a year after meeting Cockran, Churchill was posted to India. There, he spent much of his free time trying to fill the gaps in his knowledge by extensive reading. And Cockran advised him on what to read. One biographer has determined that nearly every book that Churchill read in India could be found in Cockran’s own considerable library in New York.
What about rhetorical devices?
Cockran told Churchill that the key to making a speech or addressing a jury was this: “Make one simple bold point and keep pounding on it with many illustrations and examples.”
Churchill would repeat this admonition throughout his own career. Once, he said a speech was like a symphony; it could have three movements but must have one dominant theme.
And he would pass on this advice of Cockran’s to other young, up-and-coming parliamentarians who were struggling to find their own voices. When Harold Macmillan, the future prime minister, gave his first speech to the House of Commons in 1923, he asked Churchill for his opinion.
Churchill replied, ”Harold, everyone in the gallery is saying, ‘Young Macmillan’s giving his maiden address.’ Then they ask, ‘What’s it about?’ And Harold, no one can say in one sentence what the speech is about, and if you can’t say in one sentence what the speech is about, it is not worth giving.”
What else did Churchill learn from Cockran?
We get some strong hints from an unpublished essay that Churchill wrote in 1897. He called it, “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric.”
The essay begins: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king. He is an independent force in the world. Abandoned by his party, betrayed by his friends, stripped of his offices, whoever can command this power is still formidable.”
When we read that passage today, we think immediately of Churchill himself—Churchill during the so-called “Wilderness Years” leading up to World War II. Churchill was out of office—shunned, belittled and widely regarded as finished. Yet by the sheer power of his rhetoric, he was able to awaken his countrymen to the Nazi threat and, ultimately, to become prime minister.
Yes, today we think of Churchill. But who was Churchill thinking of when he wrote those words in 1897?
The previous year, 1896, had seen one of the most dramatic and fiercely-contested presidential elections in American history.
The crux of the campaign was the gold standard. The Republicans were for the gold standard and monetary stability. The Democrats wanted a gold and silver standard—cheaper dollars, easy money, inflation.
The Democrats had nominated a little-known, 37-year-old former congressman named William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a spellbinding orator. He is still remembered for the white-hot convention speech that won him the nomination: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
Byran’s incendiary rhetoric ignited a political prairie fire; he had a real chance of becoming president. And he might have made it, but for the intervention of the one politician in America who could out-talk him: William Bourke Cockran.
Cockran was a gold-standard Democrat. He opposed cheapening the currency for the same reason that he opposed tariffs. Both meant higher prices for working people, while their wages would stay the same.
Cockran undertook a nationwide speaking tour on behalf of the Republican candidate, William McKinley. When McKinley was elected, Cockran was called the “Warwick of the Democratic Party”—after Warwick the Kingmaker in medieval England. He was truly “an independent force in the world”—a man who could make and unmake presidents by the force of his eloquence.
Churchill took note. He followed Cockran’s speaking tour, writing to him, “please send me press cuttings of your speeches.”
Churchill says much more in “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” and Cockran’s influence is evident throughout.
Churchill talks about oratory on the grand scale. He talks about correctness of diction—the importance of using the best possible word.
He talks about rhythm—the use of “long, rolling and sonorous” sentences to appeal to the ears of the audience.
He talks about the accumulation of argument; he says that “The climax of oratory is reached by a rapid succession of waves of sound and vivid pictures.” And he notes the “tendency to wild extravagance of language” that is evident in most perorations.
All of this he would have observed in Cockran.
I’ll give you just one example. I’ve already mentioned Cockran’s speech to the Liberal Club in 1903. In this speech, Cockran moves to his conclusion with this full-throated aria extolling the blessings that accrue to Britain from free trade:
“At this moment, in every quarter of the globe, forces are at work to supply your necessities and improve your condition.
“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, dusky hands are gathering, from bending boughs, luscious fruits which in a few days will be offered for your consumption in the streets of London.
Now don’t those rolling sentences remind you of Churchill?
But in “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” Churchill also talks about simplicity, intimacy and sincerity. He says that a speaker, wherever possible, should employ “short, homely words of common usage.”
He talks about how a speaker can persuade by means of analogy … an apt analogy, he says, “appeals to the everyday knowledge of the hearer.”
And he talks about the importance of sincerity. For an orator to convince others, says Churchill, “he must himself believe.”
Here, let me note another bit of advice that Cockran gave Churchill: “Speak the simple truth.”
And, yes, Cockran himself used simple, down-to-earth language and illustrations in his speeches — juxtaposed with his more florid passages.
In the Liberal Club speech from which I just quoted, Cockran also said: “I have a farm on Long Island. I require plows. I am told that if I don’t have protection from foreign plows they’ll be dumped on me. If that means I’ll get plows cheaper than my own country can produce them … I say, dump on!”
In 1943, Harold Nicholson summed up the secret of Churchill’s rhetorical power in a single, laser-beam insight. “The winning formula,” he said, “was the combination of great flights of oratory with sudden swoops into the intimate and conversational.”
We see this especially in Churchill’s great wartime speeches.
I will quote two brief and familiar examples.
First, his tribute to the RAF during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Churchill said:
“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world … goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion.”
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Second, Churchill’s response to President Franklin Roosevelt in February of 1941. FDR had sent Churchill an expression of support for Britain. Churchill said:
“We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. “
“Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.”
Now of course I must acknowledge that Churchill’s great oratory was the product of many influences.
Churchill had read Gibbon and Macaulay. He was intimately acquainted with the King James Bible and the plays of Shakespeare. He had memorized reams of poetry. He had studied the speeches of all the great parliamentary leaders who had preceded him—Pitt, Burke, Disraeli, Gladstone—and his father, Lord Randolph Churchill. He was a journalist; he had an eye for detail and a flair for vivid language. He is supposed to have read over 5,000 books and had a vocabulary of 65,000 words—two or three times as many as the average person.
And yet …………..
And yet for all that it was Cockran whom he credited for his prowess as a speaker.
I began this talk with a quote from Churchill, in which he said of Cockran, “He was my model.” I did not tell you when or to whom Churchill said that.
He said it in 1953, at the end of his career. And he said it to Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson had been the Democratic Party’s candidate for president a year earlier. (He lost to Dwight Eisenhower.) According to Stevenson, Churchill then went on to quote—from memory—long passages from speeches that Cockran had given over half a century before.
But there is even stronger evidence of the esteem in which Churchill held Cockran. In 1946, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, Churchill gave the single most important of his post-war addresses. He called it, “The Sinews of Peace.” We know it as the “Iron Curtain” speech: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”
Churchill had been turned out of Downing Street the previous year. He was then leader of the opposition. But he knew that his speech in Fulton would put Churchill back where Churchill knew that Churchill belonged—smack dab at the center of world affairs.
The speech was a major news event. Churchill was introduced by the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, and his words were broadcast throughout the whole nation.
And it was in that speech that he chose to honor the memory of his mentor and model. He said this: “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.’”
That was Churchill’s favorite quote from Cockran.
Cockran had told Churchill to imitate Burke—to “master the English language as a man masters a horse.”
Churchill did more than master the English language; some said that he “mobilized it and sent it into battle.”
Would he have been able to do that if he had never met Bourke Cockran? We’ll never know. We know only this: To the end of his days, Churchill was conscious that that he owed Cockran a great debt. And, through Churchill, so do we all.