To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, this post will honor the memory of a neglected Irish-American statesman and orator: William Bourke Cockran (1854-1923).
Cockran was born in Country Sligo, Ireland. He emigrated to America at age 17, settling in New York. There, he became a successful lawyer, a member of Congress, and a friend and confidant of some of the leading men of the time, including inventor Thomas Edison, publisher Joseph Pulitzer and Presidents Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt. He also became known as America’s greatest living orator. (No less a rhetorical titan than Winston Churchill would call Cockran his “model.”)
By 1895, when he was 41, Cockran had an annual income from his law practice over $100,000 a year — the equivalent of over $2 million today. Cockran was rich, influential and widely admired as an orator. He didn’t have to kow-tow to political bosses. He was free to put principle above party. And he did.
In 1896, for example, Cockran supported Republican William McKinley against Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The election was fought over the gold standard. The Republicans were for gold and monetary stability. The Democrats wanted a gold and silver standard—cheaper dollars, easy money.
Cockran was a Democrat, but he was gold-standard Democrat. He opposed cheapening the currency for the same reason that he opposed tariffs—because both meant higher prices for the working poor. At his own expense, he undertook a nationwide speaking tour on behalf of McKinley. When McKinley won, he offered to make Cockran his attorney general. Cockran declined. On principle. He told McKinley that his views on free trade were totally opposed to the Republican policy of protectionism, so he could not serve in McKinley’s cabinet.
Four years later—again on principle—Cockran supported Bryan against McKinley. In the election of 1900, gold was no longer the dominant issue. As a result of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. had acquired the Philippines from Spain and had become an imperial power. Irish-born Cockran loathed the very idea that his beloved American republic should succumb to the siren-song of empire, and he denounced the treaty by which McKinley had forced the Filipinos to exchange one colonial master for another.
In 1912, he would spurn both the Republicans and the Democrats to campaign for his good friend Teddy Roosevelt, who was running for president at the head of a third party.
Cockran became known as “the American Burke.” This accolade was accorded him not only for his erudition and eloquence, but also for his humanity. Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the great Anglo-Irish member of Parliament, had championed the American colonists, English Catholics, and the peoples of Ireland and India. Cockran championed Ireland, American Catholics, African-Americans, immigrants and labor unions. He was the opponent of tariffs, imperialism and the death penalty. And he was a pacifist. It was entirely appropriate that when his greatest speeches were collected and published posthumously in 1925, the volume bore the title, “In the Name of Liberty.”
In thumbing through my own copy of this book—a library discard that I found through the Internet—I came across a speech that Cockran gave on immigration in 1906. I was immediately struck both by Cockran’s power of expression and by the relevance of his arguments to the debate over immigration in our own time.
Today, the immigration debate centers on what to do with the more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants who are currently living and working within our borders. At the dawn of the 20th Century, our immigration and naturalization laws were lax. Immigrants—at least white immigrants—needed only to demonstrate that they were persons of good character who could earn their own living to enter this country and to acquire citizenship.
As immigration swelled, many native-borns feared that they would swamped by the newcomers. So in 1906, nativist pressure caused Congress to pass a law requiring immigrants to be able to speak English in order to become naturalized citizens. As initially proposed, this law would have also required that to become citizens, immigrants be able to read and write their native languages as well as English. Cockran felt that this requirement would create two classes of citizenship—one for the naturalized, who would have to know two languages, and one for the native-born, who would have to know only one.
The argument he made then against this discrimination applies in spades to the plight of unauthorized immigrants today. Cockran said this:
“What essential right that a citizen enjoys can you deny to an alien, once you have admitted him to your population? The right which our political system holds essential and inalienable is the right of every man to work when, where, how, and for what he pleases, and to enjoy in liberty and security all that his work produces. Can you deny that right to the alien the moment he lands on this soil without reducing him at once to servitude? Your Constitution, which prohibits slavery, compels you to give the alien, when he reaches this country the full protection of your laws, the right to work, the right to sell his labor, and to enjoy all that his labor produces. All the power of your government must be exercised to defend him in that privilege, not for his sake, but for your own.”
Impressed? Cockran was just warming up. Like every true Irish orator, he knew how to bring a rousing speech to a close with an even more rousing peroration. Here it is:
“I appeal to every gentleman present, in the name of American patriotism, of human progress, and of Christian civilization, to maintain that policy which has been such a fountain of abundance to ourselves and such a light of inspiration to the world, to leave wide open the doors through which all the industrious may freely enter here, that hereafter, as in the past, vast masses of men, however dissimilar in language, in tradition, and in habits, may in our fields of industry—and their children in our public schools—continue to be fused into that mighty citizenship which for a century has been the strongest inspiration to progress, which is today the supreme hope of civilization, and which will remain its firmest bulwark forever.”
Oscar Wilde once said that the Irish were the greatest talkers since the Greeks. Cockran, though he now languishes in undeserved obscurity, is a sterling example of Wilde’s aphorism. Cockran’s eloquence, his compassion and his love of liberty make him an enduring credit both to the land of his birth and to ours.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Mr. Cockran.
Postscript: Next month I will be speaking at a speechwriters conference at Cambridge University in England on the subject Bourke Cockran’s friendship with Winston Churchill and the great influence the Cockran exerted over Churchill’s oratory.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.