Last week we left 21-year-old Winston Churchill gazing landward as his ship approached New York City, where he was about to learn that there was more to life than the stodgy attitudes he had absorbed during his then short and aristocratically sequestered life. Part of his new-found education came in the form of an Irish-American New York politician named Bourke Cockran to whom Churchill had been recommended, probably by his American mother.
Winston Churchill may have destined to become one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, but the words of quiet dismay and wide-eyed disbelief we read in his letters home are those of a callow youth of 21, not much different from something you and I might have said at the same age.
When he arrived in New York, he stayed in Cockran’s comfortable apartment on Fifth Avenue, and there the fun began. Cockran, a prominent lawyer, was deeply involved in New York politics. A member of Congress since 1891, he was just coming to the end of his second term. He impressed Churchill very strongly, and in later years is said to have been his model where oratory was concerned, but for the moment Cockran’s cocky American ways came as a shock to the inexperienced young aristocrat, who wrote that Cockran had “aroused considerable controversy” by running against Grover Cleveland for the Democratic nomination in 1892, and then turning around the very next year and campaigning for the GOP candidate who ran against Cleveland.
Did that perhaps set young Churchill to thinking? Maybe. Churchill, someone we think of as a staunch member of the British Conservative Party, began his political life in 1900 as a member of that party, but barely four years later he did the remarkably little it takes in the land of our British brethren to switch parties. One day in 1904 he rose from the Conservative bench, walked across the floor, and sat down, thereby becoming a member of the Liberal Party. There he stayed for 21 years until 1925, when he once again rose from his bench, crossed the floor, and seated himself, once more a Conservative. Not only had he followed in the footsteps of the Irish-American politician who had affected him so strongly, but he had done it twice!
Churchill’s comment? “Anyone,” he remarked rather wryly, “can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”
Cockran made an impression on the 21-year-old Churchill in their very first meeting. Speaking with a touch of awe in his words, Churchill wrote of the Irishman, “I must record 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, and flexible countenance, he looks uncommonly like the portraits of Charles James Fox. It was not my fortune to hear any of his orations, but his conversations, in point, in pitch, in rotundity, in antithesis, and in comprehension, exceeded anything I have ever heard.”
Churchill may have patterned his famous speaking style after Bourke Cockran, but Cockran was not the only one whose American ways left 21-year-old Churchill wide-eyed. On Churchill’s first night in America, Cockran threw a party in his honor at which Churchill met Judge George Ingraham, who was trying the sensational case of David F. Hannigan, who had shot and killed one Solomon H. Mann. Hannigan’s sister Lettie swore before a coroner’s jury assembled at her deathbed that Mann had seduced her and procured an abortion, which was the cause of her death. After a trial lasting nearly four weeks Hannigan was acquitted on Nov. 22 on grounds of insanity.
Churchill observed the trial and wrote to his brother, Jack, “I went and sat on the bench by [the Judge’s] side. Quite a strange experience and one which would be impossible in England. The Judge discussing the evidence as it was given with me and generally making himself socially agreeable — and all the while a pale miserable man was fighting for his life. This is a very great country my dear Jack. Not pretty or romantic but great and utilitarian. There seems to be no such thing as reverence or tradition. Everything is eminently practical and things are judged from a matter of fact standpoint. Take for instance the Court House. No robes or wigs or uniformed ushers. Nothing but a lot of men in black coats & tweed suits. But they manage to hang a man all the same, and that after all is the main thing ....”
Well, you can’t say he wasn’t learning.
But wait till next week, Johnny!