restricted access God Save the Boer: Irish American Catholics and the South African War, 1899-1902
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God Save the Boer: Irish American Catholics and the South African War, 1899-1902 Charles T. Strauss They tell us the Boers must be defeated in the interests of civilization, that they are an uncivilized race. Why is that said of them? Is it because they carry on an effective government at the lowest rate of taxation known? Is it because in their country, education is universal ; drunkedness is unknown; divorce doesn’t exist; and every man lives with his own wife? I can understand a country owning a smart set thinking that nation uncivilized which doesn’t support a divorce court. I would not deny to that set the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of smartness; but I would have them see that though the Boers have not evening dress, they have evening prayers, and though they fear God, the fear of man is not in them.1 W. Bourke Cockran is the greatest American orator that no one remembers today. A respected politician, a skilled diplomat, a devout and well-connected Catholic, and an accomplished speechmaker, Cockran has been overshadowed by other eloquent orators in the crowded pantheon of political giants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the great causes of Cockran’s political life, anti-imperialism and U.S. support for the Boer Republics during the South African War (1899-1902) in particular, is also a little remembered aspect of Gilded Age and Progressive Era history. And yet Cockran’s speech, which he delivered at New York’s Academy of Music on 4 March 1900, and the South African War, an imperial conflict between the British Empire and the descendents of Dutch settlers in southern Africa, provides rare insight into the transnational dimensions of American ethnic politics as the U.S. made its debut as a serious international player. 1 I am grateful to Margaret Abruzzo, Jay Dolan, Donal Lowry, John McGreevy, David O’Brien, Eamonn O’Ciardha, Edward O’Donnell, and Ellen Skerrett for reading various incarnations of my research on the impact of the South African War on ethnic politics in the United States. I am particularly indebted to David O’Brien and Edward O’Donnell for advising me in the early stages of my research and to participants of the seventh annual GRIAN Conference on Irish Studies at New York University, 4-6 March 2005. 1. W. Bourke Cockran, Irish World, 10 March 1900; revised and reprinted in its entirety in the Irish World, 17 March 1900. Cockran was by all accounts the national spokesperson for the pro-Boer movement in the United States.2 The people of New York elected the Irish-born lawyer to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives eight times between 1887 and his death in 1923.3 Dutch Americans, who had initially lobbied for U.S. mediation in the early stages of the South African War, asked Cockran to help them to raise funds for Boer relief and to petition his friends in Washington on the Boers’ behalf.4 Cockran supported the Boer cause mainly through passionate speechmaking, such as his dramatic defense of the Boers at New York’s Academy of Music in March 1900. Clan-an-Gael, a militant Irish nationalist organization, hosted the event and the Irish Americans in attendance filled the Academy’s main hall and all of its galleries. Cockran began by honoring the memory of Robert Emmet, Ireland’s preeminent nationalist leader of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, on the 122nd anniversary of his birth. He praised the Irish leader for his commitment to the universal principles of justice and liberty. However, Cockran devoted most of his speech to a commendation of a people from South Africa whom he praised for defending these principles in his own day. Cockran contrasted the God-fearing Boer with the British people and their “smart set,” which controlled two other provinces in South Africa and were engaged in an imperial war over the Boers’ mineral-rich land. The Boers, according to Cockran, deserved the admiration and support of patriotic Americans and liberty-loving people everywhere and the U.S. should have intervened to stop Britain’s...


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