John Hartwell Cocke
    by Ellen Adams

Though the University was Thomas Jefferson’s vision, he did not build it on his own.  The University would not be what it is today without the assistance of several important people, one of them being John Hartwell Cocke.  Cocke graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1798, and was later a general in the military during the War of 1812.  He moved to Fluvanna County and built Bremo Plantation on the bank of the James River in 1809.  He served on the University’s Board of Visitors from its first year until 1852, and had a critical role in the building of the school.  Over the early years of the school’s existence, Cocke corresponded with many people who discussed aspects of life ranging from building material to Colonization of slaves.

Cocke’s letters reveal a lot about the less glamorous aspects of building a school – from the type of roofing for buildings to hiring laborers to build dormitories.  In one letter, Proctor Arthur Brockenbrough discusses the cost benefit of using iron for the roof of the Observatory, as opposed to wood and tin, and later discusses the amount of stone needed for the Rotunda steps  - stone that would come from Cocke’s own quarry.  Many of the people who assisted in the construction of the University had also worked on building Monticello, like John Neilson, an Irish joiner who also built Cocke’s Bremo Plantation.

A letter from Cocke’s son, Philip St. George Cocke, illustrates the ways in which being a student in the first session of UVa in some ways is not much different from being a student today.  He discusses the classes he planned to take, mentioning that he would have extra work to catch up to other students who had arrived before him, and put off taking a class until he had more time to devote to it.  He also gives his preliminary judgments on the other students, criticizing the fact that, “the greater part of them are doing nothing for the promotion of their educations, but on the contrary are doing something worse than throwing away their time.”  Philip later went on to be a notable general in the Civil War.

One aspect of UVa that was different in the 1820s was the uniform rule, which proved to be a point of contention between students and faculty in later years.  In 1828, however, it was just being established, and Secretary of the Board of Visitors Nicholas Trist outlines the various options in a letter to Cocke.  According to Trist, “students are very anxious to have fixed on immediately, see that the warm weather is nigh at hand.”  He debates between bombazine (a silk-mix fabric common in the 19th century), bombazet (a type of thin wool fabric), and silk; it seemed the students wanted silk, despite its expense, and rejected the other options, complaining, “of the heaviness of bombazet.”  Trist has other suspicions for their objection: “I imagine that the true reason is that the others are the handsomest.”

Cocke had a number of notable correspondents outside of the University sphere as well.  One of the more well known was Charles Fenton Mercer, one of the founders of the American Colonization Society; Cocke acted as president of the Albemarle County Chapter.  Mercer’s letter was written in the wake of John Quincy Adams’ inauguration as President in 1825, an event that Mercer watched as “a disappointed spectator.”  Adams was apparently, “no friend of the colonization society.”

In Mercer’s eyes, the removal of “the colored race from [Virginia’s] bosom,” was the most important goal for improving the country, and a “greater obligation to justice and humanity.”  A similar sentiment is echoed in a letter from H.B. Montague, another member of the society - Montague saw the solution of colonization as, “a spiritual blessing to that unfortunate race.  Mercer also opposed the slave trade, considering it “piracy,” and sought to abolish slavery altogether, seeing it as the cause of “the calamities of both continents.” 

Many other figures in American history supported Colonization for former slaves, including John Tyler, James Monroe, and even Thomas Jefferson, who first proposed colonization in his 1783 version of “Notes on the State of Virginia.”  Jefferson believed that emancipation would not have popular support unless former slaves were removed to a new colony, writing in a letter in 1814, “I have seen no proposition so expedient . . . as that of emancipation of those [slaves] born after a given day, and of their education and expatriation at a proper age.”  Several slave uprisings in the first few years of the 19th century only pushed the desire to find a colony to send freed slaves, and eventually Liberia was designated as the free colony.

Cocke and Jefferson held similar views of slavery.  Although both owned slaves, both regarded slavery as a great evil of society.  As an evangelical protestant, Cocke wrestled with the moral dimension of slavery, and believed that the institution undermined society and the family unit (Gudmestad).  However, he also believed that freeing slaves, and making them “equal” with their masters would not work.  He thought that the creation of a free colony in Africa was the solution.  Cocke even established a farm in Alabama where slaves could work towards education and passage to Africa, though only fourteen “graduated,” and made it to Liberia (Zechmeister).

Despite their disdain for the institution of slavery, both Cocke and Jefferson participated in and benefitted from it.  A document of regulations for the overseer of Cocke’s farm shows that he still allowed the brutality of slavery to continue: “For a violation of either of the last rules, after once admonishing such conection by whipping, as the overseer may find necessary, or stopping the meat rations of the offender, for the week.”  Though Cocke and Jefferson achieved great success in building the University, their participation in slavery shows they were still deeply flawed people and contributed to the complicated history of UVa that is still being discussed today.


"A Solution? Jefferson Proposes Colonization"

A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade, by Robert H. Gudmestad

Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South, by Lacy K. Ford

"John Hartwell Cocke," by Gene Zechmeister, from Monticello's Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

John Hartwell Cocke Papers

"John Neilson," from Monticello's Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia