John Hartwell Cocke (1780-1866) was born in Surry County, Virginia, “sixth in descent” from Richard Cocke who emigrated from England to Virginia in the early 17th century, establishing a plantation, called “Bremo,” on the James River in Henrico County. The descendants of the immigrant Richard Cocke acquired additional land and John Hartwell Cocke, upon the death of his father, inherited a far-reaching estate, including 3,184 acres of prime James River land in Fluvanna County.
On Christmas day, in 1802, John Hartwell Cocke married Anne Blaws Barraud whom he met in Williamsburg where both were attending school. They initially took up residence in Surry. Around 1808, he moved his family permanently to “new” Bremo Plantation on the north side of the James River, approximately twenty-five miles southeast of Monticello. Anne Blaws Cocke died in 1817, survived by her husband and six children. In 1821, John Hartwell Cocke married a widow, Mrs. Louisa Maxwell Holmes. The marriage did not produce children. Louisa Maxwell Cocke died in 1843.
"He talks about Jefferson keeping a woman as a substitute for a wife."
An officer in the Fluvanna County Virginia Militia, Cocke rose to the rank of brigadier general in the War of 1812, his military record leading members of the General Assembly to recommend him for the office of governor. Said to exhibit a “keen sense of civic responsibility,” but also “destitute of political aspirations,” General Cocke declined to be considered. Farming practices, social reform, religion, public improvements, education, and architecture were foremost among his varied interests and areas in which he made significant contributions.
Cocke expressed “continual hostility to slavery” and sought to “elevate the Negro through education and skill training,” views that apparently once led him to be violently attacked by someone who thought differently about the treatment of blacks. He was also critical of the South’s cultivation of tobacco because tobacco farming required too much labor (contributing to a reliance on slaves), depleted the soil more than any other crop, and, like alcohol, when ingested had harmful effects. General Cocke crusaded vigorously against the use of alcohol, becoming president of the Virginia Temperance Society in 1834, and later, in 1836, president of the American Temperance Union. Appointed in 1835 to the board of directors of the James River and Kanawha Canal Company, he participated with his close friend, Joseph C. Cabell, in the development of water transportation along 200 miles of the James River.
John Hartwell Cocke was thirty-seven years younger than his neighbor, Thomas Jefferson, but these landed gentry shared numerous concerns and became close associates during the latter years of Jefferson’s life. Cocke was “Jeffersonian” in his habits and views: both men attended William and Mary, led organized lives, owned large plantations, and were well-read, civic-minded, and restless in their inquiries into the world around them.
Soon after arriving at Bremo, Cocke exchanged letters with Jefferson. Their early correspondence concerned sheep, plants, and a horse Jefferson wished to buy from his neighbor. A problem of payment for the horse arose when Jefferson’s anticipated sale of flour in Richmond was delayed, but Cocke graciously told Jefferson not to worry.
Cocke of Bremo perhaps surpassed even Jefferson as an “experimental farmer.” Throughout his life General Cocke investigated new ways to plough, fertilize, terrace, and rotate crops, as well as how to choose the best plants and livestock for Virginia’s soil and climate, becoming, literally, a “pioneer in everything from better peach trees to blooded cattle.” On May 5, 1817, Cocke chaired the first meeting of the Albemarle Agricultural Society, which was organized around a constitution Jefferson had drafted some years earlier. Thirty men, including Jefferson’s son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, and grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, met to discuss a list of subjects drawn up by Cocke and Jefferson.
Cocke initially constructed a house on a section of his plantation called “Recess.” As his family grew, he began thinking about the design for a larger home, seeking advice from friends, “amateur architects” like himself, including his neighbor Jefferson. The Sage of Monticello offered extensive suggestions through a mutual friend, Isaac Coles, perhaps the most noteworthy suggestion being that his neighbor adhere closely to the architectural style of the Italian Andrea Palladio. Jefferson also recommended the builder James Dinsmore to assist in building Cocke’s new home. Both Dinsmore and his partner John Neilson had worked at Monticello, and then at James Madison’s Montpelier, and therefore were very familiar with Jefferson’s favored Palladian architecture. Although Jefferson was, at one time, thought to be the chief designer of the magnificent Bremo residence, subsequent investigation revealed that John Neilson deserves “principal credit for the ultimate perfection of Bremo,” along with General Cocke himself, who “actively guided the entire process of design, and intelligently synthesized the suggestions and ideas he had solicited into a workable and visually pleasing whole.” The architectural historian Fiske Kimball wrote of the Bremo house, “The great mansion thus completed must certainly be rated one of the finest in Virginia, and thus in America.”
General Cocke was a steadfast supporter of public education and efforts to establish a state university in Virginia. Consequently, at Jefferson's request, Governor Nicholas, in 1817, appointed Cocke to the Board of Visitors of Central College, from which would emerge the University of Virginia. Cocke served on the College and subsequent University Boards of Visitors for thirty-six years.
Following a meeting held on April 8, 1817, Jefferson, Cocke, and Joseph Cabell proceeded to inspect possible sites in Charlottesville for Central College. On the day of the Board’s first formal meeting, May 5, 1817, General Cocke left Bremo on horseback before 4 o’clock in the morning, arriving at Monticello shortly after 8 a.m., in time for breakfast. He then proceeded to Charlottesville with Jefferson to attend the Visitors’ meeting in the Court House. At this inaugural meeting the Board accepted the recommendation of the three visitors for a building site on land owned by John Perry, about a mile above the town.
The Board also appointed Cocke and Jefferson to a “Committee on the part of the Visitors with authority jointly or severally to advise and sanction all plans and the application of monies for executing them.” In subsequent years the two neighbors communicated frequently when attending meetings of the Board of Visitors, during Cocke’s frequent visits to Monticello, and on numerous other occasions. Their written correspondence during the years of university construction reveals the collaborators’ preoccupation with the myriad details and problems of building the state university. A letter from Jefferson to Cocke, for instance, dated May 20, 1826, refers to a number of concerns, including leaks in the Rotunda roof and selecting a spot for the Botanical Gardens. Jefferson’s last letter to his neighbor and collaborator was dated May 28, 1826. An ailing Jefferson invited Cocke to breakfast at Monticello, “tomorrow morning,” to discuss business, explaining that he, Jefferson, was not well enough to travel to Charlottesville. Jefferson died five weeks later on July 4.
In addition to Jefferson and Cocke, the first Board of Visitors included James Madison, James Monroe, Joseph C. Cabell, and David Watson. Joseph Cabell served as Jefferson's “principal coadjutator” in the General Assembly during the hard fought battle over a state university in Charlottesville and is said to be “second” only to Jefferson in seeing the university come to fruition. The historian, Philip Alexander Bruce, suggests that Cocke's diligent work on the committee of superintendence “gives him a place in [the University's] early history second only to that of his close friend [Joseph Cabell],” making him, in the words of another author of John Hartwell Cocke’s history, “one of the three fathers of the University of Virginia.”
Both Jefferson and Cocke opposed the institution of slavery, yet neither advocated an immediate emancipation of those enslaved. They believed blacks could not live harmoniously with whites in the same country, nor could the enslaved survive if freed without education and skill training. In their view, the only solution lay with gradual emancipation with expatriation to another country. Unlike Jefferson, however, General Cocke made visible efforts to educate those he enslaved even when laws forbade it, and worked publicly to advance the re-colonization of blacks to Africa, eventually emancipating and sending abroad some of those he enslaved. Cocke’s fervent belief in the colonization movement led him to establish a farm in Alabama whereby the enslaved could work to earn their freedom and passage across the ocean. Twenty years later, however, “only fourteen souls in all had been dispatched to Liberia as graduates of Cocke’s Alabama experiment.”
Cocke’s “enlightened opinion” of popular education led him, in 1820, to establish a school near Bremo for boys under the age of fifteen. Following Jefferson’s death, he proposed a preparatory school for the University of Virginia at Monticello. Initially, Cocke and his associates planned to rent the house and land, but later, around mid-1829, proposed to buy Jefferson’s property. For unknown reasons, the sale never was finalized.
Despite his opposition to the institution of slavery, General Cocke defended the Confederate cause during the American Civil war. Following the war, he was granted a Presidential pardon and died on July 1, 1866.
- Gene Zechmeister, 11/6/12/Revised by David Thorson 9/18/2022
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
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