Featured Letter: John H. Cocke's Account of the Central College Corner Stone Laying, 5 & 6 Oct. 1817
Following the chartering of Central College early in 1816, the purchase the next summer of land just west of Charlottesville, and an ongoing subscription campaign to raise funds for the educational institution, construction began in the summer of 1817. Rather than building one large edifice, Jefferson designed an "academical village" with two rows of pavilions and student dormitories flanking a lawn. The cellar and foundation of the first building, which would later become Pavilion VII of the University of Virginia, was completed in the first week of October 1817. Jefferson ensured a large crowd by scheduling the cornerstone laying to coincide with the county and district court day on Monday, 6 Oct. 1817. Local Freemasons from the Widow's Sons' Lodge No. 60 and the Charlottesville Lodge No. 90 offered to perform the customary Masonic ritual observed when laying foundation stones for public buildings. Jefferson, who counted many members among his acquaintances, went out of his way to accommodate their participation. The entire six-man Board of Visitors of Central College attended, including former United States presidents Jefferson and James Madison and sitting president James Monroe, himself a Freemason, who shared in the testing of the cornerstone. Newspapers across the country reported on the ceremony. Decades later Edmund Bacon recalled that "After the foundation was nearly completed, they had a great time laying the corner-stone. The old field was covered with carriages and people" (Bruce, University, 1:164–78, 188–90; TJ to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 31 Aug. 1817; Alexander Garrett and Valentine W. Southall to TJ, 20, 30 Sept. 1817; TJ to Garrett and Southall, 23 Sept. 1817; Thomas Smith Webb, The Freemason's Monitor; or Illustrations of Masonry [new ed., Salem, Mass., 1816; Ezra Lincoln, printer], 106–9; WMQ, 1st ser., 1 : 15, 24; Richmond Enquirer, 10 Oct. 1817, and other newspapers; Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello, 21).
John H. Cocke’s Account of the Central College Corner Stone Laying
[5–6 Oct. 1817]
5. Sunday—Set out immediately after Breakfast accompanied by my friend N. Faulcon to attend the regular meeting of the Visitors of the Central College according to the law of incorporation at Charlottesville on 1st day of each Circuit Court. Spring & Fall.
Reached Monticello about 3 O’Clock where we met Mr Madison & Mr Cabell who together with Mr Jefferson & myself insured a quorum. The president Monroe was however known to be at his Seat in the Neighbourhood & Major Watson of Louisa the only remaining Visitor was certainly expected—Spent the Evening at Monticello—where we understood every arrangment was already made for laying the Corner stone of the Central College on the next day—& that the two Masonic Lodges of Albemarle has requested to assist in the Ceremony.—
6. Monday—Left Monticello after Breakfast & repair’d to Charlottesville—from whence, at 1 O’Clock the Masonic procession consisting of a numerous assemblage of the Members of the Lodges No 60 & 90 & many visiting Brothers took up the line of march which was the signal for the Visitors to repair to an appointed place near the site for joining the procession—As soon as the Grand Master in the Masonic procession passed the 6 visitors in two ranks followed—the first rank—Composed of1 Mr Jefferson, Mr Madison & Mr Monroe—the 2d of Mr Cabell, Major Watson, & myself—& in this order we approach the Corner of the building untill the head of the Masonic column nearly reached the spot—when a signal being given—the Masons halted, opened to the right & left & faced inward leaving a space sufficient between their lines for the Grand Master carrying all the ensignia of his grade & supported on his right by a minister of the Gospel bearing the sacred Volume of our holy Religion open in his hands followed by the 6 visitors who in this order advanced to the spot—the Grand Master & the Minister placing themselves immediately before the Corner, & the Visitors to their right—The Masons then advanced & displayed to the right & left & the spectators arranged themselves around the foundation.2—The blessings of God were then invoked upon our undertaking in a short & appropriate prayer from the Minister—After which the Grand Master made short address to the Visitors expressive of the gratification of his fraternity in being called to assist in so praiseworthy & honorable an undertaking & thence3 proceeded under permission of the Visitors, in conformity to the ancient Masonic usage on similar occasions to pour out Wine & Oil, & scatter grain on the Corner stone—This done the Visitors were invited to try the square, the level, & the plumb—& the duty being assigned to the President Monroe he applied the three4 instruments to the stone, which being afterwards done by the Grand Master it was pronounced by him to be “true & trusty.”—The Minister again invoked a blessing upon the institution which was followed by an anthem, which was succeeded by a speech upon the occasion from Mr V. W5 Southall—& thus the ceremony closed—
MS (ViU: JHC); diary entry entirely in Cocke’s hand; partially dated; extracted from entries for 5–6 Oct. 1817.