“The three objects still closest to his heart, as he wrote in 1843, were in this order: temperance, African colonization, and the elimination of tobacco raising from middle Virginia”. – Boyd M. Coyner writing about John Hartwell Cocke, the original owner of the plantation where I live.
When I read this quote yesterday, a couple of things struck me. First, the order of these priorities – Temperance, THEN colonization. Second, temperance and tobacco deal with substances, colonization with people. Third, African COLONIZATION, not abolition.
From where I am in history, it’s so hard for me to look at a sentence like that and see any sense in it. How was it even possible that a man could think the temperance movement – which dealt not with the problems of alcohol caused by addiction but, instead, with the idea of control and consumption – and tobacco – a crop that wasn’t, then, known to cause cancer (although he did know it deplete the soil) – how were these two things considered even remotely as important as the people who were enslaved on this plantation? Even if we give him the benefit of the “at least they were important on some level” phrase, he didn’t think them able to be free.
The work of time has built Cocke into a legend of sorts, a man who educated his slaves, a man who reformed agriculture, a man who influenced Jefferson – all of these things were true, and in due measure, he should receive praise for them. But that praise needs to be tempered with other truths.
He owned slaves. He owned lots of slaves who he freed only if they met his expectations of temperance and moral behavior, who he only educated them if they seemed “worthy” of it to him, who freed on 14 people over the course of his lifetime, and who as a condition of that freedom required that they emigrate immediately to Liberia. This man was not an abolitionist. He did not take risks to meet his ideals, at least not when it came to people.
Perhaps what most saddens me today is that he did take that financial risk for one thing – the abolishment of tobacco. He stopped growing it, even when it cost him a great deal of cash and respect. He was willing to take the risk then.
Why not for the people, the 286 of them, who worked here? Why were they not worth the risk?
My Kickstarter campaign is coming to an end on Monday morning at 8:25am. I am still $4,814 short of my goal. If I do not raise every one of those dollars, I get none of them. If you are interested in the stories of the people enslaved here, of the man who owned them, and the legacy of slavery that still lingers in the U.S. today, please take the risk of making a small contribution – http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1596635732/you-will-not-be-forgotten. You will be saying that these people were worth the risk. Thank you.