The first great orator of East Tennessee was William Cocke. He was one of the popular heroes of his time, and many stories are told of him. He is described as a tall, black-haired, black-eyed man, of splendid physique, fiery, enthusiastic and fearless. He came of English stock, as we shall see, but one cannot help believing that there was a strain of Celtic blood in his veins to account for his sentiment and enthusiasm and his fervidness of speech. He was a descendant of the the fourth generation, of one Richard Cocke, who came to Virginia from Devonshire, England, in 1632. He was born in Amelia County, Virginia, in 1748. William Goodrich, of Philadelphia, whose paper in the third number of the American Historical Magazine is the most valuable publication on the life of William Cocke that has been made, states that when Cocke was twenty-seven years of age, the Revolution being imminent, he was offered by Lord Dunmore, the Colonial Governor of Virginia, any office in the army below that of Commander-in-Chief, provided he would espouse the cause of the Crown against the Colonies. He replied, it is said, that the King did not have money enough to buy him, that the cause of the Colonies was just, and that he would devote his life to it. It is to be hoped that this pleasing story is true, and there is no reason to doubt it. Cocke was an officer of the Provincial Militia, and no doubt had distinguished himself, and it is known that he was a bold man and a sincere patriot. Mr. Goodrich further says that before this occurred, he had accompanied Daniel Boone on an exploring expedition into Eastern Tennessee and Western Kentucky. But the facts seem to be, that at some time after 1775, Cocke was employed by Richard Henderson to aid in establishing settlers in Transylvania, and was thus brought into contact with Boone, and made a long, solitary and dangerous journey into Kentucky.
Of his career from this time till the Autumn of 1780, not much is known. He was a leading spirit among the settlers, and was greatly esteemed for ability and courage. he was in the King's Mountain campaign, and servd with credit.
In the establishment of the State of Franklin he was one of the leaders, and was next to Sevier in prominence and influence. He, probably, was in all its conventions, and was opposed to the Houston Constitution. There is some doubt as to whether it was he or Sevier who finally proposed the adoption of the North Carolina Constitution. In civil affairs he was probably more skilful than Sevier, and was certainly the better speaker and debater. In the effort to treat with North Carolina, he and David Campbell were the representatives of the State of Franklin. Campbell was injured by an accident, and Cocke appeared alone before the Carolina Legislature and delivered a long, impassioned and forcible, but ineffective speech. It was he who carried to Philadelphia the memorial of Franklin asking for recognition as a State, and on all occasions that demanded special ability, he was spokesman. He was Sevier's most trusted and valued adviser, and was steadfastly loyal to him, unless we regard his short candidacy for Governor in 1897 as an act of disloyalty. In the Constitutional Convention of 1796 he represented Hawkins County, and was an active and influential participant in all the proceedings. It was he who gave to the famous town-lot tax clause its final form. He and William Blount were the first Senators of the United States from Tennessee, and having served out the short term, he was again elected in 1799 and served till 1805. In 1797 a new county was established and named for him.
In 1809 he was elected Judge of the First Circuit, a position to which he was not adapted. The only unfortunate events in his history were caused by his acceptance of this office. The political leader is accustomed to defer largely to the wishes of his friends, and to carry this habit wherever he goes. The popular orator seldom has the habits of self control and laborious investigation that are conditions of success at the bar and of efficiency on the bench. There was no other public station to which, by temperament and habits, Cocke was so little adapted. It was in the interval between his retirement from the Senate and his election to the bench that he announced himself a candidate for Governor. He withdrew, however, before the election, and it was then charged that he had been acting in concert with Sevier for the purpose of deterring others from entering the race. This accusation he denied in a vigorous open letter, and no proof was made against him.
Leaving Tennessee in 1812, he went to Mississippi, and there, though well advanced in years, displayed the same qualities that had made him already conspicuous successively in three States. He was elected to the Legislature, and in 1814 was appointed by President Madison agent for the Chickasaw Indians. At the age of sixty-five he volunteered for the war of 1812, and served with so much efficiency and gallantry as to win the hearty commendation of General Jackson. He died at Columbus, Mississippi, August 22, 1828. The State of Mississippi erected a monument to his memory, inscribing upon it a brief and eulogistic account of his life.
His career was a remarkable one. Like a number of other able men of that time, he moved westward again and again in the vanguard of civilization, and took part in the organization of State after State. He served in the Legislature of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi; was a Judge, twice a Senator, and was a gallant soldier in our tow wars with England.
He is remembered in Tennessee as the great orator of his time, and by consent of his contemporaries, he had no equal as a popular speaker. A remarkable readiness and brilliancy of speech has been a characteristic of his family in all succeeding generations, and his descendants have filled acceptably many places of honor and trust, and have rendered valuable services to the State and to the Nation. We have special cause to be grateful to him as the friend of the schools. He was one of the most active advocates of the establishment of Blount College, and was the zealous supporter of every movement in behalf of education. We can afford to remember him only as the amiable and accomplished gentleman, the great orator, the sincere and steadfast patriot, and the gallant soldier of liberty.
[source: Caldwell, Joshua W. Sketches of the Bench and Bar of Tennessee. Knoxville: Ogden Bros. & Co., 1898, p. 24-27.]
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