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Governor Edward Coles

Syla J. Saphir
University of Chicago Laboratory School, Chicago

Governor Edward Coles was the second governor of Illinois and an early abolitionist. He was a slave owner, the confidant of residents, and an idealistic aristocrat whose ideas did not seem to fit during his historical era. No other governor of Illinois spent such little time in the state yet had such a considerable influence on Illinois events. Edward Coles was a powerful, effective governor who helped change the course of Illinois' ideas about slavery.

Coles was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1786. His father was a Revolutionary War colonel. He grew up on a Virginia plantation with many slaves and with proslavery relatives and friends. His father's home was visited by very important guests such as Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. Those people had a big impact on Edward's later thinking and decisions.

At the age of twenty-three, Coles inherited a Virginia plantation and its black slaves. Even in that environment, owning slaves troubled his conscience.

For six years, Coles was the private secretary of President Madison. During that time, Coles became friends with Nicholas Biddle. Quitting his post as secretary in 1815, he took a trip to Shawneetown and Kaskaskia in luxury, traveling with a horse and buggy, a servant, and a saddle horse. However, Madison called him back for a diplomatic mission to Russia. After returning from Russia, Coles went back to Kaskaskia and attended the constitutional convention until he was sure that he had gotten his message across that Illinois should be a free state. In 1819 Coles went back to Virginia, sold his plantation, and started westward with his slaves. On the trip he told them that they were free men and women, at liberty to stay with him or to go their own way. He did that because he opposed slavery, and he wanted to make Illinois a free state. He told the freed

While Edward Coles served as governor, Vandalia was the state capital. The Vandalia
Statehouse that stands today is a reminder of the early seat of government, although the
building pictured here was constructed in 1836, some ten years after Coles left office.

Vandalia Statehouse


slaves that it they stayed, he would pay wages and see each family settled on a farm.

Prior to returning to Illinois, Monroe appointed Coles registrar of the Edwardsville land office. He was young, dignified, and courteous, and became well known in Illinois. Three years after arriving, he ran for governor as an antislavery candidate. He ran against two proslavery candidates and one antislavery candidate. Coles became a minority governor, getting a third of the vote and finishing fifty votes ahead of Phillips, the chief justice. Proslavery men won the lieutenant governorship and controlled the legislature.

The legislators countered with a drive to legalize slavery through a constitutional amendment. The movement had strong support as a carry-over from the 1818 compromise on indentures. A special committee dominated by anti-Coles men insisted that Virginia's guarantee to the French took precedence over the 1787 Ordinance. Furthermore, they asserted that Illinois had the same right as any other state to amend its constitution. The proposition required a two-thirds vole of the people at the 1824 general election.

Coles quickly organized an antislavery society with the aid of Morris Birkbeck, and issued an address to the people that exposed the intentions of the convention backers. It closed by saying that if they triumphed "we should write the epitaph of free government." The document, which stressed the immoral aspects of slavery, was signed by fifteen legislators but undoubtedly was written by the governor. The constitutional amendment campaign continued for nearly a year and a half, and the public became intensely involved, perhaps as much as in any election since then. Coles and the antislavery convention cause triumphed 6,640 to 4,972.

To the incoming legislature, Coles repeated his request for more humane laws for blacks. Yet, harassment continued. Madison County filed a suit against Coles because, while freeing his slaves, he had been ignorant of the law that required him to post bond swearing they never would become public charges. He was cleared of that suit.

The 1824 referendum was Coles's last political victory. After completing his term, he made a poor showing as an anti-Jackson candidate for Congress. Few of his antislavery colleagues won another election of any importance, either. Meanwhile, the pro-slavery losers scored a succession of triumphs in seeking high office.

When his second term ended, Coles retired to a bachelor's life on his Edwardsville farm. He traveled extensively, made money from St. Louis real estate investments, and in 1832 left Illinois for a happier life in Philadelphia.

Governor Edward Coles played a very important role in Illinois history and was a major influence on society in the early 1800s. He was a strong believer in equality for all people. Governor Edward Coles led Illinois through a difficult period and, in large measure, was responsible for its status as a free state before the Civil War.[From Clarence W. Alvord, The Illinois Country 1673-1818; Arthur Boggess, The Settlement of Illinois 1778-1830; James Gray, The Illinois; Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State; John Reynolds, Pioneer History of Illinois; Robert P. Sutton, The Prairie State; Donald V. Tingley, The Structure of A State.]


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