Edward Coles, the second governor of Illinois, was born on December 15,1786, at his father's plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia. The Coles family boasted connections to the most prominent Virginians in American history. John Coles, Edward's father, was brother-in-law to Patrick Henry. John's niece, Dolley Payne Todd, married James Madison. Slaves tended the opulent plantation Edward knew as a child, surrounded by luminaries like Thomas Jefferson, whose estate was nearby.
Coles was educated by private tutors and at a modest local academy before briefly attending Hampden-Sydney College in 1805. Finding the latter not to his taste, Coles turned to the College of William and Mary. He fell under the influence of Bishop James Madison, the college president, who, though an Anglican bishop, encouraged his students to read and learn the texts and ideas of the Enlightenment. Madison believed that the young American republic was unique in human history, a fragile experiment in self-government whose longevity depended upon a virtuous citizenry Only virtuous citizens would vote in a disinterested manner and be immune to the corrupting inducements of politicians. He considered slavery a violation of natural law as expressed by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. For Madison, slavery was morally indefensible, but also a problem that lacked a clear solution.
Coles imbibed the good bishop's lectures on moral philosophy and Enlightenment ideas. He concluded that owning slaves was not consistent with natural law; man was not property and could not be treated as such. Further, Coles worried that slavery brutalized both races and had a corrupting effect that threatened the creation of a virtuous citizenry upon which depended the health and continuity of the republic. "I could not consent to hold as property what I had no right to, & which was not, and could not be property, according to my understanding of the rights & duties of man and therefore determined that I would not and could not hold my fellowman as a slave," Coles recalled. He left William and Mary before his final exams, probably because his father needed help with the harvest. He never officially graduated, but he had taken a momentous decision and so informed his family. When Coles's father died in 1808, he inherited a nine hundred-acre plantation and twenty-three slaves. It was his irrevocable intention to free them.
The Coles family greeted the announcement of his emancipation convictions with surprise and concern. A number of serious problems immediately presented themselves. First, manumission of his slaves threatened Coles's financial solvency. Without the slaves, it was impossible to work his plantation. Also, once freed, the value of the slaves would be a total loss. Virginia law required that freed slaves leave the state; Coles would have to foot the expense. Finally freeing his slaves created problems for his relatives and neighbors. Coles's slaves had relationships with slaves on other plantations. Forced by law to leave the state, the sundering of these family ties might create ill will among the slave workforce. Further, Coles's act of manumission might create unrealistic expectations among slaves on neighboring plantations that they too would be freed. Again, when those expectations were not fulfilled, anger and resentment might result. Negative feelings could also be generated in the elite social circles that the Coles family inhabited. At the very least, some resentment could be directed at the Coles family.
Given the problems associated with freeing his slaves in Virginia, Coles considered leaving the state for the Northwest Territory where slavery had been banned by the Ordinance of 1787. Coles was well liked by family and friends who were unhappy both at the prospect of his departure and the manumission of his slaves. In an effort to dissuade him from that radical course, Coles's brother Isaac suggested Edward replace him as secretary to President James Madison. Isaac had been anxious to leave the post, and this seemed an ideal solution to several problems. Edward hesitated, but James Monroe, a future president and Coles's benefactor, ultimately persuaded him to take the job.
Coles worked as private secretary to James Madison for six years, from 1809 to 1815. He found his duties, which involved much copying
With Madison unresponsive, the idealistic Coles wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of Coles's idols. "My object is to entreat & beseech you to exert your knowledge & influence in devising & getting into operation some plan for the gradual emancipation of slavery," he wrote in 1814. Coles believed the task was so difficult that only a revered Founding Father possessed the moral grandeur to change public opinion in an antislavery direction. He urged Jefferson to think of his future reputation. Even if a Jefferson-endorsed emancipation plan was rejected in 1814, a statement by Jefferson might awaken later generations to slavery's moral opprobrium. Coles also announced his intention to leave Virginia with his slaves as the only course for emancipation open to him.
Coles could not rest without acting to free his slaves, and removing to the Northwest Territory seemed his only option. He did not feel he possessed the talent or influence to lead an emancipation crusade; his only recourse was to leave "the scene of .... oppression." Deciding finally to relocate, Coles traveled to the West in the summer of 1815. He found land in Ohio prohibitively expensive and Indiana too rough in country and people. He went to Illinois and found acceptable the bottom land along the Mississippi River near present-day St. Louis. He purchased six thousand acres in Madison County. Back in the East, Coles could not disengage himself from the Madison administration. The president appointed his young secretary as a special envoy to Russia. Coles was charged to restore friendly relations with the czarist regime, strained after a Russian diplomat was imprisoned for rape in Philadelphia. Coles accepted and arrived in Russia in September 1816. His mission was a success, the czar mollified, and Coles traveled through Europe enjoying the sights.
After his return to the United States, Coles
Coles worked as land registrar in Edwardsville for three uneventful years before he turned to politics. In September 1821, Coles declared as a candidate for governor of Illinois; the election was to be held in August 1822. At the time, politics in Illinois was organized into factions gathered about certain political figures, men like Ninian Edwards and Shadrach Bond. Coles was not a member of any faction. He simply announced his candidacy in the fashion of the day His opponents included two justices of the Illinois Supreme Court, Thomas C. Browne and Joseph Phillips, and a somewhat obscure military veteran, James B. Moore. Phillips was identified with Bond, Browne with Edwards. Coles was elected with a total vote of a little more than half the combined vote of Phillips and Browne.
Once in office as governor, Coles quickly faced a movement to call a constitutional convention to rewrite the Illinois constitution, approved only four years previous. The not-so-veiled purpose of the effort was to make Illinois a slave state. Slavery had been introduced into the territory that became the state of Illinois in the eighteenth century. It had continued to exist into the nineteenth century despite the Northwest Ordinance's prohibition against it. The successful salt works near Shawneetown had even spurred the introduction of additional slaves into the state. A harsh black code had been instituted in 1819 to govern the black population, a set of laws as odious as any promulgated in the slaveholding South. In his inaugural address as governor, Coles had bluntly called for an end to slavery in Illinois and for a humane revision of the
black code. His bold avowal may have prompted the proslavery forces in Illinois to work for the convention. It required a two-thirds majority in the state legislature to enact a referendum on whether to convene a constitutional convention. In order to secure that majority, a substantial amount of arm twisting occurred in the legislature, including the unseating of an anti-convention representative with a convention supporter. Coles remarked on the "extraordinary malevolence of party spirit" the issue engendered in Illinois.
Coles recognized that he was at the center of an intense controversy on the most difficult political question of the age. He ruefully reflected: "Whatever may be the result of this question, it will certainly have the effect of giving me a very stormy time of it as long as I shall be at the helm." Coles's assessment was accurate. He became the de facto leader of the antislavery forces in the state who opposed the convention movement. In consequence, he was roundly abused in the press and on the stump. Proslavery ruffians marched to his home and shouted insults in the middle of the night. Coles was sued for allegedly violating Illinois law in his manumission of his slaves. Though the suit was eventually dismissed, Coles had to endure lengthy litigation.
For two long years the convention question gripped the Illinois populace. Coles was deeply engaged in the struggle. He concluded that it was "necessary that the public mind should be enlightened on the moral and political effects of slavery." He wrote to his Philadelphia friends for antislavery tracts and then distributed them in Illinois at his own expense. He did his own research and writing on the issue, publishing antislavery articles under pseudonyms in the Illinois newspapers. He purchased a part interest in a newspaper to get his message out. He sent antislavery pamphlets and information to others for their use in writing antislavery letters to the press and public. Coles's efforts were successful. In a statewide vote on August 2,1824, the convention was defeated.
For the remainder of his gubernatorial term, Coles advocated internal improvements, sound banking, and reform of the Illinois black code. After retiring from office, he became active in the colonization movement, an effort to relocate freed slaves to Africa. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1830, his campaign hampered by the perception that he was not a permanent resident in Illinois. He confirmed the accuracy of that assessment by moving to Philadelphia. He became a Whig and an opponent of the Jackson administration, but took little active part in politics. Coles married Sally Logan Roberts in 1833. He died in Philadelphia in 1868.
David E. Goss
Connection with the Curriculum
Materials for Each Student
Understand why the emancipation of slaves was a complex social, moral, economic, and political issue.
Appreciate the role political leaders can carry in effecting change in society.
Draw parallels between historical experiences and current issues.
Analyze the process a person with a strong moral conviction may go through from idea to actuality.
Analyze why political leaders may be unwilling and/or unable to take unpopular positions.
Opening the Lesson
Activity 1 should challenge students to reflect on and personalize Coles's courage and dedication to his ideals.
Activity 2 should challenge students to look more deeply into the meaning of freedom and explore how complex the issue can be.
Activities 3 and 4 should cause students to reflect on how Illinois struggled with its rough-and-tumble beginning and rapidly changing demographics.
Concluding the Lesson
Extending the Lesson
Assessing the Lesson
Using the information in the article and the following description Coles wrote about the experience of emancipating his slaves, write an expository or narrative essay using Write on Illinois.
The morning after we left Pittsburg, a mild, calm and lovely April day .... was selected as one well suited to make known to my negroes the glad tidings of their freedom. Being curious to see the effect of an instantaneous severing of the manacles of bondage, .... I called on the deck of the boats .... all the negroes, and made them a short address, in which I commenced by saying it was time for me to make known to them what I intended to do with them, and concluding my remarks by so expressing myself,.... I proclaimed .... that they were no longer slaves but free-free as I was, and were at liberty to proceed with me, or to go ashore at their pleasure.
The effect on them was electrical. They stared at me and at each other, as if doubting the accuracy or reality of what they heard. In breathless silence they stood before me, unable to utter a word, but with countenances beaming with expression which no words could convey, and which no language can now describe. As they began to see the truth of what they had heard, and to realize their situation, they came on a kind of hysterical, giggling laugh.
I told them no .... That as a reward for their past services, as well as a stimulant to their future exertions, and with a hope it would add to their self esteem and their standing in the estimation of others, I should give to each head of a family a quarter section, containing one hundred and sixty acres of land .... I told them I had thought much of my duty and of their rights, and that it was due alike to both that I should do what I had said I would do; accordingly, soon after reaching Edwardsville, I executed and delivered to them deeds to the lands promised them.
I stated to them that the lands I intended to give them were unimproved lands, and as they would not have the means of making the necessary improvements, of stocking their farms, and procuring the materials for at once living on them, they would have to hire themselves out till they could acquire by their labor the necessary means to commence cultivating and residing on their own lands .... I reminded them of what they seemed to have lost sight of, that they were free; that no one had a right to beat or ill use them; and if so treated, they could at pleasure leave one place and seek a better; that labor was much in demand in that new country, and highly paid for; that there would be no difficulty in their obtaining good places, and being kindly treated; but if not, I should be at hand, and would see they were well treated, and have justice done them.
I availed myself on the deck scene to give the negroes some advice. I dwelt long and with much earnestness on their future conduct and success, and my great anxiety that they should behave themselves and do well, not only for their own sakes, but for the sake of the black race held in bondage; many of whom were thus held, because their masters believed they were incompetent to take care of themselves, and that liberty would be to them a curse rather than a blessing ....
Thomas Jefferson penned "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." What does the following excerpt from a letter from Jefferson to a youthful Coles reveal about Jefferson's moral courage?
Students should read the following with a critical eye for Jefferson's true convictions. A class discussion could lead to questions such as these: Did Jefferson prize his style of life more than his moral convictions? Why did none of the four Virginia presidents emancipate their slaves? [Note: Washington did at the death of his wife.] Which is needed to change society: youthful idealism and energy or life experience and political/economic power? Further discussion could parallel such topics as the Vietnam War protest movement and current issues such as Iraq/Afganistan, the Free Trade Agreement, etc.
Monticello, Aug. 25, 1814
Dear Sir:Your favor of July 31 was duly received, and was read with peculiar pleasure; the sentiments breathed though the whole do honor to both the head and heart of the writer. Mine on the subject of negroes have long since been in possession of the public, and time has only served to give them stronger root. The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a mortal reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort, nay I fear not much serious willingness, to relieve them and ourselves from our present condition of moral and political reprobation .... From an early stage of our revolution, other and more distant duties were assigned to me, so that from that time till my return from Europe in 1789, and I may say till I returned to reside at home in 1809, I had little opportunity of knowing the progress of public sentiment here on this subject. I had always hoped that the younger generation, receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast, and had become as it were the vital spirit of every American; that the generous temperament of youth, analogous to the motion of their blood, and above the suggestions of avarice, would have sympathized with oppression where found, and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it.
As to the method by which this difficult work is to be effected, if permitted to be done by ourselves, I have seen no proposition so expedient on the whole, as that of emancipation of those born after a given day, and of their education and expatriation at a proper age .... The idea of emancipating the whole at once, the old as well as the young .... is of those only who have not the guide of either knowledge or experience on the subject; for men probably of any color, but of this color we know, brought up from infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising the young. In the meantime they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them.
I am sensible of the partialities with which you have looked forwards to me as the person who should undertake this salutary but arduous work;.... No, I have over lived the generation with which mutual labors and perils begat mutual confidence and influence. This enterprise is for the young, for those who can follow it up and bear it through to its consummation....
Governor Coles was charged with violating a state statue (see the first item below) based on his "illegal" certificate (see the second item). What does the first document tell you about the state of mind our earliest political leaders had regarding non-whites? Given that it was not published until after Coles issued and recorded his emancipation certificate for each former slave, what do you think Coles's strongest defense would be? (During the second trial, the legislature passed an act releasing all penalties under the Act of 1819.)
In March 1819, a slave code was enacted. Any black or mulatoo coming into the State was required to file with the clerk of a circuit court a certificate of freedom. Slaves should not be brought into the state for the purpose of emancipation. Resident negroes, other than slaves and indentured servants, must file certificates of freedom. Slaves were to be whipped instead of fined, thirty-nine stripes being the maximum number that might be inflicted. Contracts with slaves were void. Not more than two slaves should meet together without written permission from their masters. Any master emancipating his slaves must give a bond of $1000 per head that such emancipated slaves should not become public charges, failure to give such a bond being punishable by a fine of $200 per head. Colored people must present passes when traveling.
Whereas, my father, the late John Coles, of Albemarle, the State of Virginia, did in his last will and testament give and bequeath to me certain negro slaves, among others Robert Crawford and his sister, Polly Crawford, the said Robert Crawford being a mulatto man, about five feet seven inches high, and now about twenty-seven years of age; and the said Polly being a mulatto woman about five feet one inch high, and now about sixteen or seventeen years of age. And whereas, I do not believe that man can have a right of property in his fellow man, but on the contrary, that all mankind are endowed by nature with equal rights, I do, therefore, by these presents restore to the said Robert and his sister Polly, that inalienable liberty of which they have been deprived. And I do hereby renounce for myself and my heirs forever all claim of every description whatever to them and their services, and I do hereby emancipate and make free the said Robert Crawford and his sister, Polly Crawford. In testimony whereof, the said Coles set his hand and seal, on the 19th day of July, 1819.
The Constitutional Convention Resolution came to public vote on the first Monday of August 1824. Both sides worked vigorously for their cause: whether Illinois would become a slave state or a free state. Below is the actual vote by counties. Using a current map, or better yet, a map dated ca. 1824, speculate on why these counties voted one way or the other. (Note: some libraries may contain a reference source showing the make-up of each county in terms of the origin of citizens.)
Vote against Convention Resolution: 6,822