Coles's early education occurred primarily at home under the direction of tutors, and later at schools located on neighboring plantations. After attending Hampden-Sydney College for one semester, he transferred to the College of William and Mary in the autumn of 1805. There he engaged in a series of discussions, from October 1806 to June 1807, with the college's president, the Reverend James Madison, second cousin of the future U.S. president. A scientist and first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Madison combined teachings from the Bible with enlightenment ideals and republican theories of government. Their conversations turned to slavery, and Madison found the institution to be a moral dilemma beyond his reach. As Coles later wrote, Madison admitted that slavery "could not be justified on principle and could only be tolerated in our country by finding its existence, and the difficulty of getting rid of it."
On June 10, 1807, the elder Coles wrote to his son that he and Edward's brother Tucker were both ill and summoned Edward home to oversee the harvest of Enniscorthy's crops. Coles left Williamsburg without a degree on June 25. In the winter of 1808, John Coles II died, leaving Rockfish, a 782-acre plantation in what was then Albemarle County (later Nelson County), to Edward Coles. His father also willed him a dozen slaves. Coles prepared to receive his inheritance knowing he would free the enslaved men and women, but he did not tell his family lest they intervene and somehow prevent the transfer of property.
It was only after he had received a proper share of his father's property—the will's various transactions were finalized on December 24, 1808—that Coles announced to his family and friends his intention to free the enslaved men and women. He faced strong resistance from both his loved ones and Virginia law. On January 25, 1806, the General Assembly had passed a law requiring any emancipated slave to leave Virginia within twelve months. Free blacks, meanwhile, were required to register with their county of residence and faced restrictions on movement, employment, and assembly. Coles concluded that leaving Virginia and freeing his slaves elsewhere represented his only option. He put Rockfish on the market—where it stayed for almost ten years.
White House Years
During his tenure in the White House (1810–1815), Coles managed a large share of presidential correspondence, handled patronage, provided political intelligence, and undertook special projects. In the summer of 1811, he traveled to Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston, Massachusetts, with his older brother John Coles. The purpose of his visit was partially to gauge political sentiment in a region that proved difficult for Madison, especially in the years leading up to the War of 1812. During a meeting with former president John Adams, Coles attempted to repair some of the strained feelings that had separated Adams from Jefferson following the 1800 election. Coles's role as intermediary was an important component in the eventual warming of feelings between the two former presidents, leading ultimately to a deep friendship and the growth of a remarkable and persistent exchange of letters between the two men.
Correspondence with Jefferson
Jefferson argued that it was not a good idea for Coles to free his slaves:
[M]y opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed & clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. [T]he laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot controul.
Jefferson told Coles that he (Jefferson) was too old to take up such a cause as emancipation: "[T]his enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to it's consummation." (Just two weeks later, Jefferson assured another correspondent that "there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.")
This elaborate rejection of Coles's plea makes plain the contradictions that inhabit Jefferson's stances on slavery, race, and human rights. At the same time, it may have added steel to Coles's resolve to take action. On September 26, he wrote Jeffersonthat if he (Coles) thought he could be useful in his effort to win freedom for slaves in Virginia, he would stay; such hope being absent, however, he was determined to carry "along with me those who had been my Slaves, to the Country North West of the river Ohio."
In June 1815, Coles traveled in search of western lands where he could free his slaves and settle. Accompanied by his slave Ralph Crawford, he toured the Northwest Territories (later Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois), purchased lands, and somewhat reconciled himself to a rugged life on the frontier. Soon after his return from Russia, in the autumn of 1817, Coles finally sold Rockfish; the buyer was his eldest brother, Walter Coles.
The funds from the sale allowed Coles to take a second trip west. He left for Illinois in March 1818, and during the summer attended the state's first constitutional convention in Kaskaskia. Many historians believe that Coles wrote an important antislavery letter to the editor of an Illinois newspaper in June under the pseudonym "Agis," but a better case of authorship can be made on behalf of delegate George Churchill. A constitution was adopted on August 26, and Coles returned to Rockfish in the winter.
A decade earlier, Coles had made a commitment to his family not to inform his slaves of his intention to free them. The Coles family worried that their other slaves also would demand freedom. By 1819, the number of Edward Coles's slaves had grown from twelve to nineteen, and in the spring, without explaining why, he invited them to move with him to Illinois. All agreed except two elderly women whose husbands were owned by other members of the Coles family. In order to keep another slave family together, Coles also purchased the balance of one man's indenture.
The slaves—six adults and eleven children—departed first, leaving Rockfish on April 1, 1819, outfitted with papers, a wagon, horses, various provisions, and money. Coles left separately. He caught up with the group at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, where he purchased two flatboats intended for the portion of the journey down the Monongahela and Ohio rivers. A few miles west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Coles gathered his slaves on the flatboats and, in a simple statement, granted their immediate freedom. The effect, he later wrote, was "electrical. They stared at me and at each other, as if doubting the accuracy or reality of what they heard." They burst into "hysterical, giggling laughter" and then tears of gratitude. They pledged Coles loyalty and support, and Coles promised each of the three main families a gift of land. A mural hanging in the Illinois State Capitol commemorates the moment.
The party landed near Louisville, Kentucky, and traveled overland to Edwardsville, Illinois, arriving early in May 1819. During the next two years, Coles worked from Edwardsville as register of lands, a position granted to him by President James Monroe. He supported the newly freed families, purchased and conveyed the land parcels as promised, and developed his own farm, just east of Edwardsville, called Prairieland.
In October 1821, Coles entered the race for governor of Illinois. His opponents included Joseph Phillips, the state's chief justice; James B. Moore, a veteran of the War of 1812; and Thomas Browne, an associate justice of the state Supreme Court. Coles was elected by the narrowest of margins—one tally had him defeating Phillips by a mere fifty votes—and, on December 5, 1822, he became the state's second governor. His inaugural address focused on internal improvements, farming, and education, but also called for an end to slavery in the state (a persistent, if shadowy, institution in Illinois). In reaction to this abrupt proposal, a pro-slavery faction in the Illinois legislature called for a constitutional convention, the unstated purpose of which was to fully legalize slavery.
Through twisted and improper procedures, the pro-slavery faction managed to force a bill calling for a referendum to authorize a constitutional convention. During the next eighteen months Illinois was caught up in a passionate and divisive political struggle. To defeat the call for the convention, Coles contributed the entirety of his income as governor, purchased a newspaper—the Illinois Intelligencer of Vandalia—to promote the antislavery cause, and led the elaborate organization of county-level committees to oppose the pro-slavery effort. Among the tactics adopted by the pro-convention faction was a civil suit brought against Coles in September 1823 that spuriously accused him of freeing his slaves without posting a necessary bond in the state. (Coles was vindicated by the Supreme Court of Illinois in the spring of 1826.) The call for a constitutional convention was defeated in a statewide referendum on August 2, 1824, due to both opposition from Illinois churches and to Coles's leadership.
In addition to the struggle to prevent a constitutional convention, Coles's term as governor is noted for his encouragement of state-sponsored universal education, his eagerness to implement the new concept of state penitentiaries, and his active work to fund a canal that would link lakes Michigan and Huron with the Mississippi River.
Coles's term as governor ended on December 6, 1826. (The constitution of Illinois precluded a second term.) He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1831 but was defeated. Coles decided to leave Illinois for Philadelphia, where he married Sally Logan Roberts on November 28, 1833. The couple had three children: Mary, Edward, and Roberts.
During his later years in Philadelphia, Coles became known as one of the few remaining people with direct personal connections to the Founding Fathers. He provided advice and anecdotes to biographers, burnishing the reputations of Madison and Jefferson as champions of freedom. In 1856, he wrote the History of the Ordinance of 1787 as a result of a dispute with Senator Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, over the authorship of the Northwest Ordinance. The early law—written, Coles wrongly argued, by Thomas Jefferson—created the means by which new states were created and prohibited slavery in the new territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River. Its slavery provision became a subject of controversy when Senator Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, argued in favor of popular sovereignty, or state- and territory-level decisions regarding slavery.
Coles lived to see the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery. He died in his Philadelphia home on July 7, 1868. He is buried at Woodlands, a cemetery in western Philadelphia.
1766 - After the death of John Coles in 1747, John Coles II inherits his father's property, Enniscorthy, on the James River about forty miles west of Richmond.
February 9, 1769 - John Coles II marries Rebecca Elizabeth Tucker. The couple will have thirteen children, ten of whom will survive into adulthood.
December 15, 1786 - Edward Coles is born at Enniscorthy, the family plantation in Albemarle County.
1805 - Edward Coles transfers to the College of William and Mary from Hampden-Sydney College.
October 1806–June 1807 - Edward Coles, a student at the College of William and Mary, engages in a series of conversations with the college's president, the Reverend James Madison. These talks help to formulate his strong antislavery views.
June 25, 1807 - Summoned home by his father, who is ill, Edward Coles leaves Williamsburg without earning a degree at the College of William and Mary.
December 24, 1808 - The various transactions related to the will of the recently deceased John Coles II are finalized.
December 29, 1809 - After an altercation with Representative Roger Nelson, of Maryland, Isaac Coles resigns his position as secretary to President James Madison.
January 1810 - Edward Coles replaces his brother Isaac Coles as secretary to President James Madison.
1811 - In his role as secretary to the president, Edward Coles travels to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, New York City, and Boston, Massachusetts, with his older brother John Coles. The purpose of his visit is to gauge political sentiment in the region.
September 26, 1814 - Edward Coles writes a letter to Thomas Jefferson explaining why he must leave Virginia and free his slaves, even against Jefferson's advice.
June 1815 - Accompanied by his slave Ralph Crawford, Edward Coles tours the Northwest Territories.
September 30, 1816 - Edward Coles, special envoy to Russia on behalf of the James Madison administration, arrives near Saint Petersburg. He quickly resolves a minor flap regarding the United States' top diplomat.
1817 - Edward Coles returns from a diplomatic mission to Russia after stays in Brussels, Belgium, Paris, France, and Great Britain. He declines a position in the James Monroe administration and sells his plantation, Rockfish, to his brother Walter Coles.
August 26, 1818 - Illinois adopts its first constitution.
October 15, 1819 - Edward Coles completes the transfer of land deeds to three families of former slaves he freed on their way from Virginia to Edwardsville, Illinois.
October 30, 1821 - Edward Coles announces his candidacy for governor of Illinois.
December 5, 1822 - Edward Coles is inaugurated as the second governor of Illinois.
September 1823 - Suit is filled against Illinois governor Edward Coles, accusing him of freeing his slaves without posting a necessary bond in the state.
August 2, 1824 - In Illinois, a statewide referendum defeats the call for a constitutional convention that likely would have strengthened legal protections for slavery in the state.
December 6, 1826 - Edward Coles ends his term as governor of Illinois.
December 29, 1831 - Edward Coles writes a letter to Thomas Jefferson Randolph urging the delegate to support an end to slavery in the General Assembly's ongoing debates on the issue.
November 28, 1833 - Edward Coles marries Sally Logan Roberts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The couple will have three children.
1856 - Edward Coles authors History of the Ordinance of 1787, wrongly arguing that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Northwest Ordinance.
July 7, 1868 - Edward Coles dies at his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is buried at Woodlands, a cemetery in the western part of the city.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Carveth, B. G. Edward Coles (1786–1868). (2014, July 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Coles_Edward_1786-1868.
- MLA Citation:
Carveth, Bruce G. "Edward Coles (1786–1868)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 17 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: October 9, 2012 | Last modified: July 17, 2014