Author: Bruce G. Carveth

co-author with Kurt Leichtle of Crusade Against Slavery: Edward Coles, Pioneer of Freedom (2011).

Edward Coles (1786–1868)

Edward Coles was the second governor of Illinois (1822–1826) and a lifelong opponent of slavery. Born in Albemarle County, he inherited a dozen slaves from his father and, against his family’s wishes, decided to free them. But Coles was forced to delay his plans because of financial, moral, and practical difficulties. He served as secretary to U.S. president James Madison (1810–1815), traveling to the Northeast on behalf of the president in 1811 and acting as a special envoy to Russia in 1816. In 1814, Coles exchanged letters with Thomas Jefferson, encouraging the former president to support the gradual emancipation of slaves, but Jefferson refused. In 1817, Coles sold his Rockfish plantation to his brother and moved seventeen of his nineteen slaves west to Illinois, freeing them along the way. As governor of Illinois, he helped defeat a referendum aimed at calling a pro-slavery constitutional convention. He later moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he corresponded with Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, convincing him to oppose slavery in the General Assembly’s debate of the issue in 1831. Coles also encouraged Madison to free his slaves in his will, but the former president did not. He married Sally Logan Roberts in 1833 and the couple had three children. Coles died in Philadelphia in 1868.