Coles was born on December 15, 1786, at Enniscorthy, a plantation in Albemarle County. Coles’s grandfather, John Coles (1705–1747), emigrated to Virginia from Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, early in the 1730s. After playing a significant role in the early growth of, he purchased properties in central Virginia, including Enniscorthy, on Green Mountain, about forty-five miles west of Richmond and about eight miles north of the James River. The plantation is located on the same range of hills as Thomas Jefferson’s , James Monroe‘s Ash Lawn, and James Madison’s Montpelier. In 1766, John Coles II (1745–1808) inherited his father’s property, and in 1769 he married Rebecca Elizabeth Tucker. The couple had thirteen children, ten of whom survived into adulthood. Edward Coles was the youngest male.
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.”
By contrast, Coles developed a conviction that not only was slavery morally wrong, but that it constituted a serious threat to the American republic. Coles believed in divinely inspired natural law—that, for instance, all men are created equal—and, like Madison, believed that natural law provided the foundation for the public compact. To the extent that slavery represented a violence to human rights, and therefore natural law, it endangered the still-fledgling country. At the age of twenty-one Coles determined not to own slaves and not to live where slavery was accepted.
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 hadrequiring 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
Coles’s brother Isaac Coles had been employed as secretary to family friend and neighbor Thomas Jefferson during a portion of his presidency. Using family connections—he andwere second cousins—Isaac Coles continued in the position after the election of James Madison in 1809. While hand-delivering the president’s annual message to Congress on November 29, he became involved in an altercation with, and struck, Representative Roger Nelson, of Maryland. He resigned on December 29, and Madison offered the post to Edward Coles. Intending to decline the position, Coles reversed his decision after encouragement from James Monroe. He joined Madison’s staff before the end of January 1810.
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.
In the autumn of 1816, Madison named Coles his special envoy to Russia, where the czar had barred America’s top diplomat from the Imperial Palace. (In Philadelphia, the Russian consul had been tried and convicted of rape, and the czar believed he had been treated improperly.) Coles arrived near Saint Petersburg on September 30, and quickly ended the minor diplomatic flap. He returned to the United States in the autumn of 1817 after stays in Brussels, Belgium; Paris, France; and Great Britain. By this time, James Monroe had replaced Madison as president, and although he offered Coles the same position as secretary or, in fact, any position he chose, Coles declined.
Correspondence with Jefferson
While working for Madison, Coles spent much of his time recovering from various illnesses and worrying about his affairs at Rockfish. The issue of slavery also continued to be important to him, and on July 31, 1814, Colesto Jefferson, the purpose of which, he wrote, was “to entreat and beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence, in devising, and getting into operation, some plan for the gradual emancipation of Slavery.” Jefferson on August 25, agreeing that eventually slaves should be freed but worrying about the repercussions of such a policy. He described African Americans as “pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them.” And, perhaps ironically, he denounced miscegenation: “[T]heir amalgamation with the other colour produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.” Coles probably held a similar view of African Americans, for years later, he wrote to Jefferson’s grandson about the civic danger represented by this “ignorant, immoral & degraded race.”
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, hethat 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.
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.
Coles continued in his antislavery efforts, successfully encouraging Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, to oppose slavery during the General Assembly’s debate on the issue in 1831. Coles also conferred with the aging James Madison on a plan to emancipate Madison’s slaves in his will. Madison failed to follow through, however, instead passing his slaves to his wife, Dolley Madison.
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, ending slavery. He died in his Philadelphia home on July 7, 1868. He is buried at Woodlands, a cemetery in western Philadelphia.