Coles was educated by private tutors and at a modest local academy before briefly attending Hampden-Sydney College in 1805. Finding the latter was 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 devoured 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, and which was not, and could not be property, according to my understanding of the rights and 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 separating of these family ties might create ill will among the slave workforce. Further, Coles's act of releasing them from slavery 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 releasing 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 of the president's official correspondence, somewhat onerous and uninteresting. He had a good relationship with Madison, with whom he could speak with "perfect candor." He developed a lasting admiration for the president, whose granite-like resolve kept the United States government from utter dissolution after British troops burned the Capitol in 1814. Coles did not abandon his antislavery convictions. While out with the president one day, the two men saw a slave coffle. Coles told Madison that the savagely cruel sight was an embarrassment to the ideals for which the republic stood. The episode suggests that Coles probably tried to enlist the president in endorsing gradual emancipation, though without success. Indeed, despite Coles' urging, Madison did not emancipate his own slaves in his will, leaving them to his wife Dolley.
With Madison unresponsive, the idealistic Coles wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of Coles' idols. "My object is 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," 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.
In his reply, Jefferson complimented Coles on his idealism and endorsed gradual emancipation as a worthy if challenging endeavor. He urged Coles to remain in Virginia as a humane master to his slaves, thereby setting a good example while advocating the end of slavery as an institution. But Jefferson begged off leadership of such a crusade, or indeed any role at all beyond interested observer. "This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up; and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man," Jefferson wrote. In his response, Coles mildly rebuked Jefferson for using age as an excuse for inaction. He reminded the great sage that Benjamin Franklin had undertaken arduous duties at an older age. Coles depressingly reiterated that only an elder of Jefferson's influence could lead public opinion in such a fashion that emancipation would be palatable.
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 (the American Bottom) along the Mississippi River near present-day St. Louis, Missouri. 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 was appeased, and Coles traveled through Europe enjoying the sights.
After his return to the United States, Coles secured an appointment as land registrar from the new president, James Monroe. He traveled to Illinois again in the summer of 1818 and made final arrangements for his relocation. In April 1819, Coles started his slaves on the road to the new state of Illinois. He purchased flatboats, and the party drifted down the Ohio River. Coles excitedly believed that the time had arrived to carry into effect the plan his conscience had so long desired.
|Future Illinois Governor Edward Coles freeing his slaves on the Ohio River below Pittsburgh while enroute to Illinois in 1819.|
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 announcement 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 the release 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.
Coles County, Illinois is named for Edward Coles.
By Dan Monroe
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
 Coffle: a line of prisoners or slaves chained and driven along together.
 Promulgated: to make known by open declaration; publish; proclaim formally or put into operation.