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Edward Coles has been ranked along with Abraham Lincoln as one of Illinois’ greatest citizens. It has been said of Coles, who was Illinois’ second governor (1822-1826), that he was a “victim of his own integrity.” Read on to see why.
Born into wealth and privilege on the Ennisworthy plantation in Albemarle County, Va., Edward Coles grew up as a neighbor to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Visitors to his father’s home included the likes of Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry and John Monroe.
The son of John and Rebecca Coles, he attended William & Mary College, and it was there that some of his doubts about slavery grew into serious questions.
Later in life, Coles would credit a teacher at the college with helping him overcome the quandary that involuntary servitude created in his mind. On one hand, the U.S. Constitution granted freedom, and yet some of those who formed the words of this document held slaves.
Coles was appointed personal secretary to President James Madison in 1810. It was President Madison who encouraged him to go to Illinois, where they needed men of his caliber in the newly formed state. Madison also knew of Coles’ personal beliefs regarding slavery.
Coles liked the idea of moving to Illinois because, as he saw it, Illinois was free of what he called “a national sin.” To Coles is given much of the credit for preventing Illinois from amending its state constitution to formally adopt slavery.
In correspondence begun with an aged Thomas Jefferson, Coles entreated the former statesman to take up the banner of the enslaved. Surely, people would listen to him. Jefferson wrote back that, as an old man, he had only prayers to offer. Coles replied that he surely hoped those prayers would be heard at the highest levels of the government.
In 1819, Coles began to make plans to move to the new state of Illinois. He sold the plantation and purchased a quarter section of land near Edwardsville in Madison County, on which the 17 slaves he planned to free would live. Two old women, who could not make the trip from Virginia to Illinois, were supported by Coles for the remainder of their lives.
Former slave, Robert Crawford, who was the plantation overseer, was in charge of getting the group to Brownsville, Pa., where Coles joined them. There, they boarded a boat, which would take them to Illinois. After crossing the Ohio River, he gave them their freedom papers, and the group continued on to Illinois.
His bid for governor was successful, and Edward Coles was elected to the office in 1822. In his inaugural speech, Coles made it clear that he wanted the so-called “Black Laws” repealed. This was not a popular position to take. Under these laws, those who freed a slave had to pay a bond to the state for the former slave’s future good behavior.
During his re-election campaign, those who wanted the Illinois Constitution changed to allow slavery seized on the fact that he had freed his slaves without paying a bond to the state of Illinois. “His reward (for freeing his slaves) was a civil suit brought by political enemies in Illinois bent on destroying his reputation.”
Of four candidates for governor, three were pro-slavery. Lawsuits filed against the governor for non-compliance of the “Black Laws” resulted in a fine of $3,000, and Illinois lost their democratic governor.
Robert Crawford, his former slave, became a well-known preacher in Madison and Bond counties, and is known to have spoken to Fayette County congregations.
In an Oct. 23, 1840, letter to Coles, Crawford wrote, “I want you, dear master, to remember our conversation in going to St. Louis – which that ought to be a day long to be remembered, that God worked to his own honor and glory. We are truly thankful that our old master, John Caules and his wife Rebekah, ever had a son by the name of Edward. We believe that God has made him the means of doing this great good.”
After losing the governor’s race in 1826 and a later bid for the Senate, Coles retired from politics…a victim of his own integrity.