EDWARD COLES, second Governor of Illinois, 1823-6, was
born Dec. 15, 1786, in Albemarle Co., Va., on the old family estate called “Enniscorthy,”
on the Green Mountain. His father, John Coles, was a Colonel in the
Revolutionary War. Having been fitted for college by private tutors, he was sent
to Hampden Sidney, where he remained until the autumn of 1805, when he was
removed to William and Mary College, at Williamsburg, Va. This college he left
in the summer of 1807, a short time before the final and graduating examination.
Among his classmates were Lieut. Gen. Scott, President John Tyler, Wm. S.
Archer, United States Senator from Virginia, and Justice Baldwin, of the United
States Supreme Court. The President of the latter college, Bishop Madison, was a
cousin of President James Madison, and that circumstance was the occasion of Mr.
Coles becoming personally acquainted with the President and receiving a position
as his private secretary, 1809-15.
The family of Coles was a prominent one in Virginia, and their mansion was the
seat of the old-fashioned Virginian hospitality. It was visited by such notables
as Patrick Henry, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, the Randolphs, Tazewell, Wirt,
etc. At the age of 23, young Coles found himself heir to a plantation and a
considerable number of slaves. Ever since his earlier college days his attention
had been drawn to the question of slavery. He read everything on the subject
that came in his way, and listened to lectures on the rights of man. The more he
reflected upon the subject, the more impossible was it for him to reconcile the
immortal declaration “that all men are born free and equal” with the practice of
slave-holding. He resolved, therefore, to free his slaves the first opportunity,
and even remove his residence to a free State. One reason which determined him
to accept the appointment as private secretary to Mr. Madison was because he
believed that through the acquaintances he could make at Washington he could
better determine in what part of the non-slaveholding portion of the Union he
would prefer to settle.
The relations between Mr. Coles and President Madison, as well as Jefferson and
other distinguished men, were of a very friendly character, arising from the
similarity of their views on the question of slavery and their sympathy for each
other in holding doctrines so much at variance with the prevailing sentiment in
their own State.
In 1857, he resigned his secretary ship and spent a portion of the following
autumn in exploring the Northwest Territory, for the purpose of finding a
location and purchasing lands on which to settle his negroes. He traveled with a
horse and buggy, with an extra man and horse for emergencies, through many parts
of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, determining finally to settle in
Illinois. At this time, however, a misunderstanding arose between our Government
and Russia, and Mr. Coles was selected to repair to St. Petersburg on a special
mission, bearing important papers concerning the matter at issue. The result was
a conviction of the Emperor (Alexander) of the error committed by his minister
at Washington, and the consequent withdrawal of the latter from the post. On his
return, Mr. Coles visited other parts of Europe, especially Paris, where he was
introduced to Gen. Lafayette.
In the spring of 1819, he removed with all his negroes from Virginia to
Edwardsville, Ill., with the intention of giving them their liberty. He did not
make known to them his intention until one beautiful morning in April, as they
were descending the Ohio River. He lashed all the boats together and called all
the negroes on deck and made them a short address, concluding his remarks by so
expressing himself that by a turn of a sentence he proclaimed in the shortest
and fullest manner that they were no longer slaves, but free as he was and were
at liberty to proceed with him or go ashore at their pleasure. A description of
the effect upon the negroes is best described in his own language:
“The effect upon them was electrical. They stared at me and then at each other,
as if doubting the accuracy or reality of what they heard. In breathless silence
they stood before me, unable to utter a word, but with countenances beaming with
expression which no words could convey, and which no language can describe. As
they began to see the truth of what they had heard, and realize their situation,
there came on a kind of hysterical, giggling laugh. After a pause of intense and
unutterable emotion, bathed in tears, and with tremulous voices, they gave vent
to their gratitude and implored the blessing of God on me.”
Before landing he gave them a general certificate of freedom, and afterward
conformed more particularly with the law of this State requiring that each
individual should have a certificate. This act of Mr. Coles, all the more noble
and heroic considering the overwhelming pro-slavery influences surrounding him,
has challenged the admiration of every philanthropist of modern times.
March 5, 1819, President Monroe appointed Mr. Coles Registrar of the Land Office
at Edwardsville, at that time one of the principal land offices in the State.
While acting in this capacity and gaining many friends by his politeness and
general intelligence, the greatest struggle that ever occurred in Illinois on
the slavery question culminated in the furious contest characterizing the
campaigns and elections of 1822-4. In the summer of 1823, when a new Governor
was to be elected to succeed Mr. Bond, the pro-slavery element divided into
factions, putting forward for the executive office Joseph Phillips, Chief
Justice of the State, Thomas C. Browne and Gen. James B. Moore, of the State
Militia. The anti-slavery element united upon Mr. Coles, and, after one of the
most bitter campaigns, succeeded in electing him as Governor. His plurality over
Judge Phillips was only 59 in a total vote over 8,000. The Lieutenant Governor
was elected by the slavery men. Mr. Coles’ inauguration speech was marked by
calmness, deliberation and such a wise expression of appropriate suggestions as
to elicit the sanction of all judicious politicians. But he compromised not with
evil. In his message to the Legislature, the seat of Government being then at
Vandalia, he strongly urged the abrogation of the modified form of slavery which
then existed in this State, contrary to the Ordinance of 1787. His position on
this subject seems the more remarkable, when it is considered that he was a
minority Governor, the population of Illinois being at that time almost
exclusively from slave-holding States and by a large majority in favor of the
perpetuation of that old relic of barbarism. The Legislature itself was, of
course, a reflex of the popular sentiment, and a majority of them were led on by
fiery men in denunciations of the conscientious Governor, and in curses loud and
deep upon him and all his friends. Some of the public men, indeed, went so far
as to head a sort of mob, or “shivered” party, who visited the residence of the
Governor and others at Vandalia and yelled and groaned and spat fire.
The Constitution, not establishing or permitting slavery in this State, was
thought therefore to be defective by the slavery politicians, and they desired a
State Convention to be elected, to devise and submit a new Constitution; and the
dominant politics of the day was “Convention” and “anti-Convention.” Both
parties issued addresses to the people, Gov. Coles himself being the author of
the address published by the latter party. This address revealed the schemes of
the conspirators in a masterly manner. It is difficult for us at this distant
day to estimate the critical and extremely delicate situation in which the
Governor was placed at that time.
Our hero maintained himself honorably, and with supreme dignity throughout his
administration, and in his honor a county in this State was named. He was truly
a great man, and those who lived in this State during his sojourn here, like
those who live at the base of the mountain, were too near to see and recognize
the greatness that overshadowed them.
Mr. Coles was married Nov. 28, 1833, by Bishop De Lancey, to Miss Sally Logan
Roberts, a daughter of Hugh Roberts, a descendant of Welsh ancestry, who came to
this country with Wm. Penn in 1682.
After the expiration of his term of service, Gov. Coles continued his residence
in Edwardsville, superintending his farm in the vicinity. He was fond of
agriculture, and was the founder of the first agricultural society in the State.
On account of ill health, however, and having no family to tie him down, he
spent much of his time in Eastern cities. About 1832 he changed his residence to
Philadelphia, where he died July 7, 1868, and is buried at Woodland, near that
Source: Portrait and Biographical Album of Whiteside Co., Ill: Chicago: M. A.
Leeson & Co., 1887, pages 115-116
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