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 secretaryship 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 of 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 “shiveree” 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 is named. He was truly a great man, and those who lived in this State during his sojourn here, like those who lived 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 city.
Source: “Portrait and Biographical Album of Champaign County, Illinois,” Chapman Brothers, Chicago, 1887.