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Edward Coles

Death: July 07, 1868 (81)
Immediate Family:

Son of Col. John Coles and Rebecca Elizabeth (Tucker) Coles
Husband of Sally Logan Coles
Father of Robert Coles
Brother of Rebecca Travis Singleton; Emily Ann (Coles) Rutherford; Sally Coles; Eliza Coles and Isaac A Coles

Managed by: Scott Ronald Fleischer
Last Updated:

About Edward Coles

Second Governor of Illinois

Edward Coles (December 15, 1786 – July 7, 1868) manumitted his slaves in 1819, was secretary to James Madison (1810 to 1815), neighbor and anti-slavery associate of Thomas Jefferson and was the second Governor of Illinois, serving from 1822 to 1826. He is credited with leading a political campaign that was successful in preventing the legitimization of slavery in the Illinois constitution. His brothers-in-law were John Rutherfoord, who served as governor of Virginia, and Andrew Stevenson, who served as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and American minister to the United Kingdom. He corresponded with and advised both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to free their slaves. He inherited a plantation and slaves from his father but because he was opposed to slavery journeyed to Illinois to set them free.

Early years

Edward Coles was born (December 15, 1786) at Enniscorthy, a plantation in Albemarle County (central Virginia). He was the youngest male among ten surviving children of John (1745–1808) and Rebecca (1750–1826) Coles. His schooling included terms at Hampden-Sydney College (Hampden-Sydney, Virginia) and the College of William and Mary (Williamsburg, Virginia), remaining there until the summer of 1807. While at William and Mary, Coles was strongly influenced by the enlightenment ideals taught by the Rev. James Madison (fist Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia and President of the College). He determined not to be a slaveholder and not to live where slavery was accepted and kept these views from his father. This subterfuge ensured that he would receive slaves through inheritance, thus providing him with the opportunity to give freedom.

When his father died in 1808, Coles received 12 slaves and a 782-acre plantation farm on the Rockfish River, (Nelson County, Virginia). Coles revealed his views to his family, resulting in a stressful family controversy. Coles’ early plan to free his slaves in Virginia was abandoned as he sorted through the legal, social and practical challenges posed by Virginia law and family resistance. He placed his plantation for sale and began to plan for a move to the west, but at the request of his family he kept his plans secret from his slaves.

Service in the White House

Some months after taking office President James Madison invited Coles to fill the role of private secretary where he served from January 1810 to March 1815. Among other things his duties involved the copying of the president's official correspondence into the national archives. (Dolley Madison was Coles’ first cousin and Edward’s brother, Isaac Coles, had been secretary to both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison during their administrations.) He had a good relationship with Madison, with whom he would often speak with "perfect candor" and as such formed a lasting admiration for the president. It was while he was secretary when he initiated correspondence with Thomas Jefferson over the issue of slavery.

Coles' term as secretary delayed his plans to free his slaves. He gained political experience as a Madison advisor, served as Madison’s primary emissary to Congress and managed much of the patronage flowing from the executive branch. A tour of northeast states in 1811 brought him in contact with John Adams, the result of which was the start of warming relation between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. After the War of 1812 Coles toured the Northwest Territory (Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois) in June 1815 in search of land he could purchase and use as a settlement that would be suitable for a home for himself and a place for the slaves he still proposed to free.

Correspondence with Jefferson

In 1814 Coles wrote a letter to his Albemarle County neighbor Thomas Jefferson, asking the former President to publicly work for an end to slavery in Virginia. Jefferson’s response has become a signal document in the study of Jefferson’s troubling and complex relationship with the institution of slavery. Jefferson unequivocally declined Cole’s request, advising his young associate to stay in Virginia to help in the long-term demise of slavery. Coles’ disappointment is clear in his return letter of September 26, 1814.

Coles was delayed again in fulfilling his covenant with freedom by a diplomatic trip to Russia (1816–1817) at the request of President Madison. Returning to America, Coles embarked on a second reconnaissance mission to the Northwest Territories (1818) and participated in the Illinois Constitutional Convention at Kaskaskia.

Manumission of slaves

Coles having deep moral objections to slavery planned to manumit the slaves he inherited from his father and so embarked from his plantation in April 1819; his 17 slaves (6 adults; 11 children) traveled separately by wagon. They met at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, where the party boarded a pair of flatboats and began a water-bound journey north to Pittsburgh, then west along the Ohio River toward Illinois. Coles had let the slaves ride on ahead, none of them knowing his plans to free them at that time. While descending the Ohio River Coles selected a point west of Pittsburgh to announce to his slaves their immediate freedom and also his plan to provide land to each head of a family. The scene is captured in a biographical letter written by Coles some 25 years later. It is also the subject of a mural in the first floor (south hall) of the Illinois State Capitol. Coles gave each head of family 160 acres (0.65 km2) of land. The Coles party arrived in Edwardsville, Illinois, early in May 1819. Coles provided employment and other ongoing support for those he had freed. He had been granted the position of Register of Lands by President James Monroe (also a neighbor of Coles from Albemarle County, Virginia) and served in that capacity from 1819 through 1822.

Coles’ term as Governor

Edward Coles ran for governor in the election of 1822. He won the election by a very tight margin. Coles’ inaugural address included a clear call for the end of slavery in Illinois and revision of the Black Code. A proslavery faction had hoped to strengthen the legality of slavery in the new state of Illinois; Coles’ bold call for an end to slavery stiffened their resolve and led to a rancorous legislative effort (the Shaw-Hansen Affair) to force passage of a bill approving a referendum to hold a constitutional convention. Governor Edward Coles led the opposition to the convention, recognizing it as a dishonest attempt to more clearly legalize slavery in the state. He committed the entirety of his income as governor to the project and led a committee of anti-slavery citizens and legislators in a public campaign to defeat the call for a constitutional convention. The resulting 18-month political struggle resulted in defeat of the proposal.

After his term as Governor had expired Coles retired to his farm outside of Edwardsville and became involved in argricultural pursuits, organizing the first State Agricultural Society in Illinois. Coles made his last appearance in State politics in 1831 and became a canddidate for Congress, running against Sidney Breese and Joseph Duncan, however Jacksnan sentiment being strong in that state Coles lost the election to Duncan.

Assists Madison in manumitting slaves

Coles ran for the U.S. Senate in the election of 1831 but had been out of public view for some years and was unwilling to align himself with any political party. He lost the election and decided to leave the state. At the end of 1831, while visiting James and Dolley Madison at Montpelier (Orange County, Virginia), Madison confided in Coles his wish to manumit his own slaves and called on Coles’ experience in trying to sort out the challenge of finding the right way in which to do this. Madison had died without freeing any of his slaves qwhich were left in a will to his wife Dolley. Believing that Madison had committed to freeing his slaves in his will, Coles was devastated when, after the passing of James Madison, the terms of the will were made known and the slaves had not been freed but passed to his wife, Dolley Madison, who was also Coles' cousin.

Later years

Edward Coles married Sally Logan Roberts (1809 to 1883) on November 28, 1833. Sally Coles bore three children, Mary Coles, Edward Coles, Jr., and Roberts Coles (who died during the Civil War at the Battle of Roanoke Island, February 8, 1862). Coles was recognized as one of the few remaining men with close personal knowledge of both Madison and Jefferson and burnished their reputations as champions of the republican ideals that had motivated Coles during his entire life.

Edward Coles died at the age of eighty two in his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 7, 1868.


Edward Coles was among the very few slaveholders who manumitted his slaves entirely as a testament to the republican ethos that was at the heart of the American enlightenment. His efforts to end slavery in Illinois were decisive in setting that state on a slow road toward greater racial justice. He is also noteworthy for his attempts to pressure Thomas Jefferson to work for the end of slavery in Virginia and James Madison to free his slaves.

Coles County, Illinois was named for him. An elementary school on the south side of Chicago is also named after him.

The Governor Coles State Memorial, dedicated to Coles, is located in Edwardsville, Illinois

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Edward Coles's Timeline

December 15, 1786
- 1815
Age 22
Washington D.C., United States
July 7, 1868
Age 81
Illinois, United States