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In this episode of our In the Course of Human Events podcast, we look at the fascinating story of Edward Coles and his efforts to persuade one of America's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, to free his slaves. Rebuffed by the former president, Coles acted on his beliefs, taking 19 men, women, and children with him from slavery in Virginia to freedom and self-sufficiency in Illinois.

Former Monticello Teacher Institute participant Robbie Marsden shares Coles’s remarkable and poignant journey, which spans nearly 50 years and features a surprise encounter with another giant of American history. Joining him for the trip are Monticello Guide Justin Bates and Manager of Digital Media and Strategy Melanie Holland.

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Narrated by Robbie Marsden

Hosted by Melanie Holland and Justin Bates

Direction and editing by Joan Horn

Sound design by Dennis Hysom

Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn


Melanie Holland: Edward's father was a double first cousin with Dolley Madison's mother in that they had cousins on both sides.

Justin Bates: I trust you. Weirder stuff happened in Virginia.

Melanie Holland: Hi, I'm Melanie Holland and I'm the manager of Digital Media and Strategy at Monticello.

Justin Bates: And I am Justin Bates. I'm a guide at Monticello. 

Melanie Holland: Welcome to In the Course of Human Events, a Monticello podcast. 

Justin Bates: Today, we'll be learning about Edward Coles, son of one of Jefferson's very good friends, who wrote to Jefferson during his retirement challenging him about the future of slavery in America.

A Man of his Time 

Robbie Marsden: Hello, my name is Robbie Marsden and I'm a proud teacher of African American History at Vaux Big Picture High School in North Philadelphia. I'm here today to tell you the story of an unsung hero of history, a real founding father, the man who single-handedly negates the idea that Jefferson was a man of his time and shouldn't be blamed for having utilized slave labor. This titan of history, someone that should be learned about and revered in every true American history classroom, is named Edward Coles. 

When my ear first bent to the story of Edward Coles, I was at the Monticello Teacher Institute in the summer of 2019. We were on an exclusive tour of the Monticello mansion, and somebody, maybe even me, asked, "Hey, a common defense of Jefferson is that he was a man of his time. Did anyone ever tell him directly that he should free his enslaved?" The tour guide quickly responded, "Well, yeah. There was a man named Edward Coles, who was the son of John Coles, a good friend of Jefferson's down the road from Monticello. He wrote Jefferson asking to come up with a plan for emancipation, and when Jefferson didn't accept the offer, Coles went on to free his enslaved anyway." 

It took me just a moment to stop the group and ask, "Wait, wait. What'd you say? What's his name?" Edward Coles thus became my topic of study for that week at the Monticello Teacher Institute.

Melanie Holland: I know Robbie because I've been co-leading the Monticello Teacher Institute for almost 10 years. It's a fully funded fellowship program for teachers where they get to come and do research on a topic of their choice and get to hear from other colleagues about what they're doing in the field. When Robbie came, I remember him just jumping headfirst into learning all about Edward Coles. I mean, that's all he talked about all week long.

Justin Bates: Edward Coles is not well-known. But he is someone that more and more guides are starting to incorporate on our Slavery at Monticello tour, primarily because the story of Edward Coles presents a counter to Jefferson: someone who was a member of the upper class, born into a slave-holding family, but ends up someone who is actually going to take actions to free the people they held in bondage.

Coles Confronts Jefferson

Robbie Marsden: The first step to telling the story of Edward Coles is to revisit the correspondence with Jefferson. At this point, Coles is 27 years old, writing to his father's friend. On July 31st, 1814, Coles wrote a letter to Jefferson asking for assistance in coming up with a plan for emancipation. He said, and I quote, "My object is to entreat and beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence in devising and getting into operations some plan for the gradual emancipation of slavery." In our words, "I wanna utilize your experience and the respect you have across the world to create and advertise a plan for emancipation." And then he says, quote, "And it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you by being foremost in establishing, on the broadest basis, the rights of man and the liberty and independence of your country." Yes, Edward Coles is laying it on Jefferson something thick here with the praise and butt kissing. 

Jefferson does answer about a month later, on August 25th, but essentially issues a polite rejection. Says, I appreciate your note and respect your idea, but that emancipation business is for, quote, "the younger generation." 

Coles then writes back on September 26th, 1814, like kind of a smart aleck. He says, quote, "I look to you, my dear sir, as the first of our aged worthies to awaken our fellow citizens." To do something this grand, quote, "powers of both mind and influence are required." But in our words, sorry to bother you. And by the way, Ben Franklin was older than you when he helped found the country. Ouch. Sick early 19th century burn, Eddie. 

Justin Bates: Throughout his life, Jefferson was consistent in his anti-slavery beliefs. He describes slavery as being a "perpetual exercise of the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other." But Jefferson also advanced ideas about racial inferiority. So Jefferson never justified slavery, but he does rationalize it with this idea that, as he says, "Freeing people whose habits have been formed in slavery would be like abandoning children."

Melanie Holland: Yeah, and you can even see that in the letter when he responds to Coles. It's a very patriarchal and patronizing view of enslaved people. He says things like, "My opinion has ever been that until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as it is performed voluntarily by freemen."  

Justin Bates: I always, I don't know, roll my eyes or sigh when he says we're not gonna expect them to do any more labor than what hired white people do. Then why don't you hire more white laborers to do the work at Monticello?

Melanie Holland: What strikes me, too, just about the letter in general, is it's very polite, but it's almost a throwing up hands. 

Justin Bates: It's like a helpless Jefferson, which is an oxymoron, because he's one of the most powerful men in the country. Even if he didn't take action to free people, his simple public statement on this issue, it seems like that's what Coles is looking for. If Jefferson spoke out on this issue publicly, who might follow in that lead? 

Melanie Holland: I also liked how Coles used the example of Franklin in kind of calling Jefferson out, because Benjamin Franklin died in April of 1790. In March of 1790, he was still trying to submit a petition asking the United States Congress to abolish slavery and the slave trade. He was using that influence, which is what Edward Coles was asking Jefferson to do as well. 

Justin Bates: At this point in his life, Jefferson is becoming more and more concerned about his financial situation. Jefferson would have just turned 71, so he's in retirement at Monticello, living a lifestyle of comfort and wealth that is directly connected to a system of labor he knew to be immoral. And one of the best ways to summarize Jefferson's own thinking about this is that he says, "We have the wolf by the ears, where you can neither hold him nor safely let him go." He says that "justice is in one scale, but in the other is self-preservation." Jefferson, much like other human beings who are faced with moral dilemmas, trying to weigh in the balance justice or self-preservation, a lot of times, human beings do tend to act selfishly. 

Coles Brings His Vision to Life

Robbie Marsden: Now, let me rewind a little bit before we go forward in the story of Edward Coles. Having lived in Virginia and among the early Virginian founders, Coles found his way into a gig working for James Madison as his secretary from 1810 to 1815. Coles was tasked with traveling around the country to keep his ear low to the ground, especially when the war of 1812 broke out. He would wine and dine to keep his tabs on the pulse of Madison's approval with the wartime decisions he was making. It was during this time when Coles became fond of the idea of eventually moving to Philadelphia. He had friends there. It was free soil. 

Coles finally brought his vision to life in 1819. He sent his trusted enslaved person, Ralph Crawford, with wagons and a group of 16 others to meet him in Brownsville, Pennsylvania. They then traveled north on the Monongahela River to Pittsburgh, and then West on the Ohio River to Illinois territory – Edwardsville, to be specific. 

Once there, he granted each head of household over 23 years old a 160 acre plot of land. He worked with them on farming techniques and provided books for the kids to learn to read and write. Coles himself settled into Illinois, eventually, as a Register of Lands in Edwardsville, a position he was hooked up with by his friend James Monroe, who was president at the time.

Melanie Holland: Legislation was passed on January 25th, 1806 that prohibits the importation of slaves to Virginia, but it also requires that any freed slaves had to leave the state within 12 months.

Justin Bates: That's a law that is passed in response to an event called Gabriel's Rebellion, which takes place in 1800 in Richmond. It was a failed rebellion. However, it instilled enough fear in the white population that this law that Melanie mentioned is passed in 1806 to start cracking down on the growth of a free Black population who, of course, would be the best equipped to assist in a rebellion, which was the white population's worst fear. 

Melanie Holland: So the enslaved people freed by Edward Coles would've had to leave the state. 

Justin Bates: They would have to leave. 

Melanie Holland: But what's unusual is that he left with them and went to Illinois. His family was very unhappy about it. He waited to tell his family about his plan until after his father had died to ensure that he would inherit the enslaved people so that he could free them. 

Things get Crazy in Illinois

Robbie Marsden: Then things get even crazier. In 1822, Coles runs for Governor of Illinois. In a race where he only ended up getting just about 33% of the vote, only 200 more votes than second place, he was elected the second Governor of Illinois. At this point, lawmakers were attempting to change Illinois's constitution to allow slavery. In order to do so, a two-thirds vote was needed in both the State House and State Senate to be able to hold a convention to change it. After three votes, pro-slavery forces were able to pass the resolution to hold the convention.

But hold up, there was a hair in the soup. A referendum vote needed to take place among the people in order to still hold said convention. Coles went on the offensive. He recruited two of his best friends from Philadelphia, Nicholas Biddle and Roberts Vaux – the namesake of the school I teach at, no big deal – to get anti-slavery pamphlets shipped to and spread around Illinois. Potentially thanks to the pamphlets, advocacy, and behind-the-scenes hustle and bustle of Coles, the referendum did not pass. The people had spoken and Illinois would remain free soil for the time being. 

Talk about Kennedy's Profiles in Courage – we need a new chapter for Governor Coles! After he put his neck out to stop Illinois from becoming a slave state, he never won election again, after a variety of attempts in a variety of offices. Political exile led him to go to the first place he witnessed any semblance of freedom and already had great friends: the City of Brotherly Love. You guessed it, Philadelphia. Go Birds!

Melanie Holland: Illinois didn't become a state until 1818, but there were earlier regional systems of government that had already established slavery and it was still tolerated in the early years of Illinois's statehood. The first state constitution stated that "slavery shall not be thereafter introduced," but there was no clause forbidding an amendment to allow slavery. I was surprised at how kind of wishy-washy it was at first. It seemed like there was a lot of loopholes and there were a lot of people that were still pro-slavery. 

Justin Bates: In 1820, largely because of a lot of these fights about are these states going to be admitted as free or slave states, the federal government will come up with this Missouri Compromise, which declares that Missouri will be admitted as a slave state, but that anything admitted in the future below Missouri's southern border would be slave, whereas anything above would be free. And in order to maintain the balance, they're going to admit Maine as a free state at that same time. The whole idea was that it would be this patchwork of free and slave. 

Jefferson, and this is interesting because this is all around the same time that he's corresponding with Coles about this stuff, he was not too happy about the Missouri Compromise. Here's a man who, again, in his earlier life had actually tried to get a federal law that would ban slavery's expansion westward. But then the Missouri Compromise takes place, and guess what Jefferson thinks? He thinks that the federal government has absolutely no right in determining what state should be entered as a slave or a free state simply based on geography. He thinks it should be a right left up to the states. 

Melanie Holland: And Illinois, they didn't actually ban slavery until 1848. The Illinois Constitution of 1848 banned slavery. 

Justin Bates: It's like you see all these miniature civil wars breaking out, politically and sometimes violently. They're breaking out all across the country before the actual eruption of the national conflict. 

What did Washington and Madison do?

Robbie Marsden: Now, Jefferson wasn't the only person Coles asked about emancipation. Coles made a similar, and definitely more comprehensive, effort to work with James Madison on a plan to emancipate his enslaved. Madison was seemingly much more receptive, exchanging several letters in the early 1830s on the topic. They both seemed to agree that bestowing the decision to his wife Dolley, like George Washington did to Martha, was the wrong move. It created a barrier between bondage and freedom: the surviving widow. 

Coles said bluntly that he hoped, quote, "that you should make provision in your will for the emancipation of your slaves." When push came to shove, the will did exactly what Coles thought he and Madison had agreed was the wrong move, leave his enslaved upon his death to Dolley. When Madison passed away and Coles learned of the will, he was heated. He even accuses his brother-in-law, Andrew Stevenson, of changing Madison's mind behind closed doors. 

Justin Bates: Washington died in 1799, but he did take the step in his will to provide for the emancipation of the enslaved people he held in bondage, about half of the enslaved population overall at Mount Vernon, which I think was around 300 or so. What Washington stated, however, was that they would only become free upon the death of his wife, Martha Washington. He still made sure that his white family was provided for with the comforts provided by slavery. On the other hand, though, he did take a step that people like Jefferson and Madison did not take two or three decades later on.

Melanie Holland: Coles seemed to be constantly disappointed in people who were not willing to actually take action to free enslaved people.

Justin Bates: Dolley Madison, much like Jefferson, was also in debt, and also ends up selling enslaved people, separating families in the process.

One comment we sometimes get from visitors is that Jefferson had to have slaves. He couldn't free anybody because of his financial situation. In reality, he could have freed people. It just would've meant having to accept a lesser standard of living than he was accustomed to. There was always a choice. 

A Confederate Soldier

Robbie Marsden: Please allow me to fast forward again. Amidst my research, I quickly realized that Coles and his family are buried in Philadelphia at Woodland Cemetery by the University of Pennsylvania. I was finally able to visit his tomb just over a year ago, and when I walked up to it, I saw something that seemed off. As I walked closer, I noticed a Confederate Civil War Veteran marker. That leads to another shocking aspect of the Edward Coles story. One of his sons, Roberts Coles, was named after his father's abolitionist bestie Roberts Vaux. 

The thing is, Roberts Coles grew an affinity for the southern life and his southern family through the occasional family visits, and when the Civil War broke out, Roberts fled Philadelphia to go back to Virginia to enlist in the Confederate Army. Edward Coles was heartbroken. He wrote, there was never a chance of him, quote, "ever being again happy." And then in March, 1862, Coles picked up a newspaper and discovered that his son had died in the battle of Roanoke Island. 

Melanie Holland: Coles was an older parent. He'd gotten married later in life. His son Roberts Coles left Pennsylvania to come back to Albemarle County when he was 22 years old. And this was in 1860, so it was right before the start of the Civil War. He said, “Virginia is the land of my father, and I've always regarded myself as a Virginian.” He and his friends had raised a company of volunteers from Albemarle and nearby counties here, called themselves the Green Mountain Grays, and fought in the Virginia 46th regiment.

Justin Bates: Think about how hard that might have been for a father who had done so much more than other people of his class and generation to then see his son take a step back from that work.

Melanie Holland: Yeah, exactly. 

Coles Meets Lincoln

Robbie Marsden: Though the death of his son in the Civil War was undoubtedly a wound that would never heal, Coles did live to see the passing of the 13th Amendment and the end of the Civil War. He even met Lincoln on his trip to Philadelphia in 1865. The story goes that Coles went up to introduce himself to Lincoln, and Lincoln looked back at him and went, "Oh, I know who you are." Though they're both prominent individuals from Illinois, they were not known to have crossed paths, but it is heartwarming to imagine Edward Coles meeting the man who essentially brought his initial vision that he spoke to Jefferson about in the 1814 letter to life.

Melanie Holland: Edward Coles was still alive during the Civil War. He didn't die until 1868. 

Justin Bates: You have this man who is a friend of, acquaintance of, correspondent with Jefferson, who then meets Abraham Lincoln and lives to see the ratification of the 13th Amendment. It just shows us it hasn't been that long. 

Coles Deserves his Roses!

Robbie Marsden: The man who called Thomas Jefferson on his bluff. The man who emancipated his own enslaved. The man who became Governor of Illinois and sacrificed his political career to stop it from becoming a slave state. A man who lived in Philadelphia as the last connection to the founding era, Edward Coles deserves his roses! Edward Coles deserves to be at the forefront of our American History curriculum. Because when it comes down to it, and we debate the hypocrisy of the founding fathers, Edward Coles, from the same era as these people we hold near and dear, held his truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. He did his best to practice what he preached, something Jefferson, quite frankly, didn't do.

Justin Bates: I do think, as I said at the beginning, the story of Edward Coles is a perfect response to the comment that Jefferson was just "a man of his time." When people look back at our time, I'm gonna use the environment as an example, people could look back at this generation and say we didn't do anything to help the environment and that we were just people of our time. But we know there are climate activists out there today, who are trying to help the environment. Same thing in Jefferson's time. There were a lot of people trying to figure out how to solve the problem of slavery and how to help those held in bondage, help them into freedom and help them have successful lives, and Edward Coles is a great example of that.

Melanie Holland: In thinking about Edward Coles in general, I just think it's pretty amazing that not only did he practice what he preached, he freed his enslaved people, but he also provided them with land and was trying to help them get established in life. He followed all the way through with trying to live out his ideals.

Justin Bates: If you visit Monticello and you happen to hear the story of Edward Coles, perhaps it can just provide us a window into not only this time in American history, but also to think about our own contradictions and what actions we might be able to take to fully live up to the ideas that we hold dear.

Thank you everyone for taking some time to listen to this latest podcast in the series, “In the Course of Human Events.”

Melanie Holland: A big thank you to Robbie Marsden. Robbie is fantastic and so enthusiastic and I'm just so thrilled that I got to be a part of this podcast with him.

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