Edward Coles (1786-1868) was a private secretary to James Madison, the second governor of Illinois, and an abolitionist. He was born at Enniscorthy, the family home in Albemarle County. His father, Colonel John Coles, was a slaveholder and a friend of prominent Virginians, including Thomas Jefferson. Edward was well educated by private tutors before attending Hampden-Sidney College and then the College of William and Mary. From 1809 to 1816, he was a private secretary to President Madison, and in 1816, he went to Russia on a diplomatic mission.
Coles was determined to move west — away from slavery in Virginia. He visited the Northwest Territory in 1815 and again in 1818 and decided to settle in Edwardsville, Illinois. In 1819, after selling the land left to him by his father on the Rockfish River, he moved to Edwardsville. As a strong supporter of emancipation, he freed his slaves en route to Illinois and helped them settle in the new state. He was elected governor in 1822 and led anti-slavery forces in the 1824 Constitutional Convention resolution vote that guaranteed Illinois would remain free. Coles's political career subsequently faltered, as he lost the congressional elections in 1824 and 1831. In 1832, he moved to Philadelphia, where he spent the rest of his life. He married Sally Logan Roberts in 1833.
Coles shared an interesting correspondence with Thomas Jefferson regarding slavery. In 1814, Coles, stating that "I never took up my pen with more hesitation or felt more embarrassment than I now do ...," pushed Jefferson onto the subject of slavery. In an attempt to get Jefferson to publicly support a plan for gradual emancipation, Coles flattered and cajoled Jefferson by appealing to the moralist, the statesman, and the author of the Declaration of Independence. This letter provoked one of Jefferson's most famous letters, but Jefferson made no promise of a public statement and left the emancipation fight to the younger generation. Coles tried one last time on September 26, 1814, but there is no surviving response from Jefferson.
- Text from Douglas Evans, "Jefferson's Neighbors," Monticello Research Report, 1995
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