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Edward Coles

Edward Coles (1786-1868)[1]was a private secretary to James Madison, governor of Illinois, and abolitionist. He was born at Enniscorthy, the family home in Albemarle County. His father, Col. John Coles, was a slaveholder and friend of prominent Virginians, including Thomas Jefferson. Edward was well educated by private tutors, then went to Hampden-Sidney College and then 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 out West away from slavery in Virginia. He visited the Northwest twice in 1815 and in 1818 and decided to settle in Edwardsville, Illinois. In 1819, after selling his land left him by his father on the Rockfish River, he moved to Edwardsville. As a strong supporter of emancipation, he freed his slaves on 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. His political career faltered after that 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 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..."[2] 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.[3] Coles tried one last time on September 26, 1814, but there is no surviving response from Jefferson.

Jefferson-Coles Correspondence[4]


  1. This article is based on Douglas Evans, Jefferson's Neighbors, Monticello Research Report, 1995.
  2. July 31, 1814. Massachusetts Historical Society.
  3. See Jefferson to Coles. August 25, 1814. Peterson, Writings, 1343-1346.
  4. Please note that this list should not be considered comprehensive.

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