The Slave State of Illinois, Part Three

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

(Parts One and Two.)

Land speculators could not get Congress to enslave Illinois, but Southern settlers brought some slaves anyway. The territorial legislature obliged them by allowing slavery in all but name in an apprentice system, by allowing almost free import of slaves, and by adopting laws to make life difficult for free black people in the name of keeping enslaved black people as property and the territory otherwise as white as possible. With Missouri’s successes, and the riches they brought, just across the river, why not turn Illinois into a slave state in name as well as fact?

After 1818, statehood freed Illinois from the Northwest Ordinance that required the old pretenses. The local slaveholders could enslave Illinois and no one would gainsay them…except other Illinoisans. Not all of them wanted slavery in their new state and they had a leader in Edward Coles, an antislavery man from Virginia. Coles does not loom large in histories of the early Republic, but the man had connections. He served as James Madison’s personal secretary. His brother Isaac had done the same for Madison, and for Jefferson before him. While working in Washington, Coles decided to write to another Virginia antislavery man, Thomas Jefferson.

Coles learned his antislavery politics at William and Mary, but like Jefferson he spent some time hiding them. He knew he stood to inherit slaves if he said nothing and those whom Coles inherited, he could free. His father’s death in 1808 brought him a large plantation and twelve slaves. Coles promptly told his family of his intentions and found them not best pleased by the notion. Freeing slaves in Virginia would also require considerable legal effort, so Coles delayed. He put his plantation up for sale but kept the slaves and kept his plan for them secret. In 1810, Coles joined the Madison administration. But Coles did not give up his dream. He finally wrote to the Sage of Monticello on July 31, 1814.

Coles opened by apologizing for taking up the great man’s time, especially with such a thorny issue as gradual emancipation, but

My object is to entreat and beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence, in devising, and getting into operation, some plan for the gradual emancipation of Slavery. This difficult task could be less exceptionably, and more successfully performed by the revered Fathers of all our political and social blessings, than by any succeeding statesmen; and would seem to come with peculiar propriety and force from those whose valor wisdom and virtue have done so much in meliorating the condition of mankind. And it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, from your known philosophical and enlarged view of subjects, and from the principles you have professed and practiced through a long and useful life, preeminently distinguished, as well by being foremost in establishing on the broadest basis the rights of man, and the liberty and independence of your Country, as in being throughout honored with the most important trusts by your fellow-citizens, whose confidence and love you have carried with you into the shades of old age and retirement. In the calm of this retirement you might, most beneficially to society, and with much addition to your own fame, avail yourself of that love and confidence to put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the immortal author, and on which we bottomed our right to resist oppression, and establish our freedom and independence.

We can free the slaves. We need only a sainted founding father, now retired and so immune to the political dangers such a plan would present to the career of a younger Virginian. The genius of Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, can make it so. People trust Thomas Jefferson. They know he’s a rock-solid American patriot. If he led, others would follow.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Still, Coles understood how much he asked of a member of Virginia society. He told Jefferson that his convictions against slavery ran so deep that he aimed to leave quit Virginia for good, leaving behind friends and family, and free all slaves who came into his possession. But if Edward Coles could do that, surely Thomas Jefferson, secure in his retirement, could risk some social ostracism?

Jefferson answered back, on August 25, with a history of his own antislavery efforts and how the Revolution and then politics kept him too busy to gauge if opinion had changed in abolition’s favor since then. Since his retirement, no one has reached out to him about ending slavery so he thought the time not yet ripe. But now he had such a person at hand. Would he help?

This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, & these are the only weapons of an old man.

And what should Coles, a slaveholder, do until the time finally did prove right?

But in the mean time are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not. 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 all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control. I hope then, my dear sir, you will reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition; that you will not lessen its stock of sound disposition by withdrawing your portion from the mass. That, on the contrary you will come forward in the public councils, become the missionary of this doctrine truly Christian; insinuate & inculcate it softly but steadily, through the medium of writing and conversation; associate others in your labors, and when the phalanx is formed, bring on and press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment.

Stay in Virginia, young Coles. Keep your slaves too. Treat them well and whisper abolition in secret. Then, someday, it will surely come. Old Jefferson will remember you in his prayers, but he has only those to give. Coles thought better in his September 26 response:

Your time of life I had not considered as an obstacle to the undertaking. Doctor Franklin, to whom, by the way, Pennsylvania owes her early riddance of the evils of Slavery, was as actively and as usefully employed on as arduous duties after he had past your age as he had ever been at any period of his life.

With, one presumes, all the help Jefferson’s prayers could give, Edward Coles took his slaves west to Illinois.

2 comments on “The Slave State of Illinois, Part Three

  1. I remember reading this in Freehling. He would not be held in the regard he is if his vacillating views were better known.


    • I first learned about the exchange from Freehling myself.

      I think you’re right. It’s one thing to know Jefferson had slaves and never freed all that many, but quite another to know that despite his famous, if not particularly effective, free soil policies the man went on to tell others they should remain slaveholders.

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