Aged Thomas Jefferson (seventy-one, with twelve years yet to live) let young Edward Coles (twenty-eight) down in 1814. Dolly Madison’s cousin and her husband’s personal secretary did not take the disappointment well. The Sage of Monticello pleaded that a man of his age simply could not get involved in new political movements, but Coles pointed out that the other revolutionary polymath, Ben Franklin, stirred himself easily at that age. Franklin turned seventy-one in 1777, while ambassador to France. The next year he secured the French alliance that Jefferson had celebrated. He stayed in France until 1785, then returned home the year he turned seventy-nine. Two years later, the gouty octogenarian attended the constitutional convention. Once home in Pennsylvania, he took up the causes of abolition and integration, freeing the two slaves he owned. Franklin published abolitionist essays the very year he died. And Thomas Jefferson, with his plantation and his slaves, begged off on account of his advanced years? Not everyone ages with equal grace, but Coles did not ask much more of Jefferson than some writing. His correspondence proved that much still within the Sage of Monticello’s powers.
Jefferson always found the time not quite ripe for emancipation and, just coincidentally, also preferred that any effort to build a movement for it spread very slowly and secretly. He probably did mean for them to eventually succeed, but he treasured the gifts slavery gave him in the form of his life and respectability as a Virginia planter more than his principles about liberty. Coles had enough of those excuses, as modern readers do. Jefferson could and did write eloquently, if anonymously, about the evils of slavery. He at least implicitly indicted himself in those writings. But Jefferson would make only the most timid attempts at reducing slavery where it already existed, and retreated swiftly from those. His personal sentiment rarely translated into real policy, but often led him to oppose limits on slavery.
Coles fretted far less about all that and turned mostly idle sentiment into constructive action. He and his seventeen slaves decamped for Illinois in 1819, the year after it attained statehood. He toured the area twice previously with an eye to good areas to buy land. While going down the Ohio, Coles gathered up his slaves, freed them, and promised each family 160 acres of good land on the Mississippi. Furthermore, Coles settled down nearby and helped them establish themselves. He freed more slaves by the time he turned thirty-three than Jefferson would in all his eighty-three years.
Coles, as a man of property known to the powerful in Washington, rose quickly in Illinois and stood for governor in 1822. The four-way race included two openly proslavery candidates. Had slavery’s supporters united behind one of them, Coles would have lost handily. Their division let him slip through with 2,845 votes to 2,687 for the runner-up, a margin of only 158 votes of 8,606 cast. Coles’ foes swept the southern, and southern-settled, part of the state while he carried the north. A few years earlier, Coles probably would have lost handily, even if his opponents failed to unite. After the War of 1812, vigorous Yankee immigrants finally flooded into the state as everyone expected them to do back in 1787. We should not, however, consider them all abolitionists of Coles’ stripe. Far more wanted the land for themselves and saw slavery as something that would disgust black-hating whites and keep them away, leaving it all to a bunch of white slaveholders who would lord it over their poorer white neighbors.
The victory of 1822 came, as silver linings often do, with a cloud attached. The same election that made Coles Illinois’ second governor gave him a proslavery majority in the legislature. When he came up with plans to revise the slave code and reduce kidnappings of free blacks, they rejected each notion in turn and moved for a referendum to authorize a new constitution where they could excise Illinois ban on slavery. That vote required a two-thirds majority, which they got in the state Senate but lost in the House by a single vote. The proslavery men promptly ousted the holdout, replaced him with one of their own, and carried the motion and began their celebrations.
The referendum came in 1824 and drew a crowd. Only 4,532 Illinoisans voted for president that year, but 11,612 voted on whether or not to rewrite their constitution to permit slavery. The final tally came in 6,640 for the status quo, still quite far from freedom, and 4,972 for slavery. Illinois squeaked by. Slaveholders learned their lesson. The rush of slaves that came into Illinois between 1810 and 1820 reversed, slowly. The apprenticeship system remained for decades yet and restrictions on free blacks endured still longer, but the state narrowly avoided becoming another Kentucky or Missouri. As most immigrants to new territories and states came from the territories and states immediately adjacent, an enslaved Illinois might have meant an enslaved Iowa and Wisconsin and a very different nineteenth century America.