But I was restrained from avowing fully and openly this determination, from the fear it would come to the knowledge of my father, and that it would prevent his giving me any of his Negroes. (Edward Coles, 1844 autobiography)


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Poor Coles! The year following his vow to free his slaves was not a happy one. Although his "virtuous decision" filled him with ecstasy, it also laid a heavy hand upon his future. He discovered very quickly that his ideal required more of him than to give up the third of his inheritance that would come in human form.

In the first place, he had as yet no slaves to free. His father had given Walter his portion of the estate upon his marriage, but still held the inheritance of the other children in his hands. Had the elder Coles known of his bright, idealistic offspring's intention, he probably would have done his best to thwart him. Which meant that Edward was forced to lie continuously to everyone he loved most until the day his father died.

Of course Coles realized immediately that an easy way out would have been simply to ask his father not to will him slaves. But that, he says, would have been the same in perpetuating their bondage as if I had sold the portion of them which I should otherwise have inherited--an alternative that he rejected as hypocritical.

Had Edward's father been a stern, remote figure of ruthless authority, or had Edward been distant from his family, lying would have been easier. But given the close and affectionate relationship that Edward had with his father and family, the decision to mislead them must have been excruciating. There must have been times when, in casual family discussions about his future, Edward cringed inside, knowing that his father would go to his grave ignorant of the fact that he had been deliberately deceived into doing something he passionately disapproved of.

And so the period after Edward had made his momentous decision was a time of waiting. Waiting for the moment he could free himself of conventional hypocrisies, announce his grand project to an astonished world, and live authentically as a shining light unto the masters of slaves. Waiting impatiently for a beloved father to die.

The decision to free his slaves also meant that Edward would be forced to live far away from family and friends in a frontier state. Exactly when he faced this necessity is not clear, but the logic of circumstances must have forced him to become aware rather early that his options were limited.

1806, the year at the end of which Edward decided to free his slaves, was also the year at the beginning of which Virginia decided to make manumission much more difficult. In January 1806, the Virginia legislature, alarmed by the increasing population of free blacks in the state, passed a law that required all slaves freed after that date to leave the state within one year after manumission. Any former slave found in the state one year after having received his freedom was to be sold back into slavery for the benefit of the poor.

Just at the time that Edward was mulling these difficulties over, his cousin Isaac H. Coles was writing Edward's brother Tucker about going west. His plan was not a whim, he insists, but the product of serious deliberation. Although Cousin Isaac never went further than talk, his letter suggests some discussion within the family of the idea of moving west. The attraction, of course, was cheap land. A small plantation in Virginia was worth a baronial estate on the frontier. Perhaps Cousin Isaac's talk suggested to Edward the only practical method for carrying out his scheme. It meant exile for himself and for his slaves, a crude and lonely existence--if not permanently, at least for many years. But any other method spelled financial ruin. In the early days or weeks after his initial inspiration, it must have dawned on Coles that freeing his slaves would be not the gesture of a moment but the work of a considerable portion of his life.

Soon after Edward decided to free his slaves, a series of mishaps created a crisis at Enniscorthy. In February 1807, Edward's brother Tucker broke his leg . In March a late frost wiped out half the tobacco crop. The corn crop was so poor that additional supplies had to be imported from outside the plantation.

These calamities, combined with the expense of a new carriage and the annual trip to the Richmond races, put Edward's father in an awkward position. Money was short and help was scarce. Brother Walter had his own family and estate--Woodville, carved out of a portion of Enniscorthy in 1796. Brother Isaac was in Washington serving as President Jefferson's secretary. Brother John was in Richmond looking after family interests there. And brother Tucker was out of commission with a broken leg.

In May Edward's father still hoped that Edward would be able to remain in school until the term ended July 5 or 6, although he was short of the cash needed to pay for the full quarter. But by June 10, 1807, with Tucker's leg still not healed and himself feeling ill, he asked Edward to come home.

. . . as I expect you will be a farmer , he writes, I think your presence will not only be of service to us but to yourself . . . I do not know the rules of the College but you have my free consent to leave it when you please, for I do expect you can be of more service to me in my harvest than staying to the examination . . . I do not know, or believe, that you can return to Williamsburg. It will therefore be best to bring up your clothes and books.

Edward arrived at Enniscorthy on June 25 . He never received his degree from William and Mary, but as his father hints in his letter of June 10, this was not a matter of consequence for a farmer. Edward, his family believed, was now through with his preparation for life. The time had come for him to take up the family burden at Enniscorthy until such time as he would marry and settle down on his own estate.

For the next seven months Edward helped his father with the affairs of the plantation. As long as his father lived, he had to remain in the limbo of his false position, pretending to be a faithful son with nothing more on his mind than marriage and farming. How he felt about the difficulties into which his plan to free his slaves had plunged him is unknown. True to his resolve, he told no one in his family about what was going on inside him, nor did he write about it to his friends. But his mood at this time seems generally melancholy. He was lonely, in poor health, restless, and at loose ends.

He writes to Campbell , a school friend, of a "breast complaint," then launches into a long discussion of the unhealthiness of the studious life, especially for those like him and Campbell who have breast complaints. He had intended to study medicine, he claims, but as soon as he saw his breast was affected he gave it up. A Dr. Eurette has informed him that one month of study needs to be balanced by twelve months of activity.

But what activity? True, there must have been some work for him at Enniscorthy, but after the harvest not nearly enough to absorb his energies. In December 1807 he may have made a short trip to Charlottesville on family business. In January 1808 a trip to nearby Prince Edward county was made impossible by heavy rains. Cut off from his friends, his visionary project suspended indefinitely, with little productive to do, Coles seems unhappily to have marked time until early in 1808, when his period of waiting was abruptly ended.

On January 27, 1808 , Coles' father was seized with an attack of pleurisy. Ten days later, on February 5, he died. On February 16 John and Rebecca reached Enniscorthy from Norfolk and Isaac returned from Washington. That same day their father was buried in the family burial ground some 200 yards down the road from the front gate. Again on that day , or perhaps the next, Edward revealed to his family the shocking news that he intended and in fact had secretly intended for over a year to free the slaves that his father in ignorance had left him.

Edward Coles

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