CHAPTER 8: WASHINGTON
But I have many valued friends here, where I resided six of the happiest years of my life . . . (Edward Coles to Thomas Sloo , February 15, 1827)
|Actually, Coles resided only a little over five years in Washington, from January 1810 to March 1815. And during those years he suffered from an extremely long and painful illness and a crushing disappointment in love. Yet in retrospect they must have seemed his happiest years. He was young at a time and in a place that was exciting, romantic, self-consciously historic. In the President's House (not called the White House until it had been burned by the British in 1814 and reconstructed a few years later) he found an affectionate home similar to the one he had left at Enniscorthy. To the Madisons he became like a son; to Todd Payne, the child of Dolley's first marriage, he was like an older brother. The affectionate side of his nature--the pet of older women--found its perfect playmate in Dolley; the idealistic side its perfect friend in Madison.
His duties as Presidential secretary were not difficult. He kept the President's papers and made copies of the President's correspondence. He carried on routine correspondence in the President's name. He bore messages from the President to the Congress. He assisted Dolley in arranging social events. He sat at the foot of the table at dinner and was expected to help keep conversation flowing.
All this was not as burdensome as it may sound. The power of the federal government was much more circumscribed and the duties of the President much more limited than they are now. In 1802, for example, there were only 126 federal employees in all the District of Columbia. When visitors to Washington of the educated and upper classes called at the President's House they were often received personally by the President and his Lady. The entire enterprise of government was much more informal, homey, and provincial than the administration of a small city is today. Coles was able to do all of his work conscientiously and well, and still have plenty of time for society, leisure, and love.
His position in the President's House has no analogue today, when the White House staff numbers in the hundreds. Except for domestic servants, Coles was, essentially, the White House staff, and as such he was not merely secretary but also protege and intimate friend. His position held no power or authority, but because of his intimacy with the President, Coles enjoyed the pleasure of being courted as an important person. His correspondence in these years is full of letters from men seeking favors or appointments for themselves, friends, or constituents. For instance, Robert Fulton writes to ask for Coles' help in maintaining his claim to be inventor of the steamboat. William Pinckney sends a letter in support of Howard Goldsborough for some appointment or other. If there be no impropriety in laying this paper before the President, Pinckney writes, I beg you to have the goodness to do so. Certainly there can be no comparison between the two candidates upon the [grounds] of fitness for office.
On another occasion, Coles complains to Dolley, While I was in Philadelphia, some of the friends of B.C. Wilcocks, with whom I became slightly acquainted, requested me to recommend him as a fit person to be made consul for Canton in China. Not knowing any thing of his character or qualification I wished to have declined it, but being pressed to say something, I promised to name him to the President as a person anxious to obtain the above appointment.
Wherever he went Coles was received by governors, senators, judges, and Congressmen (and later by the princes and ministers of Europe) as a person of consequence. Yet he himself had no powers, and there is no evidence that, except in the matter of appointments, he had any influence on the President or even participated in discussions of policy. On the contrary, he seems to have had little to do with the contents of the messages he delivered to Congress or of the intricately worded diplomatic notes that he copied.
It was an exciting time in American history. The world was at war. England and France, the two great adversaries, each tried to push the United States into war with the other. Washington was split between the sympathizers of each. There were intrigues in Congress, at the dancing and dinner parties, even within the President's House. It was hoped that some scandal or social embarrassment would help tip the diplomatic balance in favor of one side or the other.
Socially, it was the time of Dolley's "court"--a time now looked back on as legend, when the social forms of democratic government were being shaped. As Presidential secretary Coles was Dolley's right hand, hosting dinner parties, organizing dances, serving as manager of public balls. The Madisons loved young people and filled the President's House with them--Dolley's beautiful sisters, their children, lovely cousins from the country, children of friends. Thus suddenly and strangely domesticated in the President's House, a young visitor writes of his short stay there, I found myself translated into a new and fairy sort of existence. Edward Coles was the private secretary to the President, a relation, a thorough gentleman, and one of the best-natured and most kindly-affectioned men it has been my fortune to know. He was an intimate of the house, as were Miss Mayo, afterwards Mrs. General Scott, and Miss Coles [Edward's sister Sally], afterwards Mrs. Andrew Stevenson. These ladies were experienced belles, used to reigning over a multitude of willing subjects . . .
The President's House was full of beautiful women and handsome young men. Dolley and her two sisters, Lucy and Anna, were among the most beautiful women of the day. Lucy, a widow, visited for several social seasons with her children until in 1812 she married Judge Todd. Anna married Congressman Richard Cutts and remained half of each year in the President's House with what were eventually her seven children. And there were always two or three other young women living there whom Dolley undertook to guide through the Washington season and attempted to find husbands for. There was Edward's sister Sally, Phoebe Morris of Philadelphia (whom Dolley wanted for her son Payne), the Misses Hamilton, Mayo, Hay, etc. And there were often young men, too: nephews Alfred and Robert Madison, Dolley's younger brother John Payne, her son Todd Payne, and, of course, Edward Coles. During the Madison administration the President's House was a gay, romantic place, full of youthful exuberance and beauty. With all of those young people living together there for months at a time, it would be strange indeed if Coles had not fallen in love.
All of this activity took place against the backdrop of a grand capital emerging slowly out of a sea of mud. Unlike most cities, Washington did not grow organically from a civilized center. Instead it was imposed whole upon the wilderness by the mind of one man, an architect perhaps appropriately named L'Enfant. L'Enfant envisaged a great seat of Empire. There would be grand boulevards radiating out from glorious monuments like spokes of a wheel. Everything would be monumental and impressive. The great buildings were to stand on opposing hills. The streets were to be at least ninety to a hundred feet wide, which will give a fine appearance to the city, a contemporary report complains, but in a region where the summer sun is so intensely hot, and the winter winds so severely cold, narrow streets, affording shadow and shelter, would be of great utility. The city was to be immediately four miles across, even though hardly anyone lived there. The result was that for years the "city" was a few odd buildings scattered inconveniently across an enormous swamp.
In many ways, Washington resembled the government of which it was the seat. In the first place, it was born of a compromise between the North and South, Jefferson getting the site of the city for the South and Hamilton getting a stable currency for his banker and merchant friends in the North. Secondly, it resembled the Constitution in the sense that it was a rational order imposed upon experience. It was the best that man could dream applied to the dust and mud of everyday life. One scholar sees the Constitution embedded in the physical plan of Washington, the physical distance between the Capitol and the President's House symbolizing the separation of powers, with the Congress sitting on the slightly higher eminence.
And in traditional American fashion, Washington was the product of a desire to get something for nothing. Like many frontier settlements, Washington was a gigantic real estate scheme, an attempt by the federal government to get in on the ground floor, to corner the market and sell off the goods at inflated prices. The idea was to purchase the District of Columbia cheaply from the local owners, then to announce the intention of the government to move in and to sell the town lots at an enormous profit. Real estate prices would skyrocket, Congress assumed, and the profits accruing to the government would more than pay for the lavish monuments to empire that Congress planned to erect.
Alas! In one final way Washington was similar to the government which it housed: no one was particularly interested in it. For years the sale of town lots dragged, picking up only a little when in 1800 the price was cut in half. Industry did not find the site attractive, and population grew much more slowly than anticipated.
Even by 1810, the year Coles arrived, the population of Washington was only 8,208, up from 3,000 in 1800. The Abbe Corea, minister from Portugal, dubbed Washington " the city of magnificent distances ," referring sarcastically to the morass of swamp and weeds that lay between the widely scattered houses. In going to assemblies, the British ambassador complained, one had sometimes to drive three or four miles within the city bounds and very often at great risk of an overturn, or of being what was termed "stalled," or stuck in the mud when one can neither go backwards or forwards and either loses one's shoes or one's patience.
And the Irish poet Thomas Moore invites us sarcastically:
In fancy now beneath the twilight gloom,
The few boardinghouses were totally insufficient to house the members of Congress, who often had to squeeze in two or three to a room. To foreign diplomats Washington was a cultural desert, and they escaped to the relatively civilized cities of Philadelphia and New York whenever possible. Frequent attempts were made to transfer the capital back to the North, the most serious being after Washington had been burned by the British in 1814.
The years Coles spent in Washington were precarious years; there was a sense that the big test for the new government and the new capital was at hand, and that the question of whether the democratic experiment would pass the test was an open one. This sense of crisis made the atmosphere electric; there were times when the whole city held its breath awaiting the arrival of a ship with news from abroad. It is easy to see why Coles was induced to stay for so long: to abandon the Madisons before the great question was decided would be unworthy of a man of Coles' passionate loyalty, and besides, it would remove him from the center of an historic action. It was only in 1815, the great question decided, the struggle with Europe at an end, that Coles--and the rest of the nation--turned once again to the west.
The task of making Washington a social center was crucial to its political survival. Congress was, after all, a collection of people, and people have to wear clothes, eat, be introduced to one another, converse, flirt, court, marry, enjoy moments of pleasure, and fight off loneliness, boredom, and depression, as well as make laws. Washington had to be more than a legislative center: it had to provide a ground on which people from different regions of the country could meet and interact comfortably. It had to be a place where a heterogeneous collection of quasi-independent states could see itself as a nation.
Luckily, the person at the center of Washington society in those days was the one most fit for the task of setting social precedents and establishing social norms that both slaveholder and Puritan could be reasonably comfortable with. For sixteen years, from 1801-1817, Dolley Madison was the nation's hostess--a reign unrivaled in length, splendor, and political importance. Since Jefferson was a widower when he assumed the Presidency, he looked to Dolley, as the wife of his secretary of state, to assume many of the obligations of first lady. Then in 1809, when Madison took over as President, she moved into the President's House and established it as the center of national society.
Something has already been said about Dolley's early life. Born in Virginia of Quaker parents, later a Philadelphia matron, and finally mistress of a large Virginia estate, Dolley was of both North and South, of both aristocrats and merchants, of both a small religious sect and, through marriage to Madison, Episcopalian. She was therefore peculiarly suited to her social challenge, conversant with both worlds that she would be forced to bring together. She had the anti-slavery credentials of her emancipator-father and first husband and the slavery credentials of her second husband. She was in the evening a fun-loving, daring lady of fashion, introducing the latest European styles to a shocked and admiring provincial audience, and in the morning a prim Quaker, receiving visitors graciously in the drab gray dress and white cap and apron of her former sect. She was to thousands of strangers a warm, open, hospitable and unaffected hostess, yet she had the necessary toughness to be at the center of society's harsh and critical attention for sixteen years.
She was a peculiar blend of warmth and practicality, an affectionate, loving, graceful woman who was also pre-eminently a survivor. When her father's bankruptcy left her family destitute she abruptly accepted the proposal of John Todd, Jr., a wealthy Quaker lawyer, whose attentions she had avoided for a number of years.
At the time she was a vivacious, extraordinarily beautiful woman of twenty-two, of slight figure, possessing a delicately oval face, a nose tilted like a flower, jet black hair, and blue eyes of wondrous sweetness. Her love of fun, beauty, and fine things ran against the grain of her Quaker environment, which may be the reason why she had had no romances up until the time she abruptly changed her mind about John Todd. One suspects, knowing her later character, that she would have preferred to avoid the drab, strict life that awaited her as a Quaker housewife. But with her family destitute, a young man of wealth and family such as John Todd was a gift of fortune not to be refused.
It was perfectly in character for Dolley to marry for practical reasons; she was all her life a practical person. But it was also in character for her, once her choice had been made, to cultivate her garden. She seems to have been an obedient, affectionate, loving wife to John Todd, adapting herself to the strict Quaker life without outward dissent. With her husband she voted to censure her own sister Lucy for eloping with George Steptoe Washington, the nephew of the President. The objection was not so much that the young couple were children--Lucy was fifteen and George seventeen--but that Lucy had married a non-Quaker.
This quiet, bourgeois life was not, however, to last long. Three years after her marriage, in the summer of 1793, a plague of yellow fever struck Philadelphia, the worst plague in American history. One out of every six residents of the city died. Dolley, recovering from the birth of her second child, escaped to the suburbs. John remained behind to attend to business, then in rapid succession to nurse his law clerk, his father, and his mother, all of whom died. He, too, fell ill, and on October 24, 1793--coincidentally the same day that the new baby died in the suburbs--he died in Philadelphia, leaving Dolley twice bereaved.
Now a widow, mourning both her husband and child, Dolley also became extremely ill. She was also without funds, since her brother-in-law James had seized all of the family property on the deaths of his parents. It must have been a bitter winter for her as she moved back into the house she and her husband had shared. Her mother, who had nursed her during her illness, left to live with Lucy in Virginia. Dolley was alone with her son Payne and her younger sister Anna, fighting with her brother-in-law even for the furniture in her house. His conduct must have revealed to her how far she could trust human nature.
For help and advice she turned to Aaron Burr, a former resident of the boardinghouse her mother had established after her father's bankruptcy. Her will, dated May 13, 1794, names Burr as the guardian of her child in the event of her death. Whether there was a romance between Dolley and Burr is unclear. He was married, but his wife lay dying of cancer in Westchester. In fact, Burr's wife died only five days after Dolley had made out her will, making Burr an eligible, if elderly, suitor. But by that time another famous founding father was eagerly pursuing the lovely Quaker widow.
As Dolley regained her health and spirits in the spring of 1794, she became more beautiful than ever. Her beauty was a topic of conversation; statesmen waited in the street to watch her pass. Philadelphia was at that time the nation's capital, filled with the great men of the day who had come for the session of Congress. The most eligible bachelors in the country were there, and Dolley was the most desirable woman.
One of these eligible bachelors was James Madison, then a Congressman from Virginia. He was already famous as the author of much of the Constitution and of many of the Federalist Papers--those essays which contained the philosophy of the new political system. He was also extremely wealthy, the only heir to an enormous estate in Virginia called Montpelier. At 43, seventeen years older than Dolley, he had not yet married, which meant that there were no children of a previous marriage to lay claim to his estate.
He was already in love with Dolley from a distance; meeting her, however, was a problem. She had no parents and no chaperone. One couldn't simply call on her, not in those days. To obtain an introduction Madison turned to Aaron Burr, who was known to be her advisor and intimate friend. One story has it that this was a shrewd move on Madison's part to get rid of a rival. Burr was attempting to get the appointment as minister to France through the influence of Jefferson and Madison on President Washington. He could hardly refuse Madison's request for an introduction to Dolley, even though Madison's intentions were obvious to everyone. If the story is true, then Burr gave up the most beautiful woman of his time for a chance at a post he did not receive.
Dolley seems to have been excited at the prospect of meeting so illustrious a suitor. Dear friend, thou must come to me, she writes to her best friend Eliza, recently engaged to Virginia Congressman Richard Lee. Aaron Burr says that "the great little Madison" has asked to be brought to see me this evening. The first interview was apparently a success, and other visits followed. Within weeks Philadelphia society was talking of marriage.
In fact, although the slaveholding aristocrat and the Quaker widow seemed worlds apart, they were both from the same small circle of great Virginia families. Madison knew Dolley's Coles relatives very well; Edward Coles claimed that Madison always said he was indebted for his matrimonial success to the friendly aid of my uncle Isaac Coles . . . who was at that time one of his Congressional colleagues.
What Uncle Isaac Coles said or did is unknown, but certainly Dolley's Virginia relatives must have seen Madison's interest as a marvelous opportunity for her to return to the affluence and position that her father had thrown away.
Even Martha Washington called Dolley to the President's apartments to ask if it were true that she and Madison were to be married. When Dolley said it wasn't, Martha urged her strongly to accept Madison's proposal.
Why Dolley hung back is an interesting question. Perhaps she still mourned her husband, only seven months dead. She was still a Quaker, and she knew that marrying a non-Quaker would shut the door on that part of her life forever. Perhaps she was not yet ready to give up her new romantic freedom, to join herself to a much older man, a slight, short, not very attractive man. She had married once for practical reasons, and it had seemed to turn out well. But would it again?
Unsure of her answer, in June she left for Virginia, first to visit her Coles relatives and then to stay with her mother and sister at Harewood, George Steptoe Washington's estate. Perhaps it was in Virginia that Uncle Isaac Coles wielded his decisive influence; at any rate, on her way to Harewood Dolley decided to marry James Madison. She wrote to him from Fredericksburg accepting his proposal, and he met her at Harewood, where they were married on September 16.
A letter written by Dolley on that day to her friend Eliza Lee is revealing both of her reasons for marrying Madison and of her character: . . . in the course of this day, she writes, I give my hand to the man who of all others I most admire . . . In this union I have everything soothing and grateful in prospect--and my little Payne will have a generous and tender protector. A settlement of all my real property with a considerable addition of money is made upon him with Mr. M's full approbation. This I know you feel an interest in or I would not have troubled you with it--you are also acquainted with the unmerited censure of my enemies on the subject. As for Dolley's "real property," one rather curt letter from her new husband to her recalcitrant former brother-in-law squashed him completely, and he quickly yielded up the share in the Todd estate that was rightfully Dolley's.
Dolley's Quaker life was, of course, over. Like her sister Lucy, she was censured by the Pine Street Meeting for marrying a non-Quaker. But her days of bitterness and financial worry were over, too--at least for the foreseeable future. And her days of drabness, of strict religious regulation, of bourgeois life. In marrying Madison she had closed the circle, returning to the Virginian roots that her father had ripped out only eleven years before. The ripples of that fierce sacrifice had at last been completely stilled: the family was all returned to Virginia, living in lovely mansions on huge estates, served once again by black slaves.
Settled for a second time in a marriage that was both practical and pleasant, Dolley once again let her affections loose. Like John Todd, Madison for the rest of his life blessed the day he married her. Through their long life together, she seems to have been a loving, affectionate wife.
In many ways Dolley was the perfect complement to Madison. He was shy, retiring, stiff in company; she was warm, outgoing, at ease in a crowd. She loved parties, company, fine clothes, casual conversation--all of which made Madison ill at ease. Visitors to Washington were often struck by the contrast between the two--Dolley like a splash of red against Madison's habitual black.
Mrs. Madison is a fine , portly, buxom dame, who has a smile and a pleasant word for everybody , Washington Irving writes of his visit to the President's House in 1812. Her sisters, Mrs. Cutts and Mrs. Washington, are like the two Merry Wives of Windsor, but as to Jimmy Madison--ah! poor Jimmy!--he is but a withered little Apple-John.
In Washington Dolley's personality and historic role meshed perfectly. What was precisely needed at that time was a mistress of society: a grand hostess, a fun-loving instigator, a leader in fashion, a woman remarkable enough to remain at the center of social attention, a first lady so congenial, gracious, and genuinely warm that both friends and enemies of her husband would always feel welcome with her. It is sometimes said that Madison owed his re-election to the popularity of his wife; whether or not this is true, it is certain that Dolley's social activities served an important political function.
Her "Wednesday evenings" at the President's House were a focal point for society, a place where all parties and factions could meet. One did not need an invitation; one merely came. All of the important and interesting people in Washington would be sure to show up, and they invariably attracted a crowd. . . . the drawing room--that center of attention, a contemporary writes of Dolley's Wednesday levees, affords opportunity of seeing all those whom fashion, fame, beauty, wealth or talents, have render'd celebrated. It has this winter  been generally very much crowded, seldom has the company been less than 2 or 300, and generally more. I cannot tell you what an interest is imparted to this assembly by the entrance of some celebrated personage. I was there the evening of Perry's first appearance and had some interesting conversation.
In the midst of a party one could find Dolley wandering from group to group with a book in hand--not to read, but for the purpose of tempting even the shyest and most backward guest into conversation. She remembered not only the names of vast numbers of people, but their family connections and their concerns. She was old friend or family to many young people whom she had never met before but surprised with a kiss and questions about relations back home. She took snuff, but somehow, a contemporary writes, in her hands a snuff box seems only a gracious implement with which to charm.
Everything she touched she handled with grace, courage, and good sense. It could not have been easy for her to be warm, gracious, witty, inventive, daring, high-spirited, on public display for sixteen years at the helm of Washington society. But she must have been well aware of the importance of what she was doing: of the political strength she was generating for her husband, of the necessity of providing a "civilized" social life for the members of Congress and the diplomatic corps, of the fact that every social decision she made created a precedent for the operation of an imperial social life in a democratic state.
The relationship between this extraordinary woman and Edward Coles seems to have been especially warm and close. Just as Dolley's personal influence kept Edward's brother Isaac at his post long after he had hoped to be gone, so Dolley exerted her influence to retain Edward. Yet Isaac was much less boyish than Edward, less vulnerable, less likely to play the role of playmate-son. Edward's affectionate friendship with Dolley seems deeper than Isaac's, something more than friend and a little less than son.
A recurring theme of their correspondence was Dolley's desire to get Edward married. Dolley was an inveterate matchmaker; she seemed to see it as her duty to get all of the young people around her properly married. Often she was successful, but sometimes--as with her attempt to match her son Payne with Phoebe Morris, or with her attempt to find a wife for Edward--she failed.
I think there is some danger of you both [Edward and his brother John] getting married before you return, Dolley writes teasingly to Edward, who is on a trip up north. If it should be so give me timely notice, that I may strew roses about our mountain paths and augment all I can, the Enchantments that await my New Cousins.
Sometimes the sentiments in their correspondence became more serious, though stiffly worded in the style of the day. Among [your connections], Dolley writes to Edward, there are none who feel a more affectionate interest for you than Mr. Madison and myself. And Edward closes a letter to Dolley, Present my respects to . . . the President, for whom permit me to say, I feel a filial attachment, and accept for yourself the assurance of the same, with the addition of the affection of a cousin.
These sentiments were genuine and lasting. Coles remained as a son to the Madisons, decades later lending them money when they became financially embarrassed, bringing his bride from Philadelphia and later his children regularly to see them, writing to them often with the unhesitating assurance of their interest in the trivial details of his life that one reserves for family and only the most intimate friends.
Clearly the Madisons were one of the major reasons why Coles remained the master of slaves so long after he had decided to free them. Increasingly, emigrating west with his slaves meant exile not only from Virginia but also from Washington, his second home, and the Madisons, his second parents. Dolley's blend of affectionate warmth, practicality, and sensuous enjoyment was like a magnet pulling him away from his austere goal.
The path of ease would have been for him to remain in his rather undemanding position at least until the end of Madison's second term, and then--with Dolley's help--to marry a wealthy woman and become a protege of his powerful friend. This was the course the Madisons urged upon him. We indulge this pleasing hope, Dolley writes to him on one occasion, in addition to that of your remaining with us to the last, not that I would for the World retard any plan for your prosperity; but that I flatter myself the Western country may be given up for something more consonant with your happiness and that of your connections.
Madison was also an influence on Edward to remain in Washington, in his own quiet way a much more subtly persuasive influence than Dolley. The two made complementary appeals: one to the soul and the other to the heart.
To Coles, Madison was an object of veneration. Contemporary accounts of Madison's personal life picture him impossibly as a saint, and while some percentage of this holiness can be discounted, the unanimity of opinion among those who knew him well seems to point to a man who was extraordinarily gentle, rational, virtuous, and self-controlled.
His principles were sound , pure and conscientious , Coles writes of him, and his feelings were sensitive and tender in the extreme. To give pain always gave him pain, and no man had a more instinctive repugnance to doing wrong to another than he had . . . Charles Ingersoll recalls Coles as remarking that at a time when Madison was every day called tyrant, murderer, despot, etc., he was never known to speak harshly of those who villified him. His patience and forbearance were inexhaustible.
An ex-slave of Madison has similar memories. Mr. Madison, I think, was one of the best men that ever lived, he writes. I never saw him in a passion, and never knew him to strike a slave, although he had over a hundred; neither would he allow an overseer to do it. Whenever any slaves were reported to him as stealing or 'cutting up' badly, he would send for them and admonish them privately, and never mortify them by doing it before others.
How such a wise, thoughtful, and good man allowed himself to continue to own slaves is an interesting question. He believed that slavery was wrong; he planned, in fact, to free his slaves upon his death. But why upon his death? Why not immediately, if slavery was evil?
Coles' explanation is not particularly revealing: . . . from the force of early impressions, Coles writes in one of his few critical comments on Madison, the influence of habit and association, and a certain train of reasoning, which lulled in some degree his conscience, without convincing his judgment (for he never justified or approved of it) he continued to own slaves.
Coles and Madison apparently spoke a good deal about slavery and probably about Coles' desire to free his slaves. Mr. Madison's treatment of me, Coles writes, was such as to put me entirely at my ease, and enabled me to converse freely with him on all subjects. We frequently talked unreservedly about the enslavement of Negroes; always expressing freely my opinions, and often my surprise, that just men, and long sighted politicians, should not, as well in reference to the acknowledged rights of man, as to the true and permanent interest of their Country, take the necessary steps to put in train its termination. On occasions of seeing gangs of Negroes, some in irons, on their way to a southern market, I have taken the liberty to jeer him, as the Chief of our Great Republic, that he was not there accompanied by a Foreign Minister, and thus saved the deep mortification of witnessing such a revolting sight in the presence of a representative of a nation, less boastful perhaps of its regard for the rights of man, but more observant of them.
Madison's response to Coles' challenge is unknown. But the tone of his response to another enthusiast at around the same time may tell us something about his attitude towards Coles.
A Thomas Hertell of New York seems to have sent Madison a letter urging prohibition of intoxicating liquors, to which he responded: The task of abolishing the use of intoxicating, and even exhilerating drinks is an arduous one. If it should not succeed in the extent to which you aim, your mode of presenting the causes and effects of the prevailing intemperance, with the obligation and operation of an improved police and of corrective examples, cannot fail to recompense your efforts, though it should not satisfy your philanthropy and patriotism.
Madison goes on to speculate that human nature requires at least occasional intoxication as a relief from the languor of idleness, or the fatigue of labor, and that the wisest course is to encourage the use of mild intoxicants, such as fermented grapes or malt, rather than to attempt to eliminate intoxication altogether.
What is interesting here is the urbanity not only of Madison's point of view, but also of his tone. His settled belief that the cause of evil lies in "human nature" allows only for the patient amelioration of evil, not for its extinction. Yet he does not discourage an enthusiast's desire to achieve an evil's extinction because the course pursued will lead undoubtedly to amelioration. He will not say that the task of abolishing intoxicating liquors is impossible, only "arduous"; he does not predict failure, but merely suggests that "if it should not succeed to the extent to which you aim" it will still be productive of good. His tone is gentle and sympathetic; his stance is skeptical, not only of what Hertell suggests but of what he himself is saying. He is able to convey his warm approval of Hertell's "philanthropy and patriotism" while suggesting his disagreement with Hertell's scheme--a feat that says much about his tolerance and tact.
Human behavior is a complex phenomenon, Madison seems to suggest, from which certain conclusions may be only tentatively drawn. One acts with moderation on the basis of these tentative conclusions, recognizing that one may very well be acting wrongly. Enthusiasts, imbued with certainty, are often valuable to society; a wise man wishes them well, hoping that their inevitable failure will not lead them to cynical indifference. But a wise man is not an enthusiast, takes no radical action unless forced to, experiments with social arrangements extremely carefully, recognizing that there are many social problems that do not yield easily to solution, and that in many circumstances the disease may be preferable to the cure.
Such a man could continue to own slaves simply because it seemed more practical than setting them free. To the end of his life, in fact, Madison continued to support his huge retinue of slaves, even though most of his estate had been sold off for debts and he had no use for them. They drained away his remaining wealth, yet he absolutely refused to sell them and was loathe to give them a freedom for which he believed they were unprepared. In the end he died still locked in the inertia Coles had noted years earlier. He did not provide for the freedom of his slaves in his will, and as soon as he was gone Dolley sold them to the highest bidder.
Perhaps Madison's bungling of the disposition of his slaves is a comment on his urbane pragmatism. Not that Madison did not have ideals and live by them: he was, like the other founding fathers, a practical visionary who worked through slow and patient compromise to achieve what he believed in. But one never knows when compromise slides into collaboration, when acceptance becomes defeatism, when wisdom is a mask for weariness. There is a point at which principle can no longer yield to practicality. For Madison that point came when he refused to sell his slaves, but clearly the point came too late. Unless one is immortal, refusing to sell one's slaves is a futile gesture. One cannot be the benevolent master forever. The only honorable course was the one Coles had chosen: to free his slaves, stake them to land in a free state, and then assist them during the first hard years of freedom. But that course required an enthusiasm, dedication, and willingness to sacrifice one's own interests that few people were capable of.
The contrast between Coles and Madison in the years that Coles was in Washington was the contrast between youth and age, enthusiasm and worldliness, idealism and calm, purposeful acceptance. It must have been difficult for Coles to maintain his vision in an atmosphere that so gently and so sympathetically corroded it. We can be fairly certain that, as he did with Hertell, Madison praised Coles for his principles while subtly undermining his purpose.
Madison would not have supported Coles' plans for many reasons, not the least of which was that if Coles was right, Madison was wrong. If there really was a practical method for freeing slaves so that in freedom they would prosper and contribute to the social good, then Madison no longer had an excuse for retaining his own slaves. Thus older men who have compromised deeply with evil always have a personal stake in attempting to persuade younger ones to make the same compromises; because if the younger men refuse to compromise and succeed where the older men failed, the elaborate rationalization for having done what was easy and convenient is stripped away.
Even after the die had been cast and Coles was out in Illinois with his freed slaves, Madison, while applauding Coles' generosity, still clung to his reservations. You are pursuing, I observe, the true course with your Negroes, he writes to Coles a few months after the emancipation, in order to make their freedom a fair experiment for their happiness. With the habits of a slave, and without the instruction, the property or the employments of a freeman, the manumitted blacks, instead of deriving advantage from the partial benevolence of their masters, furnish arguments against the general efforts in their behalf. I wish your philanthropy would complete its object by changing their color as well as their legal condition. Without this they seem destined to a privation of that moral rank and those social blessings which give to freedom more than half its value.
Unfortunately, later in life Coles was to come to the same conclusion--that because of racial hostility, blacks could never be free in America. But while he was in Washington still clinging to his plans, he must have believed that it was possible not only for his blacks, but for many blacks to make a go of it in a free state. It was this belief in the possibility of improving the conditions of life that made it possible for him to consider making a substantial personal sacrifice.
Yet none of the people around him shared his hope--could share his hope--because it condemned them. If Coles was right, they had resigned themselves comfortably to an evil they could have, and therefore should have, overcome. One suspects--there is no evidence either way--that Coles' scheme was treated as an admirable youthful enthusiasm, an idealistic dream that spoke very well of the moral character of the dreamer but which one hoped would be abandoned before it uselessly ruined his life.
Surrounded by admiring disapproval, perhaps at times the butt of gentle sarcasm or innuendo, Coles must have found it extremely difficult to keep to his course. Nothing is more humiliating than the suspicion that one looks faintly ridiculous, that one's most precious beliefs seem like adolescent pretensions, that one is seen as Don Quixote when all one wants to do is simple justice to one's fellow man. As we shall see, Edward emerged from Washington with his intention intact, but he did so in an environment that, while not directly opposing him, must have done much subtly to try to wean him away from his plan.