A NOTE ON THE ROBERTS COLES COLLECTION
|In the fall of 1976, after looking
at the Carter and Cabell collections in the University of Virginia
Library, I asked one of the librarians there whether she knew of any other
Coles papers that might be in the area of Charlottesville, Virginia. She
said that she knew of a trunk of letters in the possession of a Coles
descendent, Roberts Coles, but that no one outside the family had ever
been allowed to see what was in the trunk. For further information she
referred me to Jim Baer, then curator at Monticello, whom I called and
then went to see that same afternoon.
Mr. Baer also said that no one (himself included) had been allowed to see what was in the trunk, but that he thought it contained many letters not only of Edward Coles but also of his brother Isaac (in fact, the trunk had been Isaac's army trunk from the War of 1812), and that since Isaac was President Jefferson's private secretary, as Edward was President Madison's, the trunk would probably contain numerous letters of considerable historical interest. Again he expressed a good deal of skepticism about whether I would be able to see what was in the trunk, but he gave me instructions on how to get to Roberts Coles' home and wished me good luck.
When I arrived at the house around dinner time, I found Mr. Coles, along with a large number of guests, just finishing a somewhat formal dinner in a field behind the house. I excused myself for barging in and simply asked whether he knew the location of Rockfish, the plantation that Edward Coles had inherited, and whether he could give me directions how to get there. Instead, he graciously offered to show me both Rockfish and Enniscorthy the following day, which he did. We spent the entire day together, during which I tried to impress upon him how much I already knew about Coles.
When we returned to his home, he turned and said to me, "You want to see the letters, don't you?" "Yes," I said. "I would."
He smiled and told me to come back the next day, which I did. I spent the entire day sitting next to him as he pulled letters out of the trunk and handed me the ones he would allow me to see. He told me that I could take notes on them but that I could not quote from them, only paraphrase them in the biography I was planning to write. As you might imagine, I read and wrote furiously the entire day, after which my wife and I had a lovely dinner with him and his wife and daughter (his son was away at the time). My plan was to ask him for permission to quote from the letters once the biography was finished and he could see how the quotes enhanced the work. But I put the biography aside and so never communicated with him again.
In May of 2005, when I decided to put what I had written about Coles on the Web, I emailed librarians at both the University of Virginia Library and Monticello and found out that Roberts Coles had died and that the papers were still in the family's possession. I emailed Roberts Coles' son (also Roberts Coles), asking permission to see the letters again, but he emailed back saying that the Coles family was NOT (capitalization his) interested in releasing them. And there it stands.
In conversation twenty-nine years ago, Roberts Coles (the father) said that he intended to donate the papers to some library in a year that he sold some timber, but apparently he never did. I hope that someday soon the family will decide to release them. But until then, as far as I know, my references to the letters in this biographical sketch are the only form in which information from them is available to the public. And I saw only a small number of the letters in the trunk and took hurried notes on only some of those.
I have kept my word to Roberts Coles and only paraphrased from the letters rather than quoting from them. The quotes, obviously, convey far more richly than my paraphrases the reality of the time, but I wish to adhere precisely to my agreement with Mr. Coles, and that I have done. I realize that the inability of scholars to see the letters for themselves severely reduces the value of my work. But fortunately, the Internet affords me the opportunity to make available what I have, and to let visitors to this site make of it what they will.