. . . yet as they [the Russian serfs] are (with the exception of domestic servants) inseparably connected with the soil on which they dwell, and can only be disposed of along with it, they are not so much an object of traffic in Russia as in Virginia, nor are the duties they are required to perform or the treatment they receive, anything like so severe or oppressive; and above all, the feelings and usages of the country so completely check and control the master, that the situation of a Russian vassal is an enviable one when compared with that of the most favored of our slaves. (Edward Coles writing in The Richmond Enquirer, December 13, 1817)


Next Chapter


Terms of Use

About Me


Poems for

Stories for

Cruise to

It may surprise many Americans that in the early 19th century Russia was one of our most important friends. When Madison offered Robert Smith the post of ambassador to St. Petersburg as consolation for dismissing him as secretary of state, he was not suggesting something totally beneath Smith's dignity. The diplomatic post was among the most significant that Madison had to offer, surpassed only by those in England and France. Its importance can be seen in the calibre of the two ambassadors who served in Russia during those years: John Quincy Adams, the son of a former President and a future President, and William Pinkney, former attorney general of the United States and one of the nation's most skillful diplomats.

In the years before 1812 Russia was America's chief trading partner in Europe , both because the United States, as the only neutral country with a large merchant fleet, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on overseas trade, and because Russia was one of the few countries to defy Napoleon's Continental System, which refused entry into Europe of goods from England or its colonies. In July 1811, for example, there were two hundred American merchant ships in Russian ports.

An important reason that Napoleon attacked Russia in 1812 was, in fact, that Russia had refused to submit to the Continental System. Russia was willing to risk war with Napoleon in order to keep open her line of American trade. The irony was that at the same moment America was insisting repeatedly that the Continental System no longer existed and on that pretext was preparing to go to war with Russia's potential ally, England.

Of all the caprices of history , Henry Adams writes in his history of the period, this was the most improbable--that at the moment when the Czar of Russia and the King of Sweden were about to risk their thrones and to face the certain death or ruin of vast numbers of their people in order to protect American ships from the Berlin and Milan Decrees, the new minister of the United States appeared in Paris authorized to declare that the President considered these decrees to be revoked and their system no longer in force!

The result of this "caprice" was that Russia and America, while friendly to each other, found themselves allied to each other's enemies. Both were fighting to protect neutral trade, but one had taken on England while the other had taken on France. In the end, Europe was devastated, Napoleon destroyed, England made supreme for the next century, and the United States made master of her inland empire. And the match that lit the tinderbox was the desire of Russia and the United States to continue their mutually advantageous trade.

After Napoleon had been destroyed, Russia, as both an ally of England and a friend of the United States, was the perfect country to mediate their dispute, which she did, arranging the conference that led eventually to the Treaty of Ghent. Russian-American trade resumed, and there was every expectation that relations between the two countries would remain close.

In 1815, however, a dispute arose that threatened these relations. The Russian consul general, a man named Kossloff, was accused in Philadelphia of raping a twelve-year-old servant girl. He was arrested by local authorities and held for eighteen hours without bail. Madison ordered the U.S. attorney to ask for a dismissal of the charges, which the judge hearing the case quickly did, on the grounds that the state court lacked jurisdiction over a foreign diplomat. Which, if Kossloff and the Russian ambassador Daschkoff had understood the peculiar nature of American law, would have brought the incident to a proper conclusion.

Daschkoff, however, was not satisfied with a dismissal of the charges for lack of state jurisdiction. He insisted on a trial so that his consul could be vindicated by an acquittal. The problem was that there was no court that could hold such a trial. Since rape was not a federal crime, no federal court could hear the case. And since a foreign diplomat could not be tried by a state court, no state court could hear the case.

The attorney general suggested that Kossloff sue the girl's father for slander as a way of clearing himself, but this course did not satisfy the two Russians, who protested vigorously to their government. The Tsar responded by threatening to expel our Charge D'Affairs and barring our ambassador, then in Italy, from entering the country. And that is where the matter stood when Coles was asked to make the appropriate explanation to the Tsar.

On July 24, 1816 , Coles left Enniscorthy for New York, in such a rush that he had to borrow money and horses from his family. From New York he was sent to Boston to board the Prometheus, an American brig of war that was being sent to St. Petersburg specifically to deliver him, the first of our Navy, Coles says, which had ever sailed up the Baltic. On September 30 the Prometheus arrived at Cronstadt, the port for St. Petersburg. But the Tsar was away, visiting his Moscow and Polish estates, and no one in St. Petersburg knew quite what to do with an envoy who was not an ambassador yet clearly a person of importance, having been delivered to Russia by the first American ship of war ever to enter Russian waters.

Here to our great surprise and chagrin , Coles writes John from Cronstadt, we were detained four days before we were permitted to go ashore. Courier after courier was despatched to St. Petersburg to receive the orders of the gov't., who it seems were as much perplexed to know what to do in this extraordinary case as their timid and suspicious agents at Cronstadt. Ministerial councils were convened and after great deliberation it was resolved that this strange thing which was called by some an Ambassador, or Messenger of State, a courier express to the Emperor, etc., etc., might land and come up to the Metropolis after smoking his papers for half an hour and perforating each one with dozens of holes through and through with a fork to prevent the dreadful diseases of America from being communicated to the delicate Russians.

Having finally arrived in St. Petersburg, Coles had to decide what to do next: remain there, perhaps for months, waiting for the Tsar's return, or pursue him. I was much urged by Count Nesselrode, he writes, who had been left in charge of the Government, and also by our own consul, the acting Charge D'Affairs, to go in pursuit of the Emperor. This would have been exceedingly agreeable to me, as affording me an opportunity of seeing under very favorable circumstances the ancient city of Moscow and the interesting country of Poland, and something too of the life and manners of an Emperor--the facilities of doing which would have been greater, from the unusual free and unreserved intercourse of Alexander with foreigners, particularly with Americans. But believing that my Government had done enough in sending me in the way it had done, and that it would best comport with its honor and dignity for me to remain at St. Petersburg, I declined going; and having taken this responsibility against the opinion and urgent solicitations of those who ought to have known better than I did what was proper to have been done, I was much gratified on my return home to find my conduct not only approved but applauded both by President Monroe and ex-President Madison.

For two months, then, Coles waited in St. Petersburg for the Tsar. It was not an unpleasant wait. He was introduced to the Russian nobility, some of whom he had already met in Washington, others of whom had met Todd Payne and Gallatin during their peace mission. Todd sent Coles a long description of the principal nobles and especially of their women, the most beautiful of whom was supposed to be a Princess Trabetzkoi, a Georgian by descent.

The sooner you get introduced at court, Todd advises, the better, since all of the best people in society tend to congregate there. The practice is after being introduced to ride in your carriage and leave candy at the door of the persons who are attached to the person of the Emperor, Empress, and family, Todd writes. They are numerous and the principal noblemen of the country. Todd urges Coles to see the Hermitage and the Winter Palace, especially the Hermitage, which is more beautiful and valuable than the rest of the world besides.

But Coles did not spend all of his time socializing with the nobility and visiting palaces. He seems in Russia to have been struck forcefully by two notions: first, that the American form of government was infinitely superior to Russia's; and, second, that American slavery was infinitely worse than Russian oppression. Not that he failed to appreciate democracy or hate slavery sufficiently before his European trip; it's just that the contradictions in his own society struck him with much more force abroad, as it is wont to do with many travelers.

Ever bearing in mind the unnatural state of bondage existing in my country, he writes in the 1844 autobiography, and anxiously solicitous to call public attention to it, and as soon as possible to meliorate it and ultimately eradicate it, I availed myself of the leisure and opportunity I had, during my three [sic] month's detention in St. Petersburg, to acquire all the information I could in relation to the vassalage and treatment of the serfs in Russia. I found it of an essentially different form of servitude to that of our Negroes, and infinitely of a milder and less oppressive character . . .

Everything else about the Russian political and social system, however, Coles finds abominable. In Russia there is no constitution or compact between the people and the sovereign, Coles complains, but with the emperor rests uncontrollable and absolute power over the nation, and the lives and properties of its inhabitants. The people have no rights, the sovereign no obligations.

Government officials are paid so little that bribery is an expected practice. In fact, Coles says, there is something of a similar nature grown into general practice in the transactions between man and man, where there is a constant effort to overreach and take improper advantages of each other. After what I have heard and seen, I am not surprised that it should have been said of the Russians, that they are capable of being bribed to do anything, and that they are naturally a knavish and trickish people. I certainly never met with such scoundrels in any other country as in Russia. In traveling 600 miles through it I was oftener robbed, more cheated, and had more rascally impositions practiced upon me, than in the whole of my previous life.

On the Tsar's return to St. Petersburg, Coles' business was swiftly concluded. Apparently most of the Russian court had disapproved of the Tsar's rash actions, and the Tsar was looking for a way to retrace his steps. Coles--persuasive, affable, tactful--was the perfect face saver. . . . the business on which I went to Russia has been adjusted entirely to the satisfaction of our Gov't., Coles writes to a friend, the conduct of the Emporer being as prompt and conciliatory on receiving the American statement of the facts in relation to Kosloff, as it had been precipitate and harsh on receiving them from Daschkoff. Both Daschkoff and Kosloff are being recalled , Coles tells Monroe, not less from a conviction of the impropriety of their conduct, than from a desire to have persons in their places who should be more agreeable to the Gov't. of the U.S.

His mission abruptly at an end, Coles left St. Petersburg as quickly as possible, since winter--and brutal conditions for travel--had already set in. The Prometheus had left in early October, fearful of getting stuck in the ice. Coles writes of great difficulty in traveling from St. Petersburg to Hamburg, having had very bad roads, and found very great difficulty, and a detention, in very bad situations, of 8 days in the crossings of several rivers, from the floating and soft state of the Ice, through which in several instances I had to cut my way at great expense, and in some to pass at very great hazard.

Once in Hamburg, however, Coles seems to have slowed down, traveling at a more leisurely pace. He set out to see as much of [Europe] as my means would allow, and his means apparently allowed him about nine months. As in Russia, his position as special envoy of the President of the United States gave him entree to the highest social circles. In Brussels he dined with the King and Queen ; in Paris, with King Louis XVIII, the Duke of Wellington, and Lafayette. The apprehended difference between Russia and the United States, Coles writes, and the President having sent his Secretary in a public ship, created great and general interest. This, together with my carrying letters of introduction from Mr. Madison, Mr. Monroe, and several others of the first men of our country, and my old friends Gallatin and Eustis (former members of the President's Cabinet when I was his Secretary) being then our Ministers to the French and Dutch courts, gave me great and unusual advantages in seeing everything, and becoming acquainted with the great and prominent men of Europe.

Socially, these nine months were the apogee of Coles' life. Often he would recall them, with almost pitiful nonchalance, when the need to inflate himself with great names would come upon him. He would speak about his conversation with the Emperor, his dining with the King and Queen, his friendship with Lafayette, to the point where a clever satirist was able to make his conceit an issue in the gubernatorial campaign in Illinois. By 1863 Coles had been reduced to an adoration of names, and much of his autobiographical fragment written in that year is a list of the great and near great with whom he had once been associated.

But in 1816-17, Coles' stay in Russia and ramblings on the Continent provided more than a heady and extremely pleasurable experience; it also revitalized his social conscience. The opportunity . . . of seeing so much of the old world, he writes, and of men under the diversified systems of oppression both political and religious, and of the influence of human nature, of power and wealth on the one hand, and of oppression and poverty on the other, long existing from generation to generation, increased my conviction of the superiority of our political institutions, as well as the character of our people, and the advantages they possess over any other for the enjoyment of happiness. But whilst this opportunity for comparing our country with others increased my admiration and pride, as well of our Government as country, it did not reconcile me, or in the least abate my objections and feelings to the state of bondage existing in it. On the contrary, seeing it at a distance, with eyes keen with admiration, and a heart warm with affection, and contrasting it with other nations, its beauties were more glowing, but that solitary defect, that blot of slavery on its otherwise enchanting escutcheon, was the more apparent and the more disfiguring.

Perhaps the most important influence on Coles during his stay in Europe was his meeting with Morris Birkbeck, an aging idealist and reformer who, like other European idealists of the period, longed to establish a Utopian colony in the American wilderness. I was made acquainted with Morris Birkbeck in London in the spring of 1817, Coles recalls, by John Q Adams, then our Minister to England, who told me he had asked it of him, in consequence of having heard I had traveled much, particularly over the western portion of the United States. Mr. Adams prepared me for the acquaintance by telling me Mr. Birkbeck contemplated removing to our country, and would be a great acquisition to it, as he was not only one of the best practical and scientific agriculturalists of Great Britain, but had much literary taste and knowledge. On making his acquaintance Mr. Birkbeck invited me to visit him at his residence in the country, which I did and remained with him four or five days. He held a large estate in Surrey under lease for a term of years, which he cultivated and managed with all that skill, taste and judgment for which he had a reputation.

What Coles didn't know was that Birkbeck's lease on his large estate was expiring. According to his young friend George Flower, who had been enjoying the hospitality of Coles' family in Virginia only a few months earlier, Birkbeck experienced, in common with other farmers, losses from the low price of farm produce, induced by the general peace after the long war. I was traveling at the time in America, dropping him an occasional letter; but not having a thought of his coming to this country. In fact, it was a crisis in his fate, which occurs in the life of every man at some period or other.

Birbeck was fifty-four when Coles met him, a widower with several grown children, a Quaker by birth, but one who practiced only the politics of the faith. His father, also Morris Birkbeck, had made a short visit to the United States in 1773 and may have been asked by George Washington to manage the Mount Vernon estate . Both father and son were republicans, which meant in English society at the time that they were radicals. Since England was at the head of the alliance against the French Revolution and, later, Napoleon, believing in such "French" notions as liberty, equality, and fraternity was close to treason. The small circle of English radicals all suffered mild persecution and felt a sense of alienation that helped inspire Birkbeck to want to emigrate to America.

In January 1817, a few months before he met Coles, Birkbeck wrote to George Flower, then visiting Enniscorthy, of his future plans. Mr. Flower, Helen Skipwith Coles writes to Selina , received Birkbeck's letter, which told of Birkbeck's intention to follow Flower to America the following spring with an eye to permanent settlement. Helen says that Flower was perplexed about where to settle, even looking at a neighboring estate, Blenheim, that was later purchased by Edward's sister Sally. Helen wishes that he would buy it and become a neighbor, believing him to be a valuable acquisition to any neighborhood.

Flower, of course, bought no estate in Virginia or anywhere else in the South. The English utopians were not about to remove from the land of tyranny to settle in the land of slavery. But where to settle was a serious problem. Birkbeck told Coles that he was inclined to settle in the Miami country above Cincinnati, but Coles tried to persuade him to go further west, to the prairies of Illinois. The beauties and grandeur displayed in these great farms of nature, Coles maintained enthusiastically, the facilities they afforded, and the conveniences and advantages derived, for more than the lifetime of a youthful emigrant, are inconceiveable to one who had not seen and compared such a country to a densely and heavily timbered one, where everything had to be done to make it subservient to the uses of man. The labor involved in clearing land, pulling out stumps, and hacking roads through dense forest was all unnecessary in the prairie, where all that was necessary to prepare good grazing land was to put a fence around it.

Perhaps Coles' enthusiasm for Illinois grew as he spoke to Birkbeck about it. Here was a kindred spirit about to settle somewhere in the wilderness for kindred reasons--and, if all worked out as planned, to bring over several hundred of his cultivated, liberal countrymen to settle near him. This prospect alone would have made the Illinois frontier seem more attractive to Coles. What once had promised to be a lonely isolation now looked more like a common enterprise of free-thinking men. Coles did his best to persuade Birkbeck to settle near the Mississippi in the section of country that had most appealed to him.

Birkbeck left England on March 30, 1817, supplied with effusive letters of introduction from Coles , whom he had agreed to meet next somewhere in the western wilderness. Coles later maintained that Birkbeck had assured him that he was the cause of his being an inhabitant of the prairies, but Birkbeck, in his Notes on a Journey to America (Philadelphia, 1818), still gives his intended destination as to the southward of Lake Erie--that is, Ohio. It was not until he got to Ohio and found the price of land to be $20-$30 an acre that he decided definitely to push further west. By the time Coles had gotten back from Europe, Birkbeck was already settled in eastern Illinois, having fallen, despite Coles' specific warnings, for the first bit of prairie he had seen. There he established his English settlement, a political force that would later help tip the balance in Illinois towards freedom.

How much Coles was responsible for Birkbeck's decision to settle in Illinois, and how much Birkbeck was responsible for rekindling Coles' interest in Illinois is a matter for conjecture, but probably both idealists in material need helped strengthen each other's resolve. The meeting of the two in London, brought about by the chance visit of George Flower to Enniscorthy just a few months before Edward Coles happened to come through England on his way back from Russia, was a stroke of fate that had much to do with the preservation of freedom in Illinois.

Edward Coles

Next Chapter Previous Chapter