The Negroes have all uniformly behaved themselves well, having been industrious, economical, and thrifty; fair and honorable in their dealings; moral and religious in their lives; obedient to the laws; civil and respectful to the white Lordlings of the Land. And it is with much pleasure that I state, that in despite of prejudice against free Negroes, and the disposition to oppress and ill treat them, there never has been any charge brought against one of them, for harboring slaves, or keeping bad company, of disrespectful conduct or language to the Whites, or of any violation of the laws, or of any immoral or improper conduct of any kind whatever. (Edward Coles, 1827 autobiography)


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Notwithstanding this rosy picture, Isaac writes from Illinois to John in Virginia that Edward's slaves are a lazy, ungrateful set of wretches, sponging off Edward and not lifting a finger to help themselves. According to Isaac, when Tom Cobb fell into a fire and burned his feet, his niece Nancy refused even to dress the wounds, and so Tom's feet had to be amputated. And when Edward tried to place Tom in Polly Crawford's house, she refused to take him, so Edward had to hire a doctor and a nurse to take care of him.

Isaac's slave Billy was sent with Isaac's horses to Edward's farm, and when he was taken sick, Robert Crawford refused to water them until Billy had to crawl out to the barn to tend to them. Isaac says he prevailed on Edward to sell Emanuel, and that Edward has promised to get rid of the other slaves, aware that they were plundering him and are not deserving of his help. Yet Isaac suspects that Edward will not give them up because he has political ambitions that are served by his philanthropy, though Edward would be very offended to think that Isaac attributed such notions to him.

Whom are we to believe? Clearly both Edward and Isaac have agendas here. But there are a few facts upon which to hang an opinion. For example, Edward did in fact sell Emanuel soon after his conversation with Isaac, though he claims that he did it at Emanuel's request, and not because Isaac had prevailed upon him to do it.

After I brought him to this country , Edward writes of Emanuel, he and his family lived in St. Louis, where he rented a house and worked when and for whom he thought proper, for near two years, during which time, owing to the sickness of himself and family, and to the hard times, etc., etc., he was barely able to support his family, and at the expiration of that time I was informed by him that Dr. Walker had an account of ninety-six dollars and fifty cents against me for medical attendance on him and his family. He then told me that he despaired of being able to repay the money I had paid for him, and proposed that I should let Dr. Walker have the remainder of the time he was bound to serve by the will of the old master, and added that he and his wife both liked the doctor and his family, and preferred living with them to any other persons. On this I agreed to let Dr. Walker have him and his family until August, 1825.

Which means that Coles sold not only Emanuel but Emanuel's entire family temporarily back into slavery for three to four years for the paltry sum of $96.50. Was he gratifying the wishes of his former slaves, who found that they couldn't make it on their own? Or was he, as Isaac suggests, getting rid of a burden?

Soon after his conversation with Isaac, Coles temporarily got rid of some of his other former slaves as well, though again he claims that it was at their request.

In the spring of 1821 , he writes, some ill disposed and designing persons, who had previously given proofs of their desire to entice them from me, offered the men $20 a month to labour in Town making bricks, etc. This being mentioned to me, I advised them to accept the offer, if they could be sure of being paid, and that such wages would be continued for any length of time; for that, at the then unusually reduced price of county produce, owing to the sudden check of immigration to the country, it was much more than they could make by farming. They accordingly all left my farm, except the widow and the family of Ralph. In about two or three months the men came very much out of temper to complain that they had been deceived and cheated; that the persons who had employed them had refused to pay the amount stipulated, and would only consent to pay the reduced amount in paper money, which was much less valuable than silver. Upon enquiring I found they had not made a written contract, though I had recommended it, and that the only evidence they had was that of coloured persons, which, by our unrighteous laws, not being admissible against a white man, they were compelled to acquiesce in whatever terms the Lordly white Brother would deign to allow them. They became very much disgusted at this treatment; expressed their regret at having been induced to leave me, and their anxiety immediately to return to me. I told them I had at that time no use for their services, having as they knew employed white labourers for the year to cultivate my farm. But if they would behave themselves well, at the end of the year I would permit them to return.

Again, there is some evidence that Coles was not satisfied with the performance of his former slaves and perhaps was glad for a chance to be rid of them. After returning to Illinois from a trip back to Virginia, he complains to John that his former slaves had neglected the farm in his absence, and they were now behind in their crop. The following year he decided to pay all of the expenses of the farm and, as compensation for their labor, to pay his former slaves half of the farm income. This was the situation when Isaac wrote to John that Edward's former slaves were plundering him. By the fourth year, after the former slaves had returned from their unhappy experience laboring in the town, Coles made them tenant farmers, paying him ten bushels of corn per acre.

Did Coles increasingly withdraw support from his slaves because they had become increasingly self-reliant? Or because he believed that they had leaned on him too heavily for support?

In one respect Coles' account is a bit misleading. When he tells us that his former slaves "all left my farm" to labor as brickmakers in town, we tend to imagine that "all" means at least four or five, or perhaps even three. But two slaves is all that is meant.

The total number of slaves Coles freed was ten. Within the first few months in Illinois Ralph died of a bilious fever, and Polly Crawford and Nancy Gaines went into service in Edwardsville. That left seven former slaves on Coles' farm, five of whom were Ralph's widow Kate and her four children. So the "all" who left Coles' farm were exactly two--Tom Cobb (who may have burned his feet making bricks) and Robert Crawford.

The "men" who came back to work for Coles as tenant farmers may have been only Robert Crawford since Tom Cobb was crippled in 1821 and seems to have fallen into a village well and drowned by 1824. In any event, Robert Crawford returned to the farm and married Ralph's widow Kate, which means that only one family remained on the Coles homestead. When Coles speaks of the success of his former slaves, he is referring to this single family , or six of the seventeen he brought with him from Virginia.

The record of Coles' slaves in those first years in Illinois is not a hopeful one. Since Nancy Gaines died of unknown causes sometime before the end of 1824, of the eight adults whom Coles brought with him from Virginia we find three dead, two re-enslaved, and only two coping successfully with freedom. The fate of Polly Crawford is unknown.

These are the facts about Coles' former slaves, but of course the truth is unknowable. Coles is not a reliable reporter of what happened to them, but then, neither is Isaac. What we can say fairly definitely, however, is that the truth is not nearly as rosy as Coles made it out to be.

When Coles arrived in Edwardsville in early May of 1819, he plunged into action simultaneously on several fronts. He set up his land office; acquired a farm ("Prairielands"), for which he paid $1550 for 394 acres; ploughed and planted his first crop; attended to some complicated legal problems; and, on top of all this activity, became involved in the struggle to prevent Missouri from entering the Union as a slave state.

A few days after my arrival here , he writes Madison, I purchased an excellent tract of land, situated about three miles from [Edwardsville], 3/4 of which [is] prairie, the rest timber land, on which there are a few acres enclosed, and a deserted log cabin. On the 17th of May, the day after the arrival of my Negroes, I commenced ploughing up the prairie and splitting rails to fence it, and continued breaking prairie and planting corn until the first week in July . . . I live in town, where I attend to the duties of my office in the morning, and almost every evening go out to superintend my farm. I employ no white men, but leave the whole to my Negroes, who I am gratified in saying behave themselves remarkably well since I have liberated them . . . The situation of Register of the Land Office of this place, which the President has lately thought fit to confer upon me, has not since I entered on the duties of it more than paid for feeding my horse. Next month there is to be a public sale of lands here, where it is thought the profits of the office will be considerable. If it should not become soon much more valuable than it is at present, I shall certainly resign it this fall. But whether I do or not, you may expect to see me in January next, as I am determined to make a visit to the Eastward, and to spend a great part of the winter with my friends in Virginia. I am already looking forward with impatience to the time of my departure, and to the pleasures I shall enjoy in their society . . . tell [Dolley] I shall expect her to comply with her promise, long since made, to assist me in getting a wife; for . . . I am more than ever convinced that it will not do to live in this solitary country without a help mate.

Coles sounds as lonely as ever, alone in his lodgings in Edwardsville while his former slaves live together on his farm. There is in fact a verbal picture of him in these first few years, drawn by an inveterate enemy, Hooper Warren, which may contain a bit of truth amidst its venom, and which conveys some of the dislocation he undoubtedly felt.

We boarded together in a hotel , Warren writes of Coles and himself, and for several months lodged in the same room. During this time, as he was very communicative, I learned his inmost heart, morally, politically, and socially. On the score of the first characteristic, I was not disposed to take any exception; but in regard to the two latter, my sense of propriety forbid me for a moment to receive or entertain him as a leader. I found him to possess an inveterate and unconquerable prejudice against "Yankees," and his aversion to them could only be allayed by the hope and prospect of using them to the advancement of his purposes. In politics, "The South" was all in all to him. The Richmond Enquirer was his Bible, and Father Ritchie [Thomas Ritchie, editor of the Richmond Enquirer] his oracle. Southern statesmen only, appeared to be in his view as having a right to the management and control of public affairs. He was exceedingly loquacious, and, although his conversations were generally interesting, (our couches being side by side) he more than once talked me to sleep. The subjects of his narratives were, his management of the etiquette of the President's House, while Private Secretary of Mr. Madison, and of the adventures of his European tour. The incidents of the latter were sometimes very amusing. They consisted of accounts of his drinking and sporting with the Lords and Nobles, and of the great respect and attention paid to him, particularly while at London, Paris and St. Petersburg; of his gallanting the Ladies of the Courts--and how they offered to learn him the "Twelve Positions."

What seems to have happened is that Coles opened his heart to the wrong person. He spoke about Yankees to a Vermonter with the casual deprecation usual among Southerners and allowed himself to brag a little with the pompousness that grew on him with age, not realizing that his companion was a jealous and irritable man, likely to view Coles' aristocratic breeding as personally insulting. Warren was a pugnacious individual, constantly getting into vehement disputes, at least once being severely beaten. Coles' standing bail for his assailant , a nephew of Henry Clay, could not have endeared him to Warren either.

Things were not going well for Coles at the land office. Like his investments in land, his prospects at the land office had been soured by the financial depression of 1819. He received a salary of five or six dollars a day plus 1% of the gross sales of federal land from his office, which made his position potentially a very profitable one. But with the depression, no one had cash to buy land with. The boom in western real estate suddenly ceased. Prices plummeted, but there were no buyers, and men who had speculated on borrowed cash were ruined.

Since Coles had to pay rental on the office and the salary of a full-time clerk out of his meager earnings, the net profit from his position was disappointing--only $948.63 for the two years of work from April 1819 to April 1821. Still, despite the depression, he continued to buy land for speculation himself, acquiring 15 quarter sections in Missouri through Robert Wash for $1,745.54 on June 12, 1819.

Another problem that confronted Coles immediately was a lawsuit that had arisen over the title to 6002 1/2 acres of Missouri land that he had bought from Soulard the year before, half for his sister Mary Carter and one quarter each for his brother Walter and himself. The case was extremely complicated, having to do with whether the French marriage contract between a man named Duchoquet and his wife prohibited the wife from selling the entire tract to Soulard. Coles' lawyer, John Rice Jones, claimed that the title was so good that he himself would give Coles land in exchange for the Soulard tract, but Coles was not pleased with some of the land that was offered. He was also angry at Jones, because as soon as Soulard heard of Jones' offer he refused to return Coles' money, insisting that his title was good until proven bad in court. And so Coles was stuck with a vexatious, complicated, and expensive lawsuit that dragged on for many years.

Yet another annoying lawsuit loomed in the near future. Around July 1, 1819, Daniel Cook, then the state attorney general and a candidate for Congress, asked Coles casually if he had bothered to record the free papers of his former slaves in the county commissioner's office. Coles answered that he hadn't thought it was necessary since he had freed his former slaves outside of the state, which they had entered by themselves of their own free will.

But it was necessary, Cook said, because of a new law that had just been passed by the legislature and had not yet printed for distribution. This law required every free Negro in the state to have his free papers recorded in the county office. Any free Negro whose papers were not recorded would be arrested and hired out by the county from month to month at the going rate. Anyone who employed a free Negro whose free papers were not recorded would be subject to a fine of $1.50 for each day he had employed him.

Since Coles had merely given each head of family a letter declaring that he and the members of his family were free, Cook suggested that he make out more formal free papers for each of his former slaves now and have them recorded by the county clerk. Coles objected that his former slaves were already free, and that it didn't make any sense to execute instruments of emancipation for people who were not slaves. But Cook insisted that it was a mere formality that would avoid trouble later on. And so perhaps symbolically on July 4, 1819, Coles freed his slaves a second time , writing proudly on each certificate of emancipation: Not believing that man can have of right a property in his fellow man, but on the contrary, that all mankind are endowed by nature with equal rights, I do therefore, by these presents restore to [name of former slave] that inalienable liberty of which he has been deprived.

Cook was unaware that the as-yet-unpublished law also required anyone who freed slaves in the State of Illinois to post $1000 bond per freed slave to ensure that they did not become a public charge, imposing a $200 fine for each failure to post bond. Thus by freeing his slaves a second time in Illinois, Coles unwittingly made himself liable for $2000 in fines.

Naturally Coles was upset when a few months later he read the published bill and discovered his liability. He immediately consulted two lawyers, both of whom told him to relax. He had obviously not freed his slaves in the state and could easily prove it within the two-year statute of limitations that the new law allowed. There were many respectable witnesses who had seen the earlier certificates of emancipation that he had made out to his slaves. Everyone would understand that the new certificates of emancipation were a mere formality to conform to local procedures. Coles offered to post the $10,000 bond now, but his lawyers told him it wasn't necessary. Forget it, they said.

And so Coles forgot it, to his later regret.

With all of his legal problems, and the burden of setting up his land office and of sowing the first crop on his new farm, Coles found time to plunge into the slavery controversy within a few weeks of his arrival in Illinois.

In 1819 the issue was the admission of Missouri into the Union. Congress debated it that whole year and reached no conclusion. The Congressional elections in 1819 for the new Congress were therefore crucial. On the makeup of the new Congress would depend the resolution of the issue and the future of the nation.

The problem was that Missouri wanted to be admitted as a slave state. But Congress was reluctant to permit this for several reasons. First, there was then a perfect balance in the Union between slave and free states. Missouri would tip the balance towards the slave states, putting the reins of national power irrevocably into Southern hands. Northerners feared that the slave states would use that power to make the right to own slaves a national right, reintroducing slavery into the North. If that tactic failed, Northerners were afraid that the Southerners would not allow any state into the Union that prohibited slavery, thus insuring the continued growth of their political power.

Second, Missouri was the first territory west of the Mississippi to apply for statehood, and its case was seen as a precedent for the vast area that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Allow slavery in Missouri, the anti-slavers said, and the whole west will go slave. Allow Congress to prohibit slavery in Missouri, the pro-slavers said, and slavery will be confined forever to the Southeast, eventually to choke on a surplus of slaves.

Finally, there were those in Congress who opposed the extension of slavery anywhere, regardless of the political balance and precedents involved.

The race for Illinois' single seat in Congress was between John McClean, the incumbent pro-slave Congressman, and Daniel Cook, an anti-slaver. Since Cook was identified with the Edwards faction and McClean with the Thomas faction, there were local political issues involved in the race. But the main issue was slavery, and if Cook was to be elected, the people of Illinois would have to be convinced that Congress should prohibit Missouri from entering the Union as a slave state.

Coles set out to convince them in a series of articles entitled "To the People of Illinois," which appeared in installments from June 5 to July 31--just three days before the election--in the Edwardsville Spectator.

It is hard for us to imagine the impact on an election that such a series of articles had. But consider the population that Coles addressed. The total vote in the four-county area that the Spectator reached regularly was only 1,000. Most of these voters read only one newspaper --the Spectator--which was their sole source of opinion, information, and popular entertainment. There was no television, no radio, no records, no movies, no theaters, no news digests, no magazines, few books. For some, occasional prayer meetings held by traveling preachers were an alternate source of intellectual stimulation. A few joined debating societies. ( A question debated at the Edwardsville Forum in 1821: "Was the assassination of Caesar by Brutus commendable?") Most read the Bible; few read other books. The weekly issue of the Spectator, containing news of the world and the nation, essays and letters on every local question, poetry, advice on farming and on love, curious anecdotes illustrating human nature all over the world, and, of course, advertisements of local goods and services, was the only line of communication between the tiny village of Edwardsville and the outside world.

We can imagine, then, that given a whole week with little else to read or discuss, the citizens in and around Edwardsville read and discussed the Spectator pretty thoroughly. And so the appearance of a powerful and persuasive new writer in the cause of freedom was a significant event. No one in Illinois wrote on the Missouri question with the clarity, force, and eloquence of Coles. No one covered the ground with such thoroughness, or displayed such knowledge and sophistication, or spoke with such authenticity. The proverbial big fish in a little pond, Coles established himself almost immediately as the intellectual leader of the anti-slavery forces.

On the final decision of the Missouri question, Coles begins grandly, writing as "Aristides" in the convention of the day, depends, in a great degree, the future political character of the United States.

Coles proves that Congress has the power to put conditions on the admission of states by pointing to Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, all of which were admitted on condition that they prohibited slavery. He points also to Louisiana, which was required to adopt trial by jury and English record keeping before being admitted.

But the treaty by which France ceded the Louisiana Purchase to the United States provides that the inhabitants of the ceded territories should be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States . . . Isn't the right to hold slaves one of those rights and advantages?

On this point Coles is scornful. The treaty, he writes, says merely "inhabitants," without regard to color. Which implies that all blacks in the territory should also be admitted to all the rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States--something the white citizens of Missouri are obviously not intending to write into their constitution.

Besides, slavery is not a right. Liberty is the inalienable right of all men, Coles maintains, and no man or body of men can justly take away that right, except in punishment of crimes.

Slavery is not even an "advantage." Is it an advantage, Coles asks, to have among us a class of people who are under no moral restraint--who have no inducement to be virtuous, but every provocation and temptation to be vicious? Is it an advantage to keep in our houses an inveterate enemy, prepared to seize every opportunity to destroy our property, set fire to our dwellings, and poison our families? Is it an advantage to be in constant fear of being butchered, as were the white inhabitants of Santo Domingo, by the hands of their slaves? Is it an advantage to the slave to be deprived of his liberty, which is dearer than his life, and to be torn from every domestic relation?

Pro-slavers argued that extending slavery into the new territories would not enslave a single free person, while prohibiting slavery would not free a single slave. On the contrary, they argued, extending slavery would vastly improve the lot of slaves by introducing them to rich new lands and by increasing their value, which would naturally make their masters more concerned for their continued health and welfare.

This would be true, Coles agrees, if slaves did not have children. Slavery would be more thinly spread across the nation, and the lot of slaves probably would improve. But since, like whites, blacks do tend to procreate, the new territories will eventually be as thickly enslaved as the old, and slavery will be just as concentrated an evil, only over a much greater area.

The effect of confining slavery to a narrower compass, Coles argues, would be that the prices for slaves would go down and owners would have less inducement to breed them. In fact, Coles predicts a bit over-optimistically, Prudence will compel slave-holders to reduce the number of their slaves by emancipation, when they can no longer send them to a profitable market. Thus the American Colonization Society will be enabled to carry on their operations [expatriating blacks back to Africa] upon a Scale more proportionate to the patriotism, wealth, and standing of its distinguished members; and thus the country will get rid of a population which cannot be retained without the certainty of producing innumerable evils, and endangering the lives of the citizens.

To those who claim that emancipation is not a realistic alternative for slave holders, Coles is happy to point out several gentlemen who, rising superior to selfish and avaricious views, have done honor to the birthplace of Washington, of Jefferson, of Patrick Henry, and of Henry St. George Tucker, by emancipating their slaves, and seeking in this state an asylum from the evils and dangers of slavery.

The pompousness of this last argument and the implicit racism of the previous one were characteristics of Coles' writing that in later slavery controversies would be roundly attacked. At this point, though, Coles' arguments went virtually unanswered. Cook beat McClean and went on to vote in Congress against the admission of Missouri as a slave state. But Missouri was nevertheless admitted with her slaves.

The Missouri Compromise significantly was engineered by Jesse Thomas, Senator from Illinois. Illinois, poised as it was between slavery and freedom, was a key state in the struggle between North and South. One Senator, Thomas, was pro-slavery; the other, Ninian Edwards, was anti-slavery. In a contest so nearly equal, both sides battled for the heart of Illinois. And Illinois became the maker of the compromise.

Since the North was worried that the admission of Missouri would create an imbalance that would favor the South, Thomas suggested that the admission of Maine, which had decided to break off from Massachusetts, be paired with the admission of Missouri, thus maintaining the balance between slave and free. And since the North objected to the precedent Missouri would set for all territories west of the Mississippi, Thomas suggested that slavery be prohibited from all of the territory north and west of Missouri. This was the compromise eventually passed by Congress in 1820, ending the deadlock that had seemed irresolvable, but of course merely postponing the final conflict.

The struggle between slavery and freedom shifted from state to state in the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. And each state seemed crucial to the final outcome. The battle over Missouri had ended in a draw. The next battleground was clearly Illinois. Plans were being readied, both within the state and in Kentucky and Missouri, to organize secretly to elect a pro-slavery legislature that would call for a convention to change the anti-slavery clauses in the constitution. The "forces of freedom," as the anti-slavery group called itself, were organizing to elect legislators who would oppose a convention. As with Missouri, the struggle for the soul of Illinois was a national struggle, and the future of the entire nation was at stake. Thus both North and South watched anxiously as the evenly matched opponents prepared for the battle which might undo the Missouri Compromise and tip the balance of national power irretrievably to the side of slavery.

Edward Coles

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