From 1827 to 1833 E.C. spent a very wandering life . . . (Edward Coles, 1863 autobiography)



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From 1827 to 1833 Coles moved restlessly around a triangle formed by Enniscorthy, Philadelphia, and Edwardsville. Enniscorthy represented home and the affectionate acceptance of childhood. Edwardsville was, as he had hoped, his chief source of income. With the end of the depression his land increased in value, and for a number of years Coles was able to live comfortably off the sale or lease of his property. Philadelphia, however, was rapidly becoming his ideological home, the place where he could find a community of like-minded friends among whom he could be spiritually at ease. Vaux and Biddle were his chief friends there, but generally in Philadelphia there were men of wealth and talent who hated slavery, espoused enlightened and progressive causes, and held Coles in high esteem.

Until his marriage, however, Coles found no place satisfactory. I have been quite tired of indulging in the pleasures of City life without employment, he writes Dolley after spending the winter of 1831-32 in Philadelphia and New York, and ardently sigh for an active and useful occupation. In going to the West I am apprehensive of not finding the kind [of occupation] to my liking, and dread the solitude which is inseparable from a Bachelor's life in that new country. But I am tired of the life I am leading, and if I can find nothing more agreeable to do, will settle myself down, at least for some time, and raise colts, calves, and pigs in the prairies of Illinois.

That he no longer had a political career in Illinois had been rather crushingly demonstrated to him the previous summer. He ran for Congress, perhaps expecting that as a former governor he might make a respectable showing. He didn't. The final tally was : Joseph Duncan (the incumbent)--13,032, Sidney Breese--4,659, Edward Coles--3,397. He never ran for office again.

Coles visited Illinois for the last time in the summer of 1832. The Black Hawk War was underway, and Coles claims in his 1863 autobiography that he was offered a commission to lead an expedition against the Indians. Since he had no military experience whatever, this is highly unlikely; probably he was invited to join the expedition, an invitation he refused. He did, however, carry some messages from General Winfield Scott , an old schoolfriend who was a leader of the expedition, to New Orleans on his way back to Philadelphia.

There, in the summer of 1833, he met and courted Sally Logan Roberts , a woman--girl, really--young enough to be his daughter, perhaps a relative of Roberts Vaux, whose mother, Anne Roberts, was like Sally a descendent of Hugh Roberts, one of the original Quaker settlers of Pennsylvania. Coles married her on November 28, 1833. Upon the death of his father-in-law , Coles inherited considerable Philadelphia real estate to add to his western stock, and the remainder of his life was spent buying and selling, collecting rents, and performing public services.

Coles had three children --Edward, Mary, and Roberts, upon whom he doted. All three, he writes Dolley delightedly in 1841, are more devoted to me than I ever saw children to a parent. The common remark here is that such devotion was never seen as from them to me, and from me to them. I seldom move without having one or more frequently all three with me.

He lived in Philadelphia at 1303 Spruce Street until his death. Summers were spent at first in Virginia, then later at Schooley's Mountain in New Jersey. His life was much like his father's--the warm, uneventful, quiet life of a gentleman thoroughly devoted to his family.

Occasionally, however, he seems to have undertaken some small public services. In 1835 he attempted at the request of the Illinois legislature to sell bonds for a canal to join Lake Michigan to the Illinois river, a responsibility for which he was given the title President of the Board of the Canal Commission. But because the legislature refused to back the bonds with public revenues, no one wanted to invest, and the scheme came to nothing.

In 1841 Coles served on a committee investigating the affairs of the U.S. Bank in Philadelphia, an awkward position for him since the man under fire, the director of the bank, was his old friend Nicholas Biddle, who was apparently forced to resign.

By July of that same year, however, he was himself reduced to writing his old schoolfriend , President Tyler, for a federal job. Begging that the letter be kept absolutely confidential, Coles writes that his income has been diminished by the recent depression and that he would like to know whether the President had available an appointment suitable to his station in society and former office. It is the kind of letter that Coles had received hundreds of when he was Madison's secretary, yet one can sense very clearly his mortification at having to write it. He stumbles all over himself--apologizing, claiming this is the first and only time he has ever asked such a favor (forgetting, apparently, his earlier request of Monroe for the position of register of the land office at Edwardsville), begging for the strictest confidentiality.

The result was even more mortifying than the request. For nearly a year Coles heard nothing from Tyler and of course made no inquiries. He did, however, write to General Winfield Scott for help with Tyler, again mortified, again begging for the strictest confidentiality. Scott answered that since he was out of favor at the White House, a recommendation from him would be the kiss of death.

Coles also wrote to Dolley , requesting information specifically about the directorship of the Philadelphia mint, but Dolley, after making inquiries, was told that there was no vacancy anywhere suitable for Coles.

There the matter rested until a group of Philadelphia citizens, for reasons unknown, omitted Tyler from a list of dignitaries to be invited to a centennial celebration of the birth of Thomas Jefferson. Coles wrote to Tyler to explain that he was not involved in omitting Tyler from the list, even though he had been so humiliatingly slighted by Tyler the year before. Tyler answered that there had been a misunderstanding: he had turned Coles' original letter over to General Scott, assuming that Scott would let Coles know that there was no suitable vacancy.

Of course there were suitable vacancies; in a bureaucracy as large as the federal government there always are. Whether Tyler or Scott was lying is a moot point; the fact is that Coles was a nobody, and there was nothing to gain by giving him an important job or even by treating him with respect. It is pathetic to see a former governor and Presidential secretary so completely stripped of political influence, but Coles' humiliation was the natural consequence of the obscurity he himself had sought. His political generation--which was his father's generation--had passed, and he had made himself obsolete. For one embarrassing moment he had poked his head out of his shell to ask for a favor; then, red-faced, he hastily pulled it back in for good.

In the next few years Coles began to play the role of relic from a bygone age. As historians and biographers began to write about the times and people of his moment of glory, he began to reminisce, to set the record straight, to give his view of the great events in which he had participated.

He enjoyed basking in his former radiance. One thing that cannot be said about Coles is that he was modest about his great achievement. He did not speak of it often, but when he did, he took full credit for what had been done.

I think that I shall meet with indulgence from the zeal that I have always felt in the cause , he said in a paper read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1856, for adding that it has ever since afforded me the most delightful and consoling reflections that the abuse I endured, the labor I performed, and the anxiety I felt, were not without their reward; and to have it conceded by opponents as well as supporters, that I was chiefly instrumental in preventing a call of a Convention [to make] Illinois a slave-holding state.

In 1844 he wrote a second short autobiography, probably for Reverend Peck, who at the time was editing the second edition of the Annals of the West. In 1845 he got involved in a controversy over precisely what happened at the "Macedonian Ball" in 1812 and over discussions in Madison's cabinet regarding naval strategy. In the 1850's he wrote several letters explaining Madison's and Jefferson's views of slavery: that as population density increases, the economic advantage of slavery over free labor will decrease, until slavery will no longer be profitable and will therefore no longer have any supporters. I console myself with the hope, he writes, that the time is not very remote when the people will see the propriety of not only getting rid of slavery, but of the negro race, by gradual emancipation and African colonization. To another correspondent he says that Madison often quoted John Randolph to the effect that when our population becomes dense, if the Slaves do not run away from the Masters, then the Masters will have to run away from the Slaves. He goes on to say that Madison would have hated both the extreme defenders of slavery and the extreme abolitionists. To yet another correspondent he praises Jefferson for his hatred of slavery, even of the most ugly, ignorant and degraded of the human family.

One aspect of Madison's life that had severely shocked Coles was his bungling of the disposition of his slaves. In the early 1830's Coles was almost a son to the Madisons, visiting them frequently, lending them money when Payne Todd's scrapes left them financially embarrassed, giving and receiving advice. In 1832 Coles wrote to Madison at length about how to dispose of his slaves in his will. Freeing them on Dolley's death, he says, is not wise since it would endanger her life. Better to provide, as Coles' Uncle John had done, that after a specified date all slaves under a certain age be freed and all aged ones be supported for the rest of their lives by the estate. The freed slaves should then be retained, presumably voluntarily, as servants with pay until such time as the debts of the estate were paid off, Dolley was left with some money, and the slaves had saved enough to transport themselves to Africa and sustain themselves there.

There may be difficulties with this plan, Coles admits, but they are nothing to the difficulties that will face the South if the number of slaves is permitted to increase. Without mass deportation the Blacks will massacre or be massacred by the Whites, Coles warns, it being impossible for the two races ever to live harmoniously together--or if they could, I do not think it would be the interest of either to do so. I am particularly anxious that you should turn your attention to this subject, and digest a plan, and pursue a course that will redound to your fame and may be calculated to induce others to follow your example.

Madison's response to this advice is unknown. Coles later insisted that Madison had left instructions to free his slaves upon his death, but whether Dolley never received such instructions or simply chose to ignore them is a question that only she could have answered. What she did upon Madison's death was sell the slaves immediately, all of them, without regard to keeping families together, without caring what kinds of people bought them or what would be their ultimate fates.

When Coles heard of this horror, he became extremely upset, writing to his brother-in-law Stevenson, a lawyer involved in the disposition of Madison's estate, in a panic. But the thing had been done and could not be undone. In Coles' letter there is real compassion for the slaves and mortification for the blot this cruelty would put upon Madison's memory. But there is also a recognition of Dolley's right to do what she did and even a sense of its economic necessity. And therein lies perhaps one cause of the final tragedy of Coles' life.

What Coles had lacked even from the moment of his original vision of the immorality of slavery was the ability to rip himself from his roots and oppose wholly, with full conviction, the monster he had discovered. The abysses that such opposition might have uncovered, the loneliness it would have subjected him to, the ugly callousness, the tough fury, the cruel logic it would have engendered in him were all too much for him to embrace. To become a true renegade is a step few people--even those who have a forceful conviction of the evil of their social class--are willing to take. It is too destructive of the fabric of life, requires too much sacrifice on the altar of a single ideal. Which is why those who seem like renegades are rarely trusted, even by those whose cause they have adopted. There is always a suspicion either that there is something wrong with them or that somewhere deep within them is still the old allegiance to their class or race that will show itself in the final crisis.

Coles never came close to opposing his class or race. He was always extremely tolerant of slaveowners. And as he grew older he became less and less sympathetic to blacks, perhaps because for all his autobiographical bravado, he was in the end disappointed in the performance of his former slaves. He also became completely disillusioned about white attitudes towards blacks, accepting it as a given fact of nature that the two races could never peacefully coexist. This general acceptance of racial disharmony made it easier for Coles to tolerate the attitudes of masters to their slaves, and even to see slavery as the tragic but perhaps inevitable social expression of the relationship between two races on the same soil. Extermination or slavery--these, Coles believed, were the only options when two races lived side by side. Slavery was merely the symptom of a deeper evil--the presence of blacks on the North American continent. It was this deeper evil that had to be eradicated before the whites of the South could be liberated.

His attitude towards Dolley, therefore, was tolerant of her brutality. He did not censure her for destroying the lives of her slaves to protect her own self-interest, just as he did not censure Isaac for setting up a slave plantation in Missouri, nor did he shrink from renting his Missouri land to tenants who worked it with slaves. He did not make anyone responsible for slavery; it was the unfortunate social situation that was at fault, not any group of individuals. Thus he was able to live comfortably among those whose daily oppression of their fellows he so strenuously opposed.

When the Civil War broke out Coles was, as we might imagine, devastated. For a short time he was able to keep up a correspondence with his family via the Stevensons, who were in England. Such is the nervous character of my feelings produced by these causes, he writes of the "political situation" to his brother-in-law Rutherfoord in October 1861, that it greatly increases my pains to talk or write about it or even to think, which I cannot avoid doing incessantly. From what has occurred, and will probably occur, there is little or no prospect of my ever being again happy. No. I have had a happy life, for which I am thankful, the remnant is destined I fear to be miserable.

How miserable Coles could not have guessed. His youngest son, Roberts Coles , had been drawn to Virginia from the closeness that had been maintained with the Coles family there and became imbued with the desire to return to the Enniscorthy estate. Since he saw a toleration of slavery and of slaveowners in his father, he was himself not opposed to slavery and saw nothing wrong in taking up the life of his ancestors. Arrangements were made for him to purchase from the family in installments a portion of the original estate on the Green Mountain, and he moved there shortly before the Civil War broke out.

So often our children become the expression of the selves we have consciously repudiated but unconsciously continued to cultivate. In returning to Enniscorthy Roberts Coles was, like the children of John Payne two generations earlier, attempting to close the circle, to resume the privileged life his father had not sufficiently foresworn. With the opening of hostilities between the North and South, Roberts Coles chose the South. He joined the Confederate army soon after the beginning of the war. In February 1862 he was slain in the battle of Roanoke Island. Coles did not even know that his son was fighting for the Confederacy until he received news of his death.

In 1863 Coles made another attempt at autobiography , the last piece of writing we have from him. At the time he was seventy-six years old. The fragment is about 1500 words long and is studded with crossings out and inaccuracies. In a few places blank space is left for names to be filled in later. It seems like the work of someone approaching senility if not already engulfed in it. Perhaps symbolically, its last line is a penciled addition: In 1833 married the daughter of Hugh Roberts of Pine Grove near Philadelphia--as if this had been the final act of the portion of his life that belonged to history.

He died in Philadelphia in 1868 .

Edward Coles

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