When James Madison came to the presidency in 1809, he followed the example of his predecessor, Mr. Jefferson, in the selection of his private secretary. Mr. Jefferson chose Captain Meriwether Lewis, the son of one of his Virginia neighbors, whom he had known from his childhood. Mr. Madison gave the appointment to Edward Coles, the son of a family friend of Albermarle County, Va., who had recently died, leaving a large estate in land and slaves to his children.
Edward Coles, a graduate of William and Mary college, was twenty-three years of age when he entered the White House as a member of the President’s family. He was a young man after James Madison’s own heart, of gentle manners, handsome person, and singular firmness of character. In the correspondence both of Jefferson and Madison several letters can be found addressed to him which show the very high estimation in which he was held by those eminent men.
Among the many young men who have held the place of private secretary in the presidential mansion, Edward Coles was one of the most interesting. I know not which ought to rank highest in our esteem, the wise and gallant Lewis, who explored for us the Western wilderness, or Edward Coles, one of the rare men who know how to surrender, for conscience’ sake, home, fortune, ease, and good repute.
While he was still in college he became deeply interested in the question, whether men could rightfully hold property in men. At that time the best of the educated class at the South were still abolitionists in a romantic or sentimental sense, just as Queen Marie Antoinette was a republican during the American Revolution. Here and there a young man like George Wythe had set free his slaves and gone into the profession of the law. With the great majority, however, their disapproval of slavery was only an affair of the intellect, which led to no practical results. It was not such with Edward Coles. The moment you look at the portrait given in the recent sketch of his life by Mr. E. B. Washburne, you perceive that he was a person who might be slow to make up his mind, but who, when he had once discovered the right course, could never again be at peace with himself until he had followed it.
While at college he read everything on the subject of slavery that fell in his way, and he studied it in the light of the Declaration of Independence, which assured him that men are born free and equal and endowed with certain natural rights which are inalienable. He made up his mind, while he was still a student, that it was wrong to hold slaves, and he resolved that he would neither hold them nor live in a State which permitted slaves to be held. He was determined, however, to do nothing rashly. One reason which induced him to accept the place offered him by Mr. Madison was his desire of getting a knowledge of the remoter parts of the Union, in order to choose the place where he could settle his slaves most advantageously.
While he was yet a member of the presidential household, he held that celebrated correspondence with Mr. Jefferson, in which he urged the ex-President to devote the rest of his life to promoting the abolition of slavery. Mr. Jefferson replied that the task was too arduous for a man who had passed his seventieth year. It was like bidding old Priam buckle on the armor of Hector.
„This enterprise,” he added, „is for the young, for those who can follow it up and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers and these are the only weapons of an old man. But, in the mean time, are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not.”
Mr. Jefferson endeavored to dissuade the young man from his project of removal. Mr. Coles, however, was not to be convinced. After serving for six years as private secretary, and fulfilling a special diplomatic mission to Russia, he withdrew to his ancestral home in Virginia, and prepared to lead forth his slaves to the State of Illinois, then recently admitted into the Union, but still a scarcely broken expanse of virgin prairie. He could not lawfully emancipate his slaves in Virginia, and it was far from his purpose to turn them loose in the wilderness. He was going with them, and to stay with them until they were well rooted in the new soil.
All his friends and relations opposed his scheme; nor had he even the approval of the slaves themselves, for they knew nothing whatever of his intention. He had been a good master, and they followed him with blind faith, supposing that he was merely going to remove, as they had seen other planters remove, from an exhausted soil to virgin lands. Placing his slaves in the charge of one of their number, a mulatto man who had already made the journey to Illinois with his master, he started them in wagons on their long journey in April, 1819, over the Alleghany Mountains to a point on the Monongahela River. There he bought two large flat-bottomed boats, upon which he embarked his whole company, with their horses, wagons, baggage, and implements. His pilot proving a drunkard, he was obliged to take the command himself, upon reaching Pittsburg.
The morning after he left Pittsburg, a lovely April day, he called all the negroes together on the deck of the boats, which were lashed together, and explained what he was going to do with them. He told them they were no longer slaves, but free people, free as he was, free to go on down the river with him, and free to go ashore, just as they pleased. He afterwards described the scene. „The effect on them,” he wrote, „was electrical. They stared at me and at each other, as if doubting the accuracy or reality of what they heard. In breathless silence they stood before me, unable to utter a word, but with countenances beaming with expression which no words could convey, and which no language can now describe. As they began to see the truth of what they had heard, and to realize their situation, there came on a kind of hysterical, giggling laugh. After a pause of intense and unutterable emotion, bathed in tears, and with tremulous voices, they gave vent to their gratitude, and implored the blessings of God on me. When they had in some degree recovered the command of themselves, Ralph said he had long known I was opposed to holding black people as slaves, and thought it probable I would some time or other give my people their freedom, but that he did not expect me to do it so soon; and moreover, he thought I ought not to do it till they had repaid me the expense I had been at in removing them from Virginia, and had improved my farm and ‚gotten me well fixed in that new country.’ To this all simultaneously expressed their concurrence, and their desire to remain with me, as my servants, until they had comfortably fixed me at my new home.
„I told them, no. I had made up my mind to give to them immediate and unconditional freedom; that I had long been anxious to do it, but had been prevented by the delays, first in selling my property in Virginia, and then in collecting the money, and by other circumstances. That in consideration of this delay, and as a reward for their past services, as well as a stimulant to their future exertions, and with a hope it would add to their self-esteem and their standing in the estimation of others, I should give to each head of a family a quarter section, containing one hundred and sixty acres of land. To this all objected, saying I had done enough for them in giving them their freedom; and insisted on my keeping the land to supply my own wants, and added, in the kindest manner, the expression of their solicitude that I would not have the means of doing so after I had freed them. I told them I had thought much of my duty and of their rights, and that it was due alike to both that I should do what I had said I should do; and accordingly, soon after reaching Edwardsville, I executed and delivered to them deeds to the lands promised them.
„I stated to them that the lands I intended to give them were unimproved lands, and as they would not have the means of making the necessary improvements, of stocking their farms, and procuring the materials for at once living on them, they would have to hire themselves out till they could acquire by their labor the necessary means to commence cultivating and residing on their own lands. That I was willing to hire and employ on my farm a certain number of them (designating the individuals); the others I advised to seek employment in St. Louis, Edwardsville, and other places, where smart, active young men and women could obtain much higher wages than they could on farms. At this some of them murmured, as it indicated a partiality, they said, on my part to those designated to live with me; and contended they should all be equally dear to me, and that I ought not to keep a part and turn the others out on the world, to be badly treated, etc. I reminded them of what they seemed to have lost sight of, that they were free; that no one had a right to beat or ill-use them; and if so treated they could at pleasure leave one place and seek a better; that labor was much in demand in that new country, and highly paid for; that there would be no difficulty in their obtaining good places, and being kindly treated; but if not, I should be at hand, and would see they were well treated, and have justice done them.
„I availed myself of the deck scene to give the negroes some advice. I dwelt long and with much earnestness on their future conduct and success, and my great anxiety that they should behave themselves and do well, not only for their own sakes, but for the sake of the black race held in bondage; many of whom were thus held because their masters believed they were incompetent to take care of themselves and that liberty would be to them a curse rather than a blessing. My anxious wish was that they should so conduct themselves as to show by their example that the descendants of Africa were competent to take care of and govern themselves, and enjoy all the blessings of liberty and all the other birthrights of man, and thus promote the universal emancipation of that unfortunate and outraged race of the human family.”
After floating six hundred miles down the Ohio, they had another land journey into Illinois, where the master performed his promises, and created a home for himself. A few years after, he was elected governor of the State. It was during his term of three years that a most determined effort was made to change the constitution of the State so as to legalize slavery in it. It was chiefly through the firmness and masterly management of Governor Coles that this attempt was frustrated.
When his purpose in moving to Illinois had been completely accomplished, he removed to Philadelphia, where he lived to the age of eighty-two. Though not again in public life, he was always a public-spirited citizen. He corresponded with the venerable Madison to the close of that good man’s life. Mr. Madison wrote two long letters to him on public topics in his eighty-fourth year. Governor Coles died at Philadelphia in 1868, having lived to see slavery abolished in every State of the Union.
I have been informed that few, if any, of his own slaves succeeded finally in farming prairie land, but that most of them gradually drifted to the towns, where they became waiters, barbers, porters, and domestic servants. My impression is that he over-estimated their capacity. But this does not diminish the moral sublimity of the experiment.
 Sketch of Edward Coles. By E. B. Washburne. Chicago. 1882.