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Edward Coles (December 15, 1786 – July 7, 1868) was Governor of Illinois, serving from 1822 to 1826. He was influential in opposing a movement to make Illinoismarker a slave state in its early years.

Early years

Coles was born into a wealthy slave-owning family in Albemarle County, Virginiamarker. His brothers-in-law were John Rutherfoord, who served as governor of Virginiamarker, and Andrew Stevenson, who served as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and American minister to the United Kingdommarker.

Anti-slavery views

Coles' studies at the College of William & Marymarker convinced him that slavery was wrong. He sought for many years to find a way to free the slaves he inherited from his father, one of the wealthiest men in what was then the western frontier of Virginia. Virginia had banned newly-freed slaves from living in the state. He corresponded with first James Madison, and then Thomas Jefferson about emancipation.

Coles's exploration of Ohiomarker, Indianamarker and Kentuckymarker as places to settle his slaves was disappointing. Service as private secretary to President James Madison and as an a special envoy to the Czar of Russiamarker, slowed his efforts to find somewhere to resettle his former slaves. However, in 1818, he decided to do so in Illinois. On his way to Illinois, where he had been appointed by James Monroe A Register of the Land Office, Coles freed his ten slaves. None of his slaves left him, and upon arrival in Edwardsville, Illinoismarker, Coles gave each head of family of land.

Unfortunately, Coles had misjudged the debates over Illinois' new constitution. He failed to understand the interest that many Illinois politicians and business leaders had in legalizing slavery. In 1822 talk of a renewed push to legalize slavery prompted Coles to declare himself a candidate for governor. He won in a tight, four-way race, and immediately challenged the state's political elite to eliminate the Black Codes and the indenture laws that created de facto slavery. The pro-slavery forces struck back, with a call for a referendum, the first such vote in American history. However, Coles's leadership defeated the pro-slavery effort in the 1824 vote. Nevertheless, his later attempts at seeking public office in Illinois failed.

He died in 1868 in Philadelphiamarker, Pennsylvaniamarker.


Coles County, Illinoismarker was named for him. An elementary school on the south side of Chicagoismarker also named after him.

The Governor Coles State Memorial, dedicated to Coles, is located in Edwardsville, Illinoismarker

External links


  1. Book: Crawford, Alan Pell. Twilight at Monticello. New York: Randomhouse, 2009. Chapter 16.

  • Gov. Edward Coles and the Vote to forbid slavery in Illinois, 1823-1824, by David Ress, McFarland Publishers, Jefferson NC, 2006
  • Twilight at Monticello: the Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, by Alan Pell Crawford, Random House, New York, 2008

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