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Crusade Against Slavery

Edward Coles, Pioneer of Freedom

Kurt Leichtle and Bruce Carveth

Publication Year: 2011

This first complete biography of Edward Coles not only gives readers an account of the life of this remarkable historical figure, but also tells the stories of the slaves he freed.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Book Title

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pp. iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix

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pp. xi

We acknowledge with sincere appreciation: David L. Holmes, whose reading of materials related to the Reverend James Madison provided important insights; Jim Travisano, whose early reading of opening chapters gave much-needed support and encouragement; and Charlotte Johnson, whose special knowledge of Robert Crawford opened a wealth of new information to us. We also sincerely thank the Virginia...

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“Dust in the Balance”: An Introduction

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pp. 1-4

Edward Coles was fifty-eight years of age when he recalled the day he emancipated his slaves: “The morning after we left Pittsburg, a mild, calm and lovely April day, the sun shining bright, and the heavens without a cloud, our boats floating gently down the beautiful Ohio, the verdant foliage of Spring just budding out on its picturesque banks, all around presenting a scene both conducive to and in harmony with the finest feelings of our nature, was selected as one well suited to ...

Part One

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1. River and Opportunity

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pp. 7-16

In the early 1730s, when John Coles arrived, Richmond was a rough smudge of a Virginia frontier camp.1 It was a river town of sorts; people called it “the Falls.” But the Falls was more bottom than river. The James River at Richmond was an impassable, frothy confusion of water and boulders rising gradually for seven miles west. The river then found its depth again, filling out for seventy or eighty navigable miles inland.From his father, William Byrd II inherited the Falls and twenty-six ...

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2. Man of Property

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pp. 17-41

John Coles died in the winter of 1808. He was laid in the family cemetery behind his own Enniscorthy, close by the three children who had preceded him in death (Jack, who died of burns at the age of four in 1773; Isaac, who died in 1778 at five weeks of age; and William,...

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3. Release

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pp. 42-65

African Americans were conspicuous in Washington, D.C., during Coles’s time. Slave and free, they made up almost a quarter of the population in 1800, forming a deep pool of black culture in the urban life of the nation’s capital. Slaves were domestic servants; they delivered produce by wagon from the wharves in Georgetown; they operated tables at the farmer’s market; they were used extensively (and profitably) as laborers during the capital’s construction boom. Slaves accompanied their ...

Part Two

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4. Beginning

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pp. 69-79

Edward Coles freed his slaves drifting down the Ohio River on the craft he had purchased and outfitted in Brownsville. Stillness held the river; it was on a perfect May morning. Flecks of sunlight danced among ripples on this watery highway to Illinois. Coles left several accounts of the event—one to his mother only days later and a ...

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5. A Rough Land of Great Promise

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pp. 80-91

A week or so into May of 1819, Ralph Crawford and his wife, Kate, and their four children, Robert Crawford and his sister Polly, and Thomas Cobb, Nancy Gaines, and Manuel and Sukey and their five children arrived in the town of Edwardsville, the seat of government for Madison County. Edwardsville is in the northern reach of the American Bottom, a sumptuous crescent of farmland wrapped around a bulge in the Mississippi, starting across the river from St. Louis and ...

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6. Contest and Convention

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pp. 92-99

On 30 October 1821, the Edwardsville (Illinois) Spectator announced, “Edward Coles ... in compliance with the wishes of his friends” would be a candidate for governor in the upcoming election.1 Six months previous, friends had encouraged him to run.2 Although equivocation had marked his drawn-out decision to emigrate to Illinois, and self-doubt caused him initially to reject Madison’s offer for employment in the White House, neither indecision nor self-doubt impeded this ...

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7. A Prairie Firestorm

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pp. 100-108

Edward Coles arrived in Vandalia on Sunday, 1 December 1822, one day only before the Illinois legislature would convene. He arrived scarcely in time to wind up his affairs at the land office in Edwardsville and move on to Vandalia to undertake his new duties.1 Travel had been disagreeable. Muddy roads were swollen with rain, and the rough travel had detained him. Coles would be inaugurated as the Coles was mindful of the princely trappings of the governor’s office ...

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8. The Chasm

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pp. 109-130

Commentators, then and later, have had harsh words for the events in Vandalia of February 1823. Historian and politician Elihu Washburne called the unseating of Nicholas Hansen outrageous and “a measure of revolutionary violence and madness happily without parallel in our history.”1 To historian Wayne Stevens, the legislature showed audacity surpassing belief.2

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9. The Complaint

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pp. 131-149

In August 1824 the victory seemed complete. Horatio Newhall rejoiced after the election: the conventionists were so defeated as to be almost ashamed to show themselves in public.1 Newhall was all for casting out the proconvention office holders and electing good New Englanders like Sam Lockwood. In August 1824 it all seemed possible....

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10. The Emancipator

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pp. 150-156

Edward Coles returned to Philadelphia in the fall of 1831. He was forty-five years of age and single. He was well connected to Philadelphia society through frequent trips and extended stays in the city during the past fifteen years. Philadelphia had been a second home. He knew the Biddles and the Vauxes intimately. He knew many other families in the upper currents of Philadelphia’s social pool. Coles had developed a taste for smart living twenty years before in Dolley’s vibrant ...

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11. The Devastating Truth of Madison’s Will

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pp. 157-166

As the Virginia House of Delegates was in the midst of its debate on the proposal Coles had sent to Randolph, Coles was undertaking another project for emancipation. Edward Coles and James Madison were in frequent communication during 1830 and 1831. A series of letters from Coles made demands on Madison’s time and judgment regarding whether federal lands within state borders might be considered state assets for the purpose of making internal improvements. They ...

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12. The Aging Historian

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pp. 167-182

Fanny Trollope visited Philadelphia in 1827. She went on and on about the market. It is, she said, the very perfection of a setting for the serious householder to engage in the important office of caterer. Every aspect of it (the dairy, the poultry yard, the spoils of forest and river) produced the effect ...

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13. The Preacher

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pp. 183-190

Robert Crawford continued overseeing the Prairieland Farm and its rental for some years, remaining Edward Coles’s agent, watching over and caring for the business interests of Coles’s investment at his Pin Oak farm until at least 1843.1 Crawford appears to have flourished in freedom, and his faithfulness as an agent was well met by his reliable, if rough-hewn, personal qualities. Among those qualities was ...

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14. Prodigal Virginian

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pp. 191-199

The three Coles children grew to adulthood in a family life bathed in affection, constantly reinforced by family associations that reached from Philadelphia to Central Virginia and beyond. Mary Coles remained in Philadelphia all of her life. She never married. She devoted her energies largely to the Episcopal Church and became well known for her Tuesday missionary Bible class in Philadelphia. She mixed with bishops and other church leaders in both the United States and in...

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15. The Woodlands

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pp. 200-205

Edward Coles left his western business interests in the hands of solicitor Isaac Prickett of Edwardsville, Illinois. Letters indicate that Prickett was, altogether, an unsatisfactory steward of Coles’s holdings. Coles traveled back to Illinois and Missouri every few years in order to effect business that Prickett had failed to manage satisfactorily. Coles had, for instance, loaned money to Messrs. Wilson and Edwards of Edwardsville, secured by mortgage. Under personal financial distress, ...

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pp. 207-210

The cause of racial freedom in Illinois moved forward slowly and with hesitation. The convention struggle of 1824 ended talk of legalizing slavery in Illinois and set the state on an uneven road toward greater racial justice. Racial injustice remained a fact of life, however. Free black persons could be kidnapped with impunity well into the 1830s. Legislation restricting the arrival of free black people in the state was passed in 1829 and in 1848 and again in 1853. More than fifteen years after Illinois’ ...


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pp. 213-245


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pp. 247-261


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pp. 263-268

Author Bio

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pp. 268

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809389445
E-ISBN-10: 0809389444
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809330423
Print-ISBN-10: 0809330423

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 8 B/w halftones, 1 map
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Freedmen -- Illinois -- Biography.
  • Coles, Edward, 1786-1868.
  • African Americans -- Illinois -- Biography.
  • Illinois -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • Illinois -- Politics and government -- To 1865.
  • Governors -- Illinois -- biography.
  • Slavery -- Illinois -- History.
  • Slaves -- Emancipation -- Illinois -- History.
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