Confronting Slavery: Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America by Suzanne Cooper Guasco (review)
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Slavery, Antislavery, Edward Coles, Edward Coles

Confronting Slavery: Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America. By Suzanne Cooper Guasco. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2013. Pp. 293. Paper, $28.95.)

To many historians, the American Revolution’s antislavery legacies have seemed weak compared to later organized abolitionism. The refusal of [End Page 520] founding patriots to act on professions of liberty stunted true abolitionism until the rise of immediatism in the 1830s and antislavery politics in the 1840s, or so the story once went. But in her well-written and deeply researched book Confronting Slavery, Suzanne Cooper Guasco joins other recent scholarship in arguing for important continuities and “connections between the Revolutionary antislavery impulse and the Antebellum political antislavery movement” (7).

Guasco illuminates these connections through the life of Edward Coles, who grew up in a household frequented by Patrick Henry, James Monroe, and James Madison. Born in 1786 to a wealthy slaveholding planter in Virginia, Coles lived to see slavery destroyed by civil war. By that time, Guasco argues, he had worked for abolition his whole life in a career that ranged from Virginia to Illinois to Pennsylvania and transformed him from slaveholder to advocate of what Guasco calls “antislavery nationalism.”

Coles determined early in life to act on what he understood to be the antislavery implications of the nation’s founding principles, embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Guasco traces Coles’s antislavery to his career as a student at William and Mary, where (on the back of some 1806 notes) he recorded his deepening conviction that “Slavery & Justice are contradictory and reciprocally exclusive of each other” (27). In 1809, Coles toured the Ohio River Valley and began dreaming of moving to the Old Northwest and freeing the approximately twenty people he inherited upon his father’s death.

Coles deferred those plans for a decade while working as private secretary to President Madison, his friend and mentor. But his antislavery beliefs did not fade. Coles saw the military liability slavery posed during the War of 1812, and his friendship with Quaker abolitionist Roberts Vaux confirmed his antislavery instincts. On an official mission to Russia, Coles found further proof that American slavery blotted the nation’s reputation and exceeded in depravity the serfdom of the Old World. In 1814, Coles famously wrote to Jefferson urging him and the nation’s other “revered Fathers” to lead a movement for “gradual emancipation” (64).

When in 1819, Coles finally did move to the Northwest as Register of the Land Office at Edwardsville, Illinois, he at last fulfilled “his long-held determination to manumit his enslaved inheritance” (71). The slaves who traveled with Coles from Virginia settled in southwestern Illinois as free people, working on Coles’s farm for wages and on small [End Page 521] lots he gave to those over the age of twenty-three. Yet while Coles had imagined Illinois as an antislavery refuge, other southern migrants hoped to introduce slavery there. He campaigned against these proslavery forces for five years, aided by eastern allies like Vaux, whose niece he later married. Especially after his election as governor in 1822, Coles gained a national reputation for his work to defeat an 1824 movement for a state constitutional convention to legalize slavery.

That struggle honed Coles’s brand of antislavery politics, built on the premise that “all of the founders, nonslaveholders and slaveholders alike, had confessed their belief that slavery was morally and ideologically wrong” (123). For Coles, the nation’s “cross-sectional antislavery past” demanded a cross-sectional movement to restrict and gradually destroy the institution (206). This “antislavery nationalism” undergirded Coles’s activism after he left Illinois, too. As a member of the American Colonization Society after 1826, an observer of Virginia’s debates over gradual emancipation between 1829 and 1831, and a supporter of Free Soil politics in Pennsylvania in the 1840s, Coles repeatedly insisted “that all of the founders, northern and southern alike, shared an opposition to slavery” (207). With a true believer’s zeal, Coles tirelessly defended the antislavery bona fides of his Jeffersonian heroes, taking to the press, for example, to defend Jefferson...