Biography and History

Edward Coles was born on December 15, 1786 into one of the oldest Virginia families. When he inherited his family's estate in 1808, Coles felt somewhat conflicted about slavery. After serving as President James Madison's private secretary from 1809-1815, Coles purchased land in Illinois with the intention of eventually moving his estate west. In 1816 Madison sent Coles to Russia for diplomatic purposes, and Coles spent the next two years traveling in Europe. When he returned to the United States, Coles arranged to move to Illinois, which had adopted an anti-slavery stance. On the way to his new home, Coles told his assembled slaves that they were free, giving each documents of emancipation and each family 160 acres of land. In 1822, Coles was elected governor of Illinois in a tightly contested and somewhat controversial election. For the next two years, the slavery debate remained in the forefront, and in 1824 the state held a referendum. Coles, the only anti-slavery elected official in the Illinois government devoted himself to the referendum, and, after record voter turn-out, the anti-slavery movement won. Never truly popular in mid-western society, Coles retired to his farm in Edwardsville after his term as governor, and then eventually moved to Philadelphia in 1832. Coles lived to be 82 years old, long enough to see the Emancipation Proclamation. He passed away on July 7, 1868 in Philadelphia.

Source: From the finding aid for C0037


  • Abolitionists -- United States..
  • Presidents -- United States -- 19th century..
  • Presidents -- United States -- Wives -- 19th century..
  • Edward Coles Papers. 1797-1881 (inclusive).

    Call Number: C0037

    Edward Coles was a prominent anti-slavery political figure, who most notably served as governor of Illinois when the state became officially anti-slavery through a referendum vote. These papers include personal notes from Coles, correspondence to and by Coles with friends, colleagues, and family, documents about Coles, and the writings of other people.