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Collection Overview

Coles, Edward, 1786-1868
Edward Coles Papers
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
3 boxes
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scamss): Box 1-3


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.

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

Included are Coles' written and collected notes on slavery; his highly personal correspondence with James and Dolley Madison covering over 30 years; a remarkable letter (1814) by Thomas Jefferson presenting his views on abolishing slavery; a Russian passport (1816); a contemporary copy of Madison's will; Madison's "Advice to my Country," a 1-page manuscript in the hand of his wife, Dolley; and various letters of political significance by Martin Van Buren, Henry Clay, James Monroe, John Tyler, Winfield Scott, and Daniel Webster. Other correspondents include Nicholas Biddle, Albert Gallatin, Elbridge Gerry, Lafayette, Richard Rush, and Jared Sparks.

The following standard abbreviations, or their variations, are used to identify materials in this collection: ALsS = autograph letters signed, LS = Letter Signed.

Collection Creator Biography:

Coles, Edward, 1786-1868

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.

Collection History


Gift of Marie R. Barlow, George A. Robbins '20, Edward G. Robbins '22, James M. Robbins '26, and Oliver W. Robbins.


No appraisal information is available.

Processing Information

This collection was processed in 1994. Finding aid written in 1994.

Biography written by Alyxandra Cullen, '09.

In 2022, restrictions on three Thomas Jefferson letters where researchers were required to use surrogates were lifted as part of a restrictions review project.

In 2023, Adrienne Rusinko enhanced metadata to prepare materials for digitization, including updates focused on improving description of formerly enslaved people.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

Edward Coles Papers; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
(609) 258-3184
Storage Note:
  • Firestone Library (scamss): Box 1-3