. . . I asked him, in the simplicity of youth, and under the influence of the new light just shed on me--if this be true how can you hold a slave--how can man be made the property of man? (Edward Coles, 1844 autobiography)
We do not know which words: perhaps they are unimportant. We do know the subject matter--political philosophy--and the point of view that was being expressed.Bishop James Madison was a cousin of his more famous namesake, president of William and Mary, a distinguished exponent of the doctrines that may collectively be called the American faith: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . Some such words as these grated unbearably against the fact that the man speaking them was, like most gentlemen of his time and place, the master of slaves.
How can you hold a slave? The question is so personal, so direct, so challenging. And it seems that the Bishop took it as personally as it was meant. I can never forget his peculiarly embarrassed manner, Coles tells us, as he admitted the inconsistency and then tried to explain the compromises with principle that had enabled his generation to maintain and bequeath its power.
Yes, Bishop Madison said, holding slaves is clearly inconsistent with a belief in the doctrine of the rights of man. But in practice slavery is very difficult to abolish. Simply freeing all slaves forthwith would be ruinous to blacks and whites alike. At times it is necessary to temper theory with practical considerations. Slavery must be tolerated until some rational and orderly process for ending it can be agreed upon.
Is it right to do what we believe to be wrong because our forefathers did it? Coles thundered back. And as to the difficulty of getting rid of our slaves, we could get rid of them with much less difficulty than we did the King of our forefathers. Such inconsistency on our part, or such injustice to our fellow man, should not be tolerated because it would be inconvenient or difficult to terminate.
We cannot know the extent of the Bishop's embarrassment--whether he was outraged, troubled, threatened, perhaps amused. Or whether he was more concerned with Coles' future than his own inconsistency. We know that he was related to Coles distantly, that he was a friend of the Coles family, and that he had taught all of Coles' brothers, which made it likely that at some level of his response he was attempting--vainly, as it turned out--to persuade his young student not to renounce his inheritance.
Individual action, the Bishop tried to persuade Coles, resulted only in useless self-sacrifice. The point, after all, was to end slavery, not merely to free oneself personally from the burden of owning slaves. All rational men were anxious to see the Virginia legislature make provision for the gradual abolition of slavery in the state. But the problem was complicated and the solution not immediately clear.
Not surprisingly, Coles failed to convince the Bishop that he was bound to carry out his theory and act up to his principles, by giving freedom to his slaves. To the young, inconsistency is the greatest of evils; to the old it is often just one more infirmity that one has little choice but to accept. Coles, too, in the long and bitter course that would lead to fulfillment, would learn the price of authenticity and would surrender ultimately to a view of slavery not that much different from his teacher's. But at this point, a young man of twenty in his first intellectual strength, he saw no reason why he should not remain pure, which is to say that like many idealistic youths he sought above all other values his own self-esteem.
Unable to screen myself, he writes, . . . from the peltings and upbraidings of my conscience, and the just censure, as I conceived, of earth and heaven, I could not consent to hold as property what I had no right to, and which was not, and could not be property, according to my understanding of the rights and duties of man--and therefore determined that I would not and could not hold my fellowman as a slave.
There would be nothing noteworthy in this traditional battle of the generations had it ended as most such battles do--with the younger man swearing vows of inner purity soon buried, vows that like radioactive waste would slowly leak out the poison of cynicism for the rest of his life. But Coles was different. The vow he made that day in the winter of 1806-7 never to own slaves shaped his life and, to some extent, the history of the United States. For it brought Coles to Illinois at just the time and in precisely the character to be the leader of the forces which successfully prevented Illinois from becoming a slave state.
Had Coles not had this revelation, or had not sworn this vow, or had not stuck to it through years of temptation, complication, and adversity, it is possible that the vote on slavery that took place in Illinois eighteen years later, on August 2, 1824, might have gone the other way. The vote was close enough, and Coles' role pivotal enough, to raise that possibility. And had Illinois become a slave state, the history of our country would have been quite different. Slavery would have spread back to the North, becoming a national rather than merely a regional phenomenon. The slave states would for a time have held a majority in the Senate and had a more powerful voice in electing the President. A precedent for slavery would have been set for other western states and territories. Should civil war have come, the slave states would have split the free states east and west and had access across the Great Lakes and northern wilderness to supplies from Canada. And Abraham Lincoln might have grown up in a slave state.
It may be, however, that if Coles had not existed he would have been invented. That is, if he had not assumed leadership of the struggle, someone else with similar qualities would have stepped into the breach and fulfilled his historic function. Perhaps. The fact is that Coles was there and that it was his life and personality that helped shape events.
Which brings us back to his vow in the winter of 1806-7 not to own slaves. The moral qualities of that vow were the same as those at work in Illinois in 1824. The issues, the choices, the consequences are, after all perennial. The world is evil: what does one do about it? How much does one sacrifice, how much does self-esteem demand? Is the first step to rid oneself of impurity? And after that, what?
What claim upon the individual does human suffering lay?
As Bishop Madison recognized at the very inception of Coles' grand idea, Coles' concern was more personal than social. His dedication was to a solution not to the problem of slavery, but to the problem of owning slaves. (If this be true, how can you hold a slave?)
His personal action, though, had important social consequences. Of course, everything we do has social effects, but Coles particularly strove to make his life a model for others to follow. In freeing his slaves he hoped to demonstrate to his aristocratic friends with abolitionist pretensions that the thing could be done successfully without bringing ruin to either master or slave. He became peculiarly for his generation "the man who freed his slaves." Nearly every historical reference to him mentions this achievement.
Like many idealists, Coles determined to make his life an ideal for others to follow, the result being that it tended to become a myth. Myths have social functions, and to the extent that Edward Coles lived his myth, the solution to his private problem became a social action. Unfortunately, myths also tend to diverge from facts. And the extent to which Coles didn't--couldn't--live his myth is revealing of the realities that tended to subvert and eventually to undermine his vision.
Although he is known as an abolitionist, Coles never--not even in Illinois--devoted himself seriously to the cause of emancipation. He never embraced the only practical and morally defensible solution to the problem of slavery, which was to make the millions of blacks free and equal U.S. citizens, with just reparation for the wrongs done them. He was too bound by resignation to what he believed were the realities of the Southern social system--white racism and black inferiority. Within the narrow limitation of his times, he was unable to think clearly in social terms. For him there was no realistic social solution: all that was open to the conscience-stricken individual was to flee to moral purity, which is what Coles did and what he urged his friends to do--to flee, leaving the evil behind him essentially intact.
This only partial commitment to emancipation, this involvement with the individual rather than the social problem, fit Coles perfectly for the role he was to play in Illinois at the head of a struggle not to end slavery but rather to preserve Illinois from its taint. So wonderfully do private and public concerns mesh, do history and biography meet! Once Coles had freed his slaves and saved the state of Illinois from slavery, he withdrew from the struggle, still a vigorous, comparatively young man. Once the problem of the legalization of slavery in Illinois had been settled, the anti-slavery movement collapsed, although black men continued to be enslaved, even in Illinois. If either Coles or the anti-slavery movement had pursued more ambitious goals they might not have been successful. In both, what was convenient tactically was also satisfying personally. As in most success stories, inner and outer circumstances meshed. Coles' limitations were assets in the particular time and place in which he had his moment of historical significance; thereafter, they were liabilities that relegated him to a purely private role.
Perhaps the most significant quality of Cole's vow was its motivation: a clear conscience, a sense of righteous integrity, the inner glow of moral self-satisfaction. Unlawful possession of the wealth I enjoyed, Coles writes in an undated fragment that refers to this period, could not, however, satisfy my own mind; and after a severe conflict between my love of ease, and my sense of right--between my tastes and my principles, I determined to act honestly and honorably, and to relinquish what I could no longer maintain without committing injustice and feeling remorse . . . The moment I made this virtuous decision was the happiest I had at that time ever felt; my mind seemed suddenly relieved from an oppressive weight; my whole frame glowed with new life, and the consciousness of courageous integrity elevated me so much in my own opinion that titles of rank and fortune appear as nothing in my estimation.
It is difficult to view without some condescension a man so conscious of his own integrity. We all know how thin a line divides righteousness from self-righteousness, well-deserved self-satisfaction from complacency. The desire for integrity is a great inner force for altruism; upon it society depends for much ethical behavior. It spurred Coles to a considerable achievement--perhaps, given the fortuitous circumstances, to a greater impact on history than many greater men could hope for. Yet we cannot look on Coles without seeing his concern for his own integrity as a limitation, for all the moral glow of its inner fire. Somehow, as a motivating force, it seems less rich and deep than that other great inner spur to altruism--love.
Within Coles, the moral energy flowed inward, as it did in Illinois. We will see the effect of this inwardness upon the quality of the anti-slavery movement as well as upon Cole's life. Integrity, self-esteem--these were the moral energizers of Cole's rationalistic heritage: atomistic, cold, tending to isolation rather than communion, as mechanistic as the Newtonian universe in which the rationalists of the time lived their imaginative lives.
And so we see in Coles' vow the seed that was later to flower into the historic achievement of his life--the preservation of freedom in the state of Illinois. The achievement compels our admiration: it was not easy, and it came at great personal cost. Yet it is necessary for us to understand it within the context of its limitations, if only because in a healthy society, whatever our own behavior, we should retain a sense of heirarchy in moral values. If the two great forces for altruistic behavior are integrity and love, we should be aware of the subtle differences in the effects of the two, the one flowing inward to embrace the self, the other outward to embrace the world. In Coles' life the great moral force was integrity, not love. The analogy that he drew at the outset between the slave population and the King of England--both oppressive objects to be gotten rid of--reveals clearly the quality both of his famous personal sacrifice and of the great crusade which he led.