About This Site

CHAPTER 11: THE TOMB OF WORLDLY HAPPINESS

It has always been a favorite maxim with me and every day's experience strengthens the belief that happiness can never exist in the breast of that individual who lives by the misery and wretchedness of others. . . . I see the right, approve it too,/ Condemn the wrong, and yet the wrong pursue. . . . Beauty is to you a blunted arrow--and love appears an absurd romance. . . . A drop which can find no kindred drop wherewith to associate. (Notes scribbled by Coles on the back of one of the President's calling cards)

On the back of a note dated February 12, 1812, in which Mr. Morrow writes that he will do himself the pleasure to dine with the President tomorrow, Coles writes: Slavery, be it never so easy, yet is slavery still, and may deservedly be called the poison of the soul* and the public dungeon (Longinus). *The tomb of worldly happiness.

That it was the tomb of Coles' happiness and the poison of his soul seems likely, though Coles had other reasons to be wretched, one of which we have just discussed in the previous chapter. The knowledge that some twenty slaves were laboring for him each day in the tobacco, hemp, and wheat fields of his farm could never have been far from his mind. He was in 1813 about six years past his original vow to free his slaves and four years past the time that he had come into possession of them. And he was as far from freeing them as he had ever been.

There were many reasons why, in 1813, it was necessary for Coles to continue to postpone his plan to free his slaves. One was the war, which virtually closed the frontier to new settlement. Another was loyalty to Madison, who until the war ended would need the services of someone in whom he could place absolute trust. Yet another important reason was the state of Coles' health. From the fall of 1812 to the summer of 1814 Coles suffered from what he called an "ulcer" in his rectum--an illness that required several operations and painful periods of convalescence.

The ulcer first appeared on September 20, 1812, while Coles was at Enniscorthy for his usual late-summer vacation. When I had the pleasure to see you at Montpelier, Coles writes to Madison, I expected long before this to have been with you in Washington. It is with much concern that I inform you that I have been, and shall, Dr. Everette thinks, necessarily be detained between three and four weeks longer by a serious indisposition. Coles urges Madison to find someone to take his place.

By November Coles is back in Washington but still unhappy about his health. When I left Dr. Everette, he writes John, he told me I should be well in a few days. It has now been near a month [since an operation to remove the growth] and my ulcer is not yet healed. Dr. [Elesey?], who looks at it occasionally, says its appearance is very good, but is surprised it does not heal faster. The discharge is inconsiderable and seems gradually but slowly to lessen.

A few weeks later Coles is sure that he will need a second operation. I have every day more and more reason to fear, he writes, indeed I am now almost certain, that all the suffering and privation I endured has been for nothing, and that I shall have to undergo another operation before I shall be cured. There is still a little discharge, and the appearance of another tumor immediately in the scar made by the late operation--being not so remote by half the distance of the former tumor. A few days now will better enable me to decide upon its real character.

What the next few days told Coles was that he was afflicted with a condition that would not go away soon. He was a sick man, and would remain so for a long time.

In March 1813, Coles went to Philadelphia to be operated on by Dr. Physick, a celebrated surgeon of the time. The operation took place on March 27, and the next day Edward writes to John, From what I understand of my situation, there were two sacks containing matter in the rectum extending up about an inch above the anus. These sacks or cells the Dr. has endeavored to cut out entirely. I should not be surprised, however, if he has again, in a few days, too, to use his knife, but this is nothing but a conjecture of my own.

Unfortunately, Coles' conjecture turned out to be correct. In May, after having recovered sufficiently to begin to escape the dreary loneliness of his room in a Philadelphia boarding house, Coles found that his "ulcer" had suddenly grown to a protuberance about the size of a pea, and Dr. Physick had to cut again .

Totally discouraged, Coles begged the Madisons again to replace him, especially since Payne Todd, who had been filling in for him, was off to Europe with the peace mission that would finally negotiate the Treaty of Ghent. He has no idea how much longer he will be ill, he writes, and in any case he had not intended staying on for so long as secretary.

The Madisons' answer is unequivocal--take as long as you need to get better. We would not think of replacing you. We indulge this pleasing hope, Dolley writes, in addition to that of your remaining with us to the last, not that I would, for the World, retard any plan for your prosperity; but that I flatter myself the Western country may be given up for something more consonant with your happiness and that of your connections. Among them there are none who feel a more affectionate interest for you than Mr. Madison and myself. I hope you will believe that such is our regard and esteem for you, that we consider your leaving us a misfortune. Mr. M. can do very well without a secretary until your health is re-established. The winter is not a season for emigration. So next spring or summer you will be better able to make your election, to go or not to go.

Clearly the Madisons hoped that a delay in Edward's plans would change his mind. It was the same tactic they had adopted when they offered him the secretaryship in the first place and would adopt again after his first trip to Illinois. Next spring or summer was a year away; by that time perhaps Edward would be well again, his depression lifted, his spirits regained, able to view the situation from the perspective of a normal life rather than from a lonely boardinghouse in a strange city.

Lying in pain in his bed in Philadelphia, Edward was able to come to some definite conclusions about his future: he would leave the Madisons, sell his farm to one of his brothers, and make ready to go west as soon as his health returned. Tell Brother Walter I hope there will be no difficulty in our bargain about the Land, as I foresee none, he writes John. I very much fear if my health is ever restored it will be some time first, and of course I shall be compelled to delay vesting my money in real estate, in which case I should as leave it were in his hands as anywhere, so that he had as well not as yet put himself to any inconvenience about prompt payments.

Walter bought Rockfish in the spring of 1813 but made no changes in its operation. Edward's slaves still worked it under the same overseer. Presumably, Walter paid Edward for their labor and sold the produce for himself. Thus the sale of Rockfish made no material change either in Edward's life or in the lives of his slaves. Its only effect was to free Edward to leave whenever the time seemed ripe.

The time, unfortunately, was not to seem ripe for nearly two more years. Edward's health was very slow in returning. In August 1813, his illness turned to jaundice , and he took an excruciatingly painful trip to Saratoga, hoping the mineral waters would relieve him of his constipation. He returned to Philadelphia in September, having not only gotten rid of my bilious affection, he writes John, but in a great deal better health, and much more flesh than when I left this for the Springs . . . But his "local disease," the ulcer, still continues to harass him. And so, after six months in Philadelphia, he must leave without being cured.

By September 27 he was back at Enniscorthy. Helen Skipwith Coles writes to her sister Selina that although delicate, he looks better than expected, and on November 8 she writes that Edward has left Enniscorthy completely restored. But a few days later he is in Philadelphia , once again consulting Dr. Physick, who, he says, confesses that he doesn't know what to do about Coles' ulcer. Coles is prescribed some internal medicine and sent back to Washington, to return at regular intervals for further treatment. It will not be until late in 1814 that mention of this illness drops out of Coles' correspondence and we can presume that he is finally cured.

One important effect of this prolonged illness on Coles' life was to ensure that he could not participate actively in the war, which at that time was infusing nearly all of his friends with patriotic valor. Isaac, immediately at the onset of war , activated himself and took charge of a regiment on the Niagara frontier. John joined his regiment in Norfolk somewhat later in the war. Coles' school friends Meade and Lindsay took commissions in the army shortly before the declaration of war. In October 1812, Edward writes to Dolley asking that his cousins Edward Carrington and Walter Coles be considered for commissions. In February 1813, Coles' school friend Hawkins , speaker of the house in the Kentucky legislature, writes Coles of his intention to resign his legislative post to join the army, and begs Coles' help in getting him a military appointment. Nicholas Biddle, a new and important friend from Philadelphia, asks Coles' help in getting his brother's ship to sea, so that his brother can distinguish himself in battle and avoid being passed over in the next promotion list.

Surrounded by this patriotic fever, it is possible that Coles felt the temptation to throw himself into the war. But because of his illness, whatever thoughts he might have had on this subject were of necessity idle, and they never surfaced in his letters.

He did, however, share the intensely patriotic spirit of the time. Living at the center of events, he was strongly affected by the alternating waves of gloom and exultation that swept over Washington as news of victories and defeats filtered back to the capital city.

A high point of exultation came in December 1812, when a ball was planned in honor of naval officers in celebration of American victories over the British warships Alert and Guerriere. On the afternoon of the ball, word reached Washington that Captain Stephen Decatur had captured yet another British warship, the Macedonian, and for that moment it must have seemed that the tiny American navy was invincible. In the evening, Coles writes his mother, . . . we found the whole city illuminated--bonfires, music playing, firing of cannon, etc. At about 9 o'clock when some doubts began to arise as to the correctness of the reports one of Decatur's midshipmen arrived at the tavern [Tomlinson's Hotel] where we were, bringing with him the delightful and exulting information and the flag of the British ship. Never was joy more apparent nor never was it expressed with more vociferation. I met him at the door and knew him--it was the son of the Secretary of the Navy. Three cheers were immediately given, which were answered by three cheers from the dancing room. In a moment we had him in the Ball room where cheers, hurrahs, slaps, etc. resounded for many minutes. Very soon we obtained from him the British flag and carried it in triumph through the crowded room. Nothing was more opportune than receiving such information while doing honor to the victory achieved by the brave Captains Hull and Morris. I wish I had time to give you all the particulars of this interesting scene. It certainly was the most glorious evening of my life.

A few months later Coles was offered the opportunity to join the peace mission that was off to Ghent to spend the next year and a half in negotiations. But even this more mild form of participation in the historic events of the time was denied him by his health. And again because of his health he was not in Washington in August 1814, when the city was invaded and partially destroyed by the British. Thus he missed some of the most memorable incidents of the time: Dolley hurriedly supervising the removal of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Washington as the British closed in on the President's House; Madison hiding in nearby woods as the capital of the nation burned; Dolley, traveling incognito with one woman servant, nearly beaten by a tavern keeper's wife when her identity is discovered.

Instead, Coles was in Long Branch, New Jersey, hoping that ocean bathing would help restore him to health. On the Jersey beach he caught a glimpse of the war he had been intimately involved in for over two years. I have been much gratified, he writes Dolley, by witnessing two unsuccessful attempts to capture two American privateers by two British Frigates that have been cruising in sight of this place ever since I have been here. The chases, being within full view, and passing within less than two miles of the shore, excited the most lively and animating interest with us all here, who paraded on the beach to behold the beautiful spectacles. In the first chase after being pursued for some time, and finding that there was no chance of being overtaken, as she passed near us the Privateer exultingly hoisted her flag and fired a cannon, which was immediately answered by us by hoisting our handkerchiefs, firing a gun, and giving three cheers. The 2cd chase was a much harder one, and for a long time extremely doubtful. The men of war were so near the Privateer as to be firing at her for upwards of an hour, with the hope, I presume, that it was possible to cripple her sailing. At length after pursuing her to the light house, and discharging several broadsides at her, they were compelled to give over the pursuit.

Learning of the Battle of Bladensburg and the advance of the British on Washington, Coles rushed back, arriving, he writes to Payne Todd, while the cannon were roaring in the attempt made to arrest the marauding freebooters on their way down the river from Alexandria. Beating his breast, Coles is full of warlike and patriotic sentiments, insisting that we resist our unprincipled and barbarous foe to the last extremity, castigating the traitors who were trying to break up the Union and even those who spoke against the war and thus seemed to lend their sanction to the others. But although our troubles certainly make peace more desirable, Coles concludes, . . . they will not I trust induce a purchase of it at the expense of the honor or essential rights or interests of the nation. Great as are our difficulties, they can all be surmounted with more ease than the smallest degradation. The pure and highminded spirit which led to war has not been nor cannot be chilled by either disasters or difficulties.

Payne Todd was at that time at Ghent with the delegation sent to make peace. Russia was the mediator, fit for the task since she was both Britain's ally in the defeat of Napoleon and the chief defender of American neutrality. Negotiations dragged on for months, yet in fact the cause of war on both sides had disappeared. With the fall of Napoleon, there was no more reason for a British blockade. The "pure and highminded spirit" that Coles so patriotically extolled had become, at Ghent, merely a desire to save face, to come out with a treaty that would not be humiliating. Since the British were not particularly anxious to end the war, they continued to press for humiliating conditions. Until domestic opposition to the war had grown into a powerful political force, Britain was not ready to give the Americans a treaty they could comfortably return home with.

After the destruction of the President's House, the Madisons, with Edward and his sister Sally, moved into the Octagon House, a mansion belonging to James Taylor that had been spared. On January 21, 1815, George Ticknor had dinner there and described an atmosphere of unrelieved gloom. For some time there was silence, or very few words, Ticknor writes. The President and Mrs. Madison made one or two commonplace remarks to me and others. After a few moments a servant came in and whispered to Mr. Madison, who went out, followed by his Secretary. It was mentioned about the room that the Southern mail had arrived, and a rather unseemly anxiety was expressed about the fate of New Orleans, of whose imminent danger we heard last night. The President soon returned, with added gravity, and said that there was no news! Silence ensued. No man seemed to know what to say at such a crisis, and, I suppose, from the fear of saying what might not be acceptable, said nothing at all.

Unbeknownst to the gloomy diners in Washington, the treaty of peace had already been signed and the Battle of New Orleans, fought after peace had been declared in Ghent, had already been won. What seemed to be the darkest hour, with the nation trapped in a war it seemed destined to lose, was actually the beginning of true independence and of the westward sweep that would carry the American empire to the Pacific Ocean. The Battle of New Orleans, although fought after the war had ended, gained for the United States the prize it had actually been fighting for--undisputed control over the western wilderness. But it would be weeks before Washington would know what had been wrought at opposite corners of the globe.

On February 14, 1815, a coach and four foaming steeds, carrying the bearer of the good news . . . came thundering down Pennsylvania Avenue, a witness writes. Cheers followed the carriage as it sped on its way to the residence of the President. Soon after nightfall, members of Congress and others deeply interested in the event presented themselves at the President's house, the doors of which stood open. When the writer of this entered the drawing room at about eight o'clock, it was crowded to its full capacity, Mrs. Madison (the President being with the Cabinet) doing the honors of the occasion. And what a happy scene it was! Among the members present were gentlemen of opposite politics, but lately arrayed against one another in continual conflict and fierce debate, now with elated spirits thanking God, and with softened hearts cordially felicitating one another upon the joyful intelligence which (should the terms of the treaty prove acceptable) should re-establish peace . . . Not even the servants were forgotten in the general merry-making. Sally Coles . . . rushed to the head of the basement stairs, shouting, "Peace! peace!" John Freeman, the butler, was ordered to serve out wine freely in the servant's hall. Paul Jennings played the "President's March" on his fiddle. French John drank enough to render himself unfit for active service for several days, and all the woes and hardships of the past were forgotten.

The spirit of harmony described here lasted for many years, ushering in the "Era of Good Feeling," during which Americans generally muted their political disputes and turned their attention to conquering the wilderness that the war had made safe for them. With the port of New Orleans, which provided western farmers cheap access to the sea, now securely in American hands, and the Indians, who had been inflamed by the British, now subdued, the western country was ready for the mass migration and accompanying land boom in which Coles was to participate.

It was as if the entire nation suddenly shifted around. Before 1815 its eyes were riveted on events in Europe, and every tremor there caused a larger aftershock in our more precarious and dependent political world. Coles, too, lived with his eyes towards Europe, postponing to the end of the war his cherished plans for moving west. But with the end of the war, the nation turned its eyes westward. Settlers began to pour across the Appalachians, land prices skyrocketed, large towns appeared where only wilderness had been a few years before. And Coles, too, turned again to the west, where the nation's growth--and its bitter struggles--lay.

In the spring of 1815, everything came together for Coles to enable him finally to take another step towards the accomplishment of his dream. The war was over and the western frontier, which had been virtually closed by fierce Indian warfare, was once again open to settlement. He was no longer essential to Madison, who, in comparison with the years of bitter struggle both before and during the war, was now able to govern a united and victorious nation with relative ease. His farm was in the hands of his brother Walter, who had by now paid him most of the money owed, giving him sufficient funds to make large purchases of land in the west. He had wrestled sorely with his conscience for a number of years, at least since his rejection by Miss Hay, eliminating all other possible ways of settling for himself the moral problem of slavery.

On July 31, 1814, he had written a long letter to Jefferson, urging him to lead the fight to end slavery in Virginia. This appears to be an attempt to do something concrete about the problem of slavery in general rather than concentrating on his personal relationship to it alone.

My object, he tells Jefferson, is to entreat and beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence in devising and getting into operation some plan for the gradual emancipation of slavery. This difficult task could be less exceptionally and more successfully performed by the revered fathers of all our political and social blessings than by any succeeding statesmen, and would seem to come with particular propriety and force from those whose valor, wisdom and virtue have done so much in ameliorating the condition of mankind. And it is a duty, as I conceive, that devolves particularly on you, from your known philosophical and enlarged view of subjects, and from the principles you have professed and practiced through a long and useful life, pre-eminently distinguished as well by being foremost in establishing on the broadest basis the rights of man, and the liberty and independence of your country, as in being throughout honored with the most important trust by your fellow citizens, whose confidence and love you have carried with you into the shades of old age and retirement.

Even if you should fail, Coles urges Jefferson, it is important that you record your ideas on abolition, for however prized and influential your opinions may be now, they will still be more so when you shall have been taken from us by the course of nature. If therefore your attempt should now fail to rectify this unfortunate evil--an evil most injurious both to the oppressed and to the oppressor--at some future day when your memory will be consecrated by a grateful posterity, what influence, irresistable influence will the opinions and writings of Thomas Jefferson have in all questions connected with the rights of man, and of that policy which will be the creed of your disciples. Permit me then, my dear Sir, again to entreat your great powers of mind and influence to employ some of your present leisure, in devising a mode to liberate one-half of our fellow beings from an ignominious bondage to the other, either by making an immediate attempt to put in train a plan to commence this goodly work, or to leave human nature the invaluable Testament--which you are so capable of doing--how best to establish its rights: so that the weight of your opinion may be on the side of emancipation when that question shall be agitated, and that it will be sooner or later is most certain.

In extenuation of his writing so ardently and freely, Coles states that from the time I was capable of reflecting on the nature of political society, and of the rights appertaining to man, I have not only been principled against slavery, but have had feelings so repugnant to it as to decide me not to hold them; which decision has forced me to leave my native State, and with it all my relations and friends.

This last seems over-dramatic, since Coles was not yet prepared to leave his native state, except to go to New Jersey to bathe his sore rectum in the ocean. His slaves were still laboring on Rockfish, presumably hired out to Walter at the prevailing rate. Coles was presenting as fact what was merely intention, an exaggeration that becomes more interesting when we look at Jefferson's answer and Coles' reply.

Your letter , Jefferson assures Coles, in this famous statement of his views on slavery, was read with peculiar pleasure; the sentiments breathed through the whole do honor to both the head and the heart of the writer. My thoughts and sentiments on slavery, Jefferson says, have long since been in possession of the public, and time has only served to give them stronger root. The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a mortal reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort, nay I fear not much serious willingness, to relieve them and ourselves from our present condition of moral and political reprobation.

From Jefferson's generation nothing is to be hoped. Nursed and educated in the daily habit of seeing the degraded condition, both bodily and mental, of those unfortunate beings, not reflecting that the degradation was very much the work of themselves and their fathers, few minds had yet doubted that they were as legitimate subjects of property as their horses or cattle.

Till he returned from Washington to Monticello in 1809, Jefferson goes on, he had little opportunity of knowing the progress of public sentiment here on this subject. He had hoped that the younger generation, receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast . . . would have sympathized with oppression wherever found, and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it. But except for Coles, Jefferson has seen no evidence of any new spirit, and I have considered the general silence which prevails on this subject as indicating an apathy unfavorable to every hope . . . Yet emancipation will come, Jefferson believes, and whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds, or by the bloody process of St. [Santo] Domingo . . . is a leaf of our history not yet turned over.

Of his own part in bringing this emancipation about, Jefferson begs to be excused. Coles' request that he lead the struggle is, Jefferson says, like bidding old Priam to buckle the armor of Hector . . . The standard of freedom must now be borne by younger me such as Coles.

But are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? Jefferson asks. I think not . . . I hope then, my dear sir, you will reconcile yourself to your country, and its unfortunate condition; that you will not lessen its stock of sound disposition by withdrawing your portion from the mass; that, on the contrary, you will come forward in the public councils, become the missionary of this doctrine truly christian, insinuate and inculcate it softly but steadily thro' the medium of writing and conversation, associate others in your labors, and when the phalanx is formed, bring on and press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment. It is an encouraging observation that no good measure was ever proposed which, if duly pursued, failed to prevail in the end; we have proof of this in the history of the endeavors in the British parliament to suppress that very trade which brought this evil on us, and you will be supported by the religious precept "be not wearied in well doing." That your success may be as speedy and complete, as it will be of honorable and immortal consolation to yourself, I shall as fervently and sincerely pray, as I assure you of my great friendship and respect.

By thus turning Coles' request for leadership in the struggle against slavery around directly to Coles himself, Jefferson cleverly faced Coles with the immorality of his upright intentions. In reply, all Coles can claim is his own unworthiness.

I feel very sensibly the force of your remarks on the impropriety of yielding to my repugnancies in abandoning my property in slaves and my native State , Coles writes to Jefferson. I certainly should never have been inclined to yield to them if I had supposed myself capable of being instrumental in bringing about a liberation, or that I could by my example ameliorate the condition of these oppressed people. If I could be convinced of being in the slightest degree useful in doing either, it would afford me very great happiness, and the more so as it would enable me to gratify many partialities by remaining in Virginia. But never having flattered myself with the hope of being able to contribute to either, I have long since determined, and should but for my bad health ere this, have removed, carrying along with me those who had been my slaves, to the country northwest of the river Ohio.

Once again Coles tries to spin the needle of obligation around to Jefferson, citing Benjamin Franklin, who, Coles says, was as actively and as usefully employed on as arduous duties after he had passed your age as he had ever been at any period of his life.

That Jefferson did not buy Coles' argument is not surprising. What is of more interest to us is why Coles did not buy Jefferson's. Like Monroe's earlier successful attempt to persuade Coles to put off freeing his slaves, Jefferson's argument tried to provide Coles with a justification for uniting his moral obligations with his own self interest. The difference between the two circumstances is that Coles in the first instance perceived his self interest to lie in Washington and in the second to lie not in Virginia but in the West. The evidence is pretty clear that from the time of his rejection by Miss Hay Coles saw in the West the solution to his financial, if not his moral, problem. Thus we can imagine that he was not enthusiastic about remaining in Virginia to devote his life to the struggle for abolition.

According to Coles, Jefferson at around that time showed a copy of his letter to me to a number of young and talented men (as I heard from himself, and from several of them) and urged them to "associate" and form a "phalanx" to eradicate what he called this "mortal reproach to us," "our present condition of moral and political reprobation." But nothing ever came of Jefferson's effort, perfunctory as it seems to have been.

Coles, too, made an attempt to form a "phalanx" of abolitionists by broaching the subject with a few friends. The results were not encouraging. I found they were indignant at the idea, he says, and if I attempted it, I should not only incur the displeasure of my relations and neighbors, but I and my poor unfortunate Negroes, would be considered and treated as pests of society, and every effort made to persecute, to injure, and to extirpate us. Often have I most devoutly wished that I had either talents or wealth which would enable me to take a stand, and set an example, promotive of an object so dear to my heart, as restoring the blacks to their liberty, and the whites to the consistency of their republican and christian professions. But possessing neither, and having no hope of doing any good by remaining, I turned my face to the North West . . .

That Coles was briefly interested in pursuing Jefferson's recommendation is also suggested by a letter to Coles written in November 1814 by his friend Nicholas Biddle, responding to Coles' request for information on the history and progress of emancipation in Pennsylvania from the officers of the Abolition Society. So on, my dear Sir, with your benevolent intentions, Biddle exhorts Coles. You have the hearts of all good men with you in so holy a work. But in December Biddles writes, I find on enquiry that the efforts of the Abolition Society have been confined to acts of personal interference between master and servants and that there is in print no historical sketch of the progress of abolition among us. Biddle refers Coles to the laws of Pennsylvania on the subject, and the matter seems to have ended there.

I felt the strongest inclination to remain in Virginia and follow the advice of Mr. Jefferson , Coles writes years later, and should have done so, but for my conscious deficiency of talent to maintain with effect the position he wished me to assume, and being unable even with his assistance to recruit volunteers in the great cause.

Jefferson's exhortation to Coles rings false for reasons aside from his unwillingness to do himself what he urges Coles to do. It comes from a generation that had founded a government on rational principles, based on the assumption of the rationality of man. ". . . no good measure was ever proposed," Jefferson says, "which, if duly pursued, failed to prevail in the end." Facing the brutal reality of slavery, can anyone seriously believe that it could be ended by gentlemanly debate?

Coles was a disciple of the great rationalists of the preceding generation, and his veneration of them was perhaps both his strongest and weakest point. His faith in the basic goodness and reasonableness of men is what made it possible for him to throw himself so successfully into the campaign to save Illinois from slavery. There the issue was, as we shall see, amenable to debate, and reason triumphed. But in Virginia, Jeffersonian rationalism seems out of touch with reality. A devoted abolitionist in Virginia had to be someone willing to take severe punishment as well as, perhaps, to inflict it. And Coles knew well that he was not such a man.

The two forces that turned Coles away from Virginia and towards the West in the spring of 1815 are summarized nicely in two letters. I have left the President with no intention of again returning to reside in his family, Coles writes to Nicholas Biddle in April 1815. My time of life, and the state of my pecuniary affairs, require that I should no longer be enticed by present gratifications to postpone establishing myself in that kind of life which I intend permanently to pursue. But to another correspondent, he exclaims, Oh! that I had talents and acquirements to become the champion of humanity! But having only the power to perceive and feel its suffering, without the capacity [of] relieving it, all I can do is preserve my principles, and save my feelings, by flying from the scene of its oppression.

It is ironic that by turning away from the moral challenge of struggling against slavery in Virginia, Coles unknowingly positioned himself to lead the much more promising struggle against slavery in Illinois. It was a struggle for which he was much more suited both philosophically and temperamentally, yet he came to it by accident, finding, like Oedipus, his true fate in the act of running away from it.

One further temptation to remain in Virginia may have confronted Coles while he was making his decision to leave for the West in the spring of 1815. There is a possibility that at this time he may have gotten involved in another love affair. The lady was Mary Swann , the daughter of a well-known Washington lawyer, Thomas Swann, and Jane Byrd Page, who had connections with some of Virginia's great families. Unlike Miss Hay, therefore, Miss Swann seems to have been well born and financially comfortable. There is evidence that in addition to her father's wealth and whatever fortune her mother brought her, her uncle John had left her part of his estate.

Coles' first mention of Miss Swann is in a letter to his mother written only weeks after he had been jilted by Miss Hay. When I got to Alexandria, he writes, I went to see my friend Mason, who was just going to a party at Judge Fitzhugh's. He urged me to go with him. I borrowed a cravat of him, shaved, brushed, etc., and off I went, and had the pleasure of being at a very large party and saw a great many pretty girls, among others Miss Swann, who looked more beautiful than I ever saw her.

In 1815, it seems, this beautiful and wealthy young woman was attracted to Edward Coles. Whether Coles returned her interest is not clear. Tench Ringgold , a close friend of Coles at the time (and, ironically, the brother of Samuel Ringgold, who had married Miss Hay), believes that Coles is in love with her unconsciously, a supposition that tells us that at least on the surface Miss Swann's affections went unrequited.

I will begin by tracing the movements of the Swanns since your departure, Ringgold writes Coles in April 1815, a few weeks after Coles had left Washington, as it is usual for these birds to take their flights to distant western climes at this season of the year, particularly when they have been deserted by their mates. You must not be surprised that in four or five days after your departure, this little cygnet, abandoned by you, took her flight to [?], where she spent two weeks, whether to regret your absence, or to mate with her cousin Wilson Seldin, I know not; she returned a few days since . . . While I did see her, she often talked of you.

In another letter to Coles, Ringgold writes: I find that not withstanding you believe to the contrary, you have drank deep, very deep of the fountain of love . . . In every word, in every line that you mention her name, although it is with what you call brotherly regard, I can espy and detect the violent and ardent emotions of love, all powerful love. I have often been told that none love so ardently as those who are unconscious of it, or rather persuade themselves that they do not love, and conceal it under the garb of brotherly friendship. This is your desperate case.

Perhaps it was. Certainly on Miss Swann's side there was an avowal of interest, although a year after Ringgold's letters Dolley is not sure of Miss Swann's sincerity. Miss Swann is in the city as beautiful as ever, she writes to Edward, now back from his first trip to Illinois. Thornton, her devoted, is also here, but I hear nothing of their marriage. She speaks of you with apparently the same interest she used to do. If the world were not so full of deception I should think Miss Swann loved and preferred you to all others, but as it is, I would not answer for her.

Perhaps Edward, too, was not ready to trust the claims of Miss Swann, hurt as he had been by Miss Hay. Or perhaps her beauty, commented on by nearly all who write of her, was not sufficient attraction. We know that by the spring of 1815 Coles was impatient to leave for the West; the possible romance with Miss Swann may have come too late to cause him to alter his plans. In any case, Miss Swann seems to have been the last lady who even came close to touching Coles' heart in the lonely, dry years between his romantic days in Washington, later looked back on with such regretful nostalgia, and his marriage in Philadelphia, eighteen years after he had left the beautiful Miss Swann behind .

Edward Coles

Next Chapter Previous Chapter

privacy policy