To you it belongs to say, whether this territory shall be inhabited by freemen or by slaves--whether all its inhabitants shall live in simple and happy freedom, or one half of them shall be reduced to abject and cruel servitude to support the splendid misery and sickly pomp of the other half. (Edward Coleswriting as "Agis"in the Illinois Intelligencer, July 1, 1818)
When Coles returned to the United States in the fall of 1817 he was already over thirty years old and still floundering, with no settled occupation, no estate, no family, no home even, and no plan for his future other than emigration west, which distance and desperation had perhaps made more attractive. He had wanted to leave for Illinois as soon as he got home, but decided instead to tour the eastern cities in search of a wife,his matrimonial voyage, as he described it to his sister-in-law, Helen Skipwith Coles. The major drawback to settling on the frontier was loneliness, an ailment that a wife might cure. But it was not a promising expedition for someone as fastidious as Coles.
There are many pretty women here, he writes John from Washington, but none that interest me much. I sometimes feel quite tired of the place and look forward to the time of my leaving it. I should not be surprised, however, when the time for my departure arrived if I should feel some reluctance at leaving it--as was the case both in Richmond and Philadelphia. The truth is I feel every day that I am becoming more and more an old Bachelor.
Unable to find a compatible partner,on April 4, 1818, Coles left Enniscorthy for Richmond, where he gotbills of creditfor $13,000 of his own money for investment, plus $7,578.80 to invest for his brother Walter and $10,400 for his sister Mary Carter, now a widow. From there he went back to Washington, where he madehis first investment, buying six lots bounded by 14th and 15th Streets West and Massachusetts Avenue and North N Street, for $2,325. There he also got a letter of introduction from the newly inaugurated President Monroe, presenting him to Ninian Edwards, governor of the Illinois Territory, as a prospective settler who will bea very useful acquisitionto the area.
During the summer and fall Coles explored the Illinois Territory, and not content with seeing such parts as were partially settled, he writes in the 1844 autobiography, I made two excursions, one of three weeks, and the other of one week, far beyond the settlements, taking with me a guide, provisions, blankets for sleeping out, etc. To his sister Emilyhe writes in Junethat he has ridden at least 750 miles across Illinois, enduring many privations and eating fried bacon for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In late June he returned to more civilized parts of the Territory to attend the convention in Kaskaskia that would write a constitution for the prospective new state.I remained several weeks, Coles writes, doing all I could to prevent its being made a slave-holding state, which was the wish of many of the members of the convention.
Here at last Coles found his proper milieu, the cause in which all of his spiritual and ideological difficulties became transformed into assets. For the next six years he threw himself into a struggle that brought out the best in him. One can hear in his first polemical articles the sound of a man who has at last found his mature voice.
He would rather see our rich meadows and fertile woodlands inhabited alone by the wild beasts and birds of the air, he writes with passion, than that they should ever echo the sound of the slave driver's scourge, or resound with the cries of the oppressed African. Do not give your posterity the occasion to say that through indolence, or through a mistaken zeal for public improvements, you have fixed upon them the curse of slavery--a curse which, when once fastened upon your land, cannot be removed. To you it belongs to say, whether this territory shall be inhabited by freemen or slaves--whether all its inhabitants shall live in simple and happy freedom, or one half of them shall be reduced to abject and cruel servitude to support the splendid misery and sickly pomp of the other half.
Hackneyed as much of this prose is, it has a passion and persuasive rhythm that places it beyond anything else being written in Illinois at the time. It is also beyond anything Coles had written previously, or would write once the struggle over slavery in Illinois was over. Once can feel the urgency in this piece coming out of Coles' personal experience--the splendid misery of his own life in a Virginia cursed with slavery. The curious shift in person--from "our" rich meadows to "your" land--is characteristic of much of Coles' polemical writing on this subject, reflecting his stance as a prophet come from a doomed land, bringing to his new country a residue of the bitter wisdom that lay at the bottom of slavery's poisoned cup.
Slavery had been the major political issuein Illinois for many years, long before there had been an Illinois Territory. In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance was passed by Congress, which declared that there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory [now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan]otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. But the act of cession of 1784, by which Virginia had given up to the United States her claim to the territory, had provided that the inhabitants shall have their possessions and titles confirmed to them, and be protected in the enjoyment of their rights and liberties. What made the act of cession and the Northwest Ordinance contradictory was the fact that the "possessions" of some of the inhabitants of the territory included slaves.
The legal question, therefore, of whether slavery was or was not permitted in the Northwest Territories remained confused. The descendents of the original settlers, mostly French, retained their slaves as if the Ordinance did not exist. New settlers, however, had no legal basis for owning slaves since they were not covered by the Virginia act of cession. The Indiana Territory, of which Illinois was originally a part, sent petitions begging Congress to repeal the anti-slavery clause of the Northwest Ordinance so that all white citizens could enjoy equally the right to own slaves. But Congress refused, whereupon the "new" settlers in the Indiana Territory resorted to subterfuge.
In 1805 and 1807 the territorial legislature passed laws permitting "indentures" of unlimited duration. A Southerner wishing to settle in the territory with his slaves could either fool or force them into signing indenture papers, often with the obvious threat of selling them if they refused to sign. Once "contracted," usually for 99 years, the "indentured servants" could be treated just like slaves--sold, beaten, forced to work without compensation. Children of "indentured servants" were to be set free at the age of thirty for males and twenty-eight for females--unless, of course, they were induced to submit themselves to further indenture "voluntarily." Blacks did not have the right to vote, hold public office, or bring suit against or testify against a white man, all of which made it easy for whites to treat blacks as they pleased.
The slavery issue lay at the root of the very existence of Illinois. As more and more Northerners poured into the eastern part of the Indiana Territory, the settlers in the western part, fearing that the anti-slavery newcomers would soon be able to outvote them, moved quickly to separate themselves, forming the Illinois Territory in 1809. Indiana became anti-slavery, repealing the indenture laws soon after the territories split and, once it achieved statehood, inserting a clause in its constitution forever forbidding an amendment that would legalize slavery. Illinois continued to permit unlimited indentures and to press for the eventual legalization of all forms of slavery.
Although Northern anti-slavery settlers soon began to pour into Illinois as well, in 1817 the population was still predominantly Southern and pro-slavery. Time was running out for those who wanted to legalize slavery in Illinois; within a few years they would be in a minority. Southern settlers were avoiding Illinois, moving on to Missouri or Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, all of which were outside the territory subject to the Northwest Ordinance. Because of the Ordinance, Illinois could not be admitted into the Union as a slave state. But once it had become a sovereign state, the pro-slavers reasoned. it would have as much right to amend its constitution as New York or Virginia. If New York were free to bar slavery and Virginia to permit it, who was to say that Illinois should not have a similar freedom? Was Illinois any less a sovereign state than they?
Thus the pro-slavers were not displeased when the anti-slavers began to press for statehood. The anti-slavery faction feared that if Missouri were admitted to the Union as a slave state before Illinois, the balance in Congress would be tipped irrevocably towards slavery, and Illinois, too, would be admitted as a slave state. All Illinoisans, then, were in a rush for statehood, so much so that they made plans for a convention even before their population qualified them to become a state, assuming that once they had written their constitution, the population would have risen to the necessary number.
In the period of the campaign to choose delegates to the convention, all of the arguments for and against slavery that would fill the newspapers in 1823-24 were given a preliminary airing. Those who wanted slavery to be legal argued that the Northwest Ordinance was not binding on a sovereign state; that the full legalization of slavery would encourage wealthy Southerners to emigrate with their slaves, thus raising the value of land; that slaves were enslaved whether they were in Virginia or in Illinois, which meant that prohibiting slavery in Illinois would not free a single slave and that legalizing slavery in Illinois would not enslave a single free person; and that slaves would be far better off in Illinois than in the deep South, or, for that matter, than they had been in Africa.
The anti-slavery arguments concentrated both on the immorality of slavery and on the social deterioration that would accompany the introduction on a large scale of slavery into Illinois: the division of society into two hostile classes, the corruption of the idle upper class, the brutalization of the enslaved lower class; the constant petty thievery, the fear of insurrection.
The slavery clause that the convention finally adopted in August 1818 was framed with an eye to what Congress would accept. The pro-slavers won the major victory in that the Illinois constitution, unlike those of Indiana and Ohio, contained no clause forbidding an amendment that would legalize slavery. Even as the constitution was being written, the pro-slavers were planning to amend it as soon as possible after Illinois had become a sovereign state.
The constitution kept the property rights of present slave owners and holders of indentures intact by inserting the word "hereafter" before each provision in the article on slavery. Future indentures, the constitution said, could be entered into only by men in a state of perfect freedom, and on condition of bona fide consideration, and could last no more than a year. Children born of indentured parents after the adoption of the constitution were to be freed at the ages of twenty-one for males and eighteen for females. Slaves could be hired from outside the state only until 1825 and only for the purpose of working in the salt mines near Shawneetown for periods of not more than one year.
And so slavery was to be temporarily curtailed in Illinois until the territory was admitted into the Union and the constitution could be amended. Then the battle would be joined in earnest. Coles, in Kaskaskia during the convention, was aware of all the plots and counterplots afoot. He knew that far from having left the issue of slavery behind him in Virginia, he was entering the arena of its most decisive battle. Perhaps this fact fueled his desire to settle in Illinois. In Virginia he was an ugly duckling: his views on slavery, his plans to free his slaves, his dreams, were objects of either sympathy or derision. There he could not hope to change things--only to martyr himself in a losing cause. But in Illinois, instantly he was a swan: his aristocratic background, which he was about to sacrifice so selflessly, gave him added authority; his intimate connections with presidents and princes, his superior education and culture, his idealistic enthusiasm--all thrust him immediately to the head of a powerful political faction. His abolitionism here was not a vain and stubborn outcry but a significant force in shaping an historic decision. Here he had respectable and influential people on his side. Here he had a chance to win.
Having definitely decided on settling in Illinois, Coles went about making arrangements for his future.On August 15, 1818, he bought 23 quarter sections (3680 acres) of Military Bounty Land--that is, land in the then-uninhabited northern section of Illinois that had been given to soldiers after the War of 1812--from Charles Moulton in St. Louis, for which he paid $2,300. On September 7 he bought six arpens (about five acres) of land in the town of St. Louis for $2,500. And on November 25 he bought 6002 1/2 acres near Bryant's Creek in Missouri for $14,000 for himself, Walter, and Mary, of which his share was $3,500 for 1500 acres. This last purchase was to bring him much grief, as it was tied up for many years in a lawsuit over the right to title of the man who sold it to him, Antoine Soulard, involving old French laws of property, marriage, and inheritance.
In fact, all of the purchases of land that Coles made in 1818 were to bring him grief. Coles had bought all the land for speculation: the land in Missouri lay in slave territory, and the Military Bounty land lay far from any settlement or road. He had invested $8,300 in land that for him was unusable, and at precisely the wrong time. He had plunged in at the crest of the wave, which collapsed soon after he had hit the water. In 1819 a financial depression swept the country, ending the boom that the West had enjoyed for seven years and sticking speculators such as Coles with thousands of dollars worth of land for which there were no buyers, which produced no income, and upon which they had to continue to pay taxes.
But in 1818 Coles was still contentedly making plans for his future, ignorant of his impending ruin.The part of Illinois that pleased him mostwas the area near the Sangamon River, in northern Illinois. But since that section was still in the hands of Indians, he decided to bide his time near Edwardsville, at that time the largest and most important town in the state. The position of register of the land office in Edwardsville was vacant, and on October 11, 1818, Coles wrote to his friend, President Monroe, asking for the position.
The office was potentially extremely lucrative, since the register got a percentage of the value of all lands sold. Since the register had, however, to pay the expenses of running the office out of his own pocket, it could also become a financial drain if not much land was sold. In 1818, when wilderness was being devoured by eager speculators, the office looked to Coles like an excellent way to assure himself of a handsome income. By 1819, when Coles actually took office, the bottom had dropped out of the land boom, and Coles was stuck with the expenses.
The real reason, then, for Coles' later financial woes was not only his sacrifice in freeing his slaves, but the fact that he made some unfortunate decisions in the late summer and fall of 1818. He plunged at the wrong time. The worst that could have happened to him happened, and he spent the next few years grimly trying to hang on, paying his taxes and hoping that someday soon the boom would revive and he would be able to turn some of his useless land back into cash.
On his way back to Virginia in November,Coles visited Morris Birkbeck, now settled on his farm in eastern Illinois. We can imagine that Coles was in high spirits now that he was at last about to bring his long-held dream to fruition. He had found like-minded friends, a cause to devote himself to, thousands of fertile acres, and the possibility of a lucrative office. For Birkbeck, however, Utopia had already turned sour.
When Coles arrived at the English colony,it was divided into two hostile camps, separated by two miles of prairie. On one side was Wanborough, the town that Birkbeck had laid out; on the other was Albion, the new townsite of his rival, George Flower. Over two hundred emigrants had already arrived from England, aligning themselves with one or the other hostile party.
The root of the problem seems to have been romantic. Before leaving for America, Birkbeck, long a widower, invited Miss Julia Andrews, the twenty-five-year-old daughter of a family friend, to come along under his protection. It is clear that from the first he had hoped to marry her. Unfortunately, however, on the journey west she fell in love with George Flower. When Birkbeck proposed to her somewhere in Indiana she refused, expressing her preference for the much younger man. Accordingly, she and Flower were married at Vincennes, with Birkbeck standing in as father of the bride to give away the woman he had wanted to marry.
Birkbeck attempted to adjust to the situation, inviting the young couple into his house, acting the part of the true father, and preparing to share his life with them. But the newlyweds decided to live in a house of their own, a rejection that Birkbeck never forgave. For years the two leaders of the English colony did not speak to each other, a fact that destroyed its spirit from the start and helped lead to its eventual disintegration.
Other troubles plagued Birkbeck. As the somewhat derisive local backwoodsmen had predicted, Birkbeck's ploughs were of the wrong kind and broke on the first furrow. Birkbeck never learned how to get on well with his backwoods neighbors, rejecting their sound advice and bumbling on with "rational" methods of farming that were unsuited to the prairie. Yet in spite of divisions, disappointments, and mistakes, the little colony grew and prospered. The land was exceptionally good and the people hard working, and slowly Birkbeck became a man of substance on the prairie, as he had dreamed.
Coles, too, had dreams to fulfill in Illinois. Eagerly he rushed back to Virginia, finally to do what he had postponed for so many years.