CHAPTER 16: ILLINOIS
A few steps more , and a beautiful prairie suddenly opened to our view. At first, we only received the impression of its general beauty. With longer gaze, all its distinctive features were revealed, lying in profound repose under the warm light of an afternoon's summer sun. Its indented and irregular outline of wood, its varied surface interspersed with clumps of oaks of centuries' growth, its tall grass with seed stalks from six to ten feet high, like tall and slender reeds, waving in a gentle breeze, the whole presenting a magnificence of park-scenery, complete from the hand of Nature, and unrivalled by the same sort of scenery by European art. For once, the reality came up to the picture of imagination. Our station was in the wood, on rising ground; from it, a descent of about a hundred yards to the valley of the prairie, about a quarter of a mile wide, extending to the base of a majestic slope, rising upward for a full half-mile, crowned by groves of noble oaks. A little to the left, the eye wandered up a long stretch of prairie for three miles, into which projected hills and slopes, covered with rich grass and decorated with compact clumps of full-grown trees, from four to eight in each clump. From beneath the broken shade of the wood, with our arms raised above our brows, we gazed long and steadily, drinking in the beauties of the scene which had been so long the object of our search. (George Flower)
|Of the Illinois prairie that Flower describes with such enthusiasm there is now almost no trace left. Today we drive through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and the countryside all looks the same--flat or rolling farmland broken by patches of second-growth woods, or by trees marching single file along a road or property boundary. Small white wooden towns buried in the dense coolness of trees, then back out into the blinding heat of open countryside.
But in the early 19th century, before the forests of Indiana and Ohio had been cut down; before the fires that had regularly swept over the Illinois prairie, clearing all but the hardiest trees, had been controlled; before the land had been sectioned off and ploughed and planted and reduced to the awesome sameness of corn and wheat; the eastern boundary of Illinois, on the Wabash River, had marked the beginning of the prairie and the end of the thick, unbroken forest that covered nearly all of the settled part of America, North and South, to the Atlantic Ocean.
In early days about half the land was timbered , a local historian says of the township in which Coles had his farm, and all would have been but for the frequent prairie fires. With the increase of settlers, and the consequent checking of the fires, new groves of timber sprang up and flourished.
What a wild and beautiful country the prairie was, and with what excitement did the first settlers emerge from the forest into sunlight! Coles was careful to warn Birkbeck against the danger of falling in love with the first prairie he saw. But what was Coles' warning beside the intoxicating beauty of the prairie? Birkbeck and Flower seized immediately the first prairie they came upon, planting their colony without further exploration, unaware that further west the prairie became more extensive, the land richer, the bounty of nature even more generous than it was in the lovely country they had already seen.
The earliest settlers in this fertile country were a few French traders, who led a quiet, peaceful, and somewhat lazy existence on the banks of the Mississippi near Kaskaskia with their domestic slaves. After the American Revolution came a trickle of pioneers from Tennessee and Kentucky, keeping just one step ahead of civilization. In a year or two, Flower writes of those who helped him build his colony at Albion, they moved into a less-peopled region, or to where there were no people at all, and were entirely lost to this part of the country.
In 1818 about 71% of the 40,000 settlers in Illinois were from slave states. Most were poor whites, but some were gentlemen seeking their fortunes in trade, politics, and land speculation, and a few, like Coles, were abolitionists seeking a new home in free territory.
For many years the "Yankees" were the objects of the deepest animosity to the settlers in Southern Illinois, Indiana, and the South-Western states , Joseph Gillespie, an early settler, recalls. An old "hard-shell Baptist" preacher called "Daddy" Briggs, was once holding forth on the richness of God's grace. He said, "It tuck in the isles of the sea and the uttermost parts of the 'yeth.' It embraced the Esquimaux and the Hottentots, and some, my dear brethering, go so fur as to suppose that it takes in these poor benighted Yankees; but I don't go that fur.
They were tough, proud, somewhat savage people. Solitude, watchfulness, and contemplation amid the scenes of nature, from day to day, from week to week, and often from month to month, Flower writes with some envy, gives them that calm and dignified behavior not to be found in the denizens of civilized life. But put them in contact with civilization, Flower says, and they soon get to the whiskey bottle, their bane and ruin., Getting into a state to desire more, they drink all they can, becoming disagreeable, fractious, and often dangerous men. One glass kindles the eye, the second loosens the tongue, the third makes them madmen. They own a horse, rifle, ax, and hoe. It is astonishing to see with what dexterity they use a good ax, and how well they shoot with even a bad rifle. They are not of industrious habits, but occasionally work with great vigor.
Another type of settler, though, stayed put. Their little corn-patch increases to a field, their first shanty to a small log-house, which in turn, gives place to a double-cabin, in which the loom and spinning wheel are installed. A well and a few fruit trees after a time complete the improvement. Moderate in their aspiration, they soon arrive at the summit of their desires. Does a more complicated mode of life and a larger amount of wealth add to human happiness? The only difference between these stationary settlers and the roving hunters appears to be in the sobriety of the one and the intemperance of the other.
The land that they settled on was, of course, occupied by Indians, and for nearly a generation, until in fact the year before Coles settled there, Illinois was wracked by savage Indian wars.
During the Revolutionary War the Indians of the Northwest Territories joined the British in attacking American settlements on the western frontier. General George Rogers Clark marched with a small force of Virginians and Kentuckians to Vincennes and Kaskaskia, capturing both posts and thus ending British sovereignty south of Canada. Still, Indian resistance to the invasion of white settlers persisted.
The tactic of the whites was to get a few Indian chiefs drunk and have them sign away millions of acres of land--much of which were occupied by other tribes--for an annual stipend. In St. Louis in 1804 a few drunken Sauk and Fox chiefs ceded fifteen million acres for a stipend of $1,000 a year. In 1809, then Governor Harrison (later President) "mellowed" a few chiefs with liquor and got them to cede three million acres of Indiana land. The Indians, naturally, did not regard these treaties as binding and expressed their outrage in scattered raids against white settlers. But the War of 1812 provided the opportunity for both sides to settle their accounts.
For several years before the outbreak of the war the Shawnee Prophet and his brother Tecumseh , chiefs of the Shawnee tribe in the upper northwest, had been preaching the need for unity among the tribes in negotiating with the Americans. The land belonged to all the Indians, Tecumseh believed, and no tribe had the right to sell any of it. As tension increased and war with Britain grew closer, Tecumseh traveled up and down the frontier, enlisting tribes from Florida to Canada in the common effort. This would be the Indians' greatest chance since King Phillip's War two centuries earlier to unite and, with the help of the British, drive the American invaders out of Indian territory.
The whites became alarmed at these signs of Indian organization. The tiny white population of Illinois, confined to the bottom quarter of the territory and strung out sparsely along the rivers--the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Wabash--that formed its boundaries, was far outnumbered by the combined force of Indian tribes, who roamed freely across the northern and western wilderness. Ninian Edwards, governor of the Illinois Territory, wrote to Washington that he would lose half the white population of Illinois. To forestall such an attack, Edwards struck first. In October 1812, months before the war with Britain had begun in earnest, a party of Rangers led by Governor Edwards attacked a Kickapoo village near Peoria.
The Indians were ignorant of the approach of the troops , reports a local historian. Many of them were friendly, but no discrimination was made by the assailants. When the attack was made the Indian children were playing on the green. As the soldiers approached, the inhabitants fled, but were shot down as they ran. Some thirty Indians were killed, and as many wounded. It was a massacre, not a battle, in which only one Ranger was wounded. John Reynolds and Thomas Carlin, both afterwards governors of Illinois, were among the exultant soldiery.
On another Ranger raid Abraham Pruitt, pursuing some fleeing Indians, found David Carter and another man shooting at [a] child, about six years old, who was mired in the mud, and so closely were the Indians pursued that they had to leave her there. Mr. Pruitt called them cowards and ordered them to cease firing at the helpless child. Mr. Pruitt then, noble-hearted man that he was, went in and rescued the child from the swamp.
The attitude of the whites towards the Indians is best expressed in a law passed by the territorial legislature in 1814, which offered a reward of fifty dollars for each Indian taken or killed in any white settlement, and of one hundred dollars for any "warrior, squaw or child, taken prisoner or killed in their own territory."
Unrelenting war against women and children was waged on both sides, however. In 1814 a Mrs. Moore, hearing that Indians had attacked near her farm when she was away, rode through the darkness searching for her missing children. She carefully noted as she went every discernible object, till at length she saw a human figure lying near a log. There was not sufficient light to tell the size or sex of the person, and she called the name of her children, again and again, thinking it might be one of them asleep. At length she lighted from her horse and examined the object more closely. What must have been her sensations when she placed her hand on a naked corpse, and felt the quivering flesh from which the scalp had recently been torn. In the gloom she could indistinctly see the figure of the little child of Mrs. Reagan, sitting so near the body of its mother that it sometimes leaned its head on one side and then on the other of its insensible mother. As Mrs. Moore leaned over the little one it said: "The black man raised his axe and cut them again." She saw no further, but thrilled with horror and alarm, she hastily remounted her horse and hurried home, where she heated water, intending to defend herself from the savage foe. The wounded child died next day.
The Indians continued fighting after the War of 1812 had ended. They were still actively hostile in 1815, as we saw when Coles decided not to explore the Illinois Territory that year. But by 1818 they had been effectively crushed, and the Indian wars, like nearly every other condition of frontier life, rolled westward like a wave, carrying its brutal and bloody load up into the high plains of Kansas and the Dakotas.
Our correspondent . . . has furnished us with a hasty sketch of the treaties concluded with the Indians by our commissioners , an Illinois newspaper reports in November 1818. The treaties were signed on the 6th instant. By these treaties the United States have secured more than seven millions of acres of land . . . To the states of Ohio and Indiana these acquisitions are of immense importance. In a few years these almost interminable forests will be converted into flourishing towns and villages and cultivated farms; the silent footsteps of the savages will give way to the resoundings of the axe, the din of industry and the bustle of commercial enterprise.
Unfortunate people! Flower writes in sympathy with a group of warriors camped in the vicinity of Vincennes waiting for their annual handout. Their country lost, their numbers diminishing, starvation their present doom, and utter extinction a speedy certainty.
To blacks the white pioneers of Illinois were equally brutal. Regardless of what they thought about slavery, most Illinoisans were vehemently hostile towards free blacks. Few would dare suggest that free blacks be given the right to vote, or to hold public office, or to testify in judicial proceedings involving a white man. To call free blacks "second-class citizens" would be to elevate them far above their actual status: they were not citizens at all, but rather lived in the shadowy no-man's land of the not-slave and not-free.
Their greatest scourge was the professional kidnapper, who operated with relative impunity from bases in Kentucky and Missouri. Kidnapping of free blacks was, of course, illegal, but the law was worded in such a way that it was difficult to enforce, even if the will to enforce it had existed.
The law stated that it was a crime to carry a free Negro across the state line by force. Which meant that it was perfectly legal to seize a free Negro in Illinois, bind him, throw him into a wagon, and then transfer him to some other unidentified party who would commit the crime of rowing him across the Mississippi to sell him as a slave in Missouri. Nor was it illegal for an employer to send a free black employee on an errand to St. Louis to have him kidnapped there, since he would not have been carried forcibly across the state line. In fact, since the poor Negro was not permitted to testify against his abductors, even if he could have thwarted the attempt he could not have brought them to justice.
Denunciations of kidnapping and efforts to strengthen the law or to form associations to aid free Negroes appear from time to time in the local press. But most settlers were not at all unhappy to see the free black population diminished, and free blacks discouraged from emigrating to the state. In fact, in 1819 the legislature passed a law specifically to discourage slaveowners from bringing their slaves to Illinois for the purpose of freeing them, requiring that the master post bond of $1000 per slave to ensure that his blacks would not become wards of the county where they lived. As we shall see, this law later caused Edward Coles considerable grief.
For indentured blacks life was not much different than it would have been in slavery. They were bought and sold just as freely as were slaves, had just as few rights, were liable to just as severe and unrestricted punishment. But because they functioned mainly as domestic servants, and because some of their masters' neighbors disapproved of slavery, it is likely that their treatment was in practice not nearly as harsh as it would have been in a slave state.
The slave population in Edwardsville was not large. In 1820, of a total of 1,200 taxpayers in Madison County only 30 owned slaves or indentured servants, and most owned no more than two. Since there was not enough volume to sustain an auction block in the town, most of the commerce in human flesh took place in the Edwardsville Spectator, owned and edited, ironically, by an abolitionist. This typical advertisement appeared in 1822:
SEE, SEE, SEE
A Negro Woman, aged about twenty-eight years, who is bound to serve about forty years, will be sold low for State paper, and a warranty title for her services for that period, on a man of unquestionably good circumstances, will be assigned to the purchaser. She is an excellent cook, and industrious.
One group of enslaved blacks was worked harshly--the one to two thousand slaves leased from owners in nearby slave states to work for a year in the Illinois salt wells near Shawneetown, in the southeastern part of the state. The Illinois constitution permitted the hiring of out-of-state slaves to work the salines until 1825, after which time the use of slave labor was to be prohibited. Since the wells produced a good deal of revenue for the state, the fast-approaching 1825 deadline became a powerful incentive for revising the constitution in 1824, and a potent argument for slavery to every hard-pressed taxpayer in the state.
Labor in the salines, the argument went, was too brutal for white men. The manufacture of salt is the most laborious operation attempted in our country, one pro-slaver innocently explains. The constant exposure to the climate at every season, the intense heat of the furnaces, the sudden changes from heat to cold, the fatigue, the watching and the loss of sleep the salt maker must necessarily endure, is such that no white man in this section of the country is willing to risk or able to endure. Blacks, of course, have no choice in the matter. Thus the need to revise the constitution before 1825.
Another class of blacks in Illinois were runaway slaves, both from within and outside the state. $200 Reward runs a typical advertisement, two or three of which are to be found in almost every edition of every newspaper in the state. Runaway on the night of the 9th June, 1822, from my plantation, on the Forks of Cypress, near Florence, Lauderdale county (Alabama): CLAIBORNE and his wife CHARITY. Claiborne is a very likely Negro man, about 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high, remarkably well made, very black, his features formed more like those of a white man than a negro, has a rather down look, and is slow spoken; he is a sensible cunning fellow; was owned by Mr. James G. Martin, of Nashville, for about 10 years, and from which he generally hired his time, until last winter when I purchased him. Charity is a small yellow wench, very well formed, about 26 or 28 years of age, very light complexion, long black hair, and bad teeth; she was owned by Mr. Thomas Martin, near Nashville, and was also in the habit of hiring her time until I purchased her last winter; they had so much clothing of different kinds, I cannot describe what kind they may probably be seen in; they took out of my lot two horses, which returned the second day after they went away. I am inclined to think they will push for some of the free states, and probably descended the Tennessee river. The above reward of $200 will be given for both, or $100 for either of them, if taken and secured so that I can get them, and if delivered to me all reasonable charges paid.
We wish Claiborne and Charity good luck, but unfortunately, in Illinois, if they fled in that direction, they would find no friendly haven. The same newspapers that printed advertisements for runaway slaves also contained notices by sheriffs of slaves captured and being held for their owners. The rewards were substantial enough to encourage bounty hunting, and in the days before the organization of the underground railroad, few citizens dared provide sanctuary for another man's property.
When Morris Birkbeck, staunch anti-slaver that he was, found himself accused of such a crime in 1820, he answered indignantly: Strongly impressed with the absolute necessity of the laws which prohibit the inhabitants of free states from habouring or secreting slaves who may have escaped from their masters in neighboring states where slavery is tolerated, the inhabitants of the English settlement, Edwards county, feel themselves much aggrieved by a false and malicious report, that this settlement is become a harbour for run-away slaves;--a report which must give cause of great uneasiness to our neighbors of Kentucky. I therefore think it my duty to declare, in the most explicit manner, that no negro who could not give proof of his freedom has ever found, or ever will find employment or protection in this settlement, as far as my influence extends; and, in this sentiment, I believe I have the concurrence of every respectable inhabitant.
Whether this statement was simply a cover for actual aid to runaway slaves is unknown. But the sentiment expressed was widespread, the motivation being the fear that Illinois, bordered as it was by Missouri and Kentucky, would become a haven for runaway slaves, inundated by a black population free, as the white population saw it, to plunder, murder, and miscegenate. As we shall see, one strong argument against tolerating slavery in Illinois was that it would increase the black population--a looming horror that both sides of the question tried to use to their own advantage.
Competing for newspaper space with runaway slaves were runaway husbands, and, on occasion, runaway wives. Information wanted runs a plaintive ad in the Illinois Intelligencer of July 3, 1812. Whereas my husband Edward M'Ginnis, a Carpenter by trade, has been absent from me about one year, and I have reason to believe that he is in the neighborhood of the Ohio River; this, therefore is to request that any person who knows of his residence will inform me of the same, and oblige a stranger who has no other means to find her only friend.
The vastness of the wilderness and primitive state of record-keeping and communication created a tempting opportunity for dissatisfied husbands to leave their troubles behind them. The records of the Illinois legislature are full of the petitions of deserted women for divorce--a procedure that required the passage of an act by both houses.
Girls--look out! a newspaper headline warns. Some of our fair country women have been deceived by the wilds [sic] and flatteries of persons of the other sex, emigrants to this country. Leaving their wives and children at home, they have sought new connections here; and as the truth is generally sooner or later discovered, scenes of torture and anguish are produced, which are much easier conceived than described.
Women ran away less frequently than men, perhaps because life on the frontier was extremely difficult for a woman alone. Like a runaway slave, she was looked on askance, and expected soon either to be returned to the protection of her master or enslaved anew. She could not vote or hold office or serve on juries. Rarely would she hold property or enter into contracts except through the medium of a male agent or guardian. Unless she lived under the protection and supervision of some male--if not a husband, then a father, brother, uncle, legal guardian--she was not respectable. Although there were pioneer women who, in the words of a local historian, could shoot a deer, or an Indian, just as well as a man could, and think no more of it, even the toughest and most self-reliant woman was expected to be subservient to her male master.
Not that the white Anglo-Saxon males of Illinois were exceptionally cruel or insensitive. Like most of us they accepted their view of the universe as "natural" and did not question too closely the brutalities that sustained their privileged position. The extermination of the Indians, the enslavement of the blacks, the suffocation of women all went on amid the routine of casual labor, sociability, and self-defense. The more far-sighted among them, such as Edward Coles, perceived an inhumanity embedded in the routine only in one or two areas. That the whole round of life sat on a foundation of injustice did not occur to anyone at the time--as it rarely does in ours.
The leading citizens of Illinois were mostly land speculators, gentlemen of some means who had come west to increase their fortunes. Many of them entered politics: one sees the names of governors, judges, senators, and congressmen repeatedly in the lists of men buying or offering large tracts of land for sale. The frontier can be thought of as a huge real estate development. Each treaty with the Indians opened up millions more fertile acres to speculation. Land at two dollars an acre could be bought for only 1/4 down, the rest to be paid in installments over a period of three years. Thus it was to the speculator's advantage to grab up as much land at 1/4 down as his money could buy, and to count on profits from its early sale to pay up the balance on the rest.
Many of the speculators lived in Edwardsville, where the land office most convenient to the northern wilderness was located. In 1815, when Coles first visited the place, he passed the lone log cabin on the site without ever knowing that he had ridden through the county seat. By 1819, when Coles returned to stay, Edwardsville was, according to a local history, a flourishing town, containing sixty or seventy houses, a court house, jail, public bank, printing office, which issues a weekly paper, and a United States land office . . .
While the old capital was at Kaskaskia and the new one prospectively at Vandalia , Thomas Lippincott remembers, neither was as much a point of attraction as Edwardsville, not merely for the reason that the chief men of the state resided there, but the people gathered there as a center from which to go out prospecting [for land] . . . They were men of property and intelligence, and, added to the residents, made a lively and pleasant society.
Living in Edwardsville at the time Coles settled there were Ninian Edwards, a senator from Illinois and former territorial governor (the town was named for him), later to be governor of the state; Jesse B. Thomas, the state's other senator; Benjamin Stephenson, the territorial representative to Congress; and Daniel Cook, soon to be the state's lone Congressman. Coles was, so to speak, where the action was, and as register of the land office soon met all of the most important people in the state.
At the time that Coles arrived, there were two political factions. One was the Edwards faction. Like most Illinois politicians, Edwards had been born in the old South , had moved to and made his mark in Kentucky at an early age, and had then moved on to a position of prominence in Illinois. A lawyer and land speculator, he was chief justice of Kentucky at the age of 32 when in 1809 he was chosen by Madison to be governor of the newly-formed Illinois Territory. His cousin, Nathaniel Pope , was also a prominent lawyer, and had represented the Illinois Territory in Congress.
Daniel Pope Cook , a younger cousin of Nathaniel Pope, was also a lawyer whose rise was meteoric. At the age of 21 he was admitted to the bar in Kaskaskia and was appointed clerk of the territorial legislature and later auditor of public accounts. In 1816, at the age of 22 he became a joint owner of the territory's only newspaper, the Western Intelligencer. In 1818 he became a federal judge, and when the state of Illinois was organized he was elected attorney general by the legislature. A few years later, now sole congressman from Illinois, he married one of Edwards' daughters, strengthening the family connections that bound this faction together.
The Edwards faction was generally anti-slavery, notwithstanding the fact that Edwards himself was one of the most substantial slaveholders in Illinois. Daniel Cook was an outspoken opponent of the expansion of slavery into the west, both in Congress and at home in Illinois. And Edwards and Pope, while not taking aggressive public positions on the issue, quietly helped to keep Illinois free.
The other faction was called the "Thomas" faction, after Jesse B. Thomas , Illinois' other senator in the years just following statehood. Like Edwards, Pope, and Cook, Thomas came from a slaveholding family in the old South that had moved to Kentucky. He became a frontier lawyer, first in Kentucky, then in the Indiana Territory, where he served as a delegate to the territorial legislature, and later as delegate to Congress.
When the Illinois Territory was formed in 1809 he got Madison to appoint him to one of the three new federal judgeships and settled near Edwards and Pope in Kaskaskia, where, like them, he became rich through land speculation, manufacturing, and trade. Unlike the leaders of the Edwards faction he owned no slaves, yet he was a fierce advocate for bringing slavery into Illinois.
Another leader of the Thomas faction was Elias Kent Kane , who was born of a well-to-do New York family, was educated at Yale, and soon after graduation emigrated west in search of adventure and fortune. His superior intelligence was soon recognized, and he became the leading figure at the constitutional convention at Kaskaskia, and, as secretary of state, the power behind the throne in Governor Bond's administration. He married a woman of French descent who owned slaves, which perhaps explains his attachment to the cause of slavery.
Shadrach Bond , the first governor of Illinois, was born in Maryland of a well-to-do, slaveholding family, although his father, a convert to Methodism, freed four slaves on his death in 1804. By that time his son had long since gone west to seek his fortune, settling near Kaskaskia where an uncle, also Shadrach Bond, had been living since the 1780's. Like Pope and Edwards, Bond was a slaveholder. Although he was generally identified with the pro-slavery faction, he seems to have no strong feelings either way, but was under the strong influence of Kane, his secretary of state.
A third political force in early Illinois was made up of abolitionist preachers--mostly Methodist and Baptist--many of whom came to Illinois specifically to escape from the oppressive atmosphere of slavery.
Religion on the frontier was old-time fundamentalist, dominated by the large camp meeting and the traveling preacher. Because of the difficulty of regular church attendance in the widely scattered settlements, and the paucity of churches and preachers, the preaching and praying was often carried out in the open, at "meetings" that lasted for several days.
We can imagine that the traveling preachers would be a powerful political force, especially when engaged in a moral crusade, as the preachers were in the struggle against slavery. There is in fact evidence that one of the most influential preachers in Illinois, James Lemen, was sent there by Jefferson specifically for the purpose of organizing a movement to combat slavery in the Northwest Territories.
Although Jefferson had inserted a prohibition against slavery in the Northwest Ordinance, he clearly foresaw that within a few decades there would be a movement to throw off the restriction. And therefore, in 1784, he began to prepare for the struggle that would come to its crisis forty years later.
His agent was James Lemen, a young Virginian who had already persuaded several of his neighbors to emancipate their slaves. On May 2, 1784, the details of their secret agreement were settled, and Jefferson left to become minister to France. Lemen left for Illinois in 1786, establishing a settlement that he called New Design.
For many years he worked quietly organizing the Baptist Church in Illinois, preaching anti-slavery and temperance. By the time of the state constitutional convention in 1818, ministers of the church had become so potent a political force that the pro-slavery forces moved --unsuccessfully--to make them ineligible to serve in the legislature. And in the 1823 legislature there were as many preachers--six--as lawyers. James Lemen's son, also James Lemen, was a candidate for lieutenant governor in the same election in which Coles ran for governor, and served at the constitutional convention and in the legislature.
The connection between Jefferson and Lemen was kept secret for well over a century, until 1908, when Lemen's grandson first published an account of it. Certainly, had it been known that Lemen had come to Illinois deliberately at the request of Jefferson to organize a religious movement to serve a political agenda, the anger and uproar would have made it impossible for Lemen to have achieved anything. Even as late as the 1850's another important abolitionist preacher, John Peck, advised the family to keep the Jefferson connection secret.
We must wonder, of course, whether Jefferson told Coles of his relationship with Lemen or even enlisted Coles in this secret cause. But all available evidence shows that Jefferson did everything he could to dissuade Coles from going to Illinois.
The result of Lemen's efforts was a strong, well-organized, and powerful anti-slavery movement, ready and in place long before Coles ever visited Illinois. Years of patient organizing, quiet persuasion, and life-long dedication created the network of friendships and commitments that finally bore fruit forty years after it was first conceived. Coles provided much of the leadership, but the passion and dedication of a whole generation raised in anticipation of this struggle provided the motive power.
And so the Illinois to which Coles emigrated in 1819 was, on the issue of slavery, like a field of battle awaiting the first shot. The armies on both sides of the question were massed, flexing their arguments and strategies. Powerful interests, both pro- and anti-slavery, watched from beyond the borders of the state. On the outcome of the struggle depended the future not only of Illinois but of the nation. If Illinois permitted slavery, the flow of emigration from the Northeast would stop, while the flow from the South would swell. Slavery would extend clear up to Canada, like a wall in the path of westward migration. The principle would be established that no restriction by Congress could prevent a sovereign state from choosing slavery once it had been admitted to the Union, and other western states would soon be tempted to follow the example of Illinois.
As Jefferson had feared, the Northwest frontier was at last ripe for slavery, and the abolitionist Coles had stumbled precisely on the right place at precisely the right time to become the man whose dedication and zeal would direct the course of history.