CHAPTER 18: CITIZEN COLES
I invite the farmers of Illinois to meet at Kaskaskia, on Wed. the 10th of Nov. next, to establish an Agricultural Society for the state of Illinois; to form a constitution for its government; to elect its officers; and to put the society into immediate operation. (Edward Coles, writing as "A Farmer of Madison County" in the Edwardsville Spectator, Oct. 9, 1819.)
As planned, the society met in Kaskaskia on November 10. The fact that Coles had organized the meeting made him instantly a prominent figure in the state. Most of the important men of Illinois were there. Governor Bond served as chairman. Morris Birkbeck was elected president of the society, Edward Coles first V.P., and Nathaniel Pope second V.P. As founder of the society Coles could probably have been elected president, but his desire to leave the state for extended visits home made it more convenient for him to serve as assistant to his friend.
The society encouraged an interchange of ideas on methods of farming and manufacture, fostered the organization of county agricultural societies (which would run the county fairs), awarded prizes for excellence in raising livestock and grain, and offered bounties for the extermination of wildlife that the pioneers considered agricultural pests.
Its importance was--is--incalculable. The Franklin-Jeffersonian tradition of bringing together rational men to pool ideas and energies for a common goal is what made American enterprise in the early 19th century the exciting, innovative, creative, and endlessly adaptable phenomenon it was. Non-western societies had nothing resembling these instant institutions for change, in which every new technological advance was immediately tested and spread to a large and eager population. To start such organizations required men, such as Coles, who believed that the application of reason to human problems would result inevitably in their rapid solution, and that the major obstacles to human welfare were ignorance, prejudice, and inertia, all of which could be overcome by the force of enlightened, energetic men.
Immediately after the meeting of the Agricultural Society, Coles left Illinois, going first to Philadelphia to look for a wife. I am afraid, dear cousin, Dolley had written a few months before, in an attempt to prod him, that whilst you and I deliberate who to choose for a wife we shall lose some of the best girls now grown.
So off he went to Philadelphia, where unfortunately the same financial depression that was ruining his first year as register of the land office and freezing the value of his investments in land now stood as an obstacle to his courting. The usual round of balls and expensive dinner parties had been curtailed, and the reduced amount of social intercourse made it difficult for Coles to meet new women.
. . . during the whole time I have been at only one large, expensive dinner party, he writes to his mother ten days after his arrival in Philadelphia, the others being little family parties to which two or three of my particular friends were invited to join me. Which is fine for a young man who has already made his choice, Coles says, but is no good for someone who needs to select from a wider field.
Of the women he has already met, the Chinchillie sisters, he continues, still preserve their supremacy, judging from the number and length of my visits, and the invitations I have to their house from them and to others at which they visit. But it is yet a matter of great doubt with their immediate friends, as well as with themselves--and I might add, with great truth, with myself--which of the two I prefer. This will convince you that my heart is not greatly interested as yet, at least, in this affair. They are very charming and interesting girls, and I enjoy myself very much in their society, and the more so in consequence of the manner which is assumed from the belief that one cannot know them and be sociable with them without losing their hearts. The old Lady, who by the way has no love for me, generally sits eyeing me like a cat watching a mouse.
In the end Coles left Philadelphia single, and did not improve his prospects either in Washington or in Virginia, where he spent four or five days with the Madisons, which he called among the happiest days of the year. In April he went back to Illinois alone, returning to his self-imposed exile with perhaps an even more acute sense of the joys he was sacrificing to be there.
He returned just as a new battle in the slavery controversy was heating up. A new legislature was to be elected in 1820, and both sides were preparing to elect candidates of their own persuasion. Cook was once again running for Congress, opposed this time by Elias Kent Kane, a leader of the pro-slavery forces.
One peculiarity of the slavery controversy in Illinois was that the pro-slavery group would rarely admit that slavery was an issue. They called it a hobby horse, a smoke screen, an attempt to fool the voters by pretending that one political faction was on God's side while the other served the devil. Actually, they insisted, the question of slavery in Illinois had been settled permanently by the Northwest Ordinance. So what was all the fuss about?
For instance, when Morris Birkbeck urged voters in the Illinois Gazette to send no advocate for slavery to represent us, either in our State Legislature or in Congress, the pro-slavery editors asked, Shall we, in the infancy of our state, distract it into parties about a mere bug-bear? God forbid . . . Let the candidates stand upon their real merits, and judge of them accordingly.
Similarly, Elias Kent Kane complains that Great pains have been taken to circulate the idea that I have been brought forward to serve what is termed the "old slave party" of this state. Yes, he admits. He did at one time advocate the introduction of slavery into Illinois, but only because his constituents were in favor of it, and in a democracy the constituents should rule. Now the introduction of slavery is unthinkable, he insists, because the Northwest Ordinance and the Illinois constitution forbid it.
In all of the battles over slavery, the pro-slavers pose as reasonable men, devoid of faction, willing to consider all candidates on their personal merits, tolerant of those who oppose them, defenders of the people against a minority of fanatics who wish to use the bogus issue of slavery to improve their political chances.
Fortunately, they are bad liars, or, perhaps knowing that most people will not be fooled by their lies, they can't resist attempting to persuade the public to accept slavery even while they deny that this is their intention. We see the most curious articles from them, the first halves of which typically deny that slavery has anything to do with the subject at hand, while the second halves argue that the introduction of slavery will shower rich rewards upon master, slave, and citizen alike.
In the summer of 1820 Hooper Warren of the Spectator charged that there was a conspiracy afoot to turn both the Intelligencer and the Gazette into pro-slavery organs. As part of this conspiracy, he alleged, Kimmel, the anti-slave partner of Henry Eddy of the Gazette, has been bought out by James Hall.
Not so, the new editors of the Gazette maintain. Unlike the Spectator, their paper was never in the market, and never was intended to be prostituted for party purposes. Mr. Hall, they say, is a newcomer to the state and knows nothing of its politics. But then they can't resist pointing out the dangers to Illinois from competition with Missouri and Kentucky, who possess the great advantage of having slaves, by means of which their resources are brought into effectual operation. A generous emulation should stimulate us to keep pace with our powerful neighbors.
Part of the alleged conspiracy also involved setting up a press in Edwardsville to compete with the abolitionist Spectator. In a letter to the Illinois Intelligencer Ninian Edwards names a number of citizens, including Edward Coles, as witnesses to good evidence that men from Missouri are involved in an effort to introduce slavery into Illinois. He quotes from a letter written by a prominent citizen of St. Louis, who writes, I recollect of frequently hearing it said, and perhaps while in Washington made the remark myself, that it "would be doing nothing more than justice to Illinois (as its citizens were so violently opposed to Missouri as a state without restriction) to create a reaction by engaging your side of the river in a contest at home, which would prevent them from so particularly interesting themselves in our concerns; and that to effect this, it would only be necessary to establish a press at Edwardsville that would admit and favor a free discussion of the advantages that would result to the state by admitting slavery," believing that a large proportion of the state was inhabited by emigrants from the southern states, who would be favorable to such a state of things.
And in fact such a press was set up in Edwardsville, the Western Star, later succeeded by the Illinois Republican, which provided a pro-slavery response to the vociferous championship of freedom by Hooper Warren.
Aside from the repulsive nature of their object, there is certainly nothing criminal about the pro-slavers' setting up a press to advocate their point of view. The anti-slavers were just as "guilty" of such schemes. Both factions looked for and received significant out-of-state support for their positions, and both sides naturally took great pains to conceal that support.
But only the pro-slavery side attempted to conceal the object they had in view. The anti-slavery side was quite forthright about their intentions. The editor now declares, Hooper Warren writes in his first editorial, that whenever a public discussion shall be required of the comparative justice and advantages of liberty and slavery, of freedom and despotism, he will not hesitate which cause to espouse. Let those who wish, he says, withdraw their subscriptions forthwith.
The pro-slavery group insisted that they supported candidates for the legislature solely on personal merits, that the newspapers they controlled took no position on the issue of slavery, and that there was no one among them who had the slightest intention of suggesting a convention to revise the Illinois constitution so as to permit slavery in Illinois.
Even in the most disciplined of movements so gigantic a lie would be difficult to sustain. But in the loose association of pro-slavery politicians, most of whom belonged to the Thomas faction but some of whom sided with Edwards, a united front was impossible to maintain.
Thus Henry Eddy, running for the legislature in Gallatin County, where the salines lay and where consequently the pro-slavery sentiment was overwhelmingly strong, declares himself in favor of the constitutional convention that supposedly no one is calling for. With regard to the Salines, then, he writes, I am clear for extending to it, for another term of years, the privilege which it now enjoys of hiring and indenturing servants [a euphemism for slaves from out of state] for the purpose of working the same. And being of this opinion, I am, of course, in favor of a convention, for that object can only be effected through the means of another convention, our present constitution having limited the time during which that privilege may be claimed to 1825.
Eddy's declaration of support for a convention would sound strange, since no other candidates mention the possibility. But his readers are well aware of what he is referring to, the only difference between Eddy and other pro-slavery candidates being that he has uttered the forbidden words in print.
But talk of a convention was premature. The constitution had been in effect only two years, and it was as yet impossible to pretend that changes other than allowing for the introduction of slavery had already proven necessary. The election of 1820 was just a prelude to the more significant campaigns of 1822 and 1824, when the pro-slavery forces would finally make their move. For the moment, Cook beat Kane decisively in the race for Congress, carrying even heavily pro-slavery districts, and the legislative races were generally reflective of local preferences and issues.
Coles himself was preoccupied during most of the campaign with a tiresome project that had been imposed upon him by the Congress. The inhabitants of the village of Peoria, situated in the wilderness of northern Illinois, had petitioned Congress for confirmation of their land claims. Peoria had been settled mainly by illiterate French traders in the 1770's, and there had been no written record made of titles to the land they had occupied. During the War of 1812 the French, suspected of collusion with hostile Indians, had been driven from the village, and now many of them wanted to resettle permanently on land to which they would be given legal title.
The Congressional act "for the relief of the inhabitants of the village of Peoria," approved on May 15, 1820, made the register of the land office at Edwardsville responsible for drawing up a list of all land claims that ought to be confirmed. Coles, setting to work in his usual conscientious way, soon found that he had been given an impossible task. The inhabitants of Peoria, he writes to William Crawford, secretary of the treasury, it would appear, from all I can learn, settled there without any grant or permission from the authority of any Government; that the only title they had to their land was derived from possession, and that the only value attached to it grew out of the improvements placed upon it; that each person took to himself such portion of unoccupied land as he wished to occupy and cultivate, and made it his by incorporating his labor with it; but as soon as he abandoned it his title was understood to cease with his possessions and improvements, and it reverted to its natural state, and was liable again to be improved and possessed by anyone who should think proper. This, together with the itinerant character of the inhabitants, will account for the number of persons who will frequently be found, from the testimony contained in this report, to have occupied the same lot, many of whom, it will be seen, present conflicting claims.
Having no guidelines from Congress on how to resolve these conflicts, the usual precedents not applying here, Coles refused to confirm or deny anyone's claim, compiling instead a thick report of evidence and conclusions that he forwarded to the secretary of the treasury. To enable you at one view to see the character of the claims, he writes to Cook, to whom as Congressman from Illinois he sent a copy of the report, and to understand the particular merits of each, I have drawn off a tabular statement of them all, in which will be seen the size of the claims--the time when the improvements were made--the time when they were abandoned--and the particular claims which conflict with each other. Having once decided on the period before it was necessary to have made the improvement--or in one word the particular description of claims which should be confirmed, this list will enable you at once to select the claims . . . I will not apply to Congress for compensation but I will say to you that I ought in justice to be paid, and liberally paid too, for the trouble and labour I have been at in examining witnesses, taking their depositions, and transcribing two copies of the substance of the evidence. You who are acquainted with the illiterate character of French settlers can form some idea of the time required, and the trouble attending the taking of depositions for seventy claims--many of which are supported by two, three and even four depositions.
It was characteristic of Coles not to ask for money he thought he deserved, just as it was characteristic for him to do ten times the work Congress had expected of him in his scrupulous attempt to be fair to each French settler who had entered a claim. He devoted months to his massive Peoria report without any expectation of payment.
In a letter to John, Isaac estimates that Edward has done enough extra work to merit a payment from Congress of a hundred dollars, though whether Coles was ever paid by Congress is unclear.
Coles says he worked night and day on the Peoria claims, probably from late May to mid November. After he had finished the report, he went north for four or five days with an acquaintance, prospecting for silver, but perhaps more to get out of his office than with an expectation of finding anything. When he returned he found letters from his nieces Sally and Isaetta--the first he ever received from them--and wrote a flowery answer to Isaetta, the daughter of his sister Mary Carter.
He says he finds some pain in the fact that these first letters were written by accomplished women, because he has missed the pleasure of seeing the child in their letters. So I would have found delight in the inaccuracies and childish efforts of my beloved nieces, he writes, and would have derived great happiness in tracing their progress from childish imperfections to the accomplishments of women. But in the true character of woman you have preferred astounding me with admiration by suddenly bursting upon me in the fullness of your splendour, rather than afford me the tranquil pleasure of enjoying the twilight of your morn. That your day may be long and serene, uninterrupted by the tempests of enmity, or the clouds of adversity, and that your conduct may be such as to create no painful regrets in the evening of life, is what all your friends pray for, and none more fervently than myself--except it be your own fond Mother.
Some of Edward's time in the next few months was spent with Isaac, who had come west on an exploratory trip in 1819, returning toVirginia with Edward in December, and had come out again with his slaves in the fall of 1820 to build El Prado on the Missouri land he had bought through Edward.
By April 1821 Isaac is very well established on his new estate and ready to return to Virginia for the summer. He has a quarter section of the finest prairie imaginable fenced off for grazing, he writes to John. He has purchased two oxen, fifty-five hogs, two cows and calves. His slaves have between 60 and 100 hens. His trees are all planted and his garden is growing. He plans to plant a whole quarter section in corn.
He has three prairies on his land, he continues, each about a mile in length by a half mile in width, and they are now green, in fine contrast to the still-bare timber. Strawberries and plums are in bloom, buck-eyes and sugar trees are in leaf, hogs are ready to be turned into bacon, and acorns lie in heaps on the earth. Isaac's slaves are healthy and appear to be contented.
Quite a contrast to Edward, whose farm is to be broken up, his horses boarded with Isaac until they can be sold. Isaac lives comfortably on his new estate with his slaves; Edward lives alone in his room in town, his farm now hired out to white laborers, his former slaves scattered.
One cause of Edward's distress is his relative poverty. His position at the land office is not remunerative, his farm has not been profitable, and his heavy investment in land has proven a disaster. The depression on the frontier, Isaac writes John, having started long after it began in Virginia, will continue longer. This is not a good time to sell property, just as 18 months or two years ago (when Edward bought most of his) was a terrible time to buy it.
Edward, having sunk most of his money into wilderness for purposes of speculation, was now land-poor, stuck with unproductive land and little cash. These were hard times for him, and Isaac's presence in the neighborhood must have brightened a life that was generally dull, difficult, and extremely lonely.
Think how you would feel, Coles writes to his niece Mary Carter, situated in this new country in which you have no acquaintance, and to which you have no partiality; surrounded by nothing which would be to you amusing, and subject to a dull routine, in which there is little to excite, and still less to amuse, and nothing that could amuse one unacquainted with our little society . . .
Two incidents, though, have pierced through the general gloom, giving him the pleasure of seeing the high regard his neighbors have for him. In the absence of something more important, he goes on, I may venture to mention to my niece and friends a compliment lately paid me by the commissioners chosen by the Legislature to select a suitable seat of Justice for the new County of Pike, in calling it Colesgrove. This was quite an unexpected compliment. I am told the town is to be laid off in a pretty grove or point of timber making up into a beautiful Prairie . . .
The second incident, Coles writes, I have no doubt will at least surprise you. In this state the people at large elect their Governor. The next election is in August, 1822. I have been solicited by some of the first citizens in this part of the state to become a candidate in opposition to the present Chief Justice of the state, who has already declared himself a candidate. I have declined giving my answer, on the ground that it would be time enough some 6 or 12 months hence for me to decide. In the first place I am doubtful whether I am not too poor, and in the next place whether it will not be productive of more trouble pain and vexation than of pleasure and happiness. Those who are in favor of bringing me forward are averse to my absenting myself from the state during this summer and fall, but I am resolved on setting out between the 1st and 15th of June for Virginia, and nothing will detain me that I can foresee, unless it be the duties imposed upon me by the gov't. under the late Law for the relief of Land purchasers.
What actually detained Coles that summer is unknown. He certainly was busy administering the new law, which had been passed by Congress to give relief to the thousands who had purchased federal land on credit and now could neither meet the payments nor sell the land. But perhaps another reason he remained in Illinois was that he had decided to accept the offer of his friends in Madison County and to run for governor of Illinois. In any event, he remained in Illinois during the summer of 1821, and in the fall, only two and a half years after settling in the state, he announced his candidacy.
We are authorized to state, the Edwardsville Spectator proclaimed on October 30, 1821, that Edward Coles, Register of the Land Office at Edwardsville, will, in compliance with the wishes of his friends, be a candidate for the office of the Governor of the State of Illinois, at the ensuing election to be held on the first Monday of August next.