CHAPTER 19: GOVERNOR COLES
HUMPHREY: But what proof have you that he is so clever and disinterested, for we must not depend on appearances.
JOHN: Why, to let you into the secret, he has set his negroes free, and moved to this State, when he might have lived in Missouri with his negroes to wait on him.
HUMPHREY: . . . probably it was to buy popularity that he set his negroes free--and now thinks people are bound to vote for him whether he is capable of filling the office or not, merely because he is an emancipator . . . I am told that he only set some six or eight old negroes free that had worn themselves out in his service, and were scarcely able to black a boot; and that he yet holds in bondage all the active part of his slaves that were left to him by his father, and that they are now in Missouri. I should like, before I vote for him, that he would prove his christianity by setting them free . . .
JOHN: He must have had some reason for it, and he is so fine a fellow I think I must vote for him . . . Why he has been Secretary to Mr. Madison, as he tells me; and although I do not know what sort of an office that is, yet as Madison was a President, I suppose he would not employ even a cook that was not a great man . . . And this is not all, he tells me that he has been to England, that he was sent by the President as a kind of Agent (Preacher) or Minister (I think he called it) to settle some important matter or dispute between the two governments, and that he saw George the Third, and the Prince of Wales, and that he was at the King's levee, and saw all the great men of Europe, and was introduced to the Prince of Wales, and that he had the liberty to kiss his great toe; and also that he has been to France, and at Paris, where he saw such sights that would make the hair rise on a man's head who had been raised in these back woods, to hear him relate them; and that he has been at St. Petersburgh (where that is I cannot tell) and to China, where the ladies wear iron shoes, and whose feet are not larger than his thumb--all these, [and] many more places he has visited; and I think with such qualifications as these, he ought to be supported. (Satire by "Kleber," Illinois Intelligencer, May 11, 1822)
||Unfortunately, this satire by "Kleber" lays mercilessly bare many of Coles' liabilities as a candidate. How this stiff, quixotic unknown became governor of Illinois is difficult to tell. Most accounts of the campaign of 1822 differ wildly from one another. For instance, while one historian says that "the matter of slavery was not particularly agitated" in the campaign, another says that the campaign "turned frankly on the question of slavery." We know that Coles won; how or why must be left to speculation.
The campaign began early, on February 20, 1821 , when Joseph Phillips, the state's chief justice, announced his candidacy a full year and a half before the election. It was probably this action that prompted some anti-slavery leaders to sound out Coles in late March or early April 1821.
Phillips was a member of the Thomas faction in Illinois politics. He was by all accounts pro-slavery , a slaveowner in his native Tennessee and, at the time of the announcement of his candidacy, attending to his slaves there. For most of the campaign he was heavily favored to win.
Coles declared his own candidacy on October 30, 1821 . For the next seven months, he and Phillips were the only serious candidates. On March 26, 1822 , General James Moore, the commander of the state militia, announced his candidacy, but at no point did anyone consider him a contender . He was a bluff, honest man, a hero of the frontier wars, and anti-slavery, but was not a politician and was little known outside his home county of Monroe.
The curious thing about the early months of the campaign was that there was no Edwards man in the field. Phillips was a Thomas man, and Coles belonged to neither faction. There has been and is a great fuss here about the office of Governor, Thomas Reynolds writes to Ninian Edwards in Washington in February 1822. Edward Coles, Joseph Phillips, and J.B. Moore appear to be the only candidates at present spoken of: if no other should offer there is no doubt but Phillips will be elected. My brother [John Reynolds] has been spoken of, but at present he has declared and says that he will not offer . . . If you would accept of the office of Governor and make it known in time there is no doubt but you would be elected with ease.
But Edwards preferred to remain a Senator from Illinois and for some reason declined to support anyone else for governor. The result was that the Edwards faction was thrown into confusion and late in the campaign had not yet found a candidate to challenge Phillips' almost certain election.
Why Edwards remained aloof is only the first mystery of the campaign. A second mystery is why Hooper Warren at first almost wrecked Coles' candidacy and then turned around and saved it.
Since Warren was fiercely opposed to slavery and Coles was the major anti-slavery candidate, one would think that Warren would have supported Coles regardless of personal animosity. Instead, he attacked Coles viciously soon after Coles had entered the race.
One of the favorite journalistic devices of the day was the bogus letter purporting to be from some naive reader but usually written by the editor himself. In November 1821 Warren placed such a letter in the Spectator, supposedly written by a gentleman from Kaskaskia called "Inquirer." The announcement of Coles' candidacy must be a hoax, "Inquirer" declares. There is but one Edward Coles in this state that I know of: he lives in [Kaskaskia] and denies, positively, having any pretensions to that office. No one in the lower part of the state knows any other person of that name. It is not to be presumed that a person so little known would offer his services for the highest office in the gift of the people.
Ah! But Mr. Coles has so presumed! Warren--writing now as editor--answers his own letter, hitting Coles at his most vulnerable point. It is certainly a novel proceeding, he writes innocently, that an editor, upon announcing a candidate for the office of Governor of a state, should be required to give his history, or inform the public who the person is, so offering his services. But since Coles is so little known, he goes on, he must do it.
What follows is as twisted a version of Coles' background as Warren's well-tuned malice can invent. Coles is a tool of
Coles says that he is supported by no one, Warren writes. He is neither an Edwards nor a Thomas man, and claims that he had not the pledge of support from any individual in the state. That Coles' candidacy for governor is an absurdity is a conclusion that Warren leaves for his readers to draw.
Warren's hatchet job did not go unanswered. In the next issue of the Spectator , "Justice" declares angrily that "Inquirer's" letter is a fraud. But he won't comment on so obvious a trick, he says, nor on Warren's insinuations about the relationship between Crawford and Coles. Instead, he will confine himself to setting the record straight on Coles' personal history.
Unfortunately, the history that follows is inaccurate, especially considering Warren's detailed knowledge of the facts. According to "Justice," Coles resigned as Madison's secretary in 1815, came soon after to Illinois, and being pleased with the country, avowed his determination to make it his permanent residence, which he has done ever since, except during the period of his [journey] to Europe, where . . . he was sent by the President of the United States on special business [with] the Russian government. On his return to America he came to Illinois, where he resided at least twelve [months] before he received the office of Register.
Not so, Warren replies in the same issue of the Spectator, knowing better from his intimate conversations with Coles when they shared a room at an Edwardsville boardinghouse. In May, 1819, [Coles] came back [to Illinois], with his commission in his pocket, and settled in this town. In October or November following he again went "home" (the term is borrowed from his own expression) and returned on the first or second day of May, 1820, at which time he can constitutionally date the commencement of his residence in this State. And, moreover, it is a fact, that it was his intention to have gone "home" again last spring, to be absent during the whole summer; but additional business at the Land Office, occasioned by the relief act, prevented the gratification of his object.
On all three issues Warren uses against Coles--that he is an unknown newcomer to the state, that he is a Virginian and not an Illinoisan at heart, and that he is a tool of Crawford--there is enough truth to his assertions to hurt Coles badly. The connection with Crawford was particularly vexing. Coles was nominally sent to Illinois by Crawford, who as secretary of the treasury was his immediate superior. And Coles did, in fact, support Crawford for the Presidency. Crawford, like Coles, was a Southerner, a slaveowner with a professed dislike for the institution of slavery, and a vice-president of the African Colonization Society. Unfortunately, during the 1822 gubernatorial campaign Crawford had become embroiled in a dispute with Ninian Edwards and Daniel Cook over his having employed Senator Thomas (the other senator from Illinois and the leader of the Thomas faction) as a federal bank inspector. Thomas had had his trips back home to Illinois paid for by the Treasury while he stopped off to examine the books of western banks along the way. Clearly, putting a member of Congress on the payroll of an executive department seriously compromised the separation of powers. But the howl that Daniel Cook put up in the House probably had as much to do with the rivalry between Thomas and Edwards (now Cook's father-in-law) as it did with constitutional principles.
Coles was left with a campaign issue that could do nothing but hurt him. His sympathy for Crawford might have made him appealing to the Thomas faction, but Phillips' candidacy and his antagonism for slavery cut him off from most votes from that quarter. To Coles' natural allies in the Edwards faction Crawford was at that moment the arch-enemy, and Warren's continued identification of Coles as Crawford's tool was calculated to cut him off from Edwards support as well.
The one issue on which Coles could gather strong support was that of slavery. Although the advocates of slavery were playing their usual game of denying any intention of introducing slavery into Illinois, the subject was hotly discussed, and both pro- and anti-slavery meetings were called to support slates of candidates for the legislature.
In this day's paper , the editors of the Gazette write in April 1822, will be found communications announcing the fact, that the subject of the introduction of SLAVES into this state, is now in agitation in the counties of Union and Jackson. Great exertions will, in all probability, be used to procure a call for a Convention to re-consider the important provision, in our Constitution, against slavery.
Coles' supporters attempted to smoke out the gubernatorial candidates on this issue, demanding vociferously in the Spectator that each candidate declare which of you are for, and which against the toleration of slavery, and a new convention. Warren moved quickly to defuse the issue, pointing out that it is the legislature, and not the governor, that will decide whether or not the question of a new constitutional convention shall be put before the people. But at all events, he concludes, the issue of slavery should not operate in favor of the pretensions of a candidate who may have emancipated half a dozen FREE negroes, with the sole view of thereby obtaining the votes of the Methodists and Yankees, at the same time holding in chains, in an adjacent state, several poor creatures, to whom he has legal title.
Once again Warren is close enough to the truth to hurt Coles badly. As we know, Coles did retain legal title to Emanuel and his family, then living in St. Louis, for two years after he had moved to Illinois, later selling them to another slaveholder for the rest of Emanuel's time of servitude. In a brief and dignified letter to the Intelligencer, his one published statement of the entire campaign, Coles sets forth the reasons why he had retained title to these slaves, but the fact that he had not freed them along with the others must have made some staunch anti-slavers waver in their support.
At this distance, it is impossible to know how badly Warren's attacks hurt Coles. Those who knew both men (as did a high percentage of the voters of Madison County) certainly knew of Warren's personal dislike of Coles and may have discounted much of Warren's criticism. But it seems that at least one Illinois politician thought Warren had become a decisive factor in the campaign.
In the spring of 1822 , Warren recalls years later, four months before the election, Judge [Nathaniel] Pope came up to Edwardsville from Kaskaskia; and, calling upon me, he remarked with much earnestness, "If you do not want Phillips elected, you must leave Coles alone." And he went on to demonstrate that such was the fact. This information alarmed me, and I held up. I had supposed that every vote I could take from Coles would go to Browne or Moore. But the Judge showed conclusively that the prospect of Phillips was rising rapidly, and that of Coles as fast declining. The friends of the latter were desponding, while those of the former were elated with new hopes.
All personal considerations aside, I preferred Coles to Phillips, and my chief concern now was, how properly to adjust the balance between them, so that the former should not kick the beams. I said nothing in his favor, but his friends, seeing I had ceased to annoy him by attempts at irony and satire, took new courage, and rallied to his support.
"Four months before the election" was April 1822, and it is true that Warren's attacks on Coles ceased abruptly after a particularly abusive account of Coles was published on April 9. But how it came about is another matter.
Warren, whose memory is often unreliable, says that he supposed that the votes taken from Coles would go to Browne or Moore, but the fact is that in April 1822, Thomas Browne, a state court judge and member of the Edwards faction, was not yet in the race. Browne did not announce his candidacy until May 11, 1822 , and while it is likely that he was sending up trial balloons long before that date, he was certainly not in the picture when Warren began savaging Coles in November 1821. Thus it is not possible that at that time Warren had supposed that votes he was taking from Coles would have gone to Browne. Moreover, Browne was, like Phillips, pro-slavery, so siphoning votes from Coles to him was hardly something that an anti-slaver such as Warren would want to do. What Warren was thinking, therefore, remains a mystery.
Another mystery is why Pope travelled up from Kaskaskia to get Warren to lay off Coles. With Ninian Edwards sitting the election out in Washington, Pope had become the leader of the Edwards faction. Since most of the Thomas faction was pro-slavery, it was unlikely that Coles would draw many votes that might have gone to Phillips. The greater likelihood was that he would draw enough votes from any Edwards candidate to enable Phillips to win. Why, then, would the leader of the Edwards faction want Warren to cease his attacks on the greatest obstacle to an Edwards victory?
A final mystery is why Browne entered the contest at all. Historians disagree on his motives. Washburne claims that he was put up by the pro-slavery party to draw votes away from Coles in southeastern Illinois. The presence of Flower's and Birkbeck's English settlements made Coles particularly strong in the area of the Wabash River, and Browne, a native of the district, was supposedly put up to split the southeastern vote with Coles, enabling Phillips to win the state.
The stupidity of this plan is no reason not to believe it was actually carried out, though it does seem unlikely that anyone would have believed that the pro-slaver Browne would draw even one Coles vote away from a colony of English Quakers! But it seems even less likely that the Thomas faction would put up an Edwards man--or, for that matter, that an Edwards man would have run with Thomas backing--the spoils of office being as significant a political motive as the introduction of slavery into the state.
Pease, a later historian, claims that Browne was put up by Pope. In a letter to Pope written a month after the election, Ninian Edwards writes, Last year when I returned from Congress you were committed as to the Gov'r. election. I had never been consulted on the subject, and yet, I understood you were dissatisfied with me, for declaring that I would not concern in that election, to which determination I was influenced by the dictates of my best judgment.
There is no evidence that Browne was the man Pope was committed to. In fact, Pope's visit to Warren makes no sense if Pope had already been committed to Browne for over a year. The visit makes sense only if Pope had been committed to another Edwards man, such as John Reynolds, who had decided not to run, or if, in a burst of unlikely idealism, he had committed himself to Edward Coles.
A third possibility, unmentioned by historians, is that Browne entered the race on his own, hoping to win as the only Edwards faction candidate in the race. But no one knows why Browne ran, or why Pope helped out Coles, or why Warren attacked Coles so viciously in the first place. It would be nice to believe that early in the race Pope decided for reasons of principle to back Coles, even though Coles insisted on remaining independent of faction; that Pope therefore tried to prevent any Edwards candidacy from forming; and that Edwards remained aloof from the race because he would neither support nor oppose Pope's preference for Coles. But the most straightforward explanation is often not the true one.
With the entry of Browne into the race in May 1822, the campaign became extremely complex. Since Browne was both pro-slavery and pro-Edwards, the lines that had connected ideology with political self-interest were blown askew. Looked at one way, Phillips would enjoy the undivided Thomas vote, most of which was both pro-Thomas and pro-slavery, while Browne and Coles would split the Edwards vote along pro- and anti-slavery lines. Thus Browne's candidacy was damaging to Coles. Looked at another way, Phillips and Browne would split the pro-slavery vote while Coles would enjoy the undivided anti-slavery vote, in which case Browne's candidacy was damaging to Phillips and helpful to Coles.
The election results clarify very little. The race was a squeaker, Coles winning with 2863 votes to Phillips' 2752. Browne got 2444 votes and Moore 631. Washburne adds Browne's to Phillips' votes to arrive at an overwhelming pro-slavery majority, but his analysis is too simple. In the race for lieutenant governor a pro-slavery candidate, Adolphus Hubbard, narrowly beat out two anti-slavery candidates, James Lemen, Jr. and John Lofton. Hubbard got 3114 votes to Lemen's 2970 and Lofton's 1494. If we add Lemen's to Lofton's votes, we get a substantial anti-slavery majority.
Furthermore, in the Congressional race we find the Edwards man, Daniel Cook, winning handily over the Thomas man, John McClean, 4620 to 3740. Since Cook and McClean were also identified as anti- and pro-slavery respectively, it seems unlikely that there was a nearly two-thirds pro-slavery majority in the state.
Taking our own perhaps foolish plunge into political analysis, we can speculate that the crossing of pro- and anti-slavery with Thomas and Edwards currents worked to Coles' advantage. Some voters voted their convictions on slavery; others voted for their usual factions. It seems that the combination of independents and uncompromisingly anti-slavery voters was just slightly larger than the number of voters, both pro- and anti-slavery, who voted for either faction. Coles' victory was an expression of the strength of independent and one-issue anti-slavery voters in the state.
In the lieutenant governor's race, two candidates split the anti-slavery vote, allowing the Thomas faction candidate, Hubbard, who had no Edwards faction opponent, to squeak by. And in the Congressional race, Daniel Cook added the Edwards faction vote to the anti-slavery vote, winning by a comfortable margin over his Thomas faction opponent.
Thus the results of the 1822 gubernatorial election give no clear indication of the relative strengths of the pro- and anti-slavery forces in Illinois. Too many voters were swayed by other issues, such as factional allegiances, to predict how an up-or-down vote on slavery might turn out. The measure of these opposing forces would have to await the vote on holding a constitutional convention in 1824.
Coles did not learn of his victory until well after the election. He left for Virginia on Election Day, despairing of his election, Hooper Warren notes, although we certainly cannot trust Warren to give us an accurate account of Coles' feelings. If elected, Warren continues sarcastically, free now that the election is over to annoy Coles at will, he will return in November, and make this state his place of residence for the ensuing four years.
Coles left Illinois seriously ill with a bilious fever then raging in the west. A year later he recalls the trip in a bitter letter to John , in which he complains both of his journey and his reception in Virginia. His health was so bad that his doctor thought he was taking a chance by going, and he suffered much from his illness. But he so looked forward to the visit and to seeing his family and friends that he was happy to go. The first wound he received was when he arrived at the Springs and some of his friends fled at his approach. Then, when he arrived at Albemarle, John held himself aloof, never inviting him to his house, and, when he came several times with other family members uninvited, not so much as speaking to him.
In defence of his behavior John accused Edward of giving himself airs in consequence of becoming a governor. But Edward says that he was mortified, when he was out of cash, with all his money tied up in unproductive lands, to see that his brother apparently took pleasure in boasting of his wealth.
It is possible that Edward's friends at the Springs fled from his approach because they were afraid of catching his illness. Around the same time that Edward was traveling east, Isaac writes from Paris, Kentucky that several people have died of the fever, adding that he plans to remain in Kentucky until the first frost puts an end to the epidemic. But it is also possible that Edward's now open and prominent abolitionism had made him more a pariah to his friends than his illness could have.
But what of John's coldness? Edward says that he would like to attribute it to John's recent marriage to Selina Skipwith, the sister of Tucker's wife Helen, but it is possible that the rift between the two brothers was caused by more than the distraction of a new attachment. There were many aspects of John's marriage that may have caused him to feel alienated from Edward.
At this point in their lives, the two brothers were a study in contrasts. John had married a wealthy heiress, one to whom Edward may once have been attracted, and had become the owner of a large estate, a huge mansion, and many slaves. Edward had become the governor of a state, yet was poor, unmarried, and was known widely as a fierce opponent of slavery. Clearly Edward was sensitive to any suggestion of John's wealth; just as clearly, John was sensitive to suggestions of Edward's political eminence.
John seems also jealous of Edward's closeness to the rest of the family. Edward says John claims that he has never been a favorite with the family, though Edward has always believed that John had more influence on their parents than any of the other children.
John's jealousy combined with Isaac's rather cynical view of him must have hurt Coles. Whether other members of his family objected to his sentiments or treated him with reserve is not clear. But the family may have been too preoccupied to pay much attention to Coles since on September 23, 1822 , Sally's first and only child, Frances Arnett Stevenson, died two weeks before her fifth birthday from burns suffered when her clothing caught fire. That precisely the same thing had happened to the first child of John Coles II and Rebecca a few days before his first birthday must have made the tragedy seem even more cruel.
On October 17 Coles left Enniscorthy with the still-grieving parents for Richmond, then traveled on to Washington to wind up his affairs as register of the land office, leaving for Illinois on October 31 and arriving in Edwardsville on November 22 . Either in Richmond or in Washington he received a package from Madison addressed to "E.C. Governour Elect of Illinois," containing a pedometer. As you are about to assume new motives to walk in a straight path, and with measured steps, Madison writes, I wish you to accept the little article enclosed, as a type of the course I am sure you will pursue, and as a token of the affection I have so long cherished for you.
Madison, of course, knew all about the burdens that Coles was returning to shoulder. Sick at heart and perhaps still in body, land-poor, distressed by John's coldness and perhaps jealous of John's new wealth and marital happiness, Coles returned to his lonely post in exile as the governor of Illinois.