|The aristocratic world into which Coles was born was beautiful, luxurious, gracious, generous, affectionate. Enniscorthy, his father's plantation, straddled the top of a long ridge seven hundred feet highcalled the Green Mountain. This was red clay country, fertile and steep, with dark brown streams rushing angrily alongside narrow red gravel paths. It was a vigorous and healthy climate, the air pure and clean, the dense forest moist with frequent rain. To the west, across waves of lower ridges, were the Blue Ridge Mountains, at that time the steep wall that separated East from West. To the east were rolling fields of tobacco, wheat, hemp, and corn.|
The family mansion, destroyed by fire in 1839 and rebuilt in 1850 , still looks like Hollywood's dream of an old plantation house: a large, two-story red brick building flanked by one-story wings and set far back from a narrow gravel road amid acres of undulating velvet lawn, almost hidden behind magnificent groves of alders, yew, and poplars. To the right a smooth grass bowling green, then a series of clipped boxwood gardens leading to a sunken garden reached by short flights of brick stairs. Amid thick, overhanging bushes and masses of ivy, a twisting red brick serpentine wall.
The front entrance, flanked by the obligatory Greek columns, opens into huge rooms with high ceilings, enormous windows, lovely plaster work and carving, rich chandeliers. Everything is graceful, light, spacious, comfortable.
The family dining room is served by means of a dumb waiter--a pulley system invented by Jefferson that runs down to a basement kitchen. No dirt and gristle, no hustle and bustle, no smoke, no pungent smells, no sweaty black servants upstairs. In the basement are rooms for the house servants, a wine cellar, various store rooms. The basement opens out at the back of the house, where the land is lower than in the front, onto a grassy yard bounded by the entrance path, which has curved around the house. Beyond the path are scattered white frame buildings--a mill, more store houses, slave quarters--stepping down the steep western side of the ridge.
To the left of the house, across the path and several hundred yards down gravel and smooth green lawn, is a cluster of barns and fenced-in pasture.
Precisely how all this looked in Edward Coles' day is unknown, but there is no doubt that it was an impressive establishment. It bespeaks wealth and power, both of which the Coles family wielded with typical Virginian grace.
Early republican Virginia was, like colonial Virginia, an aristocracy, which means that a small group of families held most of the political and economic power. What made this aristocracy peculiar was that it used a democratic vocabulary. The great aristocrats spoke of the rights of man, of vesting political power in the will of the majority, of social revolution. But their words conflicted with the reality of their lives. The reality was that one half of the people in their democratic state had no rights at all, while only a tiny fraction of the other half were eligible socially to vie for positions of power.
The holding of elections to fill various positions does not a true democracy make. The concentration of wealth, education, and social distinction within a relatively few privileged families assures that political power, too, will lie in their hands. As, in fact, it did in Coles' Virginia.
Just a few examples of this concentration of political power : Of the nine sons or sons-in-law of Coles' parents, one was governor of Illinois and another acting governor of Virginia, two were private secretaries to U.S. Presidents, one was speaker of the House of Representatives and ambassador to England, and three served at one time or another in the Virginia legislature. Personal friends and relatives of Coles' father included three U.S. Presidents and several governors. In Coles' class of about sixty at William and Mary College were a future President (John Tyler), general (Winfield Scott), senator (William Archer), and supreme court justice (Justice Baldwin), not to mention a host of lesser lights.
Obviously, Coles was well-connected, but so were many of the sons of Virginia planters. Coles was not unusual in this respect. The small group of families that held most of the wealth and power in Virginia were closely interwoven by marital and blood relationships, by frequent social intercourse, by a common outlook and education.
The daughters of eligible families would be taken to Washington or Richmond or Williamsburg during the social season like hogs to market, Edward's brother Isaac once commented cynically. Many of the young people were already related to one another in some distant way, and it was not uncommon for cousins to marry cousins, or for brothers to marry girls who were sisters, as did Edward's brothers Tucker and John. Edward's grandfather John and granduncle Williams (the "s" belongs) married the Winston sisters, and Edward's father married the half-sister of his sister Mary's husband.
Through these complex interconnections, Coles was related in various ways to a number of the great families of Virginia: the Madisons, the Carringtons, the Carters, the Skipwiths, the Tuckers, and so on and on. All of these families had sons in powerful positions in the federal, state, and local governments, in education, in the military, in the law. It was a tight, close-knit, and exclusive group that controlled nearly every aspect of life in Virginia and had a powerful influence on the national life through its domination of the Presidency and of the social tone of Washington.
The source of this wealth and power was the land. Enniscorthy was a typical aristocrat's plantation: it consisted of about five thousand acres worked by close to two hundred slaves . The main crop was tobacco, but various grains were also raised for market, and the plantation raised much of its own food.
Tobacco was the money-maker , though, and like most cash crops that are grown too intensively, it created a boom-and-bust economy and ruined the land. By the end of the eighteenth century much of the land in Tidewater Virginia (east of Richmond) had been exhausted, and the center of tobacco cultivation moved west to the Piedmont area, the foothills of the Blue Ridge, where Enniscorthy lay. But that land, too, could not last more than a few generations under the strain of growing tobacco. Once it had been cleared and planted for a decade or so, it, too, would begin to die. Land pushed hard to produce cash is not a goose that can lay golden eggs forever.
Tobacco gobbled up not only land, but also labor. Seedlings had to be grown in newly-cleared soil, then transplanted to larger fields one by one in rainy weather. The plants needed constant weeding and hoeing. During June and July tobacco worms were a continuous menace, and black children spent their days crushing them among the leaves. The plants then had to be topped, cut, pegged, and cured. By the time one crop was ready, it was time to start planting the next.
And so tobacco required large tracts of virgin land and large numbers of slaves. Like the new factory system in the cities, it tended to push out the small operator and encourage large holdings and mass labor. The slave system itself was part of the larger industrial system, used mainly for a few highly labor-intensive cash crops: tobacco in Virginia, cotton and rice further south, sugar, indigo, hemp. What made it so profitable was the high demand for food and raw materials in the industrial centers of Europe and the North, and the availability of cash to pay for agricultural imports.
The history of the Coles family is a history of imperialism, of westward migrations to the lands of displaced peoples, of economic exploitation, of political domination--all in stark contrast to the gentility and grace of day-to-day life.
The earliest known Coles in direct line back from Edward was a Captain Abraham Coles, who emigrated from England to Ireland in the early 1640s. He helped suppress the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and seems to have been rewarded by getting some of the two and a half million acres of Irish land that was handed out to Englishmen in the wake of the Irish defeat.
The next move westward in search of fortune came about ninety years later when, sometime around the year 1730, John Coles, the eldest son of a well-to-do Anglo-Irish gentleman named Walter Coles, came to Virginia as a young man in his mid-twenties. He was one of the first settlers of Richmond, much of which he owned. Whether he brought money with him from Ireland or started from scratch in Virginia is not known, but he apparently had a good deal of money only a few years after he arrived.
Richmond was only one of his holdings. He bought large tracts of land in various Virginia counties, including an estate in Albemarle, near Charlottesville, which he called "Enniscorthy" after the town in Ireland from which he came. When he died in 1747, he willed this estate to his son John Coles II, the father of Edward Coles.
We see here a pattern repeated in the histories of many Virginian families. Probably the original estate that Abraham Coles built in Ireland, and certainly the estates that John Coles I and later his brother Williams built in Virginia, became rapidly splintered as the generations moved on. John Coles I split his estate five ways, which left his son John Coles II Enniscorthy, a rather minor part of it. John Coles II split his share ten ways, which left his son Edward Coles very little of the original family fortune. Small wonder that Edward and some of his brothers and sisters would look to the west, as did their ancestors, to provide them with more generous estates on cheap virgin land.
Another example of the pattern: In the early eighteenth century the wealthiest and most powerful Virginia planter of them all, Robert "King" Carter , left to his heirs some 333,000 acres and seven hundred slaves. Two generations later his grandson Edward Carter inheritied a 9350 acre estate in Albemarle, on which he built a mansion he called "Blenheim." Edward Carter's son Robert, who married a sister of Edward Coles, inherited 3050 acres of the Blenheim estate, on which he built a mansion he called "Redlands." When Robert's widow Mary Coles Carter died, Redlands was divided among their children into parcels of approximately 700 acres each.
This pervasive pattern of splitting large estates into smaller units became law in 1785, when the Virginia legislature passed Jefferson's bill abolishing primogeniture (the practice of passing property exclusively to the eldest son) and requiring that all children share equally in an estate. The purpose of the bill was to weaken the aristocracy of wealth and power to make way for the new aristocracy of talent and virtue that Jefferson dreamed of. But one effect of the bill was to drive the wealth and power west, where new and cheap land, unexhausted by tobacco growing, lay open to speculation. The aristocracy of wealth and power found new fields for exploitation outside of the state of Virginia.
Thus Edward Coles was born into a world in the process of rapid change. The land which supported it was giving out, the large estates were being split into smaller and smaller units, the system of slavery, unable to compete militarily with the more powerful and dynamic North, was soon to be destroyed. But at the time Coles was born, soon after the Revolution, when Virginia planters were at the zenith of their influence and power, who could have guessed that their golden moment was like a burst of sunlight sweeping westward amid dark clouds?
Edward's father, John Coles II , was born on April 29, 1745, in Richmond, Virginia, only two years before his father, John Coles I, died. His mother, Mary Winston Coles, died in 1758, when he was thirteen, but we can only speculate about what effect his being an orphan had on him. Certainly, being part of a large and wealthy family, he must have been well cared for.
In 1769 he married Rebecca Elizabeth Tucker , daughter of a well-to-do gentleman who had emigrated from Bermuda to Norfolk, and built his mansion at Enniscorthy, near a small summer home that his father had built years earlier.
He was a colonel in the Revolutionary War, but does not seem to have seen much action, the only mention of him being as collector of supplies for the local district. His one moment of excitement came in June, 1781, when British troops commanded by General Tarleton swooped down on Charlottesville , hoping to capture Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, and members of the Virginia legislature. Fortunately, a man named Jack Jouett was able to reach Monticello before the advancing troops and warn Jefferson of his danger. Jefferson left Monticello only moments before the British arrived and spent some days in hiding at Enniscorthy before fleeing further south.
After the war, John Coles II settled back into his quiet, comfortable life as a Virginia planter. The only position of note that he held was that of vestryman of his church. He seems to have had little ambition for power or greater wealth--at least there is no record of attempts to gain political office or to increase his holdings. Like most Coleses he seems to have loved his family, tended conscientiously and successfully to his business affairs, and been reasonably kind to his slaves. He owned excellent horses, rode in a fine carriage, lived in a magnificent mansion, sent his sons to William and Mary. Keeping up the style of a gentleman and being a warm, loving husband and father seems to have absorbed all of his energies.
John and Rebecca had ten children who lived to adulthood and three who died in infancy or early childhood. Their first son, John, died of burns a few days before his fourth birthday. Walter Coles, their second son, was born in 1772. Then followed a second John (1774), Mary (called Polly, 1776), Isaac (1778, died within a few months), another Isaac (1780), Tucker (1782), Rebecca (1784), Edward (1786), Sarah (called Sally, 1789), Elizabeth (1791), William (1793, died within a year), and finally Emily Ann (1795).
Despite its size, it was an extremely close and intimate family, as can be seen in the hundreds of letters that record the day-to-day family life.
Helen Skipwith Coles , the new wife of Edward's brother Tucker, was particularly taken with her new family, calling her new home blessed and full of domestic peace and harmony. She was particularly drawn to Edward's mother Rebecca, whose tenderness and affection in blessing her children immediately won her confidence and love.
At the age of sixteen, Edward's brother John writes to his mother that he is confident of her affection towards him, and that nothing in life is more important than the confidence of a child in his mother's love.
Edward's father, too, seems to have been affectionate and concerned. All letters to his wife are signed romantically, "Yours until death." To his son Edward at college he writes: I wish my dear boy for you to be prudent and frugal but not niggardly with respect to your money, for when you want you must write me. And, on an occasion when Edward has neglected to write, his father gently chides him: We were all disappointed at not receiving a letter from you by the last post, especially your mother who you know always supposes something bad must have happened or you would have wrote. She thinks dancing must have hurt your ankle again.
Edward and his brothers, while scrupulous in their accounts, were generous with one another and stood ready to help without haggling or asking why. When Edward decided to go to Washington as Madison's secretary, he knew that he could leave his farm safely in his brothers' hands . When he couldn't find a buyer for his farm, his brother Walter bought it from him so that he could be free to go to Illinois. Edward's brother John entered into a bond for $10,000 as security for Edward's appointment as register of the land office at Edwardsville, Illinois. When many years later Edward's son Roberts (the "s" belongs) decided to come back to Virginia to live, arrangements were made for him to purchase on credit a piece of the original family estate.
Edward's more distant relatives also maintained close and affectionate ties, cared about one another, wrote to one another, visited one another as often as distance and circumstances would permit. Travel was difficult, but people traveled long distances to visit friends and relatives, balancing the length of the trip by the length of the stay. Virginians were generous hosts and frequent guests, and it was not uncommon for a mansion to house a large party of guests for days or even weeks at a time.
Along with warmth and affection and loyalty and concern there was luxury, and the freedom and enjoyment that wealth could bring. Children of Virginia planters grew up taking luxury for granted. They became used to being waited on--having their clothes laid out for them, their tea brought to them, their boots polished for them, their beds turned down for them. At such establishments one easily acquired a habit of being waited on, Letitia Burwell remembers, there being so many servants with so little to do. It was natural to ask for a drink of water when the water was right at hand, and to have things brought which you might easily have gotten yourself. And Coles writes: For the ease and self-indulgence of being waited on--of the luxuries of the table, etc., in which children are usually brought up by the rich planters of the southern states, had not been a little increased and confirmed as a habit in me, by a residence of more than five years in the family of the President of the United States . . . This double schooling, this great and protracted indulgence, in the highest walks of ease and luxury in this country, made me feel more sensibly my diminished means of living, and especially the want of being waited on, and other inconveniences and privations of a frontier life in a non-slaveholding state.