Immediately on my father's death, I announced my determination not to hold, but, as soon as I could sell my land, to emancipate and remove out of the State the slaves bequeathed to me. (Edward Coles, 1827 autobiography)
That Coles' choice of time and place was tactless goes without saying. Since until his father's estate was divided he would have no slaves to free, he could have waited at least until he came into possession of his property before announcing his plans to give it away. He was not compelled to tell his grieving family that he had fooled his father, lied to them all, and intended to ruin himself at the earliest opportunity. He could have waited for one shock to wear off before delivering the next.
Perhaps the only excuse for Coles is his immaturity--a factor in the stew of conflicting emotions and purposes that his family weighed more carefully than he. How they reacted to his rash announcement is unknown, since we have only Coles' description of this confrontation. But reading between the lines we can surmise that they were concerned for him and that their response was shrewd.
My mother, brothers and sisters, Coles tells us, were much opposed to the course I was about to take; reasoned and remonstrated against it; dwelt on the great diminution, and the folly of throwing away property which was necessary to my comforts, and which my parents had all their lives been labouring to acquire; reminded me that I had no profession, and would not have the means of supporting myself; censured me for not having made known my objections to holding slaves to my father, who, if he had known it, would have given me other property in place of them; expatiated on the hardships and privations I should have to encounter in the western wilderness, and my inability from feeble health, and disqualification from my habits of life, to bear them, and make my way in such a community as I should find in a new non-slaveholding state. But they touched the tenderest and weakest cord [?] when they reminded me of the sacrifices I should make in giving up my relations, my friends, my native land.
The effect of these arguments on Coles is difficult to guage since he gives contradictory accounts of his reaction. In the 1827 autobiography he says that his determination to free his slaves was severely shaken, and that for some time--at least five years--after his confrontation with his family he was engaged in a long struggle [to] tear myself away from these endearments. And often in the struggle, my aversion to living in the midst and witnessing the horrors of slavery yielded to the force of my attachment to the scenes and companions of my youth, and to my reluctance at parting with them and removing and settling among strangers in a new and wilderness country . . .
The 1844 autobiography, however, depicts quite a different scene: Coles lecturing his family on the joys of righteousness. This may all be true, he says to them, and I am as fully sensible as any one can be of the inconveniences and privations I shall subject myself to by pursuing the course I have resolved to take; and I know too the pain it will give me to be separated from my beloved relations and friends, and to go to a distance and live among strangers. But all this is as dust in the balance, when weighing the consolation and happiness of doing what you believe right, with the corroding of feelings and the upbraidings of conscience at doing what you believe wrong--a great wrong too, by which you deprive your fellowman of the greatest of all earthly blessings, the enjoyment of his liberty, that liberty which we are taught to believe is the gift of God and the inherent and inalienable right of man.
How to reconcile these conflicting accounts? One way would be to suggest that while one account describes faithfully what Coles said, the other describes what he felt. The brash exterior hid a rather frightened and uncertain young man, one whom his family knew quite well, perhaps better than he knew himself.
Finding my resolution fixed and unalterable, Coles says of his family in the 1844 autobiography, my brothers asked it as a favor that I would not make known to the Negroes my intention to emancipate them; for if I did, it would produce dissatisfaction with the other Negroes of the family and make it necessary to punish some of them. To prevent this, and as far as possible to conform to the wishes of my brothers, I did not make my intention known to the Negroes until years afterwards, when they were on their way to Illinois.
So much for the myth of the happy slave! But it is possible that there was more on the family's mind than a fear of disquiet among the blacks. After all, once Coles had "gone public" with his idea, it would be much more difficult to change his mind. By making Coles responsible for the possible punishment of their slaves, Coles' brothers cleverly usurped the moral ground. It was undoubtedly much easier for Coles to reconcile himself to continued secrecy to protect slaves than to please masters. His hypocritical pretense while his father lived had been justified by the need to make sure that he would inherit slaves to free. Now he would be forced for years to play the master, to appear to be just as wicked and corrupt as the white aristocrats around him. What more soothing motivation than a desire to prevent unnecessary suffering on the part of his brothers' unfortunate slaves?
His family may have hoped that by forcing Coles to return to the false position of hiding his intentions, they were preparing the way for his plan to slide gradually from secrecy to postponement to oblivion. And isn't it possible that Coles, too, immature and indecisive as he was, was just a bit relieved that his family had forced him to put off the moment when his bridges to conventionality would be burned behind him?
At any rate, following his announcement to his family there was little Coles could do about freeing his slaves until he came into possession of them. Precisely when this occurred is not clear, buthis father's willwas not probated until July 6, 1808, and according to the 1863 autobiography the estate was not actually divided until January 1809.
The will of Edward's father, drawn up in 1798, divided the Enniscorthy plantation into four parts: Walter Coles got "Woodville," the section on which he had already built his mansion; John Coles III got the section lying north of the road from Samuel Dyer's to Cocke's Mill (now Albemarle County Route 712), on which he later built a mansion called "Estouteville"; Isaac Coles got the Enniscorthy mansion and lands adjacent--but not until the death of his mother; and Tucker Coles got a section of the estate known as the "upper quarter," on which he later built his mansion, "Tallwood." Edward's sister Rebecca got a tract of land near the original estate, and his other sisters got 1,000 pounds each in lieu of land, with some additional considerations to be paid by their brothers over a number of years.The slaves were dividedeight ways among seven of the Coles children and their mother, since sister Mary and brothers John and Walter had drawn their shares earlier. The slaves were drawn by lot, as far as possible in families.
Edward's share of slavesseems to have been around twenty. He was also givena tract of 782 acreson the Rockfish River that his father had purchased some years earlier. It lay just at the foot of the Blue Ridge about fifteen miles due west of Enniscorthy in Nelson county.
It was already a working plantation when Coles inherited it, with house and overseer, both of whichColes seems to have keptas he found them. The house and land can still be seen from Route 635 in Nelson county, which runs north-south along the base of the huge wall of the Blue Ridge, at this point rising almost perpendicularly from the valley of the Rockfish River. Slightly lower mountains slope upward on the east side of the valley, their bases rolling pasture, their tops crowned with thick forest. From the front lawn of the house, which is perched on top of a hillock rolling up from grassland, one can see the muddy yet swiftly flowing Rockfish River curling through pasture with forested ridges on either side.
The house itself is really two houses--two, two-story white boxes under steeply sloping roofs connected by a one-story passageway. It is a large, comfortable house with ample, high-ceilinged rooms, yet rough and crude--a far cry from the mansions of Edward's brothers. It does not look like a house that a young aristocrat would desire for his future family. In fact, it is likely that Edward stayed in it only infrequently, and that it was used mainly by the overseer, into whose hands it and a portion of the estateeventually may have passed.
It doesn't seem that Coles knew exactly what he wanted to do with his new possession. On one hand, he had plans for running the plantation and ameliorating the condition of his slaves. On the other, he wanted to look for a place to settle his slaves after he had freed them and to sell his farm as quickly as possible. According to the 1827 autobiography he was still unsettled about whether to treat his slaves as free men in Virginia or to settle them as free men on their own frontier farms. And thus he was pulled two ways, both in the direction of developing his plantation into a model of benevolence and in the direction of getting rid of it. In the end, it seems, the two forces cancelled each other out, and he did neither.
In the summer of 1808Coles took the tripwest of the Blue Ridge that he had planned with his school friend Madison, and in the fall, on and off, he visited friends. He fell seriously ill in December, and in February 1809 visited Madison on his deathbed. During this period generally he seems dispirited and melancholy. My situation, my dear Hawkins, he writes to a school friend, presents a sad and melancholy reverse. Ever since I left Williamsburg, that Paradise of modern times, I have conceived my situation strikingly to resemble the condition of our unfortunate progenitors after having been driven out of the Garden of Eden.
These are hardly the sentiments of a man about to fulfill his cherished dream! Yet at this time, he claims in the 1844 autobiography, he was preparing a trip west, to see if it would suit, and what part would suit me best.
In fact, Coles spent almost the whole of his time in the west (August 21 to December 7, 1809) in Kentucky, a slave state, crossing the Ohio for only one minor foray into free territory. Since it is unlikely that he expected to settle his slaves as frontier farmers in a slave state, one is forced to question the intensity of his desire to free them.
Another motivation for going to Kentucky can be found ina letter to Coles from Uncle Travisdated March 10, 1809, apparently in response to an inquiry by Coles. I remember (I think), Uncle Travis writes, that I gave you a piece of writing obligatory on me to make you title to my claim of land in Kentucky--a deed, conveying my claim to you, I am ready to sign whenever you'll have it prepared. It will take time to look over all my papers; but, I think, I can have in my possession no other papers than some letters from Colonel [Muter?], and, perhaps, a receipt or two for taxes paid by him, which you can secure of certificate of, from the proper office.
Whether Coles visited this land and proved his title to it is unknown. Perhaps Coles found it worthless, or sold it on the spot, or held it for future speculation. When he got home after four months of exploration, however,his brother John reportedback to Uncle Travis that although he seemed pleased with what he saw, he didn't seem pleased enough to actually make a move.
Yet Coles claims in the 1844 autobiography that upon his return home in December 1809, he put his farm up for sale, but was unable to sell it because of the bad state of the times. Why put his farm up for sale in a depressed economy if he had not yet found a suitable place to move? And if he was not willing to accept a low bid--asa later letter showshe was not--he could not have expected to get rid of his farm and free his slaves for a long time.
What we see in Coles' contradictory movements in 1809 is a young man going through the motions of freeing his slaves without any great determination to succeed. Had he toured Ohio, Indiana, or Illinois extensively, or had he been prepared to take a low bid on his farm or to sell it on credit to his brothers (the course he finally pursued), we would have evidence of a strong desire to carry out his idealistic intention. What we see instead is that he is melancholy, unsure of his future direction, the secrecy promised his family perhaps already eroding the urgency of his intentions.