|In the spring of 1812, while all of these momentous political events were occurring, Coles was going through his own private crisis, one which would scar him and change fundamentally his attitudes and priorities for the rest of his life.|
We would expect that when Edward Coles finally fell in love he would fall hard. He was too idealistic for frivolous attachments and too fastidious and shy to fall in love very often. Once or twice was his limit. For him love was holy, magical, passionate, imperious, for life. It was not something to play with; it was something that when it came would transcend all other considerations.
L.S. and myself have become tolerably intimate , he writes to his mother a few weeks after his arrival in Washington, L.S. being the girlfriend of his acquaintance Hughes, who had stupidly neglected to cultivate his loved one's family and was now suffering the agony of parental rejection. We had a long talk a few evenings ago about love, engagements, one's not being capable of loving more than once, frivolous objections on the part of parents, and etc. and etc. . . . I advised her strenuously to leap windows and overcome every impediment as a test of the warmth of her heart and sincerity of her affection. I could not make her altogether confess she was a convert to my opinions.
Perhaps she was amused at Coles' earnestness, perhaps taken aback, perhaps attracted, perhaps waiting for her passionate friend to speak for himself. But it would take a powerful attraction to force Coles to take such a risk. More often he was relieved to find sufficient reason to excuse himself from venturing beyond his mask of courteous disinterest.
Some of the Misses are pretty , he writes to John on another occasion, so much so that with the dim light of the candles, on my first interview with one of them, I felt the pulsations of my heart very much disturbed, but unfortunately she proved defective by daylight. And her blemish was of a curious kind; I cannot better describe it than by saying, "she looked as if she smelt a s - - - k."
And again to John on the problem of seeing women in broad daylight: . . . for judging from my own experience of the town belles, the more light that is thrown on their persons or characters, the more hideous they appear.
Philadelphia belles fare no better than those in Washington. The ladies, Coles writes to his mother, have more perfectly the lady's character than any I have before seen, for many of them are at first sight extremely prepossessing, but upon a more minute examination their beauties and attractions prove to be in a great degree illusion.
Picture fastidious Edward riding in a stagecoach from Washington to Philadelphia. At a stop in Elkton, Maryland, an old gentleman, after carefully looking him up and down, approaches him with the following proposition: a beautiful young lady from Philadelphia, of a respectable family, has been staying at his house with a young man. The young man had to return to Philadelphia on business, the young lady being detained by illness in Elkton. Now she wishes to return to Philadelphia but has no escort. Coles looks like a gentleman in whose hands a lady of respectable character would be safe. Would he consent to escort the beautiful young lady home?
But of course he would. He would be most happy to do the favor. The young lady sits beside him in the carriage. She is as beautiful and accomplished as advertised, and quite in the mood to flirt. In fact, too much in the mood for our hero. I found her indeed a beautiful girl and highly accomplished, he writes to John, perfectly easy in her manners, but like some of the other Philadelphia girls that I have seen rather too free in her deportment. We were traveling the first night until after 10 o'clock. I believe she thought before we parted that I had fallen in love with her. The truth is we were sociable to a fault.
It is of course possible that the young lady was a fortune hunter; the situation seems almost too fraught with romance to be entirely accidental. Edward was quite the man to marry a poor girl, and, in fact, soon after did fall in love with a woman of neither wealth nor character, one who seems to have thrown him over, eventually to sell herself to a disgusting boor over twice her age.
The lady on whom Coles chose to fasten his affections was Marie Antoinette Hay, a woman whom he had known for many years. In 1807 his sister Eliza had written him of the death of Marie Antoinette's mother as of the death of a common acquaintance. A few months later Miss Hay visited Enniscorthy , though the reason for the visit is unknown. Miss Hay may or may not have been the woman Coles was rumored to be in love with in the spring of 1807.
In his first letter from Washington, dated Feb. 3, 1810, Coles asks his brothers and sisters in Richmond to give Miss Hay and L. Carrington a kiss for me if they will let you, and tell them I long to see them. But this is mere gallantry. We do not know for certain that Edward fell in love with Miss Hay until the winter of 1811-12, when they were both staying at the President's House.
After the death of her mother in 1807, Marie Antoinette's father, George Hay, married James Monroe's daughter Elizabeth, a woman twenty-two years his junior. Thus Marie Antoinette, born in 1790, was only three years younger than her stepmother . George Hay was a Richmond lawyer who had long been an enthusiastic supporter of Jefferson and Monroe. He had prosecuted Aaron Burr (unsuccessfully) in 1808. After his marriage to Elizabeth Monroe, his friend and father-in-law provided him with a small estate near Richmond--evidence, perhaps, that George Hay himself was not a man of great means. Nor was he from one of Virginia's great families, his father Anthony having been the keeper of Raleigh's Tavern in Williamsburg. Marie Antoinette, therefore, was in the precarious position of being neither well-born nor wealthy, yet of moving in the highest social circles. Her salvation obviously would be to marry a man whose family and fortune would make her position secure.
It was perhaps with this intention that Miss Hay came to Washington in the winter of 1811-12 to stay at the President's House. She was not the only woman husband-hunting in that social lair: with her was Miss Hamilton, the daughter of the secretary of the navy, Miss Phoebe Morris, the daughter of Dolley's Quaker friend Anthony Morris, and Lucy Washington, Dolley's widowed sister.
The year before, Coles had urged his brother John to come after the beautiful and wealthy widow. But what think you, Brother John, he writes, of coming and courting our cousin the Widow W. I think she would suit you to a fraction: her natural gaiety . . . would effectually prevent your propensity of biting your thumb after a hearty dinner. She has only three tow boats, as my uncle would call them. Nothing but the great disparity of our ages has prevented my losing my heart. But John did nothing.
During the 1811-12 season, Lucy finally bagged her mate--Judge Thomas Todd (no relation to her sister Dolley's first husband), an associate justice of the Supreme Court, a widower much older than she with five children from a previous marriage. The wedding took place on March 29, 1812, the first wedding ever to take place in the President's House. The bridesmaids were Misses Hamilton, Morris, and Hay; the groomsmen were Payne Todd (Dolley's son), John Payne (Dolley's brother), and Edward Coles.
The wedding must have been excruciating to Coles. He had just been "jilted" by Miss Hay, as one can see from the excerpt that begins this chapter. Coles had apparently proposed to Miss Hay, had been accepted at least provisionally, and then had been rejected. He was in a frenzy but not totally without hope. Lucy's opinion was that Miss Hay was merely teasing "Ned." But if Coles' letters are to be believed, arrangements for marriage had gone far. It seems more likely that Miss Hay was in a genuine quandary, forced to choose between her emotional inclination and her material needs.
By May, at any rate, Coles had regained his ground. On May 6 he writes to John, I expect to hear today or tomorrow from Richmond when all things will be settled, both as to the fact and as to the time. The first was as far settled almost as I could wish before Miss H. left Washington; that is, I had a promise that about this time she would unconditionally engage herself, and also fix the time of our marriage.
But by June 17, Miss Hay changed her mind once again, and Helen Skipwith Coles writes to her sister Selina that Edward is so despondent that she is afraid it will affect his temperment permanently.
Perhaps Miss Hay's vacillation was caused by the influence of her family. In Washington she seems to have been more inclined to marry Coles than she was in Richmond, where her father may have voiced his opposition. And perhaps the Monroes, too, opposed the marriage, as much for Coles' sake as for Marie Antoinette's. Coles, after all, needed a rich wife as badly as Marie Antoinette needed a rich husband. If future security were the main consideration, as it tends to be with elders, it was a good match for neither. It is possible that Coles' romance with Miss Hay was broken up by the opposition of a more practical older generation.
But there may have been other factors at work. It turns out that in early March 1812, George Hay was involved in a dispute with the Coles family over an article, slanderous to Isaac Coles, that had appeared over a year before in a Richmond newspaper. The Coleses believed that the author of the article was George Hay, but had never publicly accused him of it. Edward Coles, perhaps in an attempt to patch up a quarrel that threatened to rob him of his happiness, told Mrs. Monroe, now George Hay's mother-in-law, of the reason for the Coles' hostility to Hay, and Hay exploded in letter to Monroe--furious, first, that the Coleses should think him capable of such villainy, and, second, that they should never have given him a chance to refute it. I feel myself much injured by Mr. C's [probably Isaac's] supposition that I would engage in so low and vile a transaction, Hays writes. If Mr. C. had ever said so, and intelligence of the fact had reached me, I should have sent him a denial of the truth of his assertion, in terms that he should not readily forget . . . So much for the Coleses: with whom I am more dissatisfied than ever--(I mean Isaac and Tucker). This last parenthetical remark seems to have been added later in a much smaller and more cramped script, possibly indicating that Edward was exempted from George Hay's anger. Still, such bad feeling between the families could not have increased George Hay's enthusiasm for a marriage that looked like a bad idea in any case.
How much Edward's scheme to free his slaves was an obstacle to marriage is unknown. In fact, it is possible that he abandoned the idea briefly in 1812 in favor of marriage. A letter from Edward to John in May, before he was jilted for a second time, suggests that this is the case.
Edward has asked John for a full account of his finances and is dismayed at the results. Although it was gratifying to me to receive a statement of my coming ins and my going outs, he writes, yet it was mortifying and made me quite melancholy when I reflected that I commenced my operations as a farmer more than four years ago with a debt of $500, and that although I have added nothing to my stock, nor made any material improvements, or purchased any of the necessary fixtures for Housekeeping, or indeed anything else, being now as little prepared for a comfortable residence as then, and when too I have been living here almost 2 1/2 years receiving a salary that is sufficient to support me, yet my farm has not been able with my utmost economy and under all these advantages to pay off this small debt and support itself. This is a gloomy and melancholy fact, particularly when connected with the idea of being married, and that, too, to one who is poor, and as proud as myself. But I will not suffer myself to be dejected, I will not think of my bad luck, if I cannot do better on Rockfish, I must move elsewhere.
"If I cannot do better on Rockfish," Edward says, indicating that he is considering moving in to Rockfish, presumably run by the labor of his slaves, to live with his new bride. His financial prospects look dismal enough without the loss of his slaves, and this appraisal of his prospects seems to indicate that his coming marriage has put the idea of freeing them on the shelf.
But what of, "I must move elsewhere"? This letter is the first by Coles to suggest moving west as a materialistic rather than an idealistic plan. In December 1811, presumably before he got involved with Miss Hay, Edward seems quite satisfied with the state of his finances. I am very much obliged to you for the offer to remit me money if I should want it, he writes John, but at present I see no probability of my demands being greater than my purse can gratify. Indeed my stock in hand is such . . . that I have been on the point of enclosing $50 or $100 to you in this letter.
But after the shock of losing Miss Hay, Edward begins to speak of a desire to go west in order to increase his meager fortune. In a letter written the following spring (May 1813), Dolley refers to Edward's desire to move west as a plan for your prosperity, and a few months before Edward resigned his position as Presidental secretary he wrote to Payne Todd: I have now, however, arrived at a period of my life when it is necessary I should give up present gratification for my future welfare. Nothing but my great regard for those with whom I am, could have induced me to have remained so long in my present situation, to the entire postponement of my permanent fixture, and utter derangement of my intended pursuits, and most prejudicial too to my pecuniary interests, and to those habits which my circumstances will ultimately reduce me to. I must therefore in the spring, however reluctantly, retire to the woods of the west.
Not that Edward had entirely abandoned his plan to free his slaves. If he did, it was only for the first half of 1812, when he was attempting to persuade a reluctant Miss Hay to become his bride. But another motivation had crept into his desire to settle in the west--the need to make enough money so that a well-born lady might marry him. His rejection by Miss Hay jolted him out of his dreamworld and demonstrated to him the necessity of increasing his wealth. No longer could he be content with Rockfish and the life that awaited him in Virginia. Moving west was now not an idealistic dream but a practical method of lifting himself up to the level necessary for marriage. Once again, as when he decided to go to Washington, it seemed to Coles that God and Mammon dwelt in the same place.
The depth of Coles' pain can be seen the next winter, when Miss Hay once again descended on Washington in search of a husband. Notwithstanding the many reports, Coles writes to his mother, I could not bring myself to believe that Miss H. would have the effrontery to make her appearance here: yet she has done so. I have not yet seen her, but it is said she will be at the drawing room this evening. As she has placed herself in the circle in which I move, I am determined neither to go out of my way to see, or to avoid her. How long she intends to stay, I know not, but I am very certain she will be anxious to spend the winter here. Mrs. H and Charles [her brother] came with her. I have told Mr. and Mrs. [Monroe] some of the things I heard Miss H. should say of the affair of last winter while at the Springs and in Richmond; they both expressed not only their surprise and concern, but indignation at such conduct. Their advice, which they gave me with the kindness of real friends, was just such as I approved of, and am determined to pursue with respect to her.
It would be easy to conclude from Coles' letter and Lucy's view of Miss Hay as a "tease" that Miss Hay was a frivolous person. But we know, after all, only one side of the story. Whatever remarks Miss Hay made at the Springs or in Richmond may have been a cover for her own disappointment, just as Lucy may have been fooled by a protective mask of frivolity at the President's House. It is possible that Miss Hay, too, was scarred by the unhappy affair of the previous year and, like Coles, emerged from it with a new sense of the need to view life in colder and more practical terms.
On February 17, 1813, she married Samuel Ringgold, a Congressman from Maryland and widower twice her age. As far as we can tell he was an extravagent boor--a kind of parody of the heavy drinking, hard gambling Southern gentleman who squanders his fortune and ruins everything he touches.
Congressman Ringgold began his political career, ironically, by replacing Roger Nelson, who retired abruptly from Congress in 1810 after having been horsewhippled by Isaac Coles. The Ringgolds were an old family from Maryland's eastern shore, long active in state politics. Sam Ringgold inherited 15,000 acres in Washington County, in western Maryland, from his father, Thomas Ringgold, and near Hagerstown built a magnificent estate, Fountain Rock, where he lived in luxury, squandering his entire fortune. Local legend says that he rode to Washington in a coach and four, with outriders, and brought back his political friends, whom he entertained lavishly. One of his frequent guests was Henry Clay, with whom he gambled for high stakes. He drank heavily and, the locals say, lit his cigars with banknotes.
By the time of Ringgold's death in 1829, nothing was left of his fortune. Fountain Rock was sold to liquidate his debts, and his widow moved to Hagerstown . What her thoughts were on the strange turns of the wheel of fortune, or whether she regretted her rejection of Edward Coles, now an ex-governor and possessor of thousands of acres in Missouri and Illinois, is not known. She must have been aware of Coles' circumstances because by then he was well known enough to have his comings and goings reported in the newspapers. He was still single; she may have been tempted to contact him. There is no evidence of any contact between them, however, from the moment that Miss Hay had broken off her engagement to Coles in late May or early June of 1812.
Too much might be made of Coles' severe disappointment when Miss Hay broke her promise to marry him. But it obviously affected him deeply, as Helen Coles' description of his wretched state testifies. It forced him to take stock of his prospects and to recognize that his cherished goal of marriage was for the foreseeable future beyond his reach. It was the shock that redirected his thoughts westward and provided a new motivation for his activity, joining self-serving practicality to self-sacrificing idealism--a combination that, as we shall see when we look at the all-important referendum of 1824, was to prove irresistable.