Conceiving it not less due to our principles, than to the rights of those held in bondage, that they should be restored to their liberty, I earnestly recommend to the Legislature that just and equitable provisions be made for the abrogation of slavery in the State. (Edward Coles, Inaugural Address , December 5, 1822)


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We would expect that from the moment he took office Coles would attempt to erase the vestiges of slavery in Illinois. The descendants of the original French settlers still held in bondage the descendants of their ancestors' slaves. Thousands of blacks remained "indentured servants," bought and sold as slaves. Slaves were leased from slave states to work in the salines in southeastern Illinois. Professional kidnappers roamed the state untouched by the law, selling free blacks south into slavery.

Coles' attack on slavery, then, would seem to be a natural course for him to take. Yet actually Coles' inaugural speech was either a blunder or a subtle subterfuge; at this distance, it is difficult to tell which.

In his inaugural address Coles left slavery for last. After thanking the people of Illinois for placing their trust in him, he devoted much of his speech to economic issues, urging a return to the gold and silver standard in currency and pushing his favorite public works project--a canal to connect the Mississippi to the Great Lakes. He dwelt on the magnificent future of an Illinois linked to world markets through both New Orleans and, upon completion of the canal, through Atlantic ports as well. He urged the legislature to support education, internal improvements, and manufacturing as seeds for future greatness. He even put in a plug for the Agricultural Society. And finally, he said his piece on slavery.

The legislature that convened to hear Coles' address was overwhelmingly pro-slavery, as Coles well knew. The lower counties of Illinois, settled mainly by Southerners, had a representation in the legislature that was disproportionate to their share of the population. The census of 1818, upon which the allotment of representatives was based, was by 1822 hopelessly out of date. Settlers had poured into Illinois from the Northern states, settling mainly in the more northern counties, many of which had been formed hastily as population swelled. These new settlers were, by and large, opposed to slavery. In the gubernatorial election, for example, Coles rolled up overwhelming majorities in Madison, Crawford, Bond, Greene, Sangamon, and Fayette counties--all of which had been formed recently and lay to the north of the older settlements. But until a new census was taken, these northern counties would be underrepresented, both in the legislature and in a constitutional convention. Thus the haste of the pro-slavery politicians to call a convention and write a new constitution before a new census put them in a minority.

The chief objective of the majority of the legislature, then, was to introduce a bill to put to the people the question of whether to call a constitutional convention. They hoped that by pretending that slavery was not the issue, they would be able to persuade some anti-slavery voters to support the convention on the grounds of some weaknesses in the old constitution. Then, once the convention was called, the pro-slavers would be in the majority because of the disproportionate representation of the southern counties. Since at that time it was not customary to submit a new constitution to the people for ratification, the pro-slavers would be free to write slavery into the new constitution without fear of opposition.

Once Illinois had become a slave state, the pro-slavers reasoned, the flow of immigration from the North would diminish. Illinois would again become a magnet for Southern immigration, and within a few years slavery would become not only the law of the state, but the will of the majority of the population.

All that the pro-slavers required was an excuse to bring forward a convention bill. The constitution had been in effect only four years--hardly reasonable time for testing its provisions. What could justify calling a convention to revise it so soon?

To the pro-slavers' delight, the new governor provided just the excuse that was lacking! Since the present constitution guaranteed the right of the French settlers to their slaves, permitted indentured servitude, and extended the right to lease slave labor in the salines to 1825, the changes Coles requested required constitutional changes, which required the constitutional convention that the pro-slavers wanted for their own purposes.

Predictably, they leaped upon their opportunity. The report of the senate committee established to deal with Coles' proposals pointed out that the only way to abolish slavery in the state was to call a constitutional convention. The resolution it brought to the senate floor was precisely the one that the anti-slavers had been struggling against for the previous two years: Resolved: That the General Assembly of the State of Illinois (two-thirds thereof concurring within) do recommend to the electors, at the next election for members to the General Assembly, to vote for or against a Convention, agreeably to the seventh article of the Constitution. Thus the pro-slavers were able to get their cherished proposal onto the floor under the guise of supporting the governor's recommendation to abolish slavery.

In the House the situation was complicated by the fact that the majority of the committee established to deal with the governor's recommendations was anti-slavery. The majority report therefore concludes that constitutional change is not necessary to abolish slavery since the Northwest Ordinance makes all slavery in Illinois illegal. But the minority report, written by pro-slavers, urges a convention.

Was Coles' call for the abolition of slavery a tactical blunder? Coles, naturally, does not think so. Bringing forward the measure of abolition at the same time [the pro-slavers] brought forward the convention question placed these professed friends to the rights of man in an awkward situation, Coles writes to Roberts Vaux, a Philadelphia Quaker; for it was apparent, if they voted agreeable to their declaration, they together with the real and genuine friends of freedom would constitute a majority of the legislature, and of course pass the abolition bill. This state of things had the effect of unmasking their true opinions and views, and of clearly exhibiting to the public the real object for which a convention was to be called--that of making this a slave-holding state.

There were a number of abolition bills brought before the legislature, none of which passed. Whether the votes on these bills "unmasked" the pro-slavers is questionable, since they could--and did--argue convincingly that the abolition bills were unconstitutional. What was needed, they insisted, was a convention to make abolition constitutional.

Still, the fact that they could have passed abolition bills and didn't may have affected the voters' later view of them. Given that the pro-slavers would have introduced a convention bill with or without the excuse Coles provided them, it is impossible at this distance to determine whether Coles' stratagem helped or hurt his cause.

Once the convention bill was on the floor, all other legislative business was subordinated to it. Those in favor of a convention were in the majority and could do as they wished with every bill brought before them except the one dear to their hearts, which required a two-thirds majority in each house for passage. They had their two-thirds majority in the Senate (12 to 6), but were a few votes shy in the House, where the legislative battle raged.

At this period of the session , William Brown recalls, the Convention question was paramount to all other business before the Legislature. Everything was shaped to effect its final success. Local bills, in which individual members were interested, and upon the passage of which their political life depended, were unceremoniously laid upon the table, or held in the hands of committees, until the refractory or doubtful member yielded to the pressure. Offices in the gift of that body were held in abeyance, and promises of political preferment to those who sought distinction were abundant. Those who opposed the favorite measure were threatened and denounced.

One legislator who was put under extreme pressure was Nicholas Hansen, representative from Pike County. . . . the revenues of my counties were not yet settled, he writes, and . . . the determination was apparent to increase or diminish the appropriation accordingly as I voted for or against a convention. To accomplish the system of coercion resorted to on this occasion, three bills had passed the Senate, one to remove the recording offices of Pike and Fulton to Vandalia, another repealing the act establishing the boundaries of Pike county and providing for a permanent seat of justice, and the third supplemental to the act creating Fulton county, [all of which] were well known would be injurious and oppressive to the people of those counties.

Having passed the Senate, these bills were held as a knife to Hansen's throat in the House. But the pro-slavers had another blade to sharpen before Hansen's frightened eyes. Hansen's election to the House had been contested by John Shaw, whom he had beaten only because a number of votes had been cast irregularly. Had these irregular votes been counted, Shaw would have won the election.

The county commissioner declared Hansen the winner , but eventually the dispute between Hansen and Shaw ended up in the House. On December 9, 1822, the House voted to seat Hansen, perhaps on the merits of the case, or perhaps, as some alleged, because Hansen agreed to vote to re-elect Thomas to the U.S. Senate, while Shaw was committed to Reynolds.

Shaw himself was in Vandalia, lobbying for his seat. He came to my lodgings, William Alexander, representative from Monroe County, writes, and while there I had some business out of the house, when the said Shaw followed me out and entered into a conversation with me on the subject of the contest, and insinuated to me, in terms so plain, not to be misunderstood, that if I would support his seat that he, said Shaw, would vote any way I would direct him at the approaching election for Senator to the Congress of the United States.

Shaw's efforts were to no avail. On January 11, 1823, Thomas was reelected to his Senate seat with the help of Hansen's vote. But Shaw remained in Vandalia, a constant reminder to Hansen of the instability of his position. The vote on his seating could always be reconsidered, he was told, if he were foolish enough to vote the wrong way.

And so on January 27, 1823, when the convention bill was brought before the House, Hansen voted for it, even though he believed it to be wrong.

I hazarded nothing, he pleads in his defense. It was known that [the convention bill] would not pass the Senate by the constitutional [two-thirds] majority, without the vote of Mr. Grammar of Union, who was not expected to arrive, and as Mr. McFatridge of Johnson had no assurances yet that the seat of justice in his county would be removed from Vienna to Bloomfield, and Mr. Rattan of Greene, not having received the instructions of some of his constituents, their votes were certain to defeat it in the house.

Why vote against the convention bill, if it is going to be defeated anyway? Hansen asks. If he had voted his conscience, his constituents would have suffered and he himself would have lost his seat. Why sacrifice all for an unnecessary negative vote?

But there may have been a more devious reason for Hansen's behavior. Hansen tells us that before he cast his vote in favor of the convention, he had told a few anti-slavery friends of his plans. They were therefore aware of something that their enemies were not--that if his vote were needed to defeat the convention measure, Hansen would switch to a negative vote. Hansen was the anti-slavers' ace-in-the-hole, and they made ready to play him at the crucial moment.

One of the votes against the convention bill on January 27 was cast by a representative who was in favor of the bill. The purpose of this seemingly inconsistent behavior was to preserve the right of the pro-slavers to reconsider the vote if they should fail to gain a two-thirds majority. Parliamentary procedure requires that only someone who voted on the winning side can move to reconsider a vote. Otherwise, clearly the losing side could move to reconsider ad infinitum, merely to obstruct further business until it got its way.

The pro-slavery representative who had been delegated to vote against the convention bill then duly moved to reconsider the vote, and the bill was temporarily tabled.

In the interim, the pro-slavers got to work on Rattan and McFatridge with their threats and promises. By February 10 they had gotten the recalcitrants into line. Now they had their votes counted. On February 10 the Senate passed the convention bill 12 to 6. On February 11 the House voted on the bill. Since every pro-slave vote was necessary to gain the two-thirds majority, no one who was for the bill could vote against it in order to preserve the right to reconsider. The pro-slavers staked everything on this single play, certain that they had the winning cards in their hands. They had the votes counted--24 to 12.

Imagine their fury when Hansen switched his vote, casting the thirteenth vote against the bill and thus dooming it until the next session of the legislature, two years hence! The anti-slavers must have been jubilant. The parliamentary wall they had thrust up in the path of slavery must have seemed impregnable. Storm as they might, the pro-slavers were decisively beaten. A new convention bill could not be considered until the legislature met again in 1824, and a referendum on a convention, if one was passed by the new legislature, could not take place until the following legislative election in 1826, by which time a new census would have put the pro-slavers in the minority. On February 11, 1823, it must have seemed to the anti-slavers that slavery was a dead issue in Illinois.

Immediately Representative Daimwood of Gallatin County moved reconsideration of the vote. But since Daimwood had voted on the losing side, the Speaker of the House promptly ruled his motion out of order. The speaker's ruling was appealed but sustained, 19-16. Which appeared to end the matter once and for all.

Both houses adjourned for the day. The town of Vandalia was in an uproar. In the course of the evening, an eyewitness writes, it was rumored that the Executive had bought [Hansen] off, with a promise to give him a lucrative appointment of Recorder of Fulton county . . . This was calculated to increase the excitement, and a little after dark, as by instinct, the citizens, legislators, strangers, and almost all denominations, flocked to the state house. Several of those who are here called lobby members mounted the rostrum in turn, and delivered, it is said, by far the best speeches upon the liberties of the people and the rights of the majority . . . that have been delivered here this winter. After spending an hour or two in this way, the company dispersed, and each took his way to his lodgings, and every thing appeared to be perfectly calm for an hour. I had gone to bed, and was started by the strong shrill cry of O Yes, O Yes, O Yes, and instantly the cry of Hansen's effigy, Hansen's effigy, Hansen's effigy, and fire, fire, fire, was reiterated throughout the town, and instantly drew to the spot nearly all that were able to reach there--the effigy [of Hansen] in the meantime blazing beautifully. Some retired, others began marching around it, as there had by this time arrived some musical instruments, such as the drum, the fife, the horns (God knows how many), triangles, tin pans, etc. This however, they could not long enjoy, as the builder of the [effigy] . . . had placed in the lower part of his body about a pound of powder, which exploded and so scattered his remains that it ended that part of the scene.

That night, behind the scenes , the pro-slavers worked to undo the parliamentary knot tied during the day. Shaw was sent for, grounds were prepared for unseating Hansen, and those legislators who had voted against reconsideration were worked over. By morning the pro-slavers were ready to make their counter move.

Mr. Ford of Crawford County , who had previously voted to seat Hansen, moved to reconsider that vote. The fact that this legislative body was soon to adjourn, never to meet again, did not seem to faze him. What were the grounds for reconsideration? he was asked. Good grounds. Substantial grounds. He had in his possession an affidavit signed by an ordinary citizen named Levi Roberts stating that in his (Roberts') opinion, Shaw had received more votes than Hansen. What better grounds than that?

The anti-slavers howled and fumed, but they were in the minority. After long speeches on the rights of the majority, the House proceeded to turn Hansen out of his seat in favor of Shaw.

With Shaw's vote secured, once again the pro-slavers moved to reconsider the convention bill vote. Once again the motion was ruled out of order. But this time the Speaker was overruled, two recalcitrant legislators having been brought into line. The convention bill was then immediately put to a vote and passed, 24-12. The struggle in the legislature to save Illinois from slavery was lost. It remained now for those opposed to slavery to struggle for the minds of the people.

But although they had won in the legislature, the pro-slavers had paid a price for their victory. The people of Illinois watched them turn a representative out of his seat at the end of the session and then tear up the principles of parliamentary procedure. Could it be that the majority in the legislature would go to such lengths merely because of a few inconveniences in the present constitution? Clearly the pro-slavers' conduct was directly contrary to their words--a fact which must have swayed the minds of some during the ferocious campaign that followed.

John Reynolds, himself a pro-slaver, calls the outrageous proceedings in the legislature a death blow to the convention. The night after the passage of the resolution, he writes, there was at the seat of Government a wild and indecorous procession by torch-light and liquor, and that was also unpopular.

As a later Illinois governor, Ford, describes the scene: They formed themselves into a noisy, disorderly and tumultuous procession, headed by Judge Phillips, Judge Smith, Judge Thomas Reynolds late Governor of Missouri, and Lt. Governor Kinney, followed by the majority of the Legislature, and the hangers-on and rabble about the seat of government, and they marched with the blowing of horns and the beating of drums and tin pans, to the residence of Governor Coles, and to the boardinghouses of their principal opponents, towards whom they manifested their contempt and displeasure by a confused medly of groans, wailings and lamentations. Their object was to intimidate and crush all opposition at once.

And they certainly made life as painful for Coles as they could. I wrote Brother Isaac, Coles writes to his niece, Mary Carter, on the adjournment of the Legislature, which took place about three weeks since, of what a disagreeable time I had during its session. I assure you it was to me the most trying period of my life, and called for all my prudence and discretion. For a week or ten days party spirit raged with all the violence of a storm, which seemed to threaten to sweep everything before it, and against no object was its merciless peltings more severe than against the Executive.

And he writes to his friend Nicholas Biddle in Philadelphia: Never did I see or hear in America of party spirit going to such lengths, as well officially as privately, as it did here on this question. Indeed it seems that slavery is so poisonous as to produce a kind of delerium in those minds that are excited by it.

Because of the feud over the convention question, the legislature refused to cooperate with Coles on any state business whatever. On February 13, the day after the convention resolution had been passed, Coles sent to the Senate nominations for the position of county recorder in five separate counties. The nominations were tabled while the Senate demanded that Coles send it not only his nominations, but suggestions that he had received for two of the positions. Cole refused, citing the separation of powers, under which he submitted nominations and the Senate either refused or consented to them. Whereupon the Senate turned down one nomination and tabled all the others indefinitely, leaving the important positions unfilled until the next legislature met two years hence.

In a constitutional quandary, Coles turned to his old mentor Madison for advice. To [Fulton] county I made a nomination as Recorder, which was rejected, he writes. I then nominated a second person, who was also rejected, and then a third, which nomination was neither approved nor rejected, but the Senate adjourned without acting on it. The question then is can the Governor, during the recess of the Senate, fill this vacancy, by granting a Commission to expire at the end of the next session of the general assembly? . . . You will add to the many obligations I feel myself under to you, by giving me your opinion and advice as to the course I should pursue as to this vacancy. In addition to the anxiety I feel at all times to act correctly, I am particularly solicitous in this case, from the extraordinary malevolence of party spirit, which is now exciting and disturbing the very vital principles of this State, to pursue a course which shall be as correct and unexceptionable as possible . . .

Madison's answer was, of course, what Coles must have thought anyway--that he had no choice but to fill the positions on a temporary basis, an action which laid him open to the charge of abusing his executive powers.

Another legislative outrage was a maneuver to turn the Intelligencer into a pro-slavery paper. Until February 22 the Intelligencer was edited by William Brown, an opponent of slavery who, unlike Hooper Warren, had kept his opinions out of his journalism. His partner, a Mr. Berry, was pro-slavery.

Since the Intelligencer was the official printer for the state government, it was in the legislature's power to make or break the newspaper financially. The pro-slavers decided to use that power to get rid of Brown, assigning the contract for state printing to the firm of Blackwell and Berry--a firm that at the time did not exist. The result was that Brown was forced either to sell his share of the Intelligencer to Robert Blackwell or face financial ruin. He reluctantly sold, leaving Hooper Warren the only anti-slavery journalist in the state.

At the end of the legislative battle over slavery the pro-slavery forces were ascendant. They had gotten their convention bill through the legislature by the necessary two-thirds majority. Most of the state's established politicians were either neutral on the convention question or in the conventionist camp. Except for Warren's Spectator, all of the state's newspapers were under conventionist control. It was clear from their behavior during the legislative session that the conventionists were capable of using every ounce of their power, legal or illegal, to achieve their aim.

Coles must have known that the convention campaign was to be a difficult and bitter experience for him. The mob shrieking, blowing horns, and clattering pots and pans outside his windows on the night the convention bill passed was only a harbinger of bullying to come. Coles had seen vicious factional strife come to near treason in Congress during the War of 1812 and had endured his family's and neighbors' dislike of his principles. But now he was facing something harder and uglier and more dangerous than anything in his experience.

Characteristically, Coles placed his faith in the good sense and humanity of the people. He could do nothing more than present his own view of the truth as persuasively as possible, help publicize the views of other abolitionists, organize like minds to do the work of spreading truth and exposing the lies of the opposition, and act himself in a manner that would make all accusations against him ring false.

Soon after taking office as Governor, Coles wrote a letter to the Intelligencer which at that time and since has been taken as an epitome of his quiet and dignified commitment to the principles of his republican mentors. The letter was in response to the Intelligencer's use of the title "His Excellency" when referring to Coles.

To Messrs. Brown and Berry
Vandalia, Dec. 10, 1822


Our State Constitution gives to the person exercising the functions of the Executive the appellation of GOVERNOR, a title which is specific, intelligible, and republican, and amply sufficient to denote the dignity of the office. In your last paper you have noticed me by the addition of "His Excellency," an aristocratical and high sounding adjunct, which I am sorry to say has become too common among us, not only in newspaper annunciations, but in the addressing of letters, and even in familiar discourse. It is a practice disagreeable to my feelings, and inconsistent, as I think, with the dignified simplicity of freemen, and to the nature of the vocation of those to whom it is applied. and having made it a rule through life to address no one as His Excellency, or the Honorable, or by any such unmeaning title, I trust I shall be pardoned for asking it as a favor of you, and my fellow Citizens, generally, not to apply them to me.

I am and etc., and etc.
Edward Coles

Edward Coles

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