|When Edward Coles wrote these words, he had just been burned in effigy in the streets of Vandalia. His farm had just been two-thirds destroyed by fire. He had just been sued for $2,000 by a board of commissioners who had double-crossed him. If the months of the convention campaign were times that tried Edward Coles' soul, clearly his quiet, dignified soul was up to the test.|
Subjected to lies, villification, and threats of financial ruin, Coles not only remained resolute but refused to stoop to acting similarly towards his enemies. Publicly he did not so much as mention his personal struggles. He was calm, cool, rational, and unshakeable, and for this display of character and courage even his enemies respected him.
Coles emerged from the struggle in the legislature with accolades from both sides for the dignity of his behavior. When the editors of the Richmond Enquirer, back in Coles' native Virginia, expressed pleasure at Coles' conduct, the editors of the Intelligencer wrote: Notwithstanding we differ in sentiment from Governor Coles on the question which now agitates the State, it is an honest difference of opinion, and therefore should not prevent us from publishing any item which is calculated to throw light upon the true character of this gentleman. It gives us pleasure to see the Governor of Illinois so highly complimented by those who know him best.
Soon after the adjournment of the legislature Coles traveled to Edwardsville, where he attended an anti-convention dinner in his honor and was pleased to find that there were persons of the party as well opposed as in favor of calling a convention, who had been induced from their personal respect for me to attend.
Yet underneath his pleasure at the recognition he is receiving, he is worried and lonely. He writes John that the climate, the ill-nature of the people, and the political turmoil have greatly reduced his partiality for Illinois. And to his niece, Mary Carter, he complains that he is likely to have an unpleasant two or three years because of this unfortunate convention question--and in addition to this Vandalia is a very disagreeable and lonely place to live in. I fear I shall soon get tired of my office--in truth it has not many attractions.
Not that Coles would be happy anywhere, lonely and frustrated in his personal life as he was. While in Missouri taking care of Isaac's plantation in the summer of 1823, he met his nephew John Coles (Walter's son), out to inspect the family estate. John is in love, Coles writes to John's sister Rebecca, then out of love, then in love again somewhere in the Carolinas. Tell him from me, Coles writes rather wistfully, to beware of delay--the more dry the fuel, the less durable the flame.
Still, in these early and less acrimonious days of the convention campaign Coles seems reasonably content. He spent the spring and summer of 1823 in Vandalia and Edwardsville, busy opening his correspondence with Vaux, urging Birkbeck and Flower to do something for the cause in the eastern part of the state, setting up his all-important St. Louis connection through which pamphlets printed in Philadelphia would soon be flooding the Illinois countryside. At this time he was also writing two major series of anti-slavery articles: the "Aristides" series, which appeared in the Spectator in May, and the "Martus" series, which appeared in the Republican Advocate in June.
During the summer in Edwardsville, he writes to his niece Rebecca, I have lived more comfortably and more retired than I have generally done in this place. Indeed, I have been rather too lonely, and have often wished I was with you all in Albemarle, but I do not hope to have that pleasure until after the people have disposed of their convention question. And on September 18th he writes to Biddle, This has been the most cool and agreeable and by far the most healthful summer I have ever seen in this country. The spring was too wet and we were apprehensive of an unfavorable season both for health and vegetation, but we were most agreeably disappointed.
Unbeknownst to Coles, the day before he wrote this letter to Biddle a plot was set in motion that would change his personal weather for a number of years, consuming him, as lawsuits tend to do, with anxiety and disgust.
It will be recalled that upon arriving in Edwardsville with his freed slaves in 1819, Coles was told by Daniel Cook that a new law, just passed by the legislature, required that each freed slave have emancipation papers filed with the county clerk, and that as a matter of convenience he should file free papers for his slaves with the county clerk in Edwardsville. Coles was reluctant to do this since to his mind his "slaves" were already free and had entered Illinois of their own free will. Still, after consulting with others, he agreed that he should emancipate his slaves "properly" so that there would be no question of their rights. Accordingly, on July 4, 1819, he once again "freed" his slaves, making out emancipation papers with that date.
What neither Coles nor Cook were aware of at that time was that the not-yet-published law also required all who emancipated slaves in Illinois to post $1000 bond for each emancipated slave to assure that the slave did not become a public charge, and that anyone who failed to post such bond was to be fined $200 for each emancipated slave. When the law was finally published in October 1819, Coles asked advice as to whether he should post the required bond and was told to forget about it since there were many who could testify that his second emancipation of his slaves was a mere formality, and that they had entered Illinois as free persons of their own free will.
Things remained in this state, Coles writes in his 1827 autobiography, until the 17th of Sept., 1823, when a worthless and malignant partisan, at the instance, he has since stated, of certain leaders of his party, made a communication in writing to the county commissioners, stating that I had freed Negroes without giving bond, and calling upon them to make me pay the penalty. The Commissioners laid the communication on their table for consideration. Soon after which, this tool of a faction came into Court and made a speech in which he argued to convince the commissioners that I had violated the law, and that they were bound in duty to institute suit, and indulged himself in many ill-natured remarks against me. The Court however adjourned without instituting a suit, and in a few days an appeal was made to the public through the newspapers by this zealous and disinterested partisan, who, owning no property and paying no tax, had no direct interest in making me pay the penalty, or my being security that the Negroes (one of whom at the time paid an annual tax of between 3 and 4 dollars) should not become a charge on the county.
The "worthless and malignant partisan" was W.L. May--perhaps the same May from whom Coles had bought his farm four years earlier. May was an early merchant of Edwardsville who had possibly fallen on hard times. In September 1823 a W.L. May was indicted for burglary. It is possible that his letter to the commissioners about Coles, dated September 17, 1823, was prompted by some promises made concerning that indictment.
One legal problem raised by May's letter was whether the time for posting bond had expired. It will doubtless be within your recollection, May writes the commissioners, that a number of negroes and mulattoes were some considerable time since emancipated in this county by Edward Coles, Esq. The records kept by the clerk of your court will furnish you with the authentic evidence that no bond has ever been given, although more than two years have lapsed since their emancipation. The penalty declared by the act has been incurred and is now justly due to the county . . .
Incredibly, the act of March 30, 1819, never specified a time period in which bond must be posted. Thus there was no definite date after which a penalty might be incurred. No matter that Coles had "freed" his slaves years earlier--he could post bond now, he was told by his lawyers, and avoid all penalty. I did not believe I was bound to give bond, Coles writes in the 1827 autobiography, and this was the opinion of the lawyers I consulted. But feeling very averse to having a suit instituted against me--never having been sued in my life--I determined I would avert all further proceedings by giving bond.
But now the plot thickens. A few days after, Coles continues, an old and intimate friend, a clergyman in the neighborhood, called to see me, and said he had come at the request of Hail Mason, one of the County Commissioners, to persuade me to withdraw the bond I had given; that it was a mere party proceeding, intended to persecute and harass, without any expectation of ever succeeding in making me pay the penalty; that this they knew was impossible, and that as soon as the convention question was over it would be dismissed; but that in the mean time it would operate very much to the injury of the Commissioners, who he said were all friendly to me, and would be charged with having intentionally delayed bringing suit in order to afford me time to give bond, and thus deprive the County of a penalty which had accrued to it; that this would be used as a party question, and would operate injuriously on the great question of the propriety of calling a convention for the purpose of making Illinois a slaveholding state. In a word, he [Hail Mason] would not ask it, if he thought it would injure me, but he did it under the belief that it would be beneficial to me and my political friends--and moreover it was Hail Mason's opinion, as well as that of the lawyers, that I was not bound, and ought not give bond. Not believing that I was bound, I was the more ready to yield to the earnest and pressing request of Mr. Mason.
And there matters stood from September through December of 1823.
In November Coles was back in Vandalia for the huge state auction of 7,000 tracts of land owned by non-residents and confiscated for non-payment of taxes. The auction drew people from all over the state, making it a convenient time for assessing the strength of the parties to the convention dispute.
The auction has afforded me an excellent opportunity of collecting the sense of the people on the great question which is now agitating the state, Coles writes Vaux. And I am happy in assuring you, from the best information I have been able to collect from all parts of the State, I am more confirmed in my belief that a majority of the people will be opposed to calling a convention for the purpose of altering the Constitution so as to make this a slave-holding state. But the extraordinary efforts that have been made here during the last three or four weeks by the friends of Slavery, in organizing their party, and enabling its leaders to act with the most concert and effect, convince the friends of freedom that their opponents are yet in the field, and that they should be on the alert, for fear by some ruse de guerre, at which their opponents are known from sad experience to be great adepts, the advocates of oppression should triumph. Nearly all the leading friends of a convention have been assembled here, and held caucuses for the purpose of deliberating upon the best means of promoting the success of their favorite measure; have adopted sundry resolutions, and made many arrangements; among others have appointed committees for each county in the State, and requested that the county committees appoint a committee in each township for the purpose of corresponding with each other, and of influencing by every possible means the public opinion.
One ruse de guerre that Coles feared was undoubtedly the strategy we discussed earlier, that of calling for a ratification of the new constitution by popular vote--a promise that the anti-conventionists believed would not be kept once a slavery clause had been written in. A second ruse de guerre may have been to set fire to the State House, which burned down on December 9th. This accident will operate in favor of a convention, Coles writes Vaux. Many profess to be opposed to slavery, but in favor of a convention to remove the seat of Government. There is now of course less inducement for keeping it here.
Only a few days before the burning of the State House, two-thirds of Coles' farm in Edwardsville was consumed by fire. The coincidence of the two fires, both damaging to Coles, is suggestive, although there is no evidence that either fire was set deliberately. Coles himself does not mention the possibility of arson in either case, but Coles was not the man to suggest possibilities without evidence.
About the same time, Coles got the bad news that the board of commissioners was suing him for $2,000, meaning that the very people who had urged him not to post bond were now suing him for failing to post it. Poor already, his farm nearly destroyed, Coles stood close to ruin, Even if he eventually won his case, lawyers had to be hired and legal costs paid. And so when a public subscription was immediately started to pay for rebuilding the State House, Coles declined to contribute.
It seems that in the course of yesterday, the Spectator reports in a letter dated December 10, a gentleman was peculiarly anxious to obtain a subscription of a sufficient sum to rebuild the State House. Gov. Coles had been called upon, and had, for reasons best known to himself, declined signing any thing. In the course of the evening a number of persons collected together, and as the night advanced grew more noisy. The town was frequently during the night alarmed by the cry of fire; and I had a number of times started from my bed, fearful there was some grounds for alarm. About two in the morning I was again awakened by the appalling cry of fire, and from the light which was thrown into the window of my chamber, I concluded that there was serious danger. Instead of a building on fire, I saw a man of straw, which the mob called the Governor! --and which was burnt, amid the groans of the mob, and the cry of State House or Death! . . . The Governor, however, is safe this morning, and has received the congratulations of every gentleman in town.
As Coles explains to Vaux , After my recent loss by fire, and with this suit hanging over me, I did not feel myself in a situation to be very liberal; and not liking some of the arrangements, proposed an alteration of them, and in the meantime declined subscribing. This was immediately seized hold of by the friends of a Convention, who formed a mob, and paraded the streets nearly the whole night, giving vent to their spleen against me for my opposition to a Convention, and refusal, as they termed it, to rebuild the State House. In this way every little circumstance is laid hold of to render me unpopular; but in this case their passions led them too far, as their conduct has produced on the community a reaction which has been of service to me, and the cause I advocate. Discovering this, they now deny having had anything to do with the mob.
In March the suit against Coles came before the circuit court, Judge John Reynolds presiding. In instituting and prosecuting the suit, Coles writes in the 1827 autobiography, this same Hail Mason, who had not only professed so much friendship for me, but a conviction of the perfect absurdity of the attempt to make me pay the penalty, became the most active, relentless, and vindictive, of my persecutors. He employed the Attorney General of the State, a bitter enemy of mine, and a most violent advocate of the introduction of slavery, to appear for the County; and, as if doubting of his zeal, sat next to him during the trial; and after exhausting the panel by objecting to several honest and upright men as jurors, merely on the ground of their being friendly to me, made no obejction to the Sheriff summoning his brother Commissioner as one of the jury, and who served as foreman of it. Thus in a suit brought in the name of the commissioners, one acted as prosecutor and another was permitted to serve on the jury which tried the cause.
The commissioners to whom May had addressed his letter back in September were Hail Mason, John Barber, and Benjamin Spencer. Benjamin Spencer was vice president of the Madison Association to oppose the introduction of slavery in Illinois, organized on June 28, 1823. John Barber is listed as a member. Soon after May had written his letter, Thomas Lippincott replaced Benjamin Spencer as a member of the board. Since Lippincott was secretary of the Madison Association and a leader of the anti-conventionists in Edwardsville, his presence made the board no less anti-slavery.
Hail Mason was one of three brothers prominent in early Madison County history--Hail, James, and Paris Mason. They came to Edwardsville from New Hampshire. James Mason purchased the townsite from Thomas Kirkpatrick, the town's first settler. He ran a public house at which Edward Coles often boarded. Paris Mason went into the milling business. Hail Mason was one of the town's first justices of the peace.
What the Masons thought about slavery is unknown since none did anything worthy of note on either side of the question. But the fact that at least two of the three members of the county board of commissioners were publicly anti-slavery, and the third was at least not identified as pro-slavery, makes the board's behavior extremely difficult to understand. Perhaps they were afraid that the conventionists would wreck their political careers by charging that they had been too soft on Coles. Perhaps they had been persuaded that Coles really did owe the county $2,000 for failing to post bond on the ten slaves he had freed. Yet the tactics they used--double-crossing Coles so blatantly, putting in one of their own as foreman of the jury, and bringing in the state attorney general to prosecute the case--seem to point to some deeper motive. But what it might have been is a mystery.
At the trial Coles pleaded, among other things, the statute of limitations--a plea that, since the original law had set no time limit for posting bond, complicated the case considerably. My attorneys contended, Coles writes to Andrew Stevenson, speaker of the House of Representatives and his sister Sally's husband, that the action was barred by an old English statute of limitation, which had been made by an act of our Legislature the law of this state. This statute makes it necessary that the suit, to recover the penalty, should be instituted within two years--it is now five. The Judge, who by the way is a most violent conventionist, could not make up his mind whether it applied to my case, and suspended giving an opinion until the next term. I have no confidence in his judgment and less in his honesty.
That Coles was right in not trusting Reynolds can be seen in the sequel. But why Reynolds adjourned the case to the September term of the court is a question. September was after the convention vote. Thus by Reynolds' action Coles was freed from worry about the suit until after the convention struggle was over. We cannot be sure of a causal connection, but it was soon after this ruling by Reynolds that Coles finally purchased the Intelligencer and made it one of the most powerful anti-slavery weapons in the last battles of the campaign. Had the suit gone against him in March, it is conceivable that he might not have been able to afford the thousands of dollars that the Intelligencer must have cost him.
So why did Reynolds adjourn the case, with such fatal results to the cause he advocated? It is possible that Reynolds was surprised by the statute of limitations plea and needed time to get around it. It is also possible that he thought the case against Coles was weak and wanted to make sure that it continued to hang over his head for the duration of the campaign. But there is the possibility that he adjourned the case specifically to remove it from the bitter political struggle that was being waged around it. We cannot assume that his motives were in every instance malicious, though Coles by this point has more than a hint of understandable paranoia in his view of the case.
Note, however, that it was the county board of commissioners, at least two-thirds anti-conventionist, that was pressing the suit so vigorously, and it was a conventionist judge who adjourned it until after the convention vote. So Coles' depiction of the suit as a partisan affair is far too simple, though the true motives of the parties are at this remove unclear.
At any rate, in March 1824 the threat of the suit was temporarily lifted, which moved Coles to reject an offer by Stevenson of money to help him out of his financial difficulties. I have always been aware of possessing too much sensibility to the kind or neglectful conduct of my friends, he writes, but this feeling has greatly increased since it has been my fate to be so far separated from them, been subject to unkind and persecuting party animosities, and, from vesting too much of my property in unproductive land, had my income reduced to a pittance, insufficient to afford me the means of living comfortably. Judge then of the feelings with which my bosom was filled by the perusal of your letter--but you cannot judge as you have never been in the same situation.
Coles then gives Stevenson an account of his financial situation, omitting, of course, the salient fact that he intends to invest several thousands in a newspaper.
Knowing full well the character of my political opponents, he writes, and that no efforts would be spared to injure me if possible, as soon as I received a hint last summer that it was probable a suit would be instituted against me for freeing the Negroes, than I immediately began to prepare for the worst; and knowing that property could not be disposed of at this time in this country, but with an immense sacrifice, I determined as far as possible to raise the means by economizing my expenditures, and although I have for several years lived most wretchedly, I have of late lived still worse; indeed I have stinted myself of almost everything, as you will be convinced, when I tell you, with my little pittance of income, and my small salary which has been reduced more than one half by the depreciated currency in which it is paid, I shall be enabled to pay the amount of the judgment by the next winter.
Coles has one other difficulty to discuss with Stevenson. On March 4, 1824, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Ninian Edwards as minister to Mexico. That left one Senate seat from Illinois vacant. The governor of the state--Edward Coles--was empowered to appoint a senator to serve until January 1825, by which time the new legislature would elect someone to fill out the one year remaining of Edwards' term.
On March 31, 1824 , the day Coles' suit was adjourned, Lieutenant Governor Hubbard arrived in Edwardsville from Washington, Coles writes Stevenson, where he had been on a visit, bringing me official notice of the resignation of Mr. Edwards. He told me Mr. Cook and Mr. Edwards had induced him to come on under the belief that I would either resign my office, and accept a seat in the Senate from him, or confer it on him. It was with some difficulty I could restrain my indignation at the idea of thus sneaking into the Senate, or of sending to it such a simpleton as my Lieut: --I am at a loss to know whether I should discredit the statement of Mr. H., or the principles and motives of his advisors. Between you and me the more I see and know of the politicians of this State, the less respect and confidence I have in them.
Once earlier Coles may have been offered a seat in the U.S. Senate in order to get him out of Illinois. The 1863 autobiography states that in the first winter of his [Coles'] term, the opponents of E.C. were anxious for him to be a candidate for Senator in place of Thomas, whose term was about to expire. If E.C. had resigned and been elected Senator, which undoubtedly he could have been, as the majority of the Legislature, being his opponents, were in favor of him--the Lieut. Gov. Hubbard would have been Governor. This E.C. was unwilling to have happen, as the object of his opponents was to get E.C. out of the way and by that means make Illinois a slave state.
Certainly Coles' enemies must have known how strong a temptation a Senate seat would be for Coles. Instead of being exiled in Illinois, he could have returned to Washington a powerful and influential figure. He could have been near his friends and beloved Virginia. He could have served a six-year renewable term as Senator rather than a four-year non-renewable term as governor. In every way the U.S. Senate was a more attractive place for Coles than the State House in Vandalia.
Yet of course--and the "of course" is a measure of Coles' integrity--Coles turned the deal down. He could not be bought, not even with a Senate seat. Coles knew that no Senate seat would be available at the end of his term as governor, and that in all probability his political enemies would make a second chance for the Senate impossible. Still, he turned it down.
And now fortuitiously, in March 1824, was the prize being offered again?
Obviously, Coles was not about either to resign the governorship to be appointed to the Senate by Hubbard, or to appoint Hubbard. But what to do with the vacant Senate seat was a problem.
I have been greatly at a loss to know whether I ought to appoint and send on a senator this spring, he writes to Stevenson. I had made up my mind to have done so, and had decided on the individual; though I found considerable difficulty in making the choice, from the state of parties here, and the fear of producing disaffection on the convention question, and also from the fact of there being no prominent man whose state and federal policies coincided with mine. But the notice of Edwards' resignation not having come to hand until it was so late as to render it doubtful whether his successor could reach the Senate before its adjournment, or under any circumstances be able to occupy the seat more than a few days, I have determined to send no one this spring. I have been greatly surprised and displeased at the appt. of Edwards to Mexico; and particularly horrified and perplexed at the time which has been chosen to withdraw him from the Senate. This, and other strange things I could tell you, seem to have been placed with a design of getting me into difficulties. Act as I will I am to be blamed. If I make an appt I shall be blamed--if I make none I shall be blamed; and if it should appear that it was possible for me to have had a Senator there in time, I am sensible I shall be censured by many cool and honest men, and a most dreadful hue and cry will be raised against me by the factious and designing.
Coles' suggestion that Edwards' appointment may have been designed to place him into difficulties is probably incorrect. The possible motives for the appointment are many, and there was a good deal of speculation about it at the time. The March 30, 1824, Republican Advocate speculates that Edwards was given the post on condition that Cook pledge to vote for Jackson for President, regardless of how the people of Illinois should vote. (Since it was assumed that no candidate would get a majority of electoral votes, there being four candidates in the field, there was already pressure on members of the House in anticipation of the decision to be made there.)
On the other hand, the position of minister to Mexico was in the hands of the Monroe Administration, specifically the secretary of state, John Quincey Adams, who was also a Presidential candidate. And in the end, Cook voted for Adams when Congress decided who should be President, even though Jackson had carried the state two electoral votes to one.
Whether there was any connection between Cook's vote and his father-in-law's earlier appointment is unknown. But it is clear that there were larger issues at stake than the quandries of Edward Coles. The "other strange things" that Coles says he could tell Stevenson may have been related to a dispute between Crawford and Edwards over the handling of some bank funds, which eventually forced Edwards to resign his ambassadorial post before ever leaving for Mexico. The dispute was embarrassing to Coles because he supported Crawford for the Presidency, yet Crawford's Illinois supporters were mainly conventionists, while Edwards' were mainly anti-conventionists, tangling the lines of influence even further.
It is even possible that in making the Edwards appointment, the Monroe Administration might have been happy to create a vacancy for Coles, since Monroe himself was a close friend of Coles and would have liked to do him a favor. We know that Coles wanted to be a senator, because when the next legislature met, in December 1824 (after the convention vote in August), he ran for the position. And we know that Hubbard wanted badly to be governor because as we shall see in the next chapter he made an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Coles, and then he ran for governor in the next election. Given these ambitions, it is not unlikely that Cook and Edwards saw an opportunity for both men, and thus sent Hubbard to Coles to propose the arrangement.
It is possible that Hubbard was lying in attributing the second option--that of sending him to the Senate instead of Coles--to Cook and Edwards since neither had much use for Hubbard, who was identified with the opposite political faction, was a conventionist, and seems to have been something of a buffoon. But what of the first option? Since both Cook and Edwards--but especially Cook--were known to be anti-conventionists, one would think that they would not want Coles to leave the fray at its hottest. Yet there is evidence that even so staunch an ally as Roberts Vaux was anxious for Coles to take Edwards' seat. And the fact that Washington and even Philadelphia society expected that Coles would become the successor of Edwards suggests that Hubbard, at least in this particular, might have been telling the truth.
My delay in the acknowledgment of the receipt of thy truly interesting letter of Jan'y 21, last , Vaux writes on June 14, will not, I trust, be attributed to any want of respect and kindness, but to the real causes, which were, first, an unusual press of business relative to several public institutions, which at the season of the receipt of that communication demanded my attention; and secondly, to the expectation subsequently entertained here, that thy presence might be expected at Washington as successor in the Senate of the United States to N. Edwards, appointed on a foreign mission. The likelihood that the latter event might bring us to a personal acquaintance in this city, when the session of Congress should terminate, was contemplated with pleasure, since a direct interchange of opinion would be preferred to epistolary correspondence. Time, however, has served to show that this prospect with many others upon which we dwell with satisfaction, failed of realization, and I therefore avail myself of the only means which are left to renew the assurance of my remembrance, of my undissembled regard, and of my sincere sympathy. The part which thee has been called to act privately, as well as publicly, and officially, in regard to the rights of mankind, and for the upholding of the principles of justice, and mercy toward a degraded and oppressed portion of our fellow beings, ought to be regarded as a manifestation of Providential power, concerning which we must always believe the same Divine interposition will be extended in every exigency. I am altogether satisfied that it is reserved for thee to witness the triumph of truth and beneficence in the struggle to which thee has been exposed; and, what is of infinitely greater value, as it respects thyself, to reap a plenteous harvest in the most precious of all rewards, the approbation of Heaven!
Vaux seems to be consoling Coles on the loss of his opportunity to enter the Senate, without any sense that to have taken the seat would have been dishonorable or damaging to the more important cause. And if Vaux should think that way, surely it is not unlikely that Cook and Edwards (and perhaps Monroe) would also think Edwards' resignation an excellent opportunity for Coles. Since the only way Coles could be appointed would be to resign as governor and be appointed by his successor, it is quite conceivable that Hubbard was, as he had said, sent to Coles by Cook and Edwards with the expectation of making a mutually advantageous deal.
We have seen that Coles rejected the suggestion scornfully. But why did Cook and Edwards offer it? Were they so ignorant of Coles' importance to the movement against a convention?
The answer may very well be that they were. No one knew that Coles was about to buy the Intelligencer and fill its columns in the final months of the campaign. Few knew that Coles was distributing the mysterious anti-slavery pamphlets single-handed, or that it was his pen that supplied much of the anti-slavery argument. Thus it was more understandable that Coles' friends would hope he grasp the opportunity Hubbard offered than that Coles himself would be tempted by it.
The question of who sent Hubbard to Coles--Hubbard himself, the conventionists, or Coles' friends in Washington--is not easy to answer. But whatever the source of this unexpected opportunity, Coles' reaction to it is characteristic of the man. It is with some difficulty I could restrain my indignation at the idea of thus sneaking into the Senate, or of sending to it such a simpleton as my Lieut: these are ringing and honorable words. But even more important to Coles than the moral issue must have been the convention struggle and his central role in it. He was not the person to advance his own career to the detriment of a cause he believed in.
In holding the position open, however, Coles may have been thinking of his own good as well as that of his cause. Coles did see a rich opportunity for himself in Edwards' resignation and pursued that opportunity by leaving the seat vacant until the new legislature met in December, when he himself would make a bid for it. Of course there were other good reasons why Coles would not have wanted to fill the seat at a time when jealousy and disaffection among the anti-conventionists might have been fatal to their cause. Yet it is hard to believe that, after fulfilling his commitment to principle, Coles did not see, as he had so often in his life, righteousness and self-interest traveling the same road.
For the moment, however, there was a convention campaign to be won, and from April through August 2nd Coles was in the thick of the campaign. On May 7th the bombshell hit when the Intelligencer, the state's leading newspaper, announced that for unexplained reasons it was changing hands and that its editorial policy on the convention question had now changed. On May 14th the first of ten long and powerful articles by "One of Many" appeared, the others appearing serially until two days before the election. The pages of the Intelligencer were filled with testimonials to the evils of slavery from Southern pens, including a reprint of the letter from Jefferson to Coles of August 1814, with glowing statistics on the Northern states and invidious comparisons between North and South.
As the date for the referendum vote drew nearer, both sides became more frantic. Physical combat increased . The September term of the circuit court in Edwardsville considered 42 cases of assault and battery--an extraordinary number for that time and place. Hooper Warren and Theophilus Smith, rival editors of the Spectator and the Republican, very nearly had it out with pistol and dirk. The violence of the language in the newspapers increased, as did the number of vicious bogus letters.
That summer the Covenanters , a religious sect that had heretofore refused to become involved in any affairs of state, announced that its members would vote--for the first and last time in their lives--against a convention. Immediately there was a cry that they had thereby given up their exemption from jury duty. But the criticism and laughter at their "inconsistency" did not faze them. For this was no ordinary state election. Increasingly it was becoming, for every citizen of Illinois, a moment of truth.