|The result of the convention votewas: 4972 for a convention; 6640 against.|
The convention was defeated soundly, and the issue of slavery in Illinois, which had dominated local politics from the time that Illinois was still part of the Indiana Territory, disappeared without a ripple. Someone reading newspapers printed days after publication of the final result would never have known that a controversy over slavery had recently taken place.
What happened to the issue of slavery in Illinois? Blacks continued to be enslaved in Illinois, as property of the original French settlers, or as leased labor, or as indentured servants. And fugitive slaves still entered the state. Yet the anti-slavery movement did nothing about these issues for years after the convention had been defeated.
One reason for the movement's rapid disintegration was the fact that it, though unified by opposition to the call to a convention, was divided on all other issues having to do with slavery, such as the treatment of blacks in Illinois, the abolition of Southern slavery, the response to fugitive slaves, and the "final solution" of the negro problem. During the campaign Coles made a tactical decision to bury these issues in the interest of success on the central question, a decision that was undoubtedly correct at the moment but that left the movement adrift once the central question was resolved. We have many avowed friends of freedom, Coles wrote to Vaux during the campaign, who are themselves the masters of slaves; and who, while they unite with us in opposing the means of the further introduction of Slavery, are at the same time violently opposed to our efforts to abolish the remnant of Slavery which is still allowed to stain our [Illinois] soil.
Once the fight was over, for example, Hooper Warren became an abolitionist; Peck, an apologist for the fugitive slave law. The anti-convention movement, thrown up as a barricade against a wicked intrusion, disbanded as soon as the purpose that had united it was accomplished. Aside from that purpose, there was little that united its adherents politically.
The voters showed their political independence by electing a predominantly conventionist legislature while turning down a convention. The reason for this curious fact is not hard to find, for in a state whose total voting population was less than 12,000, personality rather than any single issue was a far more potent determiner of votes. A state assemblyman or senator might have had only five hundred to a thousand voting constituents, most of whom knew him personally, many of whom did business with him, or took favors from him, or served with him in various community organizations. There was little about himself that a backwoods politician could hide, and many ways in which he could serve his constituents that had nothing to do with issues such as slavery.
Thus a voter could with perfect aplomb vote against a convention and for a conventionist, as many did. The legislature of 1824, while not as openly hostile to Coles as the previous legislature had been, was not friendly either, the result being that Coles was frustrated in his last two years as governor both in his desire to bring about significant change in the treatment of blacks and in his hopes to advance his own political career.
One other result of this election proved frustrating to Coles, although the trend established in 1824 would not become fully apparent until 1828. Four candidates ran in the election for President in 1824: Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson. That Coles was friendly to Crawford in 1822 hurt him in the gubernatorial election, as we have seen. In the Presidential election of 1824, Crawford drew his support in Illinois mainly from the conventionists of the Thomas faction. This put Coles in agreement with his enemies and at odds with his friends--a bad position for any politician to be in. Coles' discomfort was increased by a new feud that broke out between Edwards and Crawford soon after Edwards' appointment as minister to Mexico--a feud over certain letters signed "A.B." which accused Crawford, then secretary of the treasury, of suppressing damaging portions of letters relating to the operations of state banks. An investigation exonerated Crawford to the detriment of Edwards' reputation, but clearly the dispute could not have helped Crawford's chances for support in Illinois.
Coles recognized the danger involved in his Presidential preference. My political chafings are not to end with our state election, he complained to Stevenson in April 1824. Many of my political friends on the convention question will be my warm political opponents in the Presidential election; many of whom are already beginning to scowl and to censure me for my partiality for Mr. Crawford. The conduct of Penna. in recommending Jackson astonished me. He is the last among those named or thought of as candidates that I should like to see President.
This last sentence is sufficient explanation for political failures in Coles' future. Crawford was the favorite of the Virginia dynasties, where Coles' roots lay. Hooper Warren was right: Coles never became an Illinoisan. At heart he was a Southern aristocrat, partial to his fellow aristocrat Crawford and contemptuous of that frontier Indian fighter, populist, and darling of the West, Andrew Jackson.
In 1824 it was unclear who had won the popular vote in Illinois. Electors pledged to Adams won 1,542 votes, Jackson 1,272, Clay 1,047, and Crawford 219. One elector, James Turney, who had pledged to vote for either Jackson or Clay as circumstances demanded, suffered a paralytic stroke during the campaign, which removed him as an active elector. If one awarded Turney's 629 votes to either Jackson or Clay, either one would have won the popular vote. Without Turney's votes, Adams was the winner.
In electoral votes, Jackson took Illinois two to one, but since no candidate won a majority of electoral votes nationwide, the issue was thrown into the hands of Congress. Daniel Cook, Illinois' sole representative in Congress, had pledged to vote for whoever won the popular vote in Illinois. But given these results, who could tell which candidate that was? Believing himself freed from his pledge Cook voted for Adams, who, combining this support with support thrown to him by Clay, beat out Jackson, who had won nationally both the popular and the electoral votes. Needless to say, Jackson's bitterness was keen.
In 1826 Cook may have paid for his support of Adams . He was beaten by a relatively unknown candidate, Joseph Duncan, one of the charges against him being that he had betrayed his pledge in 1824. There were, of course, other factors in his defeat, but it is clear that he was hurt by rising Jacksonian sentiment. By 1828 that tide had become irresistable. In that Presidential election Jackson swept the popular vote in Illinois 9,582 to 4,662 for John Quincy Adams. Most Illinois politicians who believed in survival became Jacksonians, the most prominent of whom were those conventionists of the Thomas faction who had previously supported Crawford.
But Coles, as we know, was not a politician who put survival first. Unlike his former enemies, he never made the switch to Jackson, or to any other party in Illinois politics. Robbed of the slavery issue, he became a political nonentity in Illinois.
In the weeks after the convention vote, however, Presidential politics was not the main topic in Coles' mind. Of more immediate importance was Madison County's suit against him for failure to post bond for his former slaves, due for trial on September 21.
The entire trial , from the empaneling of the jury to the final verdict, seems to have taken place in one or two days. The new board of commissioners for Madison County, elected in August 1824, consisted of Hail Mason, John Howard, and Benjamin Stedman. Hail Mason, the chief villain of the piece, has been described in the previous chapter. Benjamin Stedman was, like the previous commissioners Barber, Spencer, and Lippincott, a member of the Madison Association to oppose the introduction of slavery in Illinois. About John Howard, little is known.
The jury empaneled to hear the case included, astoundingly, John Howard. Thus one of the commissioners sat on--in fact served as foreman of--the jury that sat in judgment on a suit brought by the commissioners. (Another juror, unmentioned by Coles in his account of the trial, was Paris Mason, Hail Mason's brother.)
One wonders how Coles and his attorneys could have allowed such a thing to happen. Coles explains it this way in the 1827 autobiography: Having avowed my determination to object to no one as a juror, and my willingness to submit the case to a jury of my worst enemies, I paid no attention to the empaneling of the jury, and did not discover that one of the Commissioners was on it until some progress had been made in the suit.
But to some extent the makeup of the jury was moot since the judge refused to allow it to hear any of Coles' evidence. The Judge [John Reynolds], Coles writes, gave the greatest latitude for the admission of testimony against me, but would not admit anything to go to the jury that made in my favor. The witnesses that were summoned to give testimony against me were not permitted to state all they knew, but were confined to answering such questions as were put to them. And when we asked them if I had not on all occasions whenever I had mentioned what they had stated, added in the same sentence so and so, or said at the same time so and so, the Judge would not permit the witnesses to answer.
Coles had Cook and Emanuel West sworn in to explain why he had made out a second set of emancipation papers after his blacks had entered Illinois. He had Joseph Conway sworn in to give evidence that three of the ten blacks in question were dead. But the Jury were not permitted to hear the sound of their voices, Coles writes. It was impossible for us to shape a question that the Judge did not decide was either improper or irrelevant. We offered to prove that the Negroes had entered the State as free persons, I had exhibited a paper to that effect; that I had repeatedly and at all times spoken of them as free Negroes; that my treatment of them and the conduct of the negroes showed them to be free; and by Mr. Cook in particular we offered to explain the free papers which had been given on his advice, and to show that [the blacks] were free before [the papers] were given, not for the purpose of making them free, but to enable them to enjoy their freedom under the laws of the state, etc., etc. But it was all to no effect, the Judge decided that we could not adduce oral testimony to explain a written instrument. All my testimony being excluded, the jury of course brought in a verdict against me for two hundred dollars for each Negro emancipated, together with the costs of the suit.
The statute of limitations plea brought by Coles the previous March was disposed of as follows: since the Illinois statute was based on an English precedent, and there were no negroes in England at the time the precedent had been established, it could not have been intended to apply to a penalty arising from freeing negroes and therefore did not apply in this case.
What added to the mortification of every lover of his species, Coles writes indignantly in the 1844 autobiography, and to the monstrous and revolting nature of these proceedings against me, was that there were at the same time, and before the same court that was trying to punish me with such rigour and severity for giving freedom to my fellowman, waiting for trial several of the most flagrant and outrageous cases of kidnapping, in which Negroes, born free, had been forcibly seized at the dead hour of night, and taken to the Southern states, and sold as slaves. These cases were allowed to drag heavily on from term to term of the court; no feeling of indignation, no anxiety to have them punished, no impatience to have the law enforced, by these law-loving and law-abiding men who were so zealous to punish me . . .
Coles appealed immediately for a new trial on all of the grounds that this account makes obvious. The case was held until the next term of the court in March 1825. By this time John Reynolds had been replaced as judge by Samuel McRoberts, also a supporter of slavery. In the interim, however, the legislature had passed a special law designed to free Coles from his difficulties. The bill, introduced, Coles insists, without any intimation or knowledge on my part, said that persons who had failed to post bond for freed slaves as required by the law of 1819 are hereby released and entirely discharged from any penalty incurred under the provisions of said act . . . Provided always that such person or persons shall, within sixty days after the passage of this act, enter into bond . . . and pay the costs of any suit that was instituted against them.
By this time Coles was happy to throw in the towel on the question of whether his blacks had been enslaved or free when they entered the state. He was even happy to post bond for his three dead blacks to ensure they should never become charges on the county, and to pay the full costs of the suit. Unfortunately, the county commissioners court was not scheduled to meet within the sixty-day grace period specified by the law. And so Coles' troubles were not ended.
Coles asked Hail Mason for a special session of the court to receive his bond within the sixty-day period. Hail Mason, examining Coles' bond, told him not to worry: the bond looked good to him, and therefore when the circuit court reopened for the March term the suit against him would be dismissed. More wary than earlier, Coles went personally to each commissioner, showed him the bond, and asked that he call a special session if anything were amiss. Each commissioner said that he saw no reason for a special session and that at the March term the case against Coles would be dismissed.
When the commissioners finally met, after the sixty-day period had expired, they took no action on Coles' bond, which did not alarm Coles since he believed they were waiting for the circuit court to dismiss the case against him. A few days after the circuit court met, while Coles was waiting for his case to come up, the sheriff of Madison County, Nathaniel Buckmaster , pulled him aside. Even though he had been opposed to Coles on the convention issue, the sheriff said, now Coles' enemies had gone too far. Judge McRoberts had made an arrangement with the attorney general: if the attorney general would raise the question of the constitutionality of the new law that had been passed for Coles, the Judge would rule it unconstitutional. The opinion had already been written before the motion was made.
And so it happened. The attorney general moved that the new law be declared unconstitutional and the judge granted the motion. The penalty against Coles stood.
Coles immediately wrote an angry criticism of the judge's actions, to which Judge McRoberts replied with a $5,000 libel suit against Coles. Then as sitting judge on the circuit court, McRoberts promptly empanelled a grand jury and got them to bring an indictment against Coles for criminal libel. But when Coles got a copy of McRoberts' original draft of his opinion on the constitutionality of the law (written before the motion was made), the suit was quickly dropped-- to Coles' chagrin .
In June 1826 Coles' case finally got to the Illinois supreme court, which ruled that the special law passed for Coles was constitutional and ordered the circuit court to accept Coles' bond upon Coles' paying the costs of the suit. The commissioners, now John Howard, Benjamin Stedman, and Daniel Lauterman, claimed that since they hadn't received Coles' bond within the sixty-day period specified by the law, the penalty against Coles still stood. But Coles had the files of the commissioners searched to prove that he had offered the bond in time. The commissioners then said that the bond was not a legal bond.
By this time many citizens of Madison County had lost patience with the suit and remonstrated with the commissioners to let Coles go. So the commissioners agreed providing that Coles post seven times the normal bond and pay all of the legal fees the county had incurred. Coles was willing to do anything to get the suit dropped, but he balked at paying legal fees when the commissioners refused to tell him how much they were until he had agreed to pay them. Finally, the commissioners dropped this stipulation, Coles posted seven times the normal bond for blacks, alive and dead, who had entered the state of their own free will, and the long nightmare was over .
One finds it hard to believe such ludicrous antics, but all available evidence seems to corroborate Coles' account: a commisioner serving as foreman of a jury sitting on his own case; a judge empanelling a grand jury to bring an indictment of criminal libel against a man he himself has accused of libeling him; a statute of limitations dismissed because there were no blacks in England at the time the law was first thought of. The commissioners--different sets of commissioners, most of whom were anti-conventionists friendly to Coles--repeatedly lulling him with lies and then double-crossing him.
There doesn't seem to be any explanation other than the possibility that Coles' idealism, which had gained him ridicule from the moment he entered public life, caused some of his neighbors--especially his opponents--to rejoice at any hint of corruption that might occasionally besmirch him. (Ah! He hasn't posted bond for all those niggers he's bragged about freeing! Who does he think he is? And now he's trying to wriggle out of posting bond on a technicality! We've got him dead to rights now!)
Imagine the response of Coles' enemies when the legislature passed a law after the fact releasing Coles from penalties that a court had already imposed on him. No wonder Coles felt constrained to insist that he had no prior knowledge of the bill--cynics must have assumed that a political deal had been made to put the governor above the law. In fact the entire affair can be viewed from the opposite end of the telescope, and while Coles could fairly see the inexplicable malignity of his enemies from one end, from the other end Coles himself may have looked small and mean, attempting to use his power and prestige to circumvent justice.
Whatever the motives of his friends and enemies, Coles was deeply scarred by the episode. Perhaps partially as a result of the lawsuit his view of mankind seems much less hopeful after his great victory than before. But other sorrows and disappointments awaited Coles in the aftermath of his historic success in August 1824.
One measure of the change in Coles was his attitude towards the grand gesture of his life, the emancipation of his slaves. As a result of his experiences in Illinois, he began to regret having brought them there, wishing that he had sent them to Africa instead.
Although they have succeeded well, enjoyed their freedom, and led happy lives, Coles writes somewhat misleadingly of his former slaves in the 1844 autobiography, I still believe it would have been best for them and their posterity if they had removed to a country exclusively occupied by people of their own colour. Races of men that differ so much in appearance as the White and Black man, or even as the White and Red man, will never, till man changes his nature, associate as equals, and live in harmony and social intercourse; and when one of these races has, from generation to generation, been held in bondage, and looked upon as a degraded race by the other, these prejudices are increased, and that to an extent too which forbid any reasonable hope that the oppressed race will for ages to come, if they ever do, possess, in such a community, equal political, personal, and social rights; and that being the case, it will ever be best for the peace and harmony, morals and happiness of both, that they should be separated to a distance from each other. Under this impression, I was among the first to advocate the establishment of a colony on the coast of Africa for the removal to and settlement of our Negro population. I believed it would be the best location for them, and by sending them back to the land of their Fathers, we should be fulfilling a double duty we owed to that unfortunate continent, by not only restoring to her the descendents of her children, of whom she had been robbed, but as far as it was in our power to atone for such cruel injustice, by giving her, with her restored family, the arts, civilization, and christianity.
Knowing the disadvantages and indignities to which they and their posterity would be subjected in this country, and the advantages they would have, and the ennobling position they would occupy, in a country exclusively their own, and especially in that one which God had allotted to their race, I have repeatedly recommended and urged the Negroes I emancipated to remove to Liberia, and frequently offered to pay the expenses of Robert Crawford (the clergyman) if he would go to that country and write a full and faithful account of it, which I would publish for the information of his black brethren generally. But he has not yet acceded to my proposition, being, as he says, so fully engrossed and happily occupied in attending to his Family, his Farm, and his Congregation.
Coles seems to have communicated with Robert and Kate Crawford with some frequency throughout the rest of his life. In 1837, for example, he sent them a rather patronizing letter in which he writes: You have both well fulfilled your parts, and have in every respect maintained as fair a character under your brown faces, as the fairest of your fair faced neighbors. I take pleasure in speaking so highly in your praise, not only because worth is deserving of praise and should be encouraged, but because there is a prejudice in narrow minds against you, because your God and their God has seen fit to give your skin a darker hue.
The Crawfords looked after Coles' farm in Illinois for many years, corresponding with him at least until the end of 1862. In fact, the last letter extant by Coles is a rather crusty and ill-tempered missive to Robert Crawford berating him for being cheated on a land deal. You should have asked my advice before selling your farm, he writes, rather than asking now for my help. And he closes by admonishing Robert again for not having accepted his offer to aid him in resettling in Liberia before he was too old to do so, and offering $50 for those under the age of 15, and $100 for those between the ages of 15 and 55, to anyone he emancipated or their descendents who were now willing to go.
The ease with which Robert Crawford, a successful free man for over half a century, was cheated by a white man must have been additional proof to Coles that blacks in the United States will never be free of harassment and hatred. I have long been satisfied, Coles writes in 1851, that the two races can not live in fraternal intercourse, and that it would be for the interest of the white as well as the black man, for America as well as for Africa, to send them back to their fatherland.
Perhaps the failure of the other black family Coles brought to Illinois strengthened his belief that the attempt to settle free blacks in the United States was ultimately futile. Emanuel, Sukey, and their five children, it will be recalled, had been sold back into slavery until August 1825 in order to pay a doctor's fee of $96.50. The next we hear of them is in a letter from Robert Wash to Edward Coles , then (1834) newly married and living in Philadelphia. Coles had apparently asked Wash, serving as his agent in St. Louis, to make inquiries. Some of the names in the letter are indecipherable, but the drift is clear.
[Capt. Shrieves?] states to Reel that he owes the boy nothing--on the contrary that the fellow got an advance and then ran off in his debt [$6?]. William died last summer with the cholera. [Jake?] has neglected to pay over to his mother any part of his wages--though she (out of her own labour as she represents) has paid into the hands of [Msfr V. and Mt. Gill?] $74 on the joint acct. of [John?] and Alfred. [Manuel?] has become so drunken and worthless that Sukey has found it necessary to turn him adrift. She will no doubt do much better without him and desires me to say she will be able soon to make another payment to V. and Mt. G.
The last we see of the family is on a slip of paper , unsigned but in Coles' handwriting, that contains the following:
Manuel and Sukeys children
[Frankey?] married and lives in Illinois opp. St. Louis
Alfred--on board Exploring Expedition to South Seas
Elizabeth--17 or 18 years old, lives at Mr. Finneys St. Louis and receives $5 per month, and $5 rent of her Parents houses situated on my lot in St. Louis
Wilson--13 or 14 years old and bound by the court to McCullough--Brick maker of St. Louis.
Lucinda about 12 years old lives with an old coloured free woman near [Choutrou?] pond near St. Louis.
Emily about 10 years old and lives in Illinois with her sister Frankey.
All of which portrays a family broken up by the death or abandonment of both parents. Since in 1834 Sukey cast Manuel adrift, we can guess that between 1834 and 1839 Sukey died and her children were variously distributed. Of the five children who were brought to Illinois in 1819 it seems that two--Frankey and Alfred--survived. William, as we have learned, died of cholera. The fates of Jake and the other boy discussed in Wash's letter are unknown, except that in his 1844 autobiography Coles mentions that three of the men have perished by accidents on board of Steam Boats.
This somewhat spotty record contrasts strongly with Coles' assessment in his autobiographical writings. In conclusion, he writes in 1844, it gives me great pleasure to state that the Negroes followed the advice I gave them when I restored to them their long lost liberty, and have uniformly and without exception, conducted themselves with great propriety; never, to my knowledge, by word or deed given just cause of offence, or for any violation of law been brought before a court of Justice; have been generally industrious, economical, and prosperous, and led sober, orderly, and moral lives . . .
In the 1827 autobiography Coles states that many, with my assistance, and in compliance with my earnest solicitations, have learned to read and write, and others are striving to do so. But it is unclear who these "many" could be. It is unlikely that Coles is referring to Sukey's family at this time, And a letter from Robert and Kate Crawford to Coles in 1840 was Ritin by Alfred H. Richarason a man of Collor, so it is unlikely that either they or any children living with or near them at the time could write. Perhaps some of the children learned and had moved away by 1840.
The fates of the Crawford children are unknown. Eventually, the Crawford family seems to have moved from the area in which Coles had settled them, although the township where they had lived became a center for free blacks before the Civil War.
The final score card seems to be as follows: of the seventeen blacks, all less than forty years old, whom Coles brought to Illinois in 1819, twenty years later probably eight, including five of the seven adults, were dead. The only surviving adults were Robert and Kate Crawford and possibly Emanuel. Since Nancy Gaines, Tom Cobb, and Ralph Crawford died within the first year or so, and the only remaining unattached former slave, Robert Crawford, married Ralph Crawford's widow, Coles' former slaves became essentially two families, one successful and one less so.
Interestingly, like Coles, George Flower seems to have come to the conclusion that Illinois was no place for free blacks, who were employed in the English colony in eastern Illinois and allowed to settle on the same terms as anyone else. But the colony was subjected to armed attacks by pro-slavers and kidnappers, and eventually, seeing no hope of just treatment to the free colored people that lived on my lands, or of relieving myself from the trouble of defending them, Flower decided to send them to Haiti. At his own expense he sent Robert Graham, a white man, to Haiti to prepare the way, and in March 1823 sent about thirty free blacks under the guidance of Graham to Haiti. Among the blacks were some who had apparently been organized into a colored company by General Harrison during the War of 1812. The experiment worked well, at least in its initial stages, and Haiti was so pleased with the results that it sent a Mr. Granville to the U.S. to recruit more free blacks, offering $14 a head for passage. According to Flower, Granville signed up about 5,000, mostly from Baltimore and Philadelphia, whose white citizens were opposed to sending their free blacks to a "military despotism" and a Roman Catholic country.
Another disappointment for Coles was the death of Morris Birkbeck. On October 15, 1824, Coles appointed Birkbeck to be his secretary of state, succeeding David Blackwell, who, the convention battle over, relinquished both this post and his interest in the Intelligencer. Birkbeck served as acting secretary of state until the new legislature met, at which time his appointment was rejected. The rejection could not have been for lack of competence since, as we might imagine, Birkbeck filled the office with his usual energy and intelligence. I came to Vandalia with every prejudice against Mr. Birkbeck as Secretary of State, a pro-conventionist relates, but when I looked into the office and saw the order and management, especially when contrasted with the previous confusion, my opinion was completely changed.
Still, Birkbeck was rejected by a legislature out to take revenge on Coles and on his friends for the defeat of the convention. A few months later, on June 4, 1825, Birkbeck set out for New Harmony, Indiana, with a packet of letters for Robert Owen, the English industrialist who had just bought a utopian colony run by German Rappites in the hope of founding a utopian colony of his own. On his way back with his son Bradford, Birkbeck found the Wabash River swollen with rain. In trying to swim his horse across, he drowned. In one account Bradford struggled to save his father but failed; in another, Birkbeck, seeing Bradford could not gain the shore with his burden . . . with characteristic calmness and resolution, let go of him, motioned to him to save himself, and sank. Not long after his death, Birkbeck's family emigrated to Mexico and thence to Australia. The little English fiefdom of Wanborough was soon obliterated, and all traces of Birkbeck, so influential a figure in the history of the state, vanished from Illinois.
In losing Birkbeck, first as secretary of state and then as friend, Coles lost the one Illinoisan with whom he was compatible in interests and in taste. Thereafter Illinois must have seemed even more desolate and lonely than it had before.
Coles was also disappointed in his attempts to be elected to the U.S. Senate in November 1824 and again in 1825, as the seat formerly held by Edwards came up for a partial term and then a full term. Elias Kent Kane , who had been a leader of the conventionists, was chosen by the legislature in his stead.
One bright spot in the remainder of Coles' tenure as governor was the visit by Lafayette to Illinois in May 1825. Since Coles had met Lafayette in Paris on his return from Russia in 1817, he was in his element here. According to the 1863 autobiography, Lafayette visited Illinois at Coles' request. Lafayette replied to Coles' invitation on April 12, 1825, from New Orleans: Notwithstanding many expostulations I have received on the impossibility to perform between the 22nd of February, and the 18th of June, the tour of visits which I would have been very unhappy to relinquish, for we arrived thus far, my companions and myself, and I don't doubt but that by rapid movements, can gratify my ardent desire to see every one of the Western states, and yet to fulfill a sacred duty as the representative of the Revolutionary Army, on the half secular [50-year] jubilee of Bunker Hill.
Lafayette's visit to Illinois consisted of crossing the Mississippi from St. Louis for a one-day reception at Kaskaskia before sailing down toward Nashville, accompanied by Coles, to a dinner at the Hermitage with Andrew Jackson. Washburne calls this visit "the great event during Governor Coles' administration," eclipsing even the convention vote, and perhaps in the minds of some of Illinois' backwoodsmen it was. Certainly it was a moment in which Coles' aristocratic background shone bright, his "friendship" with Lafayette having lured the great man, one of the few remaining relics of the Revolution, to cross the river into Illinois. Coles made a speech, we can assume that Lafayette made a speech, various dignitaries were introduced to the great man, bands played.
Lafayette escorted on his stately way, Coles was free at last to visit Virginia. Because of the convention struggle and then the session of the legislature, he had not been home for three years. On June 22, 1825, he informed Lt. Governor Hubbard that he would be out of the state for about three months. He left for Virginia July 18 and returned October 31 to discover that he had been deposed as governor of Illinois.
As in the earlier episode when Hubbard suggested that Coles resign the governorship in return for being appointed to the U.S. Senate, it is unclear whether he was acting on his own or for an organized group. Coles, naturally, believed that the incident was a plot against him by powerful enemies.
There have been , he writes Vaux, novel and extraordinary efforts made by some of my old political opponents to supplant me in the office of Governor, by thrusting in my place the Lieutenant-Governor, a zealous and thorough-going advocate of Slavery. I had heard nothing of this intention (for although many letters were written to me, it so happened not one ever came to hand, or has since been heard of) until I reached Louisville on my way home, when I was told by a friend that he had been informed by a distinguished opponent of mine that it had been determined that I should not be permitted to resume the office of Governor. On my arriving in the State, I found that there had been several caucuses held in different places, by what are called the knowing ones, for the purpose of devising the best mode of proceeding, and of organizing their forces to act against me. All the Executive officers of the State recognizing me as Governor, I found no difficulty in entering at once on the duties of the office. The Lieutenant-Governor, however, still remained at the seat of Gov't., contending that I had vacated the office by my absence from the State, and that he was, under the constitution, the acting Governor.
In a court test of Hubbard's right to appoint William Ewing paymaster general, the court refused to force George Forquer, the secretary of state, to countersign the commission. Soon after this, Coles writes, the General Assembly met, and efforts were made to induce it to recognize the Lieutenant as the acting Governor; but these efforts having failed, [Hubbard] made a communication to both Houses, setting forth his claims to the office of Governor, and asking to be heard by himself or counsel in support of him. Nothing was done with this communication, there being only one member in each House openly in favor of the Lieutenant-Governor's pretensions. There would have doubtless been more if there had been any prospect of ousting me. This effort of my opponents has recoiled very much to my advantage, in weakening their popularity, and adding to the strength of mine.
Perhaps Coles was interested in the strength of his popularity because he had hopes of running for a U.S. Senate seat in 1826, replacing Thomas, who was not running for reelection. Having been rejected in 1824 and 1825 for Edwards' seat, he might still have had some hope that the new legislature elected in 1826 might look favorably upon him. But he was not the man to lobby for himself, and his popular support was not strong. Whether out of lack of support or desire, he did not run for a senate seat in the winter of 1826-27, leaving Illinois only a few days after delivering his valedictory address to the legislature on December 5, 1826.
Perhaps one cause for Coles' haste to leave Illinois was the fact that his mother had died on April 11, 1826 . The division of property among the Coles children took place on January 1, 1827, the day after Coles arrived, though the final settlement took several months to accomplish. Coles returned to Illinois in the spring of 1827, but left again the following winter and never thereafter remained there for more than a few months at a time. His life in Illinois was over.
In his History of the Ordinance of 1787, read before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania on June 9, 1856, Coles says of his record as governor of Illinois: Of course, the continuance of the remnant of French slaves for so long a time in Illinois, arose from the fact of its being quietly acquiesced in, and not brought to the decision of the Courts of Justice. If the question had ever been brought before me, as Governor of the State, I would not have hesitated for a moment to decide, and, if necessary, to have enforced the decision, that slavery did not legally exist in Illinois, and that of course all held in service, as such, were entitled to their freedom. This opinion I expressed in my Inaugural Address, and in messages to the Legislature.
It is not surprising that in later years Coles liked to think that had he had the chance he would have done something more about the remnants of slavery in Illinois. He had treated of the issue in his inaugural address, opening the door for a convention resolution by the legislature, and again in each of his addresses to the legislature. Understandably, the convention question absorbed his energies until August 1824, but that left him over two years in his term as governor to do something about the fact that blacks continued to be enslaved in Illinois.
In November 1824, addressing the legislature convening after the convention vote, Coles said: In the observations I had the honour to make to the last legislature, I recommended that provision should be made for the abolition of the remnant of African slavery which still existed in this State. The full discussion of the principle and policy of personal slavery, which has taken place since that period resulting in its rejection by the decided voice of the people, still more imperiously makes it my duty again to call your attention in an especial manner to this subject, and earnestly to entreat you to make just and equitable provision for as speedy an abolition of this remnant of slavery, as may be deemed consistent with the rights and claims of the parties concerned.
What a difference between "as may be deemed consistent with the rights and claims of the parties concerned," and "I would have not hesitated for a moment to decide, and, if necessary, to have enforced the decision, that slavery did not legally exist in Illinois, and that of course all held in service, as such, were entitled to their freedom"!
In his third message to the legislature, his valedictory address on December 5, 1826, Coles again tempers his remarks. On two former occasions, he reminds the lawmakers, under a strong sense of duty, I urged the gradual abolition of the remnant of slavery which still exists in violation of the fundamental laws of the State, and an amelioration of our code in relation to free Negroes. I now emphatically renew, and earnestly press this recommendation. But if the Legislature shall still think proper to decline abolishing slavery, then I beseech the Representatives of a people who love liberty, and have resolved that their land shall be the land of the free, to adopt such means as will ultimately put an end to slavery. Let us at least cut the entail, and not give what is wrong a legal descent, but fix the time when servitude in Illinois shall cease. This is due to our principles and consistency, and may promote the interest of the claimant to property, by lulling the claimant to liberty, and prevent the question from being adjudicated as it has been in a neighboring State.
Granted that Coles was saying goodbye to a legislature not in the least interested in abolishing slavery. But "lulling the claimant to liberty" by passing laws for abolition in the distant future is hardly a forthright position on the issue of slavery in Illinois. "If the question had ever been brought before me," Coles pleads in 1856. But the question was before him every day he was governor of the state, and his answer was to request laws of a reluctant legislature that would bury the question for another generation.
What prevented Coles from encouraging a "claimant to liberty" from going to court to seek his or her rights? The man who had secretly purchased the Intelligencer and paid off its new editor with a state job was certainly not above such a maneuver. The answer is that Coles did not feel the urgency of ending the remnants of slavery in Illinois that he had for preventing Illinois from becoming officially a slave state. The fight had gone out of him. For the last two years of his governorship he contented himself with a few paragraphs in speeches to the legislature while on his watch evil continued to prevail in Illinois.
The portions of his messages to the legislature that deal with slavery and free blacks are relatively short. Much more time and space are spent on fiscal affairs, on education, on his favorite project of a system of canals linking the Mississippi with the Great Lakes, which would make Illinois equally accessible to the East and Gulf coasts and the center of transcontinental trade. In his valedictory address he spends some time pleading for the erection of a penitentiary and for the abolition of capital punishment, causes which may have been urged upon him by Vaux when he had visited Philadelphia the previous spring. . . . I consider it [a penitentiary] a most just, wise, and humane system, he tells the legislature, reflecting the most advanced liberal opinion of the time, and one which should embrace the punishment of every crime, to the exclusion of that sanguinary and exterminating code, which gives to aggregated man a power which nature, it is acknowledged, has not given to individual man, of deliberately depriving of life, and sending from time to eternity a fellow-being, who, however wicked, is defenseless and can be rendered harmless, and made useful to himself and to others. I fondly indulge the hope, that the time is not distant when the just, liberal, and philanthropic principles of our government, will so far get the better of error and prejudice, and conform to the great fundamental laws of nature's God, as no longer to sanction by law the taking of human life, either by communites or individuals, except in self defence.
So advanced a position is admirable, yet there is in it a touch of the same idealism that is in Coles' comments on slavery--idealism in the sense of present impracticality. Both issues are left to a distant day, with no urgency about doing anything about them anytime soon.
Coles' major political victory was purely negative; that is, he prevented Illinois from becoming a slave state. On the positive side, in four years as governor he did virtually nothing. His scheme for canals made very little progress during his administration, and he made no other legislative initiatives other than those mandated by Federal policy. It could be argued that he faced a hostile legislature, one in which there was no hope of progress. But the convention vote had proven that the voters were ahead of their legislators, and yet Coles made no attempt to appeal to them or to spur widespread debate on issues of concern to him. The great voice of the convention debate fell utterly silent on the issue of the remnants of slavery or the rights of free blacks.
His one other political accomplishment, the phasing out of the state bank, was also negative. Fiscally, Coles was a conservative, believing firmly in the old Republican notion that the government should keep its nose out of the economy. Thus he opposed the state bank, opposed cheapening the currency (a help to debtors), and opposed any interference with private contracts. His policies were sound, prudent, and thoroughly anti-populist. The notion that government should become an instrument for shaping social and economic life was alien to his thinking. The purpose of government was negative--to erase injustice, to remove barriers to the exercise of natural rights, to safeguard liberties, to prevent social disorder.
In the peroration of his valedictory address Coles looks back with satisfaction on his accomplishments as governor. The fiscal embarrassments occasioned by the Bank, he says, and the agitation of an unfortunate question [the convention question], which distracted the councils, and disturbed the harmony and social order of the community, have added to the duties and increased the difficulties in the administration of the government. But having now in a great degree gotten rid of the ill effects of these, and other injudicious measures, I retire from it, with the pleasing reflection, that, if profiting by experience, a wise and prudent course should be pursued, we have every reason to anticipate a rapid increase of the population and resources of the State, and of the prosperity and happiness of its citizens.
No word here about unfinished business--about slavery, kidnappings, denial of rights, executions. The ship of state is back on course, sailing in the sunshine as, with an almost audible sigh of relief, Edward Coles steps quietly off the stage of history.