|Edward Coles was bornat Enniscorthy on December 15, 1786. Most of his early life lies shrouded in domestic tranquility. We hear only passing references to himin family letters, usually informing us that he is ill. Not that he was a sickly child; only that in a large family with many children the most commonly noteworthy circumstance in a young child's life was his health.|
Such comments are all we have of Edward in his first sixteen years of life, except for two other passing references that tell us something interesting: that Edward, as the youngest son, seems to have been thrown together with his younger sisters much of the time, especially after his brothers had left home. What this means, if anything, is unclear, but there is a later description of Edward that seems to bear out the conventional expectation. Soon after having been introduced to the family, Helen Skipwith Coles describes him as unlike his brothers. He is always in the house, she says, laughing and talking with the girls, full of fun and frolic, the pet of his sisters.
Exuberant, playful, teasing, affectionate, high-spirited, extremely attached to family and friends--these are the characteristics of the younger child that describe Coles in his early years, before disappointment and loneliness turned him slightly sour. Whether his idealism came from his early association with women--in Southern society the world of moral purity was generally the province of women--is a matter for speculation. For whatever reason, he was by his late teens more serious and idealistic than his brothers, and more fastidious about love.
Like most sons of Southern planters, Coles received his early education from private tutors, first in the home of Wilson Cary Nicholas and then with a Mr. White, who lived near Dyer's store. How long he was away from home receiving this education, who his tutors were, and what influences he received in these years are all unknown. Both Nicholas and White lived near Enniscorthy, and it is therefore unlikely that Coles was away from home for long periods of time.
Mr. White's identity is unclear, but Wilson Cary Nicholas is well known. He was a disciple of Jefferson, devoted to Jeffersonian causes in state and national politics. Sometime after Coles had been tutored in his house he became governor of Virginia. His daughter married Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. During the panic of 1819 Nicholas, a passionate speculator in land, defaulted on a twenty-thousand dollar note that Jefferson had endorsed for him, a calamity that added greatly to the economic miseries of Jefferson's old age and probably shortened Nicholas' life. Nicholas died only a year after this default and was buried at Monticello.
The Jeffersonian influences that Coles received in Nicholas' home were probably little different from those he received at Enniscorthy. For most of the Virginia planters in their classical revival mansions on the hilltops near Charlottesville, Jefferson was the ideal--in politics, in philosophy, in architecture, in their idea of a gentleman.
In politics they were republican, which is to say that they believed in a democratic government that was best when it governed least. They were suspicious of central authority, feared the return of tyranny, opposed adding to the powers of, and especially increasing the military strength of, the federal government. They had faith in the common sense of the common man, believing that in the long run persuasion would shape a consensus that would result in the common good. If shown their self interest clearly and forcefully, they believed, most men would follow it, and since the ultimate interest of each citizen lay in the direction of the ultimate interest of the community, a wise and good man with sufficient patience and energy could eventually persuade the majority to rule wisely and well.
Their religion was as reasonable as their politics. Resignation was a stronger note than salvation. Their God was one who had set the world in order and ran it--if He had to intervene--in ways that were too mysterious to bear much investigation. With the exception of one fundamentalist manuscript left by Coles' Methodist uncle Travis, God appears in the Coles family correspondence only perfunctorily, like a distant relative calling politely at moments of blessing or grief.
Their belief in Reason was strongly empirical; that is, they believed in the power of the human mind to inquire experimentally into the nature of things and to make discoveries and improvements. They believed in the progress of human society politically and materially through the experimental method, though morally and esthetically they were content to believe that all had been discovered in ancient times. In art they emulated ancient models. Thus the great public buildings in Washington were capped by domes, and the porticos of country estates were supported by classical pillars. Moral truths came from the classics and the Bible. Political and scientific truths, however, were being freshly proclaimed.
The gentleman farmer called himself an agriculturalist--a patient observer of physical phenomena and experimenter in agricultural and mechanical improvements. Jefferson invented a new type of plow, a dumbwaiter, a machine for making multiple copies of letters. He experimented with mechanical contrivances, architectural designs and new forms of government. A farmer might become a soldier, statesman, or jurist without much additional training because the same habit of mind bore fruit in every area of activity. Skepticism, reason, patient and careful observation, judicious deduction--these were the tools with which wise men would build slowly and painstakingly a free, peaceful, and abundant world.
The aim of education was to encourage skepticism and the habit of rational inquiry. The spirit of skepticism which so much prevailed and which every student acquired as soon as he touched the threshold of the college, Edward's brother Isaac writes of William and Mary, is certainly the first step towards knowledge; it puts the mind in a proper state not only to receive, but also to receive correctly. That it leads to Deism, atheism, etc. I will acknowledge, but on the same grounds we may object to reason. Skepticism indeed only gives [reason] the reins.
Skepticism, empiricism, yet paradoxically faith in the essential reasonableness of men and in the powers of the human mind. In the nineteenth century this faith was to be shaken, but in the eighteenth it was still the basis for optimism about the great American experiment. Coles grew up in an atmosphere of intense patriotism among the heroes of the recent revolution. Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe--these were all relatives or intimate family friends. It is therefore understandable that Coles had a fervent faith in democracy, despite his exposure to corruption, demagoguery, and finally the outrageous manipulations of the Illinois legislature. He retained the old republican faith that given a forceful presentation of facts and reasons, the majority of the people would choose the wisest course.
Finally, Jefferson provided the age with a personification of the ideal gentleman--rational, curious, learned, benevolent, self-controlled, wise, cheerful, of pure and tender affections, undemonstrative, self-effacing, quiet, reserved, cool, self-sacrificing, patient in pursuit of the general good. This ideal was one which Coles tried hard to live out as governor of Illinois, a little Jefferson upon a frontier throne. His remarkable success earned him the respect of friend and foe alike, and was an important factor in the victory of his cause.
These, then, were the Jeffersonian ideals with which Coles was embued at an early age. For reasons unknown he was peculiarly susceptible to them, peculiarly devoted to living them out, peculiarly anxious to be pure and wise and good. In his early letters Coles seems an unusually passionate devotee of the good and the beautiful--rebellious against injustice, absorbed seriously in his studies, romantic and idealistic about love, anxious to preserve his own purity.
The first letter we have from him is an account of a student rebellion at Hampden-Sydney, a newly-founded college located in Prince Edward county, not far from Edward's home in Albemarle. I have been very much concerned for fear that the disturbances here have caused you and mama to be uneasy, Edward writes to his father at the age of eighteen, but am pleased to find that you did not hear of them sooner; for it would have been a fatiguing and quite a useless journey for you to have taken to have come out here. I am happy to discover that the conduct of the students has been generously applauded. The very men who threatened to expell us if we did not renounce the obligation, and represented it to us as the most rebellious and unpardonable behavior, now say that we have done ourselves a great deal of honor, and showed a great deal of public spirit.
The students are still very much discontented both with the conduct of the masters and with the fare, he continues. We are losing two or three every week; I must refer you to Mr. W. Harris, who left us last week, for the cause, and to inform you what a set of rascals we are surrounded with. He is the proper man, for he has experienced with the rest of us this sacred truth.
Edward followed Mr. Harris a few weeks later, transferring to William and Mary in November 1805, his first comment upon arrival being that the police of the College I am not better pleased with than I was with the police at H.S. College. Not that Coles was dissipated or unruly--quite the contrary. He was high spirited but serious, idealistic, pleased to be acting upon his principles, in a mood to contradict hypocritical authority.
Perhaps Edward's father had sent him to Hampden-Sydney, run by Presbyterians, who were known to be more straitlaced than the Episcopalians who ran William and Mary, because he was not pleased with the habits his older sons had acquired at William and Mary. A parcel of damned fools are afraid their children will learn to [dance] or game or drink, Isaac complains to a friend, speaking of the causes of William and Mary's declining reputation. American colleges generally were violent and lawless places in the early nineteenth century--a fact that may shock those who like to think of the good old days as times of tranquil obedience. John Coles had good reason to fear sending his sons away to them. Letters home from William and Mary are full of references to serious student disturbances.
A scene of dissipation has at length commenced at this place , a typical letter runs. We have only forty-five students. The smallness of the number is occasioned by the riots and dissipation last course.
And Isaac writes to a friend: The other evening a large party made an attack upon the sacred property of God. The Communion table was broken into a thousand pieces, all the prayer books and Bibles scattered about the church yard, one window entirely destroyed, and the pulpit itself bedaubed from one end to the other with human excrement. An offense so heinous called aloud for punishment. The Bishop and professors talked high of expulsion, but the party was so numerous, and many of them so respectable, that, although they had direct proof, nothing was done.
The causes of this violence were various. Many students at the colleges were not particularly in need of or interested in a classical education since they were destined in time to take over their families' plantations. In truth they learned the ways of their elders better in taverns than in classrooms. Their years at college were meant to give them a glimpse of the greater world and a chance to sow some wild oats before marrying properly and burying themselves in the country. Since their wealth and position placed them above most of their teachers, there was no authority that had the power or will to restrain their behavior.
But some of the violence was in response to conditions at the schools--poor food or lodging, unreasonable regulations, petty injustices. It was perhaps this kind of violence that Edward became involved in at Hampden-Sydney, which had its share of the riots endemic at the time. According to a local historian , the disturbance was touched off by the expulsion of three students for ringing the bell, putting timbers against the teachers' doors to fall on them when the doors were opened, and throwing bricks through the windows at a tutor. But from Edward's letter we can guess that there were deeper causes for the rebellion, grievances that went unresolved.
Whatever its causes, the rebellion had a positive outcome in one respect: it sent Edward to William and Mary, where he bloomed . He made close friends whom he retained for many years after, worked hard at his studies, and seems to have been loved and valued. The school's encouragement of skepticism, of bold and independent thought, provided precisely the intellectual stimulation he needed to come to the conclusion that would determine much of the rest of his life.
Edward entered Hampden-Sydney in January 1803, a few weeks after his sixteenth birthday. Sometime late in 1803 he seems to have been seriously injured, remaining out of school until June 1804. In the fall of 1805 he transferred to William and Mary. On New Year's Day, 1806, he was seriously injured again, breaking his ankle in a wrestling match and missing ten months of school.
He returned to William and Mary in the fall of 1806 to throw himself avidly into his studies. One of the things that Edward did this term was vow never to own slaves, creating the scene with which we began this narrative. Another was to fall in love, an activity about which he was just as serious and idealistic as he was about everything else.
Why Edward you are quite a romantic lover! his sister Eliza exclaims, not to enquire whether the Lady is rich! Why, that must certainly be the first question, and I am very sure that it is the first your sex (your self excepted) generally ask. How usual it is for them to say, when a girl is mentioned, "Is she rich?" Even my brothers ask that question, and I have long known that wealth is more thought of than beauty, accomplishments, and everything else.
It certainly fits our picture of Coles that he be disdainful of wealth when thinking of love. Love is, he writes several months after the end of the relationship mentioned above, a passion which I confess to my sorrow does not entwine my solitary and perhaps in this respect selfish heart, but one in which I conceive the highest felicity to consist. I suppose love to be founded on esteem sustained by the acknowledgement of every amiable quality, refined by the most perfect delicacy of sentiment unsullied by the least idea unseraphic and finally corroborated by the confidence and unrestrained overflowing of two fond, chaste, and faithful hearts now melted into one.
What chance does wealth stand against so exalted an ideal? Or breeding? Or parental approval? Or such practical matters as providing for an impoverished but genteel wife after one has freed one's slaves and subjected oneself to the harsh conditions of the frontier?
That his two ideals, both activated at around the same time--the desires to be free from the corruption of slavery and to marry for love--might clash in some distant reality must have occurred to Coles fairly quickly. Poor Coles was not wealthy to begin with, since he had to share his father's inheritance with nine siblings. Once he gave away his slaves he would be, by the standards of his class, poor. To marry a girl in the same position as he--that is, poor and well-bred--and then strip her of servants and move her to a crude frontier settlement would be dishonorable. But how honorable would it be to marry a woman for her wealth?
That Eliza is correct in judging her other brothers to be less squeamish than Edward is borne out in a letter from Isaac to John. Miss Breckenridge is as tall as I am, Isaac writes from Washington, and has red hair and is yet very pretty. She is scarcely 16 and is very susceptible--her father you know--he is rich, with children enough. Miss Laura Smith is ugly enough, but full of love . . . she might easily be run away with, but then you might lose the 10,000 guineas, which it is said the General would be glad not to spare.
This tone is too brutal for Edward; never in his life would he adopt it. His thoughts may at times have run unwillingly in this direction, but never his pen. Brutality, callousness, blunt self interest, were jarring to his sensibility, although he was forced to face the fact that a person who planned to give away a good part of his meager wealth would have difficulty marrying for love.
Friendships, however, are free, and Coles was an ardent friend. He was also a demanding one, whose exalted expectations were likely to turn to petulance when friends or family turned out, perhaps inevitably, to be less devoted than he. He often complained to his family of their neglect. But to speak out candidly I am very much hurt at the manner I have been treated since I left home, runs a typical complaint. I have received but one letter from Brother Walter, none from Brother John, a mere little note of 3 or 4 lines from Brother Isaac, a letter containing one short page from Tucker, only one entire letter from Sally, none from Emily. But for Betsy I should scarcely have known that you or my friends had been in existence for the last 8 months. And what makes it the more mortifying is that I have written so frequently home, and been particular in addressing letters to them all. My letters too have invariably been as long as crowded sheets of the largest size could convey, and all of the few letters I have received--as short as scattered lines or the smallest sheets could make occupy a decent space.
As years went by Coles' occasional petulance turned to querulousness, crustiness, and irritability, tempered when marriage at an advanced age finally brought him the warm home life he had hungered for ever since he had outgrown Enniscorthy. Coles was very much the adorer, the hungerer, the younger child whose insatiable demand for perfection in his elders could not possibly be fulfilled. In the warmth of intimate relationships he became playful, affectionate, the darling, the pet. Removed from that warmth he grew melancholy and tended to find fault and complain.
One friend from William and Mary stands out above others, a schoolmate named John Madison. In a letter to John's brother, Edward calls John, a man for whom I have unlimited and unbounded friendship. Language fails when I attempt to describe my attachment to him and can be experienced only by one whose heart is naturally susceptible of that pure and disinterested friendship which pervades mine and which has attuned yours to those heavenly and seraphic emotions which constitute love . . . In another letter Edward calls John Madison, our virtuous and Godlike Madison, a man whom I love as I do myself, declaring that he had assented to Madison's suggestion that they travel together next summer across the Blue Ridge without hesitation for I anticipate pleasures in his company that are truly paramount to expression.
The nature of these paramount pleasures is not known, although the analogy Coles draws between his attachment to Madison and the "heavenly and seraphic emotions" of love raises the suggestion of homosexuality, if not overt then perhaps repressed. Coles' boyhood among his sisters, his long bachelorhood, his idealization of heterosexual love to a point that seems above sexuality, and, later, his pervasive melancholy all seem to weave a pattern. Yet there is plenty of evidence of heterosexual desire in Coles' life, though always kept within proper bounds. Coles was in love with at least two women and eventually married and had children. It is more likely that he was excessively shy and fastidious than that he was homosexual.
The more interesting quality in Coles revealed by his friendship for Madison is his enthusiastic idealization of the man. Coles' tendency often was to consider himself the inferior in close relationships. Whether this quality results from Coles' role as youngest brother is an interesting speculation; in any event, he tended to look for mentors. Often during his life he expressed doubts about his own abilities, and while some of his humility can be ascribed to the expected attitude of a gentleman, there also seems to be a genuine feeling of inferiority to the brilliant patriots of his father's generation with whom he was in close association. Even in his role as governor of a frontier state, he seemed to be Madison or Jefferson writ small, playing on a field more suited to his limited capacities.
Who this "Godlike" Madison was, is difficult to say. He must have been a schoolmate of Coles since Coles refers to him as "our" Madison in a letter to a friend from school. Whether he was related to James Madison is unknown, though he lived in the vicinity of Montpelier . Since he died in 1809, whatever youthful promise or brilliance he possessed was never fulfilled. We cannot know whether Coles' enthusiasm for him was justified, or whether at some point in the future Coles may have found fault with his divine friend. But that Coles adored him is the point; it is interesting that Coles felt such adoration for one of his peers and desired to bask in his light. It suggests that temperamentally Coles was more a moth than a flame.
In none of his writings does Coles seriously reflect on himself. It would be nice to see his judgment on his youthful self--his impossible idealism, his awkward hopes, his yearnings, his enthusiasms. One would then have the assurance that he had somehow transcended his earlier self rather than merely aging away from it. But Coles talks of himself with utter seriousness, as if his earlier self were identical with his later self, which it isn't. It is as though Coles' later self enjoyed basking in the light of his earlier one.
Experience is generally thought to bring disillusionment, but disillusionment can cut two ways: it can constrain vision by forcing the abandonment of certain possibilities, or it can expand vision by incorporating earlier enthusiasms into a more complex and contradictory determination. The ingredients of incorporation are essentially tolerance and humor, the qualities that admit of contradiction, that encourage urbane distance, that enable one to accept the previously unacceptable without surrendering to it. Coles certainly lacked humor, and although he was politely tolerant of enemies in public, he was lacking in the ability to see a situation from contradictory points of view. Thus he saw the struggle in Illinois as a battle between the forces of darkness and light with the same single-mindedness that as a teenager involved in a campus revolt he experienced "this sacred truth." He was never able to understand why his enemies seemed so treacherous, so malicious, so incomprehensibly bestial. His disillusionment was bitter, closing doors, removing possibilities, extinguishing enthusiasms, reducing his capacity for life.
Youthful idealism can be seen as a height to be descended from or as a naive grace to be outgrown. That Coles himself did not seem to see its naivete is evidence of his limitations as an historical figure. In college he wanted only the purest conscience, the purest love, the purest friendship. Virtuous and divine comrades, seraphic emotions, consciousness of a courageous integrity. Would his disappointment reflect on him or on the world? It is sad that it seems to have reflected essentially on the world. The shy, affectionate, enthusiastic young boy alive with impossible hopes and pure resolves was unfortunately to become a disappointed old man.