CHAPTER 7: A FATEFUL ENCOUNTER
But I was prevented from giving that personal attention to the details in the management of my Farm that I desired, and which were necessary to carry fully out my meliorating system in the treatment of my Negroes, by my having been soon after my return from my trip to the Western Country, most unexpectedly appointed by President Madison his Secretary. (Edward Coles, 1844 autobiography)
|While Coles was drifting uncertainly through Kentucky, events in Washington were determining his future course.
Edward's brother Isaac, secretary to President Jefferson during his second term, planned to retire in March 1809, after Madison's inauguration. But he was persuaded by his cousin Dolley Madison to stay on at least until the spring of 1810, after which his plans were uncertain.
Before the end of Jefferson's term, Isaac had gotten himself the command of the Virginia Dragoons, and he was all for pursuing a military career--despite Dolley's pleas. On March 24, 1809 , Isaac was sent to France with dispatches, returning to Enniscorthy in August. By September he had been persuaded to put off his military career, at least until the following spring, and he wrote to Madison accepting the position as secretary.
But when Isaac reached Washington in November 1809 to assume his duties, he became involved in a scrape that forced him to resign his position in disgrace. While he had been in France, a member of Congress, according to Isaac , slandered him for the purpose of shielding a friend involved in a grand jury presentation. Isaac was told of this on November 27, 1809, a few days before the first meeting of Congress, and meeting the slanderer by accident did, he said, what any man of honor would have done.
What Isaac did was accost Congressman Roger Nelson of Maryland in the North wing of the Capitol and horsewhip him, something a Congressional committee set up to investigate the incident decided, not surprisingly, was a breach of the discipline of this House. Isaac, in his normally hot-blooded way, apologized not for the incident but for the setting, writing somewhat haughtily to the chairman of the special committee that if I could have supposed that the circumstance . . . would have been construed into a breach of the privileges of the House, it would not have occurred at the time and in the place where it unfortunately happened. But the upshot was that Isaac was forced to resign his position, despite Madison's urging him to remain.
The date of Isaac's resignation was probably December 30, 1809--the day after the special committee made its report to the House. By the next day or the day after, Isaac wrote to Edward, only a few weeks back from Kentucky, offering him the position of secretary to the President.
Why Edward was offered the position is unknown, but three reasons seem plausible. First, he was a known quantity, someone whose intelligence, manners, and dedication Madison could count on. Second, as Isaac's younger brother, he would keep the position within the family, lessening the disgrace of Isaac's resignation. Since Isaac's behavior reflected both upon the President and upon the Coles family, the situation was extremely delicate. Neither Isaac nor Madison wished to appear ashamed of what Isaac had done, yet at the same time it was impossible not to retreat in the face of the special committee's conclusion that Isaac had abused his privileges. If Edward took the position, the change in secretaries would seem more like an exchange of brothers, a sibling succession, than an abrupt break. Since it was known that Isaac had been ambivalent about continuing as secretary after Jefferson's retirement, it would perhaps appear that Isaac had merely been keeping the position warm until Edward was ready to assume it.
The third reason is more speculative but still plausible. Edward's family, and presumably the Madisons as well, were anxious to thwart or at least to postpone his plan to free his slaves. What better way to accomplish that end than to offer him the glamor and excitement of living in the President's household? This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that, as we shall see later, Coles was offered another tempting opportunity on his return from his second trip west in 1816. Not that Isaac resigned in order to provide an occasion to seduce Edward into retaining his slaves; it is clear that Isaac's resignation was caused directly by the special committee's report. But of the considerations that led to the choice of Edward to succeed his brother Isaac, this was perhaps one: that Isaac's disgrace could be turned to account, a calamity transformed into a providential opportunity, if Edward could be induced to postpone his own disgrace and ruin until such time as he--hopefully--would outgrow his immature idealism.
Edward, however, was not so easily induced. By January 8, 1810, Isaac was already writing impatiently to John, What has he decided to do? Will he come on and make an experiment? If he does not like it he has only to go back when he is tired. If Edward doesn't replace him in a few days, Isaac writes, he plans to go to Baltimore and perhaps even as far as Philadelphia to get rid, in a decent manner, of my engagements here. At present they [the Madisons] will not hear of my going into lodgings, but after a short absence I can return, and fix myself where I please. It will be like commencing over, and the circumstances will excite no comments, especially if I should find Edward occupying my place on my return.
That same day Edward wrote to Madison declining the position. My own conscious inability, that you would be disappointed in my qualifications for the honorable station which you have been pleased to offer me, is the reason he gives Madison, as well as the short space of time you have given me to repair to Washington . . . for my Brother requested, in your name, that I should go in this stage. But the more important reason, he says in the 1844 autobiography, was my anxiety to sell my Farm, then advertised for sale, and as soon as possible to restore my Negroes their liberty, and in the meantime to give my personal attention to their treatment.
With these admirable intentions in mind, Coles rode off to post his letter, probably at Hart's or Dyer's store, both of which served at the time as post offices for the area surrounding the Green Mountain.
On my way to the Post Office with my letter to the President, Coles writes in the 1844 autobiography, I saw Mr. Monroe (afterwards President of the U.S.) who resided about a dozen miles from me, and having offered me the use of his library, and in various other ways showed great kindness and friendship for me, I told him what had occurred, and of my decision. He urged me by all means to accept; that it was the most desirable situation in the world for a young man, particularly in such a Family as Mr. Madison's; that both he and his wife were the most kind and amiable people he ever knew; that they would treat me as a son; and I would find my residence in their family, not only most delightful, but one in which I would derive more useful information than in any other; and that having resolved to abandon my native state, and its peculiar state of society, and to remove and reside among strangers, whose habits and customs were so different from what I had been accustomed, it was particularly desirable that I should associate with non-slaveholding people, and especially form acquaintances with members of Congress and others from my favorite region of the country Northwest of the Ohio River. That with respect to selling my Farm, my Brothers having more age and experience in such matters could effect a sale better than I could. I felt the force of all these and other arguments he advanced, but most of them having occurred to me, or been previously urged on me by members of my Family, I still persevered in my determination not to accept. He then insisted on my taking more time for reflection and prevailed upon me to defer sending my letter to the next mail; and finally succeeded in prevailing on me not to send it, but to repair to Washington.
At the time of this chance meeting--fateful, as it turned out, for both men-- Monroe was in political eclipse . A close friend of both Jefferson and Madison, he had, in the last years of Jefferson's administration, become the unwilling symbol of opposition to Jefferson's policies.
Those were years of unremitting warfare between England and France, involving various combinations of allies. Both sides in what are now known as the "Napoleonic Wars" interefered with American trade, each imposing a blockade on the other. Since England and France with their colonies and allies ruled most of the world, the United States was the only neutral country that had a considerable merchant fleet, the result being that the Americans took over much of the world's trade. The volume of American trade grew so rapidly that one of the concerns of Congress was what to do with all the surplus money that was being generated by import and export duties.
Naturally, both England and France moved to check this American trade, which threatened to destroy their blockades: seizing cargoes, confiscating or burning ships, and--in England's case--seizing American seamen to serve in the English fleet. Jefferson's response to these outrages was typical of the idealism of the American experiment: he attempted to bring the great empires to heel through passive resistance, refusing to trade with anyone, making it illegal to export goods to any foreign country.
The effect of this policy on the European powers is unclear; perhaps if it had been persevered in, it might have met with some diplomatic success. Since so much of the world's trade was being carried in American ships, the embargo may eventually have hurt both sides of the European conflict enough to bring them to respect the sovereignty of the United States. But the effect on the American economy was disasterous. In Boston, Philadelphia, and New York unemployed sailors and longshoremen stalked the streets; in Virginia the price of tobacco plummeted. These were the hard times that made it difficult for Coles to sell his plantation. Americans, rebellious against any form of government interference in private affairs, protested, rioted, and attempted to evade the regulations, and Jefferson answered with repressive measures that previously he would have abhorred. The irony is that Jefferson's ideal was to avoid the militarization of the United States at almost any cost, seeing in the growth of the military the greatest danger to American democracy; yet in forcing his unpopular form of passive resistance onto the American people he was pursuing the very tyrannical measures that he sought to avoid.
Thus Jefferson ended his second term as President pursuing a policy that was clearly an economic and political disaster. A sizable opposition to Jefferson developed within his own party, led by John Randolph of Virginia, whose main objective was to prevent James Madison, Jefferson's chosen successor, from becoming President. Since the third member of Virginia's triumvirate of leaders, James Monroe, was in England conducting delicate negotiations, he was not identified with administration policies and therefore became the most convenient focus for the anti-Madison sentiment that was growing within the Republican party.
To his credit, Monroe consistently rejected offers of support for a run for the Presidency. In a time of such grave peril for the United States, he did not believe that a factional dispute within the ruling party was in the national interest. He recognized Madison's prior claim on the Presidency by reason of greater age and experience; he was willing to wait his turn.
But inevitably, because his name was constantly bruited about as a possible rival to Madison, a certain distrust developed between the two men. Monroe might know that his personal loyalty to Jefferson and Madison held firm, but there was no way for Madison to be certain of it. Although the move to nominate Monroe instead of Madison failed, Madison was hostile enough to Monroe to exclude him from his cabinet, naming Robert Smith, a member of a powerful Baltimore family, to the post of secretary of state that Monroe coveted and had every right to expect would be his.
It was in this state of exile from the inner circle of power, this time of personal bitterness and disappointment, that Monroe met Edward Coles riding over to mail his letter to Madison refusing the post of secretary to the President. What his thoughts were as he heard his young friend pour out his idealistic plans we can only guess. Here was a young man ready to throw away an opportunity that most men of his age and station would have leaped at. As noble as Coles' gesture was, to a slaveowner such as Monroe it probably seemed foolish, a naive and futile sacrifice that the young man would later regret.
Monroe therefore must have been moved to dissuade Coles out of concern for him personally and out of sympathy for his family. But there may have been a deeper motive behind Monroe's desire to change Coles' mind. As secretary to the President, Coles would live in Madison's home, handle much of Madison's correspondence, work closely with Madison and with Dolley nearly every day. He would have as regular access to Madison as any man in the nation. For that reason, the President's secretary, as we shall see, often received requests for assistance from seekers of jobs or favors, was cultivated as a man who had the President's ear and sympathy, had a certain aura of power derived not from his own office but from his proximity to the most powerful office in the land.
Of all this Monroe was aware. He knew also that Coles admired and respected him and would be a warm supporter of his interests within the circle of power from which he had been excluded. Coles, innocent and uninvolved in politics as he was, would be one of the few men close to Madison who was on good terms with both Madison and Monroe, would in fact be the perfect means of bringing about a reconciliation between the two and easing the way for Monroe to return to the sphere in which he knew he could work so effectively.
What the complex of motivations within Monroe's breast was can only be guessed at. We can be sure that Monroe's ambition was not merely personal: he was well aware of what a failure Smith was as secretary of state and how much Madison needed his talents. But there must have been some personal hopes stirring quietly as he talked to Coles of the indispensable political and social connections that come with power and influence. Jefferson had served as Washington's secretary of state and Madison as Jefferson's. The post was clearly the steppingstone to the Presidency, the training ground for the heir apparent. What was at stake for Monroe was not merely the position of secretary of state but his chance to become President.
All this on a wintry Virginia day somewhere near a backwoods store that served as post office for the tobacco plantations that lay in the hills along narrow red mud roads: Monroe gently guiding Coles from the path he had vowed to follow nearly three years earlier. The argument he hit upon was similar to that of the Coles family in that he usurped Coles' moral ground. Ah! You want to free your slaves and settle them out west! How much more chance of success you will have once you have become intimate with the great men of the west, discuss with them the best places to settle, establish connections that will be of use to you when you arrive in the wilderness. This position being offered you in Washington is not a detour from your great plan; it lies, in fact, directly on the high road. How much better for both you and your freed slaves to settle in the best possible place, surrounded by friends who will help you.
And thus Coles, sorely conflicted in his own heart between his desire to grasp a magnificent opportunity and his impatience to free his slaves, was, for a crucial moment, able to convince himself that both God and Mammon dwelt in the same city.
That Monroe reaped the reward for his subtle persuasion is history. A year later he was Madison's secretary of state, and six years later, at the end of Madison's second term, he succeeded Madison as President of the United States. Whether Coles was the cause of his success is a matter for dispute, but certainly if Coles was not a major factor, it was not for lack of trying. With these warm feelings of regard for both of these great and good men, Coles writes, and with the knowledge I had acquired in my frequent and social intercourse with Monroe, I not only let no opportunity escape to make, but frequently volunteered explanations to Mr. Madison of Mr. Monroe's conduct. In a short time, Coles says, he saw Monroe appointed secretary of state, and I shall be pardoned for adding, hearing it said, by those who were well qualified to judge, that but for me it would not have been.
But this meeting with Monroe was no less fateful for Coles himself. For although he had intended to stay with the President only until spring, which was when Isaac had originally planned to leave, he was enticed by the enjoyments, and induced by the persuasion of Mr. and Mrs. Madison, and also by the impediments caused by the war [of 1812], and the delay in selling my farm, to remain between five and six years secretary to the President, which must have been precisely the outcome for which his family had hoped.
Trapped into a false position by his promise to keep his slaves ignorant of his plans, Coles settled into the life of an absentee slaveholder, leaving his farm to his overseer and his brothers, profiting--though not nearly as much as he would have liked--from the forced labor of his slaves. And as he receded from his original enthusiasm and his scheme became more and more the slightly ridiculous pretension of a less and less youthful idealist, his dream of freeing his slaves and giving them a new life on the frontier must have seemed increasingly brittle and dried out, like long-buried bones that turn to dust at a touch.