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Edward Coles, 1844 autobiography--Manuscript in the Pennsylvania Historical Society. Back

Could it actually have come to Coles as a revelation in a classroom in Williamsburg during the winter of 1806-7?--The exchange between Coles and Bishop Madison is taken wholly from the 1844 autobiography, there being no other record of it. Since Coles decided not to tell his family about the change in his views of slavery, we see no hint in his letters home that anything out of the ordinary had happened to him. Thus the only accounts of his "conversion" to abolitionism appear in his three autobiographies, all of which can be found in the Pennsylvania Historical Society.

The 1844 autobiography seems to indicate a rather sudden insight, gained either on the day that Coles asked Bishop Madison how he could justify holding slaves or over a few previous days of lecture. The conversation with Bishop Madison may have been condensed from a number of conversations over a period of days or weeks.

The 1863 autobiography says simply that Coles came to the belief that slavery was evil during this [the fall] term of the Senior class and was to a great extent influenced by the lectures delivered by Bishop Madison on moral philosophy and national politics.

The 1827 autobiography does not suggest so specific a turning point. As soon as I was capable of reading and reflecting on the nature of man, his duties to himself, to his fellow-man, and to his creator, Coles writes, I became strongly impressed with the belief that it was wrong to hold a fellow being in slavery; and at an early period of my life determined not to do so, whatever might be the sacrifice of pecuniary interest, or personal convenience. It is possible, however, that Coles was simply not interested in going into detail here. The "early period of my life" that Coles refers to could easily be his college years, perhaps the earliest time that he was "capable of reading and reflecting on the nature of man." This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that a few sentences later Coles tells us that he withheld expression of his opinions and determination from any, but a few of my brother collegians. Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that Coles' desire to free his slaves stemmed from a sudden recognition of the logical inconsistency between slavery and a belief in the rights of man which occurred at some time during the lectures given by Bishop Madison in the late fall or early winter of 1806. Back

Bishop James Madison was a cousin of his more famous namesake--The portrait we have drawn of Bishop Madison is based mainly on William and Mary Quarterly, series 1, vol. 4 (1895-96) editor's note on pp. 107, and William and Mary Quarterly, series 1, vol. 8 (1899-1900) editor's notes on pp. 220 and 221. See also the Dictionary of American Biography. Back

Unlawful possession of the wealth I enjoyed--Undated fragment in Coles' handwriting in the Princeton University Library. Back

Edward Coles

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