One of the earliest advocates of a State Library for Illinois, Edward Coles is today mostly forgotten, but his legacy was deep and long lasting. The second Governor of Illinois, Coles is considered among the best executives in state history.
Born into a wealthy Virginia family on Dec. 15, 1786, Coles detested the institution of slavery from his formative years, although his family owned at least 20 slaves. One of Coles’ brothers served as private secretary to Thomas Jefferson. Coles himself served James Madison in the same capacity. However, with a burning desire to leave Virginia, he bought some 6,000 acres of land near Edwardsville, Illinois, in 1815. While his residence in Illinois was interrupted by diplomatic travels, including time in Russia, he finally settled into his new home by 1819 and quickly earned a reputation as a well-mannered gentleman. But his concerns about slavery continued to trouble him. He became a candidate for Illinois Governor in 1822 and was elected with a minority total in a surprise victory. Coles’ views on equality for all men were in strong conflict with the pro-slavery Illinois House of Representatives. 1
Among the leading issues of the day was a movement to call a convention to amend the Illinois Constitution of 1818 allowing slavery within the state. Coles was among the most vocal opponents of the referendum and campaigned bitterly against it. He distributed large volumes of printed literature and spent large sums of his own money to ensure its defeat. His efforts succeeded and elections on Aug. 2, 1824, resulted in a 57 percent vote against calling the convention. 2
Although Coles suffered considerable personal and political fallout from his stand, there is no question that the course of Illinois history would have been radically changed had slavery been allowed to exist. Few other Governors have had such an impact on Illinois history. After his term ended, Coles ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1830. He eventually left Illinois for Philadelphia, where he continued to voice his anti-slavery views. By his last years, Coles had become a very wealthy man, owning large amounts of income-producing real estate. But he never lost his hatred of slavery and was troubled by the direction the country had taken. Ironically, one of his own sons settled in Virginia, bought slaves, and lost his life fighting for the Confederacy. 3
In June 1833, Coles made a significant donation to Illinois, forwarding a collection of newspapers to “deposit in the library of the Secretary for the use and benefit of the state of Illinois.” His gift of the newspapers is an early example of the historic preservation that later became a hallmark of the State Library. 4
Coles died on July 7, 1868. His burial site in Edwardsville is today a state historic site, a tribute to the role that he played in keeping slavery out of Illinois.
1. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 21-24; Moses I-307-309.
2. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 25; Moses I-320-324.
3. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men, 2nd ed., 21, 26, 28-30, 340.
4. The Governors’ Letter-Books 1818-1834, 233.