Coles, Edward

Born: 1786-12-15 Albemarle County, Virginia

Died: 1868-07-07 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Flourished: 1821-1832 Illinois

Edward Coles was a private secretary, federal government official, fierce anti-slavery advocate, businessman, and the second governor of Illinois. Born into one of the first families of Virginia, Coles grew up at Enniscorthy Plantation--a sprawling estate tended by numerous enslaved people. He received his education at Hampden-Sidney College and the College of William and Mary. At William and Mary, Coles came to embrace abolitionism. Shortly before graduating, he inherited 782 acres of land and twenty enslaved people from his father. Coles was determined to sell the land and free the enslaved people, but Virginia law and the outbreak of the War of 1812 prevented a quick resolution of his father's estate. While he waited, Coles became the private secretary to President James Madison, a position he held for three years. Determined to leave Virginia, Coles traveled west in 1815 to Illinois, where he purchased 6,000 acres of land near Edwardsville. A diplomatic mission to Russia and subsequent tour of Great Britain and Europe delayed his permanent move to Illinois, but by 1821, he had moved to a farm near Edwardsville, where he also worked as receiver of the federal land office. Once out of Virginia, Coles freed his enslaved people; some received jobs on his farm, and others found jobs in Edwardsville or St. Louis. In 1822, he was elected the second governor of Illinois (1822-26). Coles was a candidate for U.S. Congress in 1831 but was not elected. In 1832, Coles left Illinois and settled in Philadelphia. While there, he served as president of the Board of Canal Commissioners and negotiated loans with eastern financiers for the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

Robert P. Howard, Mostly Good and Competent Men: Illinois Governors, 1818 to 1988 (Springfield, IL: Illinois Issues, 1988), 21-30; Gravestone, Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA; John H. Krenkel, Illinois Internal Improvements, 1818-1848 (Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press, 1958), 38-39.