Colleagues and Friends
Dolley Madison’s cousin Edward Coles was 24 years-old when he became President Madison’s private secretary. From 1810 to 1815, Coles assisted the president in many ways beyond the routine duties of delivering messages and copying documents. He reported political information he gathered through his daily contacts and responded to requests for government jobs and patronage. Coles also helped to organize events such as the naval ball celebrating the capture of the HMS Macedonian in 1812.
An idealistic young man, Coles thought highly of Madison and strongly supported his republican ideals. As a student at William and Mary, Coles was convinced that slavery violated the principles of natural rights and individual freedom. (He came to this conclusion through discussions with college president Bishop James Madison, a cousin of Montpelier’s James Madison). Coles wanted to free the slaves he inherited when his father died in 1808, but held back due to his family’s opposition. While in Washington, Coles considered how he would become independent of the system of slavery.
In 1811 Coles and his brother John traveled through New England and met John Adams, who told the men of his anger when Thomas Jefferson visited shortly after defeating Adams in the presidential election of 1800. Coles, who had heard the same story from Jefferson, helped Adams understand that Jefferson had not intended to slight him. Coles reported the conversation to Jefferson, saying that Adams had always thought well of Jefferson, and Coles later reflected that his visit with Adams was “instrumental ... in reviving the long suspended correspondence between these two great men of 1776.”
In 1815 Coles, accompanied by his slave Ralph Crawford, traveled west and bought land in Illinois and Missouri. After completing a diplomatic mission as Madison’s personal envoy to Russia in 1816, Coles declined the opportunity to become James Monroe’s personal secretary. Instead he sold his plantation to his oldest brother Walter and prepared to move west, offering his slaves the choice to come with him. (All agreed, except two older women whose family members were owned by Coles’s mother.) As they traveled down the Ohio River in April 1819, Coles announced to the six adults and eleven children that they were now free, and that he would help them acquire their own land in Illinois.
Coles quickly became involved in Illinois politics, winning the 1822 election for governor. Madison sent Coles a congratulatory gift of a pedometer, writing, “As you are about to assume new motives to walk in a straight path, and with measured steps, I wish you to accept the little article enclosed, as a type of the course I am sure you will pursue and as a token of the affection I have so long cherished for you.” Coles called for the final abolition of slavery in Illinois in his inaugural address. When a proslavery faction called for a state constitutional convention intending to legalize slavery, Coles worked to defeat it. In the process he made enemies who embroiled Coles in legal challenges to the manner in which he had emancipated his own slaves. Coles moved to Philadelphia in 1831 and lived there the rest of his life, while continuing to own his western property.
Coles was anxious for James Madison to free his slaves as well. Coles recalled, “In Dec. 1831 while on a visit to Mr. M. he made known to me his wish to provide in his will for the emancipation of his slaves after the death of his wife, & asked my advice on the best mode of doing it ... we parted with the understanding that it could & would be done.” In January 1832 Coles wrote to Madison, “I have frequently thought of what passed in conversation between us when I was last with you in relation to what disposition you should make of your Slaves at your death.” Coles predicted that emancipation would enhance Madison’s reputation, and warned Madison “nay pardon me for saying, it would be a blot & stigma on your otherwise spotless escutcheon, not to restore to your slaves that liberty & those rights which you have been through life so zealous & able a champion.” Coles proposed that Madison’s younger slaves be freed several years after Madison’s death, and that Madison’s relatives inherit and support the older slaves. This would protect Dolley (since the slaves’ freedom would not depend on her death), and would provide for Madison’s many elderly slaves, who would otherwise be burdened by the legal requirement to leave Virginia if emancipated.
Madison did not act on Coles’s plan. Coles eventually heard, through an acquaintance of Madison’s lawyer, that Madison trusted Dolley to emancipate his slaves through her will. Henry Clay confirmed that Dolley had stated this as Madison’s wish. However, in financial straits, Dolley sold most of the enslaved laborers to Henry Moncure when he purchased Montpelier in 1844. She did not free the five slaves she owned when she died. Her son Payne Todd emancipated slaves in his will, but he died in so much debt that his slaves were likely sold to pay his creditors.
Coles confessed his “astonishment” to historian Hugh Blair Grigsby that Madison had not carried out their planned emancipation strategy. Having taken that bold step himself, Edward Coles was bitterly disappointed that Madison did not follow.
Recommended reading: Kurt E. Leichtle and Bruce G. Carveth, Crusade Against Slavery: Edward Coles, Pioneer of Freedom (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011).
"I wish your philanthrophy would compleat its object, by changing their colour as well as their legal condition. Without this they seem destined to a privation of that moral rank & those social blessings, which give to freedom more than half its value."
-James Madison to Edward Coles, September 3, 1819
"The more I reflect on this subject the more I am satisfied, that it is due to the finale of your character & career, & to the consummation of your glory, that you should make provision in your Will for the emancipation of your Slaves."
-Edward Coles to James Madison, January 8, 1832