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Edward Coles Papers

Identifier: Mss. 39.2 C68

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Scope and Contents

Typescript copies of letters and extracts, written by Edward Coles (1786-1868), who held the positions of secretary to President James Madison and Governor of Illinois. Subjects covered by the letters include James Madison and the War of 1812; Madison's not emancipating his slaves at his death; the claiming of public lands by individual states; the estate of James Monroe; Andrew Jackson; Thomas Jefferson's authorship of the Ordinance of 1787; and Jefferson's relationship with John Adams. Typescripts of letters written by Edward Coles to Nicholas Biddle, Joseph C. Cabell, Henry Clay, Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Joel R. Poinsett, Henry S. Randall, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, William Cabell Rives, Charles Sumner, Martin Van Buren and Robert C. Winthrop, among other correspondents.


  • Creation: 1814-1857

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access:

Collection is open to all researchers. Manuscript collections and archival records may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal or state right to privacy laws and regulations, such as the Virginia Public Records Act (Code of Virginia. § 42.1-76-91); and the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (Code of Virginia § 2.2-3705.5). Confidential material may include, but is not limited to, educational, medical, and personnel records. If sensitive material is found in this collection, please contact a staff member immediately. The disclosure of personally identifiable information pertaining to a living individual may have legal consequences for which the College of William and Mary assumes no responsibility.

Conditions Governing Use:

Before reproducing or quoting from any materials, in whole or in part, permission must be obtained from the Special Collections Research Center, and the holder of the copyright, if not Swem Library.

Biographical Information:

Edward Coles was born in Albemarle County, Va. 15 December 1786. He attended Hampden-Sydney College and the College of William and Mary. He was private secretary to James Madison. He emancipated his slaves upon his removal to Illinois. Coles was elected governor of Illinois. He moved to Philadelphia and died in 1868.

Edward Coles was the second governor of Illinois (1822–1826) and a lifelong opponent of slavery. Born in Albemarle County, he inherited a dozen slaves from his father and, against his family’s wishes, decided to free them. But Coles was forced to delay his plans because of financial, moral, and practical difficulties. He served as secretary to U.S. president James Madison (1810–1815), traveling to the Northeast on behalf of the president in 1811 and acting as a special envoy to Russia in 1816. In 1814, Coles exchanged letters with Thomas Jefferson, encouraging the former president to support the gradual emancipation of slaves, but Jefferson refused. In 1817, Coles sold his Rockfish plantation to his brother and moved seventeen of his nineteen slaves west to Illinois, freeing them along the way. As governor of Illinois, he helped defeat a referendum aimed at calling a pro-slavery constitutional convention. He later moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he corresponded with Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, convincing him to oppose slavery in the General Assembly’s debate of the issue in 1831. Coles also encouraged Madison to free his slaves in his will, but the former president did not. He married Sally Logan Roberts in 1833 and the couple had three children. Coles died in Philadelphia in 1868.


0.01 Linear Foot

Arrangement of Materials:

This collection is arranged chronologically by date.

Acquisition Information:

Gift: 30 items.

Related Materials:

These letters are in typescript form, meaning that they are typed copies made from contemporary copies. All these letters have been printed/published in the William and Mary College Quarterly, 2nd Series, v.7, pp. 32-41, 97-113, 158-173.

Guide to the Edward Coles Papers
Finding Aid Authors: Special Collections Staff.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
The collection description/finding aid is written in English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Research Center Repository