August 5, 2020
On this Day in Purple, August 5, 1822, Edward Coles, an influential abolitionist, was elected Governor of Illinois, running on an antislavery platform and bemoaning “the extraordinary malevolence of party spirit.”
Born to a wealthy patrician family in Virginia, Edward Coles (1786-1868) was a lifelong political diplomat and prominent antislavery advocate. His liberal arts education in Enlightenment philosophy at the College of William & Mary fully reoriented his views on slavery. He would go on to serve as President James Madison’s personal secretary, developing close friendships with both his employer and Madison’s collaborator and mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Coles consistently advocated for abolitionism and counselled Jefferson (unsuccessfully) to throw his support behind emancipation.
In order to emancipate his own family’s slaves, Coles relocated to the new state of Illinois in 1818, which bestowed greater rights to free blacks than in Virginia. En route to Illinois, Coles formally freed his family’s slaves outside of Pittsburgh, PA, inviting them to accompany him to Illinois if they wished.
Following a brief term as the state register of lands, Coles announced his campaign as the second governor of Illinois in 1821, running on an antislavery platform freed from the various political factions that had formed. Elected on August 5, 1822, Coles would serve one term as governor, thwarting a forceful attempt at revising the state’s constitution to legalize slavery.
Image courtesy of the Illinois Secretary of State
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