Edward Coles and Free Illinois

Edward Coles, the second governor of Illinois, is largely forgotten today, which is a pity.  His actions in 1824 helped lead to Union victory in the Civil War.

Illinois came into the Union as a free state in 1818.  However, a majority of settlers in Illinois initially came from the South and some of them brought slaves, illegally, into the Sucker State.  In 1822 Edward Coles, a 36 year old native of Virginia who had settled in Illinois in 1818, was elected Governor.  Coles came from a slave-holding family, but he had long been convinced that slavery was morally wrong.  When he arrived in Illinois he freed his ten slaves and deeded to each head of a family 160 acres of land to help give them a new start in a free state.  He ran for governor because he was alarmed with the growing strength of pro-slavery forces in his new home state.  In a tight four way race he won.

As Governor, Coles fought against laws in Illinois that discriminated against blacks and against indenture laws that attempted to establish black slavery in Illinois under another name.  In 1823 pro-slavery forces had a call for a constitutional convention put on the ballot in 1824.  Had a convention been called, there is little doubt that Illinois would have been transformed into a slave state.  Working feverishly, Coles and his allies narrowly defeated the call for a constitutional convention at the ballot box in 1824 and Illinois remained a free state.  Had the Civil War begun with an Illinois that had been part of the Confederacy, or, more likely, split in two as Missouri was throughout the war between rival Union and Confederate camps, it is hard for me to see a Union victory.  Illinois contributed a quarter of a million men to the Union cause, and without those men the war in the West could never have been won.

What about Edward Coles?  He paid the price of political oblivion in Illinois.  He had offended powerful interests and a large segment of the population by his anti-slavery victory in 1824.  His attempts to hold public office in Illinois after his term as governor were all defeated.  He died in 1868, living to see the Union preserved and slavery abolished.

5 Responses to Edward Coles and Free Illinois

  • Fascinating. Thanks, Don. Never knew this even though I received my undergraduate degrees from an institution located smack dab in the middle of a county named after this remarkable gent.

  • I agree, very fascinating.

    I didn’t realize how divided Illinois was at the time.

    And an excellent analysis on Missouri. Though a “Union” state, the population was primarily a 60-40 (my guess) ‘States Right’ state.

    There were bloody reprisals all over the state and between Missouri Bushwackers, Confederate Irregulars, and ruffians of all sorts that engaged in inter-state terrorist activities (and war engagements).

  • “There were bloody reprisals all over the state”

    I suspect, though I can’t really prove it and haven’t seen this theory anywhere else, that this is the real reason Missouri came to be known as the Show Me State… because during the Civil War, your life literally depended on knowing where your neighbor’s, friends’, or family’s true loyalties really were.

    If you were loyal to the Union you couldn’t just assume your neighbor, for instance, was a Union man because if it turned out he wasn’t, he could end up killing you the next day. The fact that Union and Confederate sympathizers sometimes disguised themselves as members of the other side during guerrilla actions made things even more complicated.

  • Mike, I lived in Mattoon in Coles County for three years when I first started out as an attorney, and I am ashamed that I had no clue who Coles was at the time.

  • Didn’t know that Don. I used to drive to Mattoon for pizza (and hang with some fellas at the Sheraton (off I-57) back in the day. Even dated a Mattoon gal very briefly till she (understandably) lost interest in me.

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