Edward Coles, Champion of Freedom

History gives Edward Coles much of the credit for keeping Illinois a “free state” in the early 19th century. As governor of the young state, Coles got in front of the issue in his inaugural speech, leading to a showdown with pro-slavery forces in the middle of his term. Four decades before the Civil War, the adversaries fought for the minds of Illinois voters on the battleground of a public referendum to amend the state constitution.

Coles formed his opinion on slavery as a young college student. He became determined to express his convictions with a grand gesture: freeing the enslaved people he would someday inherit from his family. The twists and turns in Coles’ path to manumitting his human inheritance tell the story of a privileged young man both principled and prejudiced, idealistic and pragmatic.

This online exhibition features images from collections held by the Madison County Historical Society and other historical institutions. It was written and designed by Jenn VanBibber, Curator, and Mary Z. Rose, Assistant Curator, at the Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library. Please send your feedback and/or any questions about this exhibition to madisoncountyhistoryil@gmail.com.

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