John Coles emigrated to Virginia from Enniscorthy, Ireland, in the 1730s. The Coles patriarch built an empire in the colonies. When his five children divided up the estate after his death in 1747, his son John II inherited nine slaves and 3,000 acres in Albemarle County.
John Coles II married Rebecca Elizabeth Tucker. The couple had thirteen children, including middle child Edward born on December 15, 1786. Edward Coles grew up at the Enniscorthy plantation, about ten miles from Monticello.
After his initial education by private tutors, Coles briefly attended Hampden-Sydney College in 1805. He didn’t like it and transferred to the College of William and Mary. A severe leg fracture kept him from graduating in 1807.
Wash drawing of the Wren Building on the campus of the College of William & Mary by Thomas Millington, circa 1840. The building was constructed in 1700. Courtesy of College of William & Mary, Swem Library Digital Projects.
College president Bishop James Madison (not to be confused with the future president) helped shape Edward Coles’ belief system. He urged students to study the ideas and texts of Enlightenment thinkers. Madison believed that the morally indefensible institution of slavery violated the principles outlined by Jefferson in the Declaration. Coles absorbed Bishop Madison’s lectures and concluded that slavery conflicted with natural law. Man was not chattel. Coles believed that the institution caused harm to both parties and corrupted the republic.1
Drawing of Bishop James Madison by John Marshal, circa 1780-1830. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Coles corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on the subject, urging him to take the lead in abolishing slavery. Jefferson understood Coles’ viewpoint. But the 71-year-old elder statesman saw practical difficulties and feared that more harm might come to newly freed slaves due to a lack of infrastructure. Jefferson advocated the end of slavery by peaceful avenues. Coles continued to urge the sage to take up the cause and interest the young nation’s citizens in gradual emancipation.
My object is to entreat and beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence, in devising, and getting into operation, some plan for the gradual emancipation of Slavery.
Letter from Edward Coles to Thomas Jefferson, July 31, 1814.
1One should not confuse the idea of abolition with equal rights. Those who sought to free the slaves did not automatically seek to grant them rights equal to their white counterparts. Coles later supported the American Colonization Society which sought to send freedmen to Africa (even those born on American soil).