Governor Edward Coles

Illinois counted 34,610 individuals in the state overall with a population of 5,456 in Madison County when it achieved statehood in 1818. By 1820, the state had swelled to 55,211 people. Madison County rocketed to 13,550 Illinoisans, almost 25% of the state’s population.

Population 1818 and 1820

Populations of Illinois and Madison County in 1818 and 1820. Created by Madison County Historical Museum and Archival Library staff.

Coles earned a reputation for fairness and honesty in his capacity as Register of Lands. In October 1821, about three years after he arrived in Illinois, Coles decided to throw his hat in the race for governor of Illinois.

Edward Coles

Watercolor portrait miniature of Edward Coles by John Henry Brown, 1852. Courtesy of Winterthur (Museum Collection).

According to the Illinois Constitution, the incumbent governor could not run for re-election. Coles campaigned throughout southern Illinois. He won, beating second-place finisher Joseph Phillips by only fifty votes. In his inaugural address, Coles called on the legislature to abolish slavery in Illinois. He also recommended revising the 1819 Illinois “Black Code.”1

The legal status of slavery in Illinois became a more central political issue after the gubernatorial election. Although technically illegal, slavery still existed in the state. Slaves already present in Illinois when it achieved statehood in 1818 remained in slavery. Effective enslavement perpetuated under the ploy of lifetime indentures.

Pro-slavery groups advocated for a convention to amend the Illinois constitution and fully legalize slavery. The conventionists garnered the legislative support necessary to put the convention question to the voters in a referendum.

Coles distributed antislavery literature, wrote articles for the Illinois Intelligencer, and spent large sums of his own money to ensure the defeat of the referendum. The elections on August 2, 1824, resulted in a 57% vote against calling the convention. This ended the push to permanently legalize slavery in Illinois, but Coles made enemies within the state.


Footnotes

1The 23 sections of the “Black Code” (actual title: An Act respecting free Negroes, Mulattoes, Servants, and Slaves) outlined multiple restrictions on black people’s lives. For instance, it required people of color to provide legal documentation of freedom, compelled slaveholders to give bond for any slaves they emancipated, prohibited the employment of free people of color lacking proper documentation, and restricted the movement and assembly of servants and slaves.

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