Edward Coles monument, Valley View Cemetery, Edwardsville, Illinois. MCHS photograph 1986-072-0023a.
Edward Coles died in his home on Spruce Street on July 7, 1868, at the age of 81. He now lies entombed in a family plot at Woodland Cemetery in Philadelphia. A monument to his memory stands at the Valley View Cemetery in Edwardsville, Illinois.
Coles had a firm grasp of the indefensibility of owning human beings, despite underappreciating the urgency of effecting justice and misunderstanding the concept of racial equality. Coles walked the talk in his personal and public life. Inspired by Thomas Jefferson and mentored by James Madison, Coles exhorted these monumental men to lead by personal action regarding emancipation. But Jefferson and Madison both avoided the issue.
The death of his son on the Confederate battlefield, fighting to preserve enslaving others as a way of life, provides a poignant end to Coles’ story. It must have deeply anguished Coles that the people he respected and loved diverged with him on such a foundational principle. Despite manumitting his own slaves and keeping slavery out of Illinois, Coles ultimately failed to convince those closest to him to change the way they thought about slavery.
An Illinois State Historical Society marker at the grounds of the first Edwardsville town center commemorates the site where Edward Coles stood trial. It includes the following quoted inscription on the importance of education from Governor Edward Coles’ second message to the legislature on November 16, 1821:
To preserve a continuous line of generations that liberty obtained by the valor of our forefathers, we must make provisions for the moral and intellectual improvement of those who are to follow.
Quotation on the Illinois State Historical Society marker commemorating the trial of Governor Edward Coles, installed in 1999.
Fittingly, two Lincoln Schools (both segregated and desegregated) previously educated the town’s students where the marker now stands. Today the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities occupies the adjacent lot.