Life After Politics

Coles ended his term as governor in 1826 with overwhelming support from the Illinois people. The Illinois Constitution, however, prohibited incumbent governors from running for re-election. Coles then set his eyes on a senatorial seat.

Despite his personal popularity, Coles didn’t have any institutional party support. When he ran for the United States Senate in 1831, he found himself at odds with the rising tide of Jacksonian politics. Jackson supporters blamed Coles in part for Jackson’s defeat in the 1824 presidential election. Coles’ persona as a polished Virginian seemed old-fashioned compared with Jackson’s rugged frontier image. Coles and Judge Sidney Breese both lost badly to incumbent Joseph Duncan.

Sally Roberts Coles

Watercolor portrait miniature of Sally Roberts Coles by John Henry Brown, 1855-1856. Courtesy of Winterthur (Museum Collection).

After retiring from the political spotlight, Coles moved to Philadelphia. In 1833, he married a much younger Sally Logan Roberts. The couple had three children.

Coles maintained a friendship with former president James Madison. While celebrating Christmastime together at Montpelier, Madison told Coles about a tentative plan to free his slaves in his will. Coles continued the conversation in a letter to Madison from Philadelphia. Encouraging Madison to follow through with his plan, Coles wrote that failing to do so “would be a blot and stigma on [Madison’s] otherwise spotless escutcheon.” He argued that the debt-free Madison could afford to free his slaves, and proposed a graduated plan of emancipation to be invoked upon Madison’s death.

Ultimately, Madison’s last will did not provide for freeing his slaves.1 This disappointed and baffled Coles. He struggled for years to try to understand his friend’s decision.


1Madison left money in his will to the American Colonization Society. He and Coles had both joined the organization, which supported free African Americans’ colonization of Africa. Some members, like Coles, saw universal emancipation and emigration as the only means of eradicating slavery. In fact, Coles wrote to Madison that “it [is] impossible for the two races ever to live harmoniously together—or, if they could, I do not think it would be for the interest of either to do so.” Others in the American Colonization Society wanted to retain slavery but ship free black people “to Africa.” The Society played a role in establishing the colony of Liberia in West Africa.