Madison County vs. Edward Coles

In January 1824, Coles received a summons to the Circuit Court of Madison County. The County Commissioners had entered a plea of debt against Coles to the tune of $2,000. Citing Section 3 of the 1819 Illinois “Black Code,” the complaint alleged Coles failed to give the required bond of $1,000 for each of the ten slaves he freed who made a home in Illinois. He therefore owed a penalty of $200 for each person freed.

The Illinois Black Code explicitly sought to discourage people from coming to Illinois for the purpose of freeing slaves. The bond requirement made emancipators responsible for ensuring that freed people would not become a financial drain on the state. The Black Code became law on March 20, 1819. Coles and the people he planned to manumit left Virginia for Illinois just two days later.

The Commissioners’ complaint against Coles described the ten people he had failed to bond in 1819: Ralph and Kate Crawford and their four children; Ralph Crawford’s siblings, Robert and Polly; Thomas Cobb; and Nancy Gains.1

The case went to trial. Judge John Reynolds presided. James Turney represented the plaintiffs; Starr and Lockwood defended Coles. In September of 1824, a jury found in favor of the County Commissioners. In fact, John Howard, one of the plaintiffs, acted as the jury foreman. The court ordered Coles to pay $2,000.

Coles trial verdict

Handwritten verdict finding Edward Coles guilty of failing to bond his ten manumitted slaves, assessing him the $200 penalty for each. Available online in the “Illinois Probate Records, 1819-1988” collection at FamilySearch

Coles requested a retrial. In the meantime, Illinois residents had decided the fate of slavery in Illinois: the conventionists hoping to legalize slavery had been defeated the month before the verdict. On January 3, 1825, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law absolving violators of Section 3 of the Black Code from penalties.2 The Supreme Court of Illinois ruled in favor of Coles on appeal.


1None of the ten people Coles manumitted had become financial dependents of the county in the five years since 1819 when they had gained their freedom (see Life in Illinois in this online exhibition). But in 1824, pro-slavery Illinoisans sought to force a constitutional convention and legalize slavery in the state. The conventionists used the legal battle to undermine Coles’ reputation and distract his attention and financial resources from fighting to prevent the convention.

2The Illinois Black Code wasn’t repealed in full until 1865. John Jones, a wealthy freeborn black abolitionist, led the repeal effort.