Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Chandos M. Brown


Born in 1786, Edward Coles came of age as Americans attempted to define this nation's character. Convinced of his generation's responsibility to ensure the survival of the republican experiment, Coles emerged from the College of William and Mary determined to assume a position of authority. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, he left Williamsburg persuaded that slavery was morally and ideologically wrong. Burdened by a conflict between a sense of duty to serve his nation and a commitment to eliminate slavery, Coles embarked on a public career that took him from the seat of national power in Washington City, to the rustic frontier of Illinois, and, finally, to the cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia.;Throughout his journey, his antislavery sensibility forced him to redefine his claim to authority. While serving as President James Madison's private secretary, Cole's participated in a national political culture that utilized elite networks to accomplish political business. Although he exercised considerable influence, he remained troubled by the slavery issue and decided to immigrate to the frontier, where he emancipated his enslaved property. to Coles's dismay, Illinois' commitment to freedom proved to be illusory. as he attempted to transform, his environment, he adopted democratic political tactics and, as governor, employed them to defeat a movement to legalize slavery. Those efforts, however, left him disillusioned with public service. Unwilling to accept his role as a displaced frontier elite, Coles moved east and settled in Philadelphia. There, the political crisis of the 1850s drew him back into the public arena. Determined to prevent a sectional crisis, Coles represented himself as the authority on the legacy of the American Revolution. Highlighting his intimate relationship with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he attempted to recast the founding generation as antislavery statesmen who would have been outraged by the political developments of the antebellum era. Tragically, his efforts were unsuccessful and the nation plunged into civil war.;Edward Coles was emblematic of a generation of Americans who were alarmed by the democratic changes surrounding them, yet unable to prevent the erosion of elite authority those transformations engendered.



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