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The Governor Coles State Memorial is a concrete memorial dedicated to Edward Coles, the second governor of Illinois. The statue features a bronze portrait of Coles and is maintained by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency as a state historic site.

Edward Coles was the second governor of Illinois and a leading abolitionist who helped defeat an attempt to legalize slavery in the state during the 1820s. Coles himself was once a Virginia slave owner, but he came to see the institution of slavery as immoral and freed his slaves at great financial cost. Representing those who opposed slavery, Coles won the 1822 gubernatorial election and then defeated an attempt to call a convention that would have revised the state constitution and legalized slavery in Illinois.


This memorial to the abolitionists Edward Coles was dedicated in 1929 and reflects the popularity of Art-Deco inspired designs during that era.

This memorial to the abolitionists Edward Coles was dedicated in 1929 and reflects the popularity of Art-Deco inspired designs during that era.

The memorial features a bronze image of Coles and an inscription that credits him for keeping slavery out of the Illinois Constitution.

The memorial features a bronze image of Coles and an inscription that credits him for keeping slavery out of the Illinois Constitution.

Edward Coles was the second governor of Illinois and a leading abolitionist who helped defeat an attempt to legalize slavery in the state during the 1820s. Coles himself was once a Virginia slave owner, but he came to see the institution of slavery as immoral and freed his slaves at great financial cost. Representing those who opposed slavery, Coles won the 1822 gubernatorial election and then defeated an attempt to call a convention that would have revised the state constitution and legalized slavery in Illinois.

Additional proceeding information written by Tyler Young.

Edward Coles was the second governor of Illinois and is widely credited with keeping Illinois from becoming a slave state in the 1820s. Coles lived just outside Edwardsville during his term as governor, and when Illinois wanted to honor Coles in the 1920s, Edwardsville was the preferred location for their proposed monument. Today, visitors to the Edward Coles monument encounter "a flat panel of cut Indiana limestone, 30 feet wide and 12 feet tall, with a bronze bas-relief of the abolitionist statesman in the middle."1 Yet the story of how the monument came to this site is just as interesting as the story of Edward Coles. The stories of both Coles and the creation of the monument reveal two relationships: one between Illinois and slavery and the other between monuments and historical tourism.

Coles was born in 1786 to a wealthy family of slaveholders in Virginia. While attending Bishop James Madison's (cousin of future President James Madison) moral philosophy course at the college of William and Mary, Coles began to believe that “Slavery & Justice are contradictory and reciprocally exclusive of each other.”2 This belief grew over time and Coles made plans to free the slaves he inherited following his father's death and move to non-slaveholding territory. During his tenure as President Madison's secretary, Coles urged Thomas Jefferson to advocate for emancipation, but he was unsuccessful. When Coles's service to Madison concluded in 1819, Coles freed the 17 enslaved adults and children who traveled with him while relocating to the Northwest Territories. Coles officially filed for their manumission in Edwardsville, Illinois, on July 4th. Coles then bought a farm near Edwardsville, where he employed the slaves that he had emancipated.3

Coles became the second governor of Illinois in 1822. Early in his term, the Illinois state legislature passed a resolution to revise the state constitution as part of an attempt to expand slavery's existing presence in Illinois.4 When Illinois reached statehood in 1818, it prohibited slavery and long-term indentured servitude contracts, but slaves and indentured servants already in the state were grandfathered and kept in bondage.5 In addition, the Illinois constitution allowed enslavers to use enslaved laborers in the salt works in the southeastern part of the state, as well as hire enslaved people from other states for this purpose.6 In 1824, Coles and other anti-convention supporters combined appeals to the antislavery legacy of the founding fathers with a "free-labor critique" of slavery.7 Coles and his supporters also appealed to the racial prejudices of white men. By stressing that slavery would increase the black population of Illinois, those opposed to the convention used white residents’ antipathy toward blacks to prevent slavery in the state.8 Though Coles himself did not believe that blacks were inferior, he recognized that such rhetoric was necessary to create a broad coalition of voters that could defeat the convention resolution.9 Indeed, the anti-convention coalition consisted of abolitionists, racists, and enslavers who feared an influx of new enslaved people would challenge their economic monopoly.10 In August of 1824, the convention resolution was defeated by 1,688 votes, and there were no further attempts to expand slavery in Illinois.11 Nevertheless, in 1830 there were at least 747 enslaved people and a number of long-term indentured servants still in the state.12

Coles did not run again when his term expired in 1826, and he left the state for good in 1831. But his role in stopping slavery's expansion in Illinois "secured for him an antislavery reputation that spread up and down the Atlantic seaboard," and explains why the people of Edwardsville wanted to honor him in the early twentieth century.13

In 1917, Madison County historian W. T. Norton became interested in creating a monument to honor Coles.14 As a result of Norton's efforts, in 1919 the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill that would provide $5,000 to build the monument.15

Despite the project's funding, attempts to build the monument stalled until 1926 when local politicians and the Edwardsville Rotary Club demanded the monument be built. Among the suggested locations for the monument was the Lincoln School, located on the same site as the original courthouse where Coles freed his slaves.16 But the Lincoln School location was symbolic for another reason. Since 1869, the location served as the segregated school for African American children in Edwardsville.17

The man who had the final say over the monument's location was Illinois state Director of Public Works and Buildings Cornelius R. Miller.18 His employees evaluated several sites for the monument, but during the selection process local businessmen sought to build the monument along the highway to St. Louis (soon to become Route 66), where they were constructing the segregated Valley View Cemetery.19 The appeal of this road and the people it would bring influenced the decision to choose the Valley View location. Advocates of the Valley View Cemetery location claimed it would "attract the attention of thousands of autoists traveling over the Chicago and St. Louis highway."20 To sweeten their appeal, the cemetery group offered to grant $2000 toward the project and offered to serve as care-taker of the site.21 Meanwhile, the Madison County Negro Welfare Association endorsed the Lincoln School location, claiming, "we represent the sentiment of about three thousand citizens of our race in Madison County in asking that this monument be erected" at the Lincoln school.22 When it became known that the Valley View location was favored, those who supported the Lincoln School location increased their lobbying efforts. The Association, likely aware that the Valley View Cemetery group wanted the monument for financial reasons, stated that they were not seeking "commercial gain in connection with the monument," but were instead motivated by "the sacred duty we owe to the man who did so much for our people."23 By 1927, however, the final decision was made to place the memorial at Valley View Cemetery, with construction ending in 1928. Though the state and the Valley View group offered to donate money for a plaque that would be placed at the Lincoln School, the black community refused this placatory gesture.24 Though the monument was used in the Valley View Cemetery's promotional materials, the monument was largely forgotten and maintenance of the site deteriorated. By the late 1980s, the monument was obscured by weeds and called an “eyesore” by local residents. However, the monument was restored in the 1990s by local preservationists who secured state and local funds to refresh the monument. Landscaping was improved, new lighting was added, and the monument was cleaned.25 Today, the monument stands as a tribute to Edward Coles and the community’s complex historical memory of slavery and emancipation.

1 Jeffrey Manuel, "The Case of the Hijacked Statue of the Great Abolitionist," Public Seminar, July 29, 2020, https://publicseminar.org/essays/the-case-of-the-hijacked-statue-of-the-great-abolitionist/.

2 Edward Coles, as quoted in Suzanne Cooper Guasco, Confronting Slavery: Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2013), 21, 27.

3 Guasco, Confronting Slavery, 7984.

4 Ibid., 105.

5 Anne Twitty, Before Dred Scott: Slavery and Legal Culture in the American Confluence, 17871857 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 41.

6 Twitty, Before Dred Scott, 42; Constitution of the State of Illinois, 1818, art. 6, sec. 2.

7 Guasco, Confronting Slavery, 107.

8 Ibid., 127.

9 Ibid. Coles also supported colonization and became a member of the American Colonization Society in 1827. Despite having fewer prejudices against blacks than many ACS members, Coles supported the removal of African Americans from the United States because he believed whites would never accept them as equals. Guasco, Confronting Slavery, 141.

10 Guasco, Confronting Slavery, 128.

11 Ibid., 129.

12 Twitty, Before Dred Scott, 42.

13 Guasco, Confronting Slavery, 133.

14 Edward Coles Monument Application for Designation as a Landmark.

15 "Digest of New Laws Shows Range of Views Held by the Legislators," Edwardsville Intelligencer, June 28, 1919.

16 Randall Flagg, as quoted in "Fighting against slavery," Edwardsville Intelligencer, February 16, 2011, https://www.theintelligencer.com/local/article/Fighting-against-slavery-10428035.php.

17 Nichol Allen, "Lincoln School in Edwardsville," Madison Historical: The Online Encyclopedia and Digital Archive for Madison County, Illinois, last modified May 7, 2020, https://madison-historical.siue.edu/encyclopedia/lincoln-school/.

18 "Fighting Against Slavery," Edwardsville Intelligencer, February 16, 2011, https://www.theintelligencer.com/local/article/Fighting-against-slavery-10428035.php.

19 Jeffrey Manuel, "The Case of the Hijacked Statue of the Great Abolitionist," Public Seminar, July 29, 2020, https://publicseminar.org/essays/the-case-of-the-hijacked-statue-of-the-great-abolitionist/; Charles Boeschenstein et al. to Cornelius Miller, September 9, 1926, in Edward Coles Monument Application for Designation as a Landmark.

20 Otto Schmidt to Cornelius Miller, March 7, 1927, in Edward Coles Monument Application for Designation as a Landmark.

21 "Fighting Against Slavery," Edwardsville Intelligencer, February 16, 2011, https://www.theintelligencer.com/local/article/Fighting-against-slavery-10428035.php; Charles Boeschenstein et al. to Cornelius Miller, September 9, 1926, in Edward Coles Monument Application for Designation as a Landmark.

22 Coles Memorial Committee of the Madison County Negro Welfare Association to Cornelius Miller, January 29, 1927, in Edward Coles Monument Application for Designation as a Landmark.

23 Madison County Negro Welfare Association to Cornelius Miller, March 25, 1927, Edward Coles Monument Application for Designation as a Landmark.

24 Ibid.

25 Jeffrey Manuel, "The Case of the Hijacked Statue of the Great Abolitionist," Public Seminar, July 29, 2020, https://publicseminar.org/essays/the-case-of-the-hijacked-statue-of-the-great-abolitionist/.