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Crusade Against Slavery

Crusade Against Slavery

Edward Coles, Pioneer of Freedom

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Kurt E. Leichtle and Bruce G. Carveth


Paperback (Other formats: Hardcover)
282 pages, 6 x 9, 9 illustrations


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About the Book

Edward Coles was a wealthy heir to a central Virginia plantation, an ardent emancipator, the second governor of Illinois, the loyal personal secretary to President James Madison, and a close antislavery associate of Thomas Jefferson. Yet never before has a full-length book detailed his remarkable life story and his role in the struggle to free all slaves. In Crusade Against Slavery, Kurt E. Leichtle and Bruce G. Carveth correct this oversight with the first modern and complete biography of a unique but little-known and quietly influential figure in American history. 

Rejecting slavery from a young age, Coles's early wishes to free his family's slaves initially were stymied by legal, practical, and family barriers. Instead he went to Washington, D.C., where his work in the White House was a life-changing blend of social glitter, secretarial drudge, and distasteful political patronage. Returning home, he researched places where he could live out his ideals. After considerable planning and preparation, he left his family's Virginia tobacco plantation in 1819 and started the long trip west to Edwardsville, Illinois, pausing along the Ohio River on an emotional April morning to free his slaves and offer each family 160 acres of Illinois land of their own. Some continued to work for Coles, while others were left to find work for themselves. This book revisits the lives of the slaves Coles freed, including a noted preacher and contributor to the founding of what is now the second-oldest black Baptist organization in America. 

Crusade Against Slavery details Coles's struggles with frontier life and his surprise run and election to the office of Illinois governor as well as his continuing antislavery activities. At great personal cost, he led the effort to block a constitutional convention that would have legalized slavery in the state, which resulted in an acrimonious civil suit brought on by his political enemies, who claimed he violated the law by not issuing a bond of emancipation for his slaves. Although initially convicted by a partisan jury, Coles was vindicated when the Illinois Supreme Court overturned the decisions of the lower courts. Through the story of Coles's moral and legal battles against slavery, Leichtle and Carveth unearth new perspectives on an institution that was on unsure footing yet strongly ingrained in the business interests at the economic base of the fledgling state. 

In 1831, after less than a decade in Illinois-and after losing a bid for Congress-Coles left for Philadelphia, where he remained in correspondence with Madison about the issue of slavery. Drawing on previous incomplete treatments of Coles's life, including his own short memoir, Crusade Against Slavery includes the first published analysis of Madison's failure to free his slaves despite his plans to do so through his will and a fascinating exploration of Coles's struggle to understand Madison's inability to live up to the ideals both men shared.


Kurt E. Leichtle is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls. His articles have been published in the Magazine of History, The Historical Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of War

Bruce G. Carveth is a writer and former editor for business publications.


" As an avid reader, I enjoy delving into history. As Madison County's treasurer, I especially enjoy learning about the history of this county. Recently, I read the biography of the state's second govenor (1822-1826) by Kurt Leichtle and Bruce Carveth...This book recognizes a man who did great things in Madison County, and I highly recommend it."--Kurt Prenzler, St. Louis Post Dispatch

"Crusade Against Slavery: Edward Coles, Pioneer of Freedom
by Kurt E. Leichtle and Bruce Carveth is a laudable biography of Edward Coles, who was private secretary to President James Madison and later Illinois's second governor, who left his imprint on the nation's history by resolutely combating a proslavery movement in Illinois during the early 1820s."--Graham A. Peck, Ohio Valley History

"Edward Coles is best remembered in the Midwest as the governor who between 1822 and 1824 fought to keep Illinois from becoming a slave state. Kurt E. Leichtle and Bruce G. Carveth’s new biography demonstrates the heavy cost Coles paid for that brief episode. Coles spent most of his life in Virginia and Pennsylvania, but it was the decade he spent in Illinois and the actions he took there that indelibly marked his fate. Edward Coles was born into Virginia’s slaveholding aristocracy."--James Simeone, Illinois Wesleyan University

"Kurt E. Leichtle and Bruce G. Carveth have written a biography of Edward Coles (1786-1868) that aspires to be the first full-length treatment of the man's life. The result of this more expansive story, the authors claim, is a biography of "a common man who made uncommon history," a man whose life might help us see American history as a dialogue between white and black experiences (p. 4)."--Suzanne Cooper Guasco, The Journal of Southern History