Edward Coles freed his slaves… and was a neighbor(at one time) of Thomas Jefferson. Paul Finkelman wants to know why Jefferson couldn’t follow the example of this “contemporary.” Professor Finkelman’s analysis suffers a fatal case of contrariwise- Coles was following the examples set by his illustrious neighbor.
Jefferson and Coles were not contemporaries… Jefferson was 43 years older than Coles- an overlooked distinction in Finkelman’s interrogatory. Coles grew up and matured in a Virginia largely crafted by Jefferson. The anti-slavery spirit so many associate with Coles was made possible by the liberal society Jefferson helped reform(we should also note that Coles freed his slaves in Illinois territory, not Virginia.)
Edward Coles was the perfect representation… of the generation Jefferson predicted would have an impact on slavery. Much ink has been spilled about Coles writing Jefferson encouraging emancipation. While Jefferson never emacipated all his slaves- his anti-slavery views and actions have been documented. Coles’ activism was the next step forward in the cause, while Jefferson’s were becoming a footnote. Jefferson said as much in response to one of Coles’ letters:
“The sentiments breathed through the whole do honor to both the head and heart of the writer. Mine on the subject of slavery of negroes have long since been in possession of the public, and time has only served to give them stronger root…. I had always hoped that the younger generation receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast, & had become as it were the vital spirit of every American, that the generous temperament of youth, analogous to the motion of their blood, and above the suggestions of avarice, would have sympathized with oppression wherever found, and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it….Your solitary but welcome voice is the first which has brought this sound to my ear; and I have considered the general silence which prevails on this subject as indicating an apathy unfavorable to every hope. Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come…” Jefferson to Coles; Aug. 25, 1814