Early American Places


NIU PressNIU Press

Confronting Slavery:

Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America

by Suzanne Cooper Guasco

Midwest Book Award, Midwest Independent Publishers Association, 2013

Russell P. Strange Memorial Book of the Year Award, Illinois State Historical Society, 2014

265 pages

12 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-87580-689-1



Suzanne Cooper Guasco . . . tells Coles’s story as a ‘life-long confrontation with slavery.’ Her account is fascinating, inspiring, and tragic all at once.
— Richard Brookhiser, Claremont Review of Books

Edward Coles, who lived from 1786-1868, is most often remembered for his antislavery correspondence with Thomas Jefferson in 1814, freeing his slaves in 1819, and leading the campaign against the legalization of slavery in Illinois during the 1823-24 convention contest.

In this new full-length biography Suzanne Cooper Guasco demonstrates for the first time how Edward Coles continued to confront slavery for nearly forty years after his time in Illinois. Not only did he attempt to shape the slavery debates in Virginia immediately before and after Nat Turner’s rebellion, he also consistently entered national political discussions about slavery throughout the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. On each occasion Coles promoted a vision of the nation that combined a celebration of America’s antislavery past with an endorsement of free labor ideology and colonization, a broad appeal that was designed to mollify his fellow-countrymen’s sense of economic self-interest and virulent anti-black prejudice. As Cooper Guasco persuasively shows, Coles’s antislavery nationalism, first crafted in Illinois in the 1820s, became the foundation of the Republican Party platform and ultimately contributed to the destruction of slavery.

By exploring his entire life, readers come to see Edward Coles as a vital link between the unfulfilled antislavery sensibility of men like Thomas Jefferson and the pragmatic antislavery politics of Abraham Lincoln. In Edward Coles’ life-long confrontation with slavery, as well, we witness the rise of antislavery politics in nineteenth-century America and come to understand the central role politics played in the fight against slavery.

About the Author

Suzanne Cooper Guasco is the Robert Haywood Morrison Associate Professor and Chair of History at Queens University of Charlotte.

Suzanne Cooper Guasco’s elegantly written study of Edward Coles, second governor of Illinois, proves that his life story merits historians’ attention. Cooper Guasco has a gift for selecting diverting examples, and she adeptly depicts how throughout his long public life Coles battled sectionalism, sought national unity, and tirelessly argued that the United States’ founders opposed slavery.
— Middle West Review
The book’s major strengths lie in Guasco’s recognition that Coles’s life and antislavery politics span eras, regions, and ideologies that historians often examine in isolation, preventing them from seeing nineteenth-century social and political histories as deeply intertwined. She effectively makes the case for Coles’s own trajectory, demonstrates the development of antislavery politics over several decades, and thereby brings Coles more fully into the historiography of antislavery.
— Thomas Bahde, Ohio Valley History