James Madison Papers

Edward Coles to James Madison, 8 January 1832

Jany: 8 1832


Thinking it possible, my dear Sir, you may not wish others to see what I am now about to take the liberty of writing to you, and if it should not be entirely agreeable to you that you can the more readily throw it into the fire and think no more of a thing which is known only to you and myself, I am induced to add, on a seperate sheet, that I have frequently thought of what passed in conversation between us when I was last with you in relation to what disposition you should make of your Slaves at your Death. The more I reflect on this subject the more I am satisfied, that it is due to the finale of your character and career, and to the consummation of your glory, that you should make provision in your Will for the emancipation of your Slaves. I may venture to say to you, on such an occasion, without I hope wounding your delicacy, that you have in your long useful and prominent life acquired a character for pure & pre-eminent virtue, seldom attained in this or any other age or Country. Much as you will be admired for the qualities of the mind, I am greatly mistaken if you are not held in higher estimation by posterity for those of the heart. Thus distinguished for good feelings, and pure principles, is it not the more incumbent on you to act a part to your slaves which shall be in unison with both. It seems to me repugnant to the distinctive and characteristic traits of your character—nay pardon me for saying, it would be a blot and stigma on your otherwise spotless escutcheon, not to restore to your slaves that liberty and those rights which you have been through life so zealous & able a champion. Mr. Jefferson unfortunately was prevented by his debts from paying this tribute to his feelings and principles. You will not be thus prevented; and moreover having no children, the obligation is the stronger to do what duty, consistency and your own peculiar character imperiously require, and is absolutely necessary to put a proper finish to your life and character. This is not only my opinion, but I have been gratified to hear the same opinion expressed by many; among the most strong and decided of whom I will take the liberty to name your neighbour Gov: Barbour, who has lately expressed to me much solicitude on this subject.

You seemed to think there would be much difficulty in their emancipation, subsequent support, and transportation out of the Country, in consequence of the advanced age and helpless situation of many of your slaves, and their matrimonial connexion with the slaves of your neighbours. There will of course always be these kind of difficulties; but they are temporary, and nothing compared to the example of your countenancing, and as far as you can of perpetuating the bondage of so many unfortunate human beings, whose longer continuance among us must be attended with an increase of numbers, which must ultimately be removed out of the Country with of course a proportionate increase of these difficulties, or they will massacre or be massacred by the Whites—it being impossible for the races ever to live harmoniously together—or if they could I do not think it would be for the interest of either to do so. I am particularly anxious that you should turn your attention to this subject, and digest a plan and pursue a course that will redound to your fame, and may be calculated to induce others to follow your example. Gen: Washingtons conduct was in several respects injudicious. Instead of freeing all the slaves, old and young, at the death of Mrs. Madison, which provision would endanger her life, my plan would be to provide that at the expiration of a specified number of years after your death all persons under a specified age should be free, and all above that age should be continued as slaves, and be bequeathed to your heirs, who should be bound to support them. In fixing upon the time at which they were to be emancipated I should be governed by the circumstances of the estate—the amount of debts—the means left for the support of Mrs. Madison—and also the necessity of retaining the slaves in service until they should have acquired by their labour the means of transporting themselves to Africa—that is the estate should be kept together, and the slaves retained in service, until they should have enabled the estate by their labour to have fulfilled its other obligations, and they earned enough to transport and sustained them for a time in Africa. As for the separations which would arise from their intermarrying with the slaves of your neighbours, it might be prevented in many cases by requiring your Executors to make exchanges wherever it could be done, and where it could not the party would have to choose between their natural love of liberty and the endearing ties of family.

I pray you to excuse the liberty I have taken in writing on so delicate a subject, and to be assured that nothing but the deep interest I take in whatever concerns you would have induced me to have done so.

That you may long live in the enjoyment of health is the ardent prayer of your sincere and affectionate Friend

Edward Coles

RC (ICHi); (NjP: Edward Coles Papers).

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