13. Coles v. County of Madison, 1 Ill. 154 (1826)

Background: Edward Coles was a wealthy Virginia plantation owner who served as the personal secretary to President James Madison. He moved to Illinois in 1818. Coles opposed slavery and freed his slaves after moving to Illinois. In 1822, Coles ran for governor and received 33 percent of the vote, which was enough to win election in a four person race. As governor, Coles took a strong anti-slavery stand and defeated a measure to call a constitutional convention that would have had as its purpose the goal of making Illinois a slave state.

The Document: One month before Coles freed his slaves the legislature had enacted a law requiring that free African-Americans had to file a $1,000 bond with the county of residence before settling in Illinois. The purpose of the bond was to limit African-American migration to Illinois. Coles was unaware of the law when he freed his slaves. In 1826, Madison County sued Coles to recover a $2,000 penalty. While the case was proceeding, the legislature, which after 1824 had an anti-slavery majority, passed a bill absolving Coles. Madison County went to court, arguing that the legislature did not have the authority to absolve Coles. In one of the first important decisions made by the court, the justices ruled that Coles did not have to pay the penalty. This writ of error document is one page of the 10 page court record and one of only two pages that is not entirely hand-written. In this document, the Supreme Court is asking that Madison County send case-related materials to the justices in Vandalia, then the state capital.

Note: After serving as governor, Coles eventually moved to Pennsylvania, where he remained a staunch anti-slavery advocate. He died in Philadelphia in 1868. This court case is available at the Illinois State Archives as part of Supreme Court of Illinois Record Series 900.001, "Case Files."