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"The wise and the good of all nations would blush at our political depravity." Edward Coles, ca. 1823

Illinois became a state in 1818 with provisions written into its constitution that protected slavery. That was not surprising, considering that many politicians — including Shadrach Bond, the first governor, and Pierre Menard, the first lieutenant-governor — owned slaves or indentured servants. In fact, there were three types of slaves in the supposed "free" state of Illinois: French slaves and their descendants; indentured servants; and slaves brought temporarily from slave states to Illinois on one-year renewable work contracts.

One early Illinois immigrant was Edward Coles, who was dispatched to Illinois as a representative of President James Madison. Coles had been born in Virginia to a prominent slaveholding family. Despite that heritage, Coles freed his own slaves while on his journey to Illinois and helped them establish themselves in the new state.

Coles settled in Edwardsville in 1819 and was elected governor in 1822. As an anti-slavery candidate, he faced staunch opposition from advocates of slavery, but won the governorship despite receiving only one-third of the vote. In his inaugural address at the Statehouse in Vandalia, Coles called for the emancipation of all slaves remaining in Illinois. At the same time, pro-slavery legislators called for a constitutional convention designed to make Illinois a slave state. Coles led anti-slavery forces in voting down the convention.

Despite Coles' efforts, slavery persisted in Illinois. In Springfield in 1827, the Sangamon County sheriff sold two girls, the slaves of Thomas Cox, at a public auction held to satisfy Cox's debts. The event was recalled many years later by Springfield resident Zimri Enos: "This sale created a great amount of talk and sympathy, not for the two girls, but for Mrs. Cox and her two children."

"The institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy." Abraham Lincoln, 1837

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