Q: You begin and end the book with the story of Edward Coles. Why did you choose him as a focal point for the book?The Page 99 Test: Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1865.
A: Edward Coles is a really interesting figure that most Americans will never have heard of. He was born in 1786 in a slaveholding dynasty in Virginia, but at college he decided that slavery was morally wrong. He kept his epiphany from his family, for fear that they’d prevent him from inheriting his father’s slaves (which he planned to free).
He became private secretary to President James Madison in 1811, following his boss to the White House and urging him to do more to promote the abolition of slavery. Then, in the summer of 1814, a few weeks before the British burned Washington to the ground, Coles became the only person ever to confront Thomas Jefferson on the slavery question with Jefferson’s most famous words: “All men are created equal.”
Jefferson was then in retirement at Monticello, but Coles thought that the former president should do more to promote the abolition of slavery. Wasn’t it time, Coles told Jefferson, “to put into complete practice those allowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration?”
Jefferson did his best to wriggle away from this challenge, and insisted that it would be impossible for slaveholders to free their slaves without also making arrangements to settle them outside the country — a plan that went under the name of “colonization.”
Coles initially seemed to take a different view: in 1819, he...[read on]