Dolley Madison
and the
Coles Family of Virginia

Excerpted in portions from Anne Hollingsworth Wharton, “Social Life in the Early Republic,” J. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1902, pp. 133-141.

Edward Coles

Edward Coles

Edward Coles [see notes below], who had been private secretary to Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson, retained his position under his successor [James Madison] until he was sent by Mr. Madison as special ambassador to Russia. Mr. Coles, one of Mrs. [Dolley] Madison's numerous Virginia cousins, was a man of much more than ordinary ability and breadth of view. After his return from Russia, being conscientiously opposed to slavery, Mr. Coles removed to Illinois and there freed the large number of slaves that he had inherited from his father, giving each head of a family one hundred and sixty acres of land. He was afterwards elected governor of Illinois and thus prevented the pro-slavery faction in that State from gaining control. Edward Coles passed the last years of his life in Philadelphia, where he helped to found the Republican party.

Col. John Coles and his Daughters Sally, Emily, and Eliza

Mr. William C. Preston recorded in his journal [an] experience when he went to the White House as a young man to pay his respects to the President and Mrs. Madison. When he entered the drawing-room, which was brilliant with uniforms and gay toilettes, overwhelmed with embarrassment, he would gladly have retreated from the unaccustomed scene, but Mrs. Madison had observed him, and advanced towards him, magnificent in high turban and stiff brocade, her snuff-box in one hand, the other extended cordially towards her young guest, with the queston, “Are you William Campbell Preston, the son of my old friend and most beloved kinswoman, Sally Campbell? Sit down, my son, for you are my son, and I am the first person who ever saw you in this world.” Turning then with a graciousness which charmed the young man, she introduced him to the circle of young girls about her, giving some special clue to each, and ending with “your kinswoman, Sally Coles.”

The tales that have come down from that dim past are simple and homely, only worthy to be recorded because they prove once more that whatever may have been this woman's beauty or grace, the secret of her success was to be found in the quickness of her perceptions and the warmth of her heart. These qualities, with a certain enthusiasm that she brought to her social duties, created an atmosphere of homelike comfort and enjoyment wherever she appeared.

The Sally Coles to whom Mrs. Madison presented young Preston was the daughter of Colonel John Coles of Enniscorthy, one of her near relatives. It is related of Colonel Coles, who was a genial, horse-loving, hospitable Virginia gentleman of the old school, that in recounting his blessings he would speak with pride of the ability of his sons, adding, like the French poet Martial, that he was glad his daughters were not too learned. Colonel Coles's felicitations are rather amusing, in view of the fact that these daughters, whether learned or not according to the code of their day, proved themselves capable of filling with grace and distinction prominent positions in social and diplomatic circles.

Eliza Coles married Colonel Richard Singleton, of South Carolina, Emily married Governor Rutherford, of Virginia, while Sally, Mrs. Madison's favorite, became the wife of Andrew Stevenson, who was afterwards Speaker of the House of Representatives and minister to England under President Van Buren.

It is evident that Sally Coles was a frequent visitor at the White House, as there are many references to her in Mrs. Madison's letters.

Col. Isaac Coles

Another of Mrs. Madison's numerous Virginia cousins was Colonel Isaac Coles, of Halifax County. Colonel Coles was elected a delegate to the First Congress, and again represented his State from 1793 to 1797.

Catherine Thompson (Mrs. Isaac) Coles

Portrait of Catherine Thompson (Mrs. Isaac) Coles, by John Ramage.

While in New York, attending the sessions of Congress, Colonel [Isaac] Coles met Miss Catherine Thompson, a daughter of Mr. James Thompson and a sister of Mrs. Elbridge Gerry. Bishop Meade recorded that Colonel Coles and Miss Thompson were married by Bishop Provoost in 1790. When his services in Congress were concluded, Colonel Coles took his young wife to his large estates in Halifax and Pittsylvania counties. He held no official position in the new capital, but it is to be hoped that Colonel and Mrs. Coles sometimes visited their Cousin [Dolley] in the White House, as both were well-fitted to enjoy social life.

Ann Thompson (Mrs. Elbridge) Gerry

Portrait of Ann Thompson (Mrs. Elbridge) Gerry, by John Ramage.

Colonel [Isaac] Coles has been described as a man of agreeable, courtly manners and a delightful raconteur. Mrs. Coles, who had been a belle and a beauty, accustomed to a large and gay circle of friends in New York and to the society of the most cultivated and refined men and women of the day during her residence in Philadelphia, must have found her life in a sparsely-settled district in strange contrast with her previous surroundings. To these new conditions the young woman adapted herself with spirit and enthusiasm. In addition to the cares of her large family and the duties which in those days devolved upon the mistress of a plantation, Mrs. Coles assisted Bishop Meade to establish an Episcopal Church, the first in Halifax County [see note below]. The services were, said the bishop, often held in Mrs. Coles's house.


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