Controversial elections are nothing new in Florida


“He threatens to take a dim view of the claims of anyone he learns of who voted for his opponents in this election.” The voters of St. Augustine took their grievance to the highest level—directly to President James Monroe in their July 1823 petition.

This was the first election of a national candidate in the new US territory of Florida. Only white men could vote at this time. We can see that the Florida election was contentious from the start. This competition was for territorial delegates, who represented Florida’s interests in the Congress of the United States House of Representatives.

Joseph Hernandez, originally from Saint-Augustin, had been named the first delegate in 1822. The following delegates were elected by universal suffrage. Territorial delegates could not vote on bills; they defended the interests of their territories.

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Voters-petitioners complained of Alexander Hamilton Jr., one of three candidates for territorial delegate in 1823. Hernandez was also a candidate for the office, as was Richard K. Call. Only Hernandez was a longtime resident of Florida. Yes, this Hamilton Jr. was the son of THE Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury with his portrait on the $10 bill and, in recent years, the namesake of the musical “Hamilton.”

Hamilton had recently come to Florida after being appointed U.S. District Attorney for East Florida. Hamilton was also appointed Land Commissioner to review private property claims held from Spanish times. The remaining residents had to submit their claim to the land commissioners. Thus, Hamilton’s bludgeon against voters was his power to deny or blur residents’ claims to long-owned homes and farms.

Call won the delegate election. Hamilton returned to New York, demonstrating how little he cared about the territory he had campaigned to represent.

Twenty-two years later, after the Territory of Florida became a state on March 3, 1845, Floridians could vote in their first election to choose members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives who could vote on bills. of law.

Denouncing and insulting were always as much a part of Florida’s first election as a state as it was of the first election as a territory. By 1845 the Whig party had entered Florida politics. The Democratic Party was in Florida from the start.

Few people remember the existence of the Whig Party in the years 1830-1850. The Whigs had started roughly as an anti-Andrew Jackson coalition and grew from there. In the South, according to the book “Firsthand America”, Whiggery (as it was called) was popular among large cotton, tobacco, and sugar planters and among urban businesses. “Firsthand America” ​​notes that the party was popular among Protestants and native-born Americans concerned about the influx of immigrants, especially Irish and German Catholics.

It was understood in the 1840s that a newspaper openly supported a particular political party, with no thought of being impartial. When the Florida Whig and the People’s Advocate began publishing in Jacksonville, the St. Augustine newspaper, The Florida Herald & Southern Democrat excoriated it as being filled with “Whig humbug”. The FH&SD predicted that although they expressed their love for the people, “when the Whigs’ aim is achieved, they do not hesitate to trample the people”.

In the 1840s, political debates were both entertainment and campaigning. The St. Augustine newspaper was delighted to report on a debate in Newnansville (near Alachua, Florida). The description of the event almost sounds like a blood sport. The rival candidates “met on the stump, where the conversation continued for 10 hours. Major (BA) Putnam (Whig) was used by Mr. (David) Levy (Democrat). Putnam was completely demolished by Mr. Levy and was forced to confess.”

The first day of the statewide election was on May 26, and it took days for the results to be collated and tabulated across the state. Remember that voting numbers had to be physically flagged. There was no long distance communication. In St. Johns County, Levy (Yulee) received 173 votes (60%) for congressional rep. Major Putnam received 117.

Today, we might find the 1845 election a little confusing because not all counties had the same candidates for the United States Senate and United States House. Ultimately, the newly elected Florida General Assembly chose Levy not as a representative but as one of Florida’s senators. David Westcott became the other senator, a person whose name did not appear on the St. Johns County ballot.

Florida’s controversial electoral legacy began two centuries ago, but should we perpetuate the grudge?

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.


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