Nation’s Oldest City: St. Augustine’s 19th-century elections were no party

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By SUSAN PARKER

Correspondent

Elections in St. Augustine (as most other places) in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s could be fierce, very personal, and downright ugly. Or maybe I’m writing about today.

Before movies TV and radio, shows such as political speeches served as entertainment. Those who attended these events hoped to see opponents “eat up” each other with their words. All spectators could cast a ballot at the time. Only free, white males could vote.

The newspapers of the day reported with delight such displays of verbal vitriol. And, in fact, most newspapers held an allegiance to one of the political parties and would declare themselves in writing a “Democratic” newspaper or a “Whig” paper. (This was before the Republican party had organized).

In 1823 Col. Alexander Hamilton Jr., ran for the office of Florida’s Territorial Delegate in Congress to replace Joseph Hernandez, a St. Augustine Minorcan. The Territorial Delegate could not vote in Congress, but lobbied in behalf of The Florida Territory.

Hamilton already held the appointed office of District Attorney of Florida and was a commissioner on the Land Claims Commission. The Commission reviewed claims for the U.S. to recognize valid property ownership under now-U.S. lawholding over from the Spanish period.

Hamilton had already riled St. Augustine residents ad district attorney with his legal opinion that property of the Roman Catholic Church under Spanish rule had been property of the Spanish crown and that with the cession of Florida to the United States, Spanish crown property passed to U.S. Government ownership. Local Catholics worried that the U.S. government might claim the parish church and other lands they believed were church property. Many of the holdover St. Augustinians from Spanish years were parishioners of St. Augustine’s Catholic church. Animosity grew between Hamilton and the Minorcans, who made up a large segment of the parishioners.

The Minorcans composed and bought a classified advertisement in the St. Augustine newspaper and sent a petition dated 1823 June 23 to Pres. James Monroe. The ad was a duplicate of the petition to the president, saying that Hamilton, in his capacity of a land commissioner, had threatened to look unfavorably upon the land claims of anyone whom he might learn had voted for his opponents. Bernardo Segui’s name topped the list of the signers of the petition.

Richard K. Call won the election. The wounds from the election in St. Augustine left a legacy of suspicion, distrust and rancor.