Thursday, December 14, 2006

William Saunders, Hamilton and the 1868 election

Articles I recently discovered in the Georgia (Macon) Weekly Telegraph warrant revisiting Florida's Fall 1868 Congressional campaign.
Soon after Charles Hamilton was elected in May 1868 to represent Florida for the remaining months of the 40th Congress upon Florida's readmission that summer, he had to campaign again to be renominated to stand as the Republican candidate in that Fall's election if he were to join the 41st Congress in 1869. Governor Reed had postponed the Congressional election in his state until December 29th and actually canceled Florida's participation in the national November election having designated electors to support U.S. Grant, the Republican nominee for President. Florida's Republican Party met in early November and Hamilton was renominated. He was opposed, however, by William Saunders, a leader of the "radical," "mule team" faction at the state constitutional convention that past winter, who declared his candidacy for Congress as an independent. In its report on Florida politics dated Nov. 15, 1868, the Weekly Telegraph prints the following:
"Saunders, independent colored candidate for Congress, in quite a lengthy circular to voters of the State, denounces the nomination of Hamilton by Representatives as a fraud upon colored voters, and says Hamilton's supporters boasted of having cheated colored Republicans out of their last chance.
Saunders in a circular dated Headquarters Union League of Florida, addressed to members of the League, says the Republican Nominating Convention have put up a man whose name alone insures defeat, and calls on colored Republicans to send a live black man to the next Congress. Saunders signs himself Grand President Union League of Florida."
Two days later, the Telegraph's correspondent reported that "A circular of the 'Unterrified Tiger Committee,' published to-day endorses and recommends Col. Wm. U. Saunders as the people's candidate for the 41st Congress - as a representative man of his race and of the people of the South. Saunders takes the stamp at once." [GA Weekly Telegraph, Nov. 20, 1868].
The Democratic press adopted Saunders' critique of Hamilton and in a transparent attempt at encouraging a split of Republican voters to the benefit of the Democratic candidate for Congress, the Tallahassee Weekly Floridian newspaper repeatedly compared Hamilton unfavorably to Saunders and claimed that the Republican Party had given up hope of Hamilton's prevailing in the election.
The reality of Hamilton's level of black support was quite different, however, than that declared by Saunders and his cynical supporters in the press. In an article dated Nov. 19th, the Telegraph's Tallahassee correspondent reported that the "official paper" (presumably the Republican Tallahassee Sentinel), carried a "proclamation" signed by "Robert Cox, Chairman" and "A.C. Lightboom, Secretary, both of who are colored," purportedly representing the voters of Leon county after meeting to consider the choices for congressional candidate. According to the Telegraph, they proclaimed that "finding Saunders' course will ruin the State, and more especially the Republican party, and will bind us hand and foot, that Democracy may triumph, and having seen the condition of the colored men of Georgia, who have been prostrated from the condition of manhood which the Constitution gives them, by having Democracy as rulers, say they know the split in the Republican ranks, particularly in the colored element of the population of that State, brought them to their present condition; that the Constitution of this State opens the doors to every former rebel, however vicious, allowing him to vote; that they cannot afford to have a split in their midst, without swamping. They appeal to every colored man in the State to stand firm in support of C.M. Hamilton, the regular nominee, who is a good Republican, and asks Saunders to stay still awhile, when he shall be taken care of, and notify him that if he enters the field justice, noted as a great tiger hunter, will shoot him politically dead." [GA Weekly Telegraph, Nov. 27, 1868].
Hamilton, campaigning with "untiring energy" prevailed with 9,749 votes, three thousand more than his Democratic opponent, and well ahead of Saunders' total of 877 votes. Little did the 28 years old Charles Hamilton know that this electoral triumph would be the pinnacle of his political career.

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