Joseph Marion Hernández was the first person of known Hispanic descent to serve in the United States Congress. He was a Whig member of the House of Representatives from September 1822 until March 1823. I discuss his service in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions.
José Mariano Hernández was born on May 26, 1788, in St. Augustine when Florida was a Spanish territory. Accordingly, he came of age under the Spanish flag. José was the third of 10 children born to Martín Hernández, Jr., and Dorotea Gomila. His parents were Minorcans who immigrated to North America as indentured servants and stayed in Florida after they gained their freedom. They lived on the north side of St. Augustine in an area widely known as the “Minorcan Quarter,” where most of the inhabitants scratched out a living as farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen of numerous handicrafts.
The boy attended schools operated by Catholic priests. Information on José’s childhood is incomplete, but apparently he worked as a carpenter in his spare time. He later traveled to Savannah, Georgia, and Havana, Cuba, to complete his studies, studying law in the latter.
José Hernández returned to Florida in 1811. He entered a world in transition. The territory was divided into Spanish East Florida and the more anglicized western half. East Florida was sparsely populated with a few thousand denizens engaged in cattle ranching, citrus growing, and saw mill enterprises. A scattering of military installations along the frontier bore testament to the occasional skirmishes between Spanish military personnel and English-speaking settlers, with Native Americans switching allegiances frequently.
A young Hispanic man in his early twenties, Hernández initially sided with the Spanish military in preventing excursions by the English-speaking settlers. Records of his early activities suggest his active participation with the Spanish crown. Despite his long-standing affiliation with Spanish rule, Hernández swore allegiance to the United States when Spain ceded the territory to the new nation in a treaty that went into effect in 1821. He was 32 years old.
The following year, he became the first Hispanic to serve in the United States Congress when the Florida legislative council selected him to serve as a territorial delegate to that body in the fall of 1822. During a three-day election from September 30 through October 3, he ran unopposed. Traveling to Washington, D.C., he swore the oath of office on January 3, 1823.
Although his appearance as a Catholic Hispanic in the House of Representatives marked a departure from the tradition of while Protestant males serving in elective office, Hernández was a territorial delegate and therefore could not vote or participate on congressional committees. He served for only a few months. During his brief tenure, he focused on finalizing the annexation of Florida by the federal government. He was especially interested in ensuring the status of land grants as the territory transitioned from Spanish to American control, no doubt to protect his substantial land holdings as well as the holdings of others in his class.
On January 20, 1823, Hernández sponsored a bill to direct the House Committee on Public Lands to award public lots and houses in Pensacola to the city instead of the federal government. He then lobbied Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to implore President James Monroe to ensure that the land claims were protected until Congress could act. On February 17, he learned that the Senate would not pass the bill. Recognizing that he needed a new strategy, Hernández frantically contacted Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins to ask for a bill establishing a board of commissioners to settle land claims in Florida.
Hernández sought to have Congress separate East and West Florida, and he pushed for capital improvements that would assist in taming the Florida frontier. Aware of the hardships of travel between St. Augustine and Pensacola, two of Florida’s larger settlements, he argued that a 380-mile road should be constructed linking the cities. To his credit, the House of Representatives authorized $15,000 for the project. When the Senate failed to act before the 17th Congress adjourned on March 3, Hernández dashed off a letter to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun suggesting that the road would benefit the United States military.
Hernández’s term ended in March 1823. He expressed his desire to return to the House, but he was not alone in nursing such ambitions. Two East Florida citizens threw their hats into the ring: Alexander Hamilton of St. Augustine, and Farquar Bethune of Fernandina. A West Floridian, Richard Keith Call, who served on the territorial legislative council and enjoyed a favorable reputation as the region’s brigadier general, also declared his candidacy. The East Florida opponents split the vote, with Hernández capturing 252 votes, ahead of Hamilton’s 249 votes, and Bethune’s 36. Running opposed, Call won 496 votes and therefore replaced Hernández.
After the end of his federal service, Hernández turned his attention to state affairs, serving in the territorial House of Representatives, a predecessor to the Florida House of Representatives. During the wars with the Seminoles in the 1830s, Hernández headed a group of volunteers with the rank of brigadier general. He later served in the U.S. army. In 1845, he unsuccessfully campaigned for a seat in the United States Senate.
During his twilight years, Hernández moved to Cuba to work on a sugar plantation. He died there in 1857. Today he is remembered not for his legislative accomplishments, but rather for his presence as a non-white man serving in Congress during an era when racial and ethnic prejudices were common.