OSSIAN BINGLEY HART (1821 – 1874)
Prepared by the Historical Monument Trail Selection Committee.
Ossian Bingley Hart was the tenth governor of the state of Florida, but the first to have been born here. Florida always has been a state of newcomers, and his father pioneered near Jacksonville. He became one of Florida’s largest slaveholders – yet Ossian was a strong advocate for freed blacks during the crucial years after the Civil War. He held several elected positions and practiced law as both a prosecutor and defender. Although he lived in several other Florida cities, his time in Tampa was notable for his defense of a slave called simply “Adam.” Hart’s arguments saved him from execution and the case was on appeal when Tampa men broke into the jail and lynched Adam. As governor, Hart successfully sponsored civil rights legislation for both women and former slaves, and he worked for a system of public education. His death soon after becoming governor was a tragedy that ended other enlightened reforms. The written records of his wife, Catherine Campbell Hart, provide historians with important details of the era.
A statewide figure, Ossian B. Hart lived in Tampa and many other parts of Florida. He was born on a St. Johns River plantation near modern Jacksonville (then called Cowford) on January 17, 1821, the year that Spain ceded Florida to the United States. His parents, Nancy Nelson and Isaiah Hart, pioneered in the area and became wealthy enough that Ossian was educated in South Carolina, long before Florida had any colleges.
He served in the Second Seminole War during the 1830s, and his popularity can be seen in the fact that other volunteers elected him as the unit’s “second sergeant,” even though he still was in his teens. He did not pursue a military career, however, although he frequently was called “Colonel.” When the war ended, he took advantage of the 1840 Armed Occupation Act, a federal program that predated the 1862 Homestead Act by granting free land to white settlers who prevented Native Americans from returning to their former territory.
Before settling near Fort Pierce, he read law in his father’s office, passed the bar examination, and married Catherine Smith Campbell, a resident of Newark, New Jersey who was visiting Jacksonville. Called “Kate,” she was smart and self-reliant, and he would depend on her throughout his career. They never had children, but often would include the needy children of family and friends in their household. They married in Newark on October 3, 1843, and returned by sea to Florida’s unsettled southeastern coast.
There Ossian was a founding member of the Board of County Commissioners for St. Lucie County, as well as its representative to the first legislative session after statehood in 1845. That area still was so unpopulated, at least by white males, that he won his election by one vote: six for Hart, five for another, and one for a resident of Mosquito County, which later became Orange County. He would lose the next election, in 1846, by one vote — with the same total of ten voters.
That 1845 legislative session gave Ossian Hart a real claim to fame with his successful sponsorship of the Married Women’s Property Act, which protected a woman’s private inheritance or dowry from her husband’s debtors. Calls for such laws were just beginning to be heard in other states, and the idea might have been Kate’s, who may have heard of these reforms from New York’s early feminists. Ossian also may have been motivated by the fact that his parents’ marriage was rancorous, despite their eight children. His mother was a strict Methodist, while his father enjoyed drinking and gambling – as well as impregnating some of his slaves. Nonetheless, Jacksonville men elected Isaiah Hart as a senator to the same legislative session in which Ossian Hart served in the House.
Kate ran their Indian River homestead while Ossian was in Tallahassee, but after a hurricane in October 1846 devastated the area, they moved to Key West. The storm had been highly destructive there, too: even its lighthouse collapsed into the sea. Of the sixteen people who had taken refuge there, only lighthouse-keeper Barbara Mabrity and one of her children survived. But the federal government would rebuild it and other military installations, and Key West boomed. From 688 residents in 1840, it went to 2,645 in 1850, making it the largest city in Florida.
Although Kate was disturbed by the open vice in this sailor-dominated town, Ossian did well there financially at the practice of law. Both also observed a form of slavery that was much less harsh than in north Florida: because dark-skinned people were a majority in Key West, race relations were more amicable, and the Harts largely were unaware of the issues roiling to the Civil War. In 1849, he was easily elected as prosecutor for the Southern Judicial District, which ran as far north as modern Levy County. An 1852 case tried in Hillsborough was especially interesting: it centered on state and federal rights, as the murder charges focused on conflict between frontiersmen, the army, and Seminoles.
While Kate lived in Key West and New Jersey, Ossian spent much time in Tampa, first as the district prosecutor, and then after losing reelection, as a lawyer and businessman promoting a railroad between Jacksonville and Tampa. That seemed realistic at the time, but in fact Tampa would not have a railroad until the 1880s, after he was dead. When Key West had a yellow fever epidemic, Kate joined Ossian permanently in Tampa in 1856. They lived in a fine house at the northeast corner of Pierce and what now is Kennedy Boulevard.
Tampa had only about 800 residents at the time, but Fort Brooke was busy with the Third Seminole War. It brought army officers from the North who exposed the Harts to the conflicts that were building towards the Civil War. Unlike most Southerners, he determined to support the Union and became involved with the new Republican Party, which fielded its first presidential candidate in 1856. Hart also was strongly affected by the lynching of a slave called Adam. He had defended Adam, and the case was on appeal when Tampa men broke into the jail and brutally lynched him.
The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for president 1860, but Florida’s government was so solidly Southern that his name did not even appear on the ballot. Florida was, in fact, the third state to secede from the Union, leaving on January 10, 1861 – months prior to Lincoln’s April inauguration. Ossian Hart later wrote:
I foresaw at the beginning of the rebellion that the ordinance of secession was the death knell of slavery, and that with four millions of freedmen the subject of equal rights could not be kept out of sight. I knew that they would have the right to the ballot for all and I told our people so.
After secession, however, “common prudence compelled silence.” Florida’s few Unionists did not organize, and Hart essentially dropped out of public life during the four years of the Civil War. Instead, he spent his time going back and forth between Jacksonville and Tampa, as those towns several times were occupied and then abandoned by Union troops. Kate mostly stayed in Tampa and may have overseen the resettlement of some of the slaves in Ossian’s family estate. His father died early in the war, leaving several homes and businesses, as well as a 2,000-acre plantation and 53 slaves. Ossian’s work as estate manager was complicated by the fact that his father disinherited his eldest son and willed significant property to his longtime mistress and slave, Amy Hickman, but Ossian carried out the will’s intent.
The war ended in April 1865, and an election for new governmental officials was held in October. Although Hart did his best to prevent former rebels from voting, they formed a majority in Hillsborough, and he lost his bid for the legislature. Feeling rejected by Tampans, the Harts moved to Jacksonville in late December. Another motivation was obligations to his extended family, including that of his brother Dan, who died after being imprisoned for shooting a Union soldier.
Hart worked actively for the Freedman’s Bureau that resettled former slaves and did much to register black men as voters. By late 1867, he had emerged from the chaos of the immediate postwar years as chairman of the Republican Party in Florida and as mayor of Jacksonville. The era’s politics were extremely complex, with many factions in the new ruling party, and he lost his 1868 bid to be a US senator when Florida was readmitted to the Union. (US senators were elected by state legislatures until 1913, and almost none of this political activity involved ordinary people.) His consolation prize was appointment to one of three seats on newly re-constituted Florida Supreme Court, where he served honorably for the next four years.
It was black voters who led the campaign to make Hart the Republican nominee for governor in 1872. Hillsborough County’s Peter W. Bryant, an African-American leader, nominated Hart at the state Republican convention, and when delegates (both black and white) appeared to be turning towards another white man:
Many of the Hart men, mostly colored, became frantic. They rushed about the room, mounted chairs, tables, desks, and everything else that would elevate them, and yelled, and bawled, and shouted, and swore they would not submit…they wanted Hart and intended to have him.
The other candidate withdrew and Hart accepted the nomination, saying that he believed “the great Republican party [to be] the most liberal, wisely patriotic, and safely progressive party that we have ever had.” The Republican Party of that era was indeed liberal, and with many Democrats disenfranchised because of their status as former Confederates, the all-male electorate chose Hart. It was a close race, however, and the final result was not clear until mid-December.
Meanwhile, Hart had become ill while campaigning and would battle against relapses for what remained of his life. In his 1873 inauguration speech, he condemned the “extravagance, venality, and neglect” in recent governments, promising to appoint only men who were “diligent and honest.” The first law he shepherded through the legislature was “An Act to Protect all Citizens of the State of Florida in their Civil Rights.” It wasn’t, of course, “all citizens,” as women of both races long would be unequal under the law, but it did provide at least some legal protections for former slaves.
His message to the 1874 legislature emphasized education, as he said “Florida has cause to rejoice greatly that we now have numerous free public schools…open to all the children of the State alike. To a large majority of the people who never saw such a thing before reconstruction, this great blessed fact is ever new and delightful.” His administration set such a good example that a Jacksonville newspaper commented wryly, “There is no one to buy the Legislature, and they are really distressed.”
But his health problems increased, and Ossian Hart died on March 18, 1874. There were no pensions for wives back then, and the Hart family had lost much of its wealth because of the nation’s first serious depression in 1873. A fire and then a foreclosed mortgage meant that Kate lost their Jacksonville home. Needing income, she probably used her Republican connections to get a presidential appointment as postmaster of Kissimmee in 1883. She held this until 1886 and also ran a stationery shop there. She died at age 72 while visiting family in New Jersey, but her body was returned to lie with Ossian at Jacksonville’s Old City Cemetery.
All quotes are from the definitive biography by Canter Brown, Jr., Ossian Bingley Hart: Florida’s Loyalist Reconstruction Governor. See also Florida Governors: Lasting Legacies by Robert Buccellato.