This didn’t happen on July 4th. It’s a public statement released by Putnam County Sheriff Peter Monroe Hagan on March 7, 1924, announcing his re-election campaign. But I think it honors the concepts of self-government and equality set out by the founders.
A year before, Hagan had been wounded while single-handedly thwarting a lynch mob at the Putnam County Jail. And just days before, Ku Klux Klansmen from Gainesville and had abducted, beaten, and castrated a prominent Catholic priest serving at the University of Florida named John Conoley. They dumped Conoley on the steps of St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Palatka.One of the men I suspect as one of Conoley’s attackers, Israel James Fennell, decided to run against Hagan for sheriff.
With that as a backdrop, Hagan issued this statement to the Palatka Daily News:
“I have recently been asked repeatedly if I am a member of the Ku Klux Klan. To this question I answer, no. I believe I know many members of the Putnam County Klan, and I know them to be good men individually. I do not believe any of them would stoop to organized crime or mob tactics. I am not, and would not be a member, however, of any organization which appears to differ in policies from those who do not belong to its ranks, for the reason that as Sheriff I believe it to be my duty to be perfectly free to serve all the of the people and not an organized part of them; I wish to feel perfectly free to perform my duties without obligations to any order, however high the ideals of such order may be. I have no personal quarrel with the Klan; many of its members are my friends whom I respect and honor, but as Sheriff, I am free, and will remain free to administer the law impartially to all.
“In addition, I feel that no that no public servant has the right to ride into office by the hidden help of any secret organization. In my first campaign [in 1916] for Sheriff, I was confronted with the organized opposition of the so-called “Guardians of Liberty,” [an anti-Catholic precursor of the revival Klan] many of its members I knew, almost all of 200 whom now greatly regret their error in becoming members of an organization that proved so injurious to Florida as that one did.
“Opposed as I was to that order, and knowing its members as I did, yet there is no man who can truthfully say such members did not receive the same treatment from my office as did all others. I cannot control secret organizations and I neither assist or interfere with them so long as their works do not violate the law.”
That’s what an American sounds like. And like all real Americans, Hagan suffered for his ideals and commitment to duty. The patriots of Putnam County voted him out of office a couple of months later, and the Klan took over for four years with horrifying and disastrous results.
But as some of you may know, Peter Hagan wasn’t quite done. And Florida’s greatest sheriff used his gun and his politics to help secure one the greatest — and least known — victories for decency in American history.
You can learn all about that battle from my book Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida, which you can buy right here. Help me get to 200 copies sold. I’m fewer than 10 away.
More importantly, think about the example on display in Hagan’s statement, at a time when the Klan was both immensely popular and immensely violent. At a time when we literally bore the wounds of the mob.
And think about the importance of politics and elections in shaping history and combatting tribalism. Politics and elections matter. And as always, guts matter. We have to fight for a decent and just society every day.