From Democracy's Borderlands: Hispanic Congressional Representation in the Era of U.S. Continental Expansion, 1822–1898


Romualdo Pacheco of California/tiles/non-collection/p/part1_01_pacheco_romualdo_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Romualdo Pacheco was the first Hispanic American to serve as a voting Representative in the U.S. House. His California district extended from San Francisco Bay to the state’s borders with Nevada and Mexico. Pacheco was also the first native Californian to serve as its governor.
The story of Hispanic Americans’ first century in Congress unfolded in conjunction with the drive for U.S. continental expansion. Through diplomacy or through war, the United States acquired territory once ruled by Spain (Florida and portions of Louisiana) and Mexico (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and portions of present-day Colorado and Wyoming). Ten Hispanic Americans served in Congress before the Spanish-American War in 1898. With the exception of the first—Joseph Marion Hernández, a Territorial Delegate from Florida who served for a brief term during the 17th Congress (1821–1823)—and for Representative Romualdo Pacheco of California, all of them were Territorial Delegates from New Mexico. By incorporating these new possessions as territories, and eventually as states, Congress opened the door to Hispanic participation in the federal government. However, Hispanic representation in Congress consisted initially of a long line of Territorial Delegates with relatively brief tenures and limited powers who functioned more like lobbyists than traditional legislators.

Just weeks after José Manuel Gallegos triumphed in a contested election, becoming New Mexico’s first Hispanic Territorial Delegate in the U.S. House, he faced the prospect of being a voiceless legislator, both literally and figuratively. A former priest from Mexico, Gallegos spoke no English, making him a bystander more than a participant on the House Floor. Unable to address the House or follow the debate, he relied on other Members to introduce resolutions for him, including Representative John Smith Phelps of Missouri, who at one point acted as Gallegos’s interpreter.

John Smith Phelps of Missouri/tiles/non-collection/p/part1_02_phelps_john_smith_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress John Smith Phelps of Missouri served in Congress for nine terms (1845–1863). Phelps chaired the House Ways and Means Committee in the 35th Congress (1857–1859), but resigned his House seat to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

Nevertheless, Gallegos was a savvy politician, having developed his skills on the “feudal frontier” of the legislature of Nuevo Mexico, which had been Mexico’s most isolated province before its cession.1 The American governor of the New Mexico Territory, David Meriwether, judged Gallegos to be “a shrewd, intelligent man” eager for knowledge about the operations of the Democratic Party, about which Gallegos admitted he knew very little.2 Gallegos quickly enlisted key House allies to try to resolve his language problem, and on February 27, 1854, William A. Richardson of Illinois, chairman of the Committee on Territories, offered a resolution to allow Gallegos to bring an interpreter into the Hall of the House “in order that he may more effectually understand and participate in the proceedings of this body.” However, Hendrick Wright of Pennsylvania immediately objected. Richardson responded, “Mr.Gallegos does not understand one word of the English language, which is the misfortune of his constituents; and this is not for his personal convenience, but for the convenience of the people that he represents.”3 Unmoved, Richardson’s colleagues did not muster the two-thirds vote that was necessary to suspend the rules and have the resolution considered. This incident marked the second time in less than two months that a committee leader had failed Gallegos; earlier, Judiciary Committee chairman Frederick P. Stanton of Tennessee had tried unsuccessfully to secure an interpreter for Gallegos by introducing the matter as a privileged question.4 The language barrier impeded Gallegos throughout his tumultuous term of service, which was cut short by another contested election. In a futile last-ditch attempt to save his seat in July 1856, Gallegos had a reading clerk present a translation of his appeal to the House.

William A. Richardson of Illinois/tiles/non-collection/p/part1_03_richardson_william_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Mexican-American War veteran William A. Richardson of Illinois succeeded Stephen A. Douglas in the House in 1847, serving for five terms. Upon Douglas’s death in June 1861, Richardson was appointed to fill the unexpired term of the late Senator.
The dismissal by the House of Gallegos’s requests and of the interventions of two influential Members underscores the cultural divide between the people whose lands were acquired during the U.S.-Mexican War and the policymakers at the center of the U.S. government. The House’s action also highlights the indifference many had to facilitating even the most basic level of political participation by territorial residents. Finally, the House’s action illustrates the disadvantaged, even subservient, status of Territorial Delegates in the 19th-century Congress.

Although most of the nuevomexicanos who came to Congress had been influenced by American educational and cultural institutions, they, too, labored at a distinct institutional disadvantage.5 Significantly, statutes and chamber rules denied them the most basic of all legislative privileges and duties: the right to vote on final legislation and the ability to serve on a committee. While their Hispanic heritage distinguished them from their congressional colleagues and made Anglo-Americans uneasy about their constituencies, it was their status as Territorial Delegates that precluded their becoming legislative actors. “Territories are really to be pitied; they are like children under a bad stepmother,”commented a political observer from the New Mexico Territory in 1871. “There is no position so trying as that of the delegate in Congress from a territory. They have no vote—are the veriest beggars, relying entirely on the help of members, who have more than they can do in trying to help their own constituents.”6

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1The quotation is from a chapter title in one of the standard works on the U.S. settlement of New Mexico: Howard R. Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846–1912: A Territorial History, Rev. ed.(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000).

2David Meriwether, My Life in the Mountains and on the Plains, edited by Robert A. Griffin (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966): 166–167.

3Congressional Globe, House, 33rd Cong., 1st sess. (27 February 1854): 492.

4The first attempt to secure Gallegos an interpreter was in early January; see Congressional Globe, House, 33rd Cong., 1st sess. (5 January 1854): 128.

5Throughout this essay, the term nuevomexicanos will be used to describe New Mexicans of Hispanic and/or mestizo descent. The term Hispano will be used to differentiate New Mexicans of Hispanic and/or mestizo descent from New Mexican Caucasians, who will be referred to as “Anglos.” For more on terminology, see Phillip B. Gonzales, “The Political Construction of Latino Nomenclatures in Twentieth Century New Mexico,” Journal of the Southwest 35, no. 3 (Summer 1993): 158–172; John M. Nieto-Phillips, The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico, 1880s–1930s (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004): 2.

6Letter to the Editor signed “Republican,” 7 July 1871, (Santa Fe) The Daily New Mexican: 1.