Jerry Kopel

The Laws that Made Colorado's Statehood Possible

July 6, 2007

By Jerry Kopel

The nearly 20,000 plus American citizens residing in the territory of Colorado who would vote in the July 1st, 1876 election pretty much knew in advance what they were giving up and getting. They voted 15,443 to 4,062 to become the 38th state, by adopting a constitution which was presented to the citizens in March of 1876.
We became a state on August 1st, 1876, but Coloradoans would be the only citizens of a state forbidden by law from voting for U.S. presidential electors in 1876. Colorado's three electoral votes (based on two U.S. Senators and one Congressman) would be decided by the state legislature, whose members would be elected October 3rd, 1876.
Colorado had already revised its latest suggested constitution to meet federal Republican demands to allow Negroes to vote.
The deal was: Chances were good for a House and Senate controlled by Republicans in Colorado. But Colorado, in a territory-wide vote had sent a Democrat to the House in 1875. He had no vote, but he was able to participate. So "skip the direct vote and we will ratify your request for statehood."
Jerome Chaffee in large part brokered the deal. Chaffee, a wealthy Republican was just finishing serving as a territorial representative to Congress in March of 1875 when Congress passed an enabling act for Colorado.
Chaffee wanted desperately to be a U.S. Senator and he was a close friend to President U.S. Grant. In later life, Chaffee's daughter would marry Grant's son and much of Grant's biography was written at their home. Chaffee was appointed a U.S. Senator in 1876 by the state legislature.
There were "conspiracy theories" that Chaffee had arranged to have a Democrat win the 1875-76 territorial seat in Congress just to cause the final deal to develop.
Rutherford B. Hayes was nowhere in the picture before the Republican presidential convention of 1876. He was far down the list among the Republicans who wanted to be president on Grant's retirement. But the deadlocked convention after six ballots, turned to Hayes. Quoting Henry Adams: "A third rate nonentity, whose only recommendation is that he is obnoxious to no one and necessary for party harmony."
Everyone one knows about the corrupt election with ballot stealing in several southern states by the Republicans. Hayes won by one electoral vote over Democrat Samuel Tilden.
The Colorado statewide election held Oct. 3, 1876 resulted in resounding (but not 100 percent) victories for Republicans in the executive branch as well as the state legislature and judiciary.
On November 1st, 1876, Colorado's legislature was in session and soon passed SB 1, which called for a joint session to be held at 10 a.m. the morning of the presidential election Nov. 7th. The House and Senate controlled by the Republican party voted for three Republican electors, Herman Beckurts, William Hadly, and Otto Mears.
Some say Colorado was thus responsible for electing Hayes, but many historians claim another state was on the list for changing the votes from Democrat to Republican, if needed.
Also, the national Democrats cut a deal with the Republicans. "We won't challenge Hayes' election if federal troops which enforce giving Negroes full rights of citizens are pulled from the south." Thus ended reconstruction.
Colorado's constitution, quite long from the beginning, had some interesting features:
The state was not bilingual. It was trilingual. The session laws were to be printed in English, Spanish and German for a number of years.
The legislature had the power to put a referred law on the ballot for women's suffrage. It made the 1877 ballot and was defeated 14,053 to 6,612.
In 1893 a referred law for women's  suffrage was on the November ballot and passed 35,798 to 29,451. HB 118 was sponsored by a Populist, Rep. J.T. Heath from Montrose and Delta counties. (I have never seen any recognition for Rep. Heath.)
After 1890, the legislature could determine the right of citizens to vote based on educational qualifications which were not set out in the constitution.
Legislators were paid $4 a day and no legislative year after the first year session could exceed forty days, although special sessions could be called. The legislature met every odd-numbered year.
The Senate had 26 members and the House 49 members. Terms began the first Wednesday in November. So if the election was held the first Tuesday in November, you were almost immediately sworn in.
Anyone participating in, or planning to participate in a duel, could not hold any office in the state.
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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