Jerry Kopel

The D.C. Battle over Colorado Statehood

June 26, 2009

By Jerry Kopel

The battle in Washington, D.C., between legislators supporting or opposing statehood for Colorado was much deeper than I recently thought. And it will certainly appear very "modern" to Colorado state legislators.

President U.S. Grant in a December 1873 message to Congress included "I would recommend for your favorable consideration ... passage of an enabling act ... for admission of Colorado as a state of the Union. It has the elements for a prosperous state, agriculture, minerals, and I believe a population now to justify such admission."

Colorado Territorial Delegate Jerome Chaffee, Republican, rushed in an enabling act bill which passed the House June 8, 1874. The bill stalled in the Senate when amendments were added in late February and sent back to the House. The House had not approved the amendments by March 3d, 1875, the last day of the Congress.

The Colorado debate was one of the last pieces of work done that day. There was an afternoon break until 8 p.m. that night. Amendments by the Senate to the enabling statute were adopted and the enabling bill re-passed. The legislative session was nearly over. The proper signatures were hurriedly added and the measure rushed to the president. Grant signed the measure with only 20 minutes left before the House would adjourn at midnight.

Chaffee had a lot to do those final hours. He had to break a promise he had made to the territorial delegate from New Mexico to work together on both enabling acts. He had to break the New Mexico promise because Sen. O.P. Morton from Indiana told him to. Morton was the Republican boss in Indiana and had influence across the Midwest states. New Mexico's enabling act did not pass and that state was the 47th to become a state, but not until 1912.

Chaffee had to convince Republican legislators that the "Panic of 1873" which created a depression was still in play in 1875 in Colorado and would actually help Republicans. Meanwhile Morton in February got Colorado Territorial Governor Edward M. McCook removed by President Grant before the final vote was taken in the House. Morton feared Colorado would vote Democratic if McCook remained as territorial governor despite charges of corruption. McCook urged Grant to veto the enabling act, but Grant did not do that.

Much of this was new material for me which I found in a law school article written 50 years ago by Harold H. Dunham, a lawyer and professor at the University of Denver, plus the book The Politicos written 70 years ago by M. Josephson.

The "Panic of 1873" did not begin nationwide with a glut of new homes, but with a glut of railroad tracks which often led nowhere important. Investment giant Jay Cooke and Co. collapsed in September, 1873 followed by many savings and business banks. Over the next three months 5,000 Colorado businesses closed. Tens of thousands of workers were unemployed. High interest rates led to major foreclosures on farms. Farmers were also hurt by a continuation of feasting by Rocky Mountain locusts. Colorado real estate values fell by one-half and building construction nearly deceased.

Whether by luck or good political vibes, Chaffee proved to be right. Colorado's executive, judicial and legislative branches went Republican in the first election in 1876 as a state.

McCook had been appointed by Grant due to friendship when McCook served as a general under Grant in the Civil War. McCook proved a bad administrator. Many historians considered him corrupt. His Indian agent was charging the federal government for good cattle purchased for Indian tribes while actually giving the Indians skin and bones animals.

More important, McCook had removed experienced Republicans from state jobs and replaced them with his own supporters causing a major collapse of Republican leadership harmony.

Morton's Senate supporters opposing state status for Colorado finally showed enough power to make Grant rescind his re-appointment of McCook. Grant then appointed John Routt as territorial governor. He was confirmed and arrived in Colorado March 21st, 1875. Routt began turning McCook supporters out of territorial jobs and healing the Republican base. He was elected state governor on the Republican ticket in 1876 and again in 1878.

There were 39 delegates for the constitutional convention of which 24 were Republicans and 15 Democratic. They produced a constitution (based on Iowa) that was adopted by them unanimously in March, 1876. The territory voted July 1, 1876 15,443 in favor and 4,052 opposed to becoming a state. The vote was low because the opposition was almost non-existent.

On August 1, 1876 Grant issued the document making Colorado the 38th state. National opposition to Colorado's statehood continued when several Congressional leaders protested the president's action, noting that only Congress had the power to approve a state constitution and admission of states. Actually the Secretary of State signed the document. The argument of Congress vs. the President went nowhere.

On Oct. 3, 1876 Colorado voters elected majority Republican members of the executive, legislative and judicial branches. The three presidential electors were chosen Nov. 7, 1876 by the legislature.

(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.)

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