Jerry Kopel

It took sixteen years, four Colorado votes, three suggested state constitutions, and many attempts in Congress, for Colorado to FINALLY become the 38th state on Aug. 1, 1876, following a proclamation by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Why did it take so long? First, there was the clash of egos of three prominent Coloradoans who wanted to be U.S. Senators; second, there was the tightwad philosophy of early Colorado settlers; and third, there were the bitter battles between President Andrew Johnson and the RRR (Radical Republican Reconstructionists).

The story begins in 1860 when Colorado settlers voted on whether to seek to become a territory or a state. The vote was 2,007 for territory and 1,649 for statehood. Reason? As a territory, Coloradoans didn't have to pay the expense of administering the government. Federal funds would take care of that.

In 1864, Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans persuaded Congress to adopt an enabling act, which is the first step towards statehood. Congress was actually eager to get two more Republican senators and three more electoral votes for President Lincoln's re-election bid. Evans, of course, wanted to be a U.S. Senator.

But a majority of the 6,192 Coloradoans who voted, in a population of around 35,000, turned down the first attempt at a state constitution and the second attempt at statehood, still approving the concept of having government and not paying for it.

President Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865 and died on April 15th. Three hours later, Vice President Andrew Johnson became president. He had been placed on the Republican ticket in 1864 as a "War Democrat" who supported the union, and in the belief of Republican leadership that he would strengthen the ticket.

The vote by Coloradoans not to become a state probably suited President Johnson just fine. He wanted to bring the southern states back into the union with full rights as if the war hadn't happened. But the Republicans wanted to punish the south, and extend full rights of citizens to African-Americans. Both sides saw Colorado and Nebraska territories as sources for more Republican power.

In 1865, voters in the Colorado territory did approve statehood, and adopted a constitution. They were helped, according to the territory Democrats who opposed statehood, by fraudulent votes that Republicans had rounded up.

The Congressional session ran from early March, 1865 through early March of 1867. On May 15, 1866, Johnson vetoed a bill to admit Colorado as a state and pocket-vetoed a similar bill for Nebraska. Johnson claimed the vote in 1864 made the vote in 1865 void and besides, Colorado didn't have the population to even qualify for a single congressman, compared to the rest of the country.

Meanwhile Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, basically providing that every male citizen was a free man without regard to race, and that no state could deprive them of fundamental rights such as making contracts, bringing lawsuits and enjoying the full and equal benefit of all laws. On March 27, 1866, Johnson vetoed the civil rights bill, claiming the legislation violated state's rights and "operated in favor of colored and against the white race." Congress overrode his veto.

The Civil Rights Act was followed in the summer of 1866 by placing the 14th Amendment to the constitution on the ballot for the start of ratification in the 1866 elections. Johnson opposed it and used all his influence unsucccessfully to prevent its ratification, both in 1866 and 1868. Ratification occurred in 1868.

Key philosophy from the Civil Rights Act was incorporated in the 14th Amendment: Citizenship in the U.S. and the state where they reside for all persons born or naturalized in the U.S; states can't deprive a person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny any person equal protection of the laws. If any male inhabitant (insert freed slave) is denied the right to vote by a state, representation of that state in Congress will be reduced.

Meanwhile Republicans were still insistent on getting four more Republican senators. Chairman of the Committee on Territories in the U.S. Senate was Ben Wade, Radical Republican from Ohio. In 1867 he introduced admission bills for the two territories containing new language which had not been included in any previous Colorado and Nebraska constitutional versions: Suffrage for African-American males.

Johnson attacked again, saying Nebraska and Colorado populations were still too small. Colorado's population in 1860 was 34,277.

The Senate overrode the Nebraska veto and Nebraska became the 37th state on March 1, 1867. But the Senate felt there was still strong opposition in Colorado against statehood. The Colorado vote, on the same day as the Nebraska vote, was 29 "yes" and 19 "no" and four "absent". So Colorado failed to obtain a two-thirds vote needed to override the veto.

On May 16, 1868, the Senate voted in the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, acquitting him with a vote of 35 "guilty" to 19 "not guilty" (ten southern rebel states still had no representation). If one of the 19 had voted "guilty", Johnson would have left office.

Evans tried again in 1868 but Republican strongman Henry Teller (who also wanted to be a U.S. Senator) told Congress that Colorado should not become a state because it had less than half the 75,000 population that Evans had claimed for it. The two Senate spots had been reserved for Evans and Jerome Chaffee, Republican leader and multimillionaire. The 1870 census of 39,864 proved Teller right.

Johnson served out his term which ended March 4, 1869, and in one of his final acts, he refused to attend the inauguration of Grant, who had abandoned Johnson during the impeachment proceedings.

There were several more attempts for Colorado statehood after the 1868 effort, but none passed both the Senate and the House. There wasn't the same political motivation among the Senate Republicans. After all, Grant was now president.

In March, 1875, Chaffee was completing a term as territorial representative from Colorado in Congress, and he was able to push through an enabling act in his final week in office. To do that, he had to convince Congress that by 1875, Colorado had 150,000 people. (The census figures for 1880 are hard to believe. They showed 194,000 residents of Colorado.)

On July 1 of 1876, the combination of Congress, President and Colorado voters were joined as Colorado voted 15,443 to 4,062 to become the 38th state. Teller and Chaffee became U.S. Senators in November, 1876 by vote of the Colorado Republican-dominated legislature.

Grant left office in March of 1877. Four years later, his son, Ulysses Grant Jr. married Fannie Chaffee, Sen. Jerome Chaffee's daughter. The dowry from Chaffee included a 13,000 square foot home in North Salem, N.Y., where it is reputed that Grant wrote portions of his memoirs.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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