Jerry Kopel


When President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed Colorado the 38th state on Aug. 1, 1876, he may have changed the course of history, and all because Colorado voters had elected Democrat Thomas Patterson as its territorial delegate to Congress in 1874.

Grant, prodded by Republican senators, was worried. If Colorado became a state, would it give three electoral votes to the Democratic candidate for president in 1876?

Colorado multimillionaire Jerome Chaffee, territorial delegate before Patterson and crony of Grant, wanted to be U.S. Senator. That could happen only if Colorado became a state. Chaffee assured Grant and the senators Colorado's electoral votes would go to the Republican candidate for president. And Chaffee shepherded the required Enabling Act for our statehood through Congress March 3, 1875, the last days of his delegate term.

The state constitutional convention that followed adopted a "Schedule" March 14, 1876 requiring the state legislature to appoint presidential electors and allowing it to be by an unprinted bill, without committee hearings, with one day debate each in the House and Senate, and without the governor approving the bill.

Colorado voters easily adopted the state constitution July l, 1876. Elections were held Oct. 3, 1876. Republicans swept the executive branch by slim margins. Colorado's House and Senate had Republican majorities. There were two elections for Congress: A short term ending March 5, 1877 followed by the regular term ending March 4, 1879. Candidates for both terms were the same: Republican James Belford vs. Democrat Tom Patterson.

Patterson repeatedly argued in public debate that election to a regular term in Congress across the nation had to be on Tuesday, Nov. 7th. So when Belford won both congressional terms, Democrats declared the regular term election invalid and held another election Nov. 7th. The Republican party told its members to boycott the Nov. 7th election, which they did.

Colorado's legislature convened Nov. 1, 1876. On Nov. 2 and 3, they passed HB 1, which called the House and Senate into "Joint Convention" 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7th to choose three presidential electors. On Nov. 7th, the legislature chose Herman Beckurts, William Hadly and Otto Mears as presidential electors, who then cast three votes for Republican presidential candidate Rutherford Hayes. And Patterson? He defeated Belford 3,580 to 172 in the Democrat-sponsored Congressional election.

The 1876 presidential election was the most corrupt ever held. Both parties had dirty hands. Democrat presidential candidate Samuel Tilden won the popular vote 4,284,000 to Hayes' 4,037,000. Tilden had 184 electoral votes and needed one more, but Republicans made certain final outcomes were delayed in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana.

Louisiana's eight electoral votes should definitely have gone to Tilden, who had a majority of 9,000 of 207,000 votes cast. Matthew Josephson in The Politicos writes:

"Supported by Republican 'visiting statesmen', not to mention regiments of Federal soldiers, the Louisiana Returning Board proceeded to accept the testimony of perjurers, thieves and prostitutes, and to throw out the ballots of whole parishes, until over 13,350 Democratic votes were canceled and a Hayes majority of over 4,000 votes were produced."

The Democratic House and Republican Senate agreed to a 15-member commission to decide disputed electoral votes of the three states: Five members each from the House, Senate and Supreme Court. One Independent court member resigned, replaced by a Republican. The eight to seven Republican majority voted eight to seven for Hayes who "won" the electoral vote and the presidency, 185 to 184.

On Feb. 26, 1877, representatives of both parties met in secret. Josephson writes "Democrats would abandon presidential claims and Republicans promised federal troops, which enforced the constitutional amendment giving Negroes full rights of citizens, would be removed from the South." They were removed and that was when "reconstruction" ended.

Colorado was the ONLY state in 1876 whose voters were denied the right to vote for a presidential candidate. The three electors picked by the legislature made Hayes president.

The Democratic House, by a vote of 116 to 110, decided Patterson was the rightful winner of the two-year congressional seat. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court validated Patterson in the case of Foster vs. Love.

A unanimous court held "a state may not choose its members of Congress before the official election day", the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Louisiana, in electing members to Congress in October violated a law passed by Congress in 1872, which set one November day for all congressional and presidential elections.

The Colorado legislature chose Chaffee as one of two U.S. Senators. Belford won the election to Congress in 1878. Patterson became U.S. Senator from Colorado, 1901-1907, a decade after becoming publisher of the Rocky Mountain News.


(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado legislature and writes a political column for the Colorado Statesman.)

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