Jerry Kopel

KOPEL: CORRUPTION, FINANCIAL BUST WERE FACTORS

Colorado took a bumpy road to statehood

I’ve been reading about the battle in Washington, D.C., between legislators supporting or opposing statehood for Colorado, and the rift was much deeper than I had thought.

The issues will certainly appear very “modern” to current Colorado state legislators.

President Ulysses 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.”

Jerome Chaffee, a Republican Colorado territorial delegate to Congress, rushed in an enabling act bill, which passed the House June 8, 1874. The bill stalled in the Senate with the addition of amendments in late February and was sent back to the House. The House hadn’t approved the amendments by March 3, 1875, the last day of the congressional session.

Colorado statehood was one of the last issues debated 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 repassed. The legislative session was nearly over. The proper signatures were hurriedly added, and the measure was rushed to the president. Grant signed it at 11:40 p.m., a mere 20 minutes before the House would adjourn at midnight.

Chaffee had a lot to do during those final hours. He had to break a promise to the territorial delegate from New Mexico to work with him on enabling acts for both territories. He did it because Sen. O.P. Morton, of Indiana, told him to. Morton was the Republican boss in Indiana, and his word was law throughout the Midwest.

New Mexico’s enabling act failed, and the Land of Enchantment didn’t become the 47th state until 1912.

Chaffee also had to convince Republican members of Congress that the Panic of 1873 — which was still depressing the economy in 1875 — would actually help Republicans. Meanwhile, in February, Morton saw to it that President Grant removed Colorado Territorial Governor Edward M. McCook from office before the final vote was taken in the House. Morton feared Colorado would vote Democratic if McCook — who had a reputation for corruption — remained as territorial governor. McCook made a futile attempt to urge Grant to veto the enabling act.

Much of this was new material for me. I found a good deal of the information in a law school article written 50 years ago by Harold H. Dunham, a lawyer and professor at the University of Denver. That was supplemented by The Politicos, a book written 70 years ago by M. Josephson and Marshall Sprague’s 1976 history, Colorado.

The Panic of 1873 didn’t begin with a nationwide glut of new homes, but rather with a glut of railroad tracks that often led nowhere important. Investment giant Jay Cooke and Co. collapsed in September 1873, and that was followed by the failure of 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 also were hurt as Rocky Mountain locusts continued feasting on Colorado crops. Real estate values fell by 50 percent throughout the state, and building construction nearly deceased.

Whether by luck or good political vibes, Chaffee proved to be right. In Colorado’s first election under statehood, Republicans took majorities in the executive, judicial and legislative branches.

McCook had been appointed by Grant as a tribute to the friendship the men had developed when McCook served as a general under Grant in the Civil War. But 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 personal supporters, creating major disharmony in the Republican leadership.

Morton’s Senate supporters, who opposed statehood for Colorado, finally showed enough power to make Grant rescind his reappointment of McCook. Grant then appointed John Routt as territorial governor.

Routt was confirmed, arrived in Colorado on March 21, 1875, and immediately began turning McCook supporters out of their jobs and repairing the territory’s Republican base. He was elected state governor on the Republican ticket in 1876 and re-elected in 1878.

There were 39 delegates for the constitutional convention, of which 24 were Republicans and 15 were Democrats. The delegates produced a constitution based on Iowa’s that they adopted unanimously in March 1876. On July 1, 1876, the territory passed statehood on a 15,443-to-4,052 vote. The turnout was low because by then, organized opposition was almost nonexistent in Colorado.

On August 1, 1876, Grant issued a document making Colorado the 38th state. National opposition to Colorado’s statehood continued, however, as several Congressional leaders protested the president’s action on the grounds that only Congress had the power to admit states and approve a state constitution. Actually, the secretary of state signed the document. The debate between Congress and 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.