Jerry Kopel

By Jerry Kopel

It could have happened to Colorado in 1865 or 1867, but "thanks" to President Andrew Johnson, it didn't. Eleven years later, on July 1, 1876, Colorado voted 15,443 to 4,062 to adopt a state constitution proposed by a constitutional convention and become a state. On Aug.1, 1876 President Ulysses Grant proclaimed Colorado the 38th state.

The campaign for Colorado statehood had a long, and sometimes sordid history. It began in 1859 when Colorado settlers voted on whether they wanted to be a territory or try for statehood. The vote was 2,007 for territory and 1,649 for statehood. The reason given? Coloradoans didn't have to pay the expense of administering the government as a territory. Federal funds would take care of that. Colorado became a separate territory in 1861.

In 1864, Territorial Governor John Evans persuaded Congress to adopt an enabling act for Colorado statehood. It would have likely meant two more Republican U.S. Senators and three more electoral votes for President Lincoln's re-election. But a majority of the 6,192 Coloradoans who voted, in a population of around 35,000, voted against statehood.

Lincoln won re-election without Colorado's help. His running mate was a Democrat who supported the Union, Vice President Andrew Johnson. Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson became president April 15, 1865. Then began the fight between Democrat Johnson and the Republican Congress which delayed Colorado's statehood.

Johnson wanted to bring the southern states back into the union with full rights as if the war had not happened. Republicans wanted to punish the South and extend full rights of citizenship to African-Americans. Congress and Johnson realized Colorado and Nebraska territories would bring more Republican power to Congress as states.

In 1865, voters in Colorado territory approved statehood and adopted a constitution. They were helped, according to Democrats in Colorado, by fraudulent votes Republicans had rounded up.

The Congressional session ran from early March, 1865 through early March of 1867. Congress passed legislation to admit Colorado and Nebraska as states. On May 15, 1866, Johnson vetoed the bill to admit Colorado and pocket-vetoed a similar bill for Nebraska. Johnson claimed the 1864 vote in Colorado made the 1865 vote void and besides, Colorado didn't have the population to qualify. I think he was correct on both counts.

In 1866, Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act providing every male citizen was a free man without regard to race and no state could deprive them of fundamental rights including equal protection of the laws. On March 27, 1866, Johnson vetoed the civil rights bill.

Congress overrode his veto, and then proposed the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (for civil rights) up for ratification by state legislatures in 1866. Ratification occurred in 1868 but was bitterly opposed by Johnson who spent as much time on that issue as on his failed re-election.

Meanwhile, in 1867, in order to produce more Republican senators, and more state legislatures to ratify the 14th Amendment, the Senate Chairman of the Committee on Territories, Radical Ohio Republican Ben Wade, introduced admission bills for Nebraska and Colorado, this time requiring their constitutions to provide suffrage for African-American males.

Johnson vetoed both bills. The U.S. Senate overrode the Nebraska veto and Nebraska became the 37th state on March 1, 1867. The Colorado vote to override the veto on the same day as the Nebraska vote failed, with 29 "yes" and 19 "no" and four "absent", short of the two-thirds needed.

In 1868, another attempt to give Colorado statehood failed because of an interparty fight between Republicans Henry Teller and John Evans as to who would be the second U.S. Senator. Teller wanted Republican Jerome Chaffee, and Evans wanted Evans. After 1868, there were several more Senate attempts for statehood, but none passed. After all, Ulysses Grant was president, so who needed Colorado as a state?

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 1880 census figures did show 194,000 residents.

Chaffee, who became a U.S. Senator in 1876, deserves recognition as the "trigger" for Colorado statehood.

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

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