Jerry Kopel


July 1st is the 125th anniversary of Colorado's successful vote for statehood. But 2001 could have been our 134th year as a state, except for President Andrew Johnson's rage at Congress.

Taciturn, inflexible, and pugnacious, Andrew Johnson spent most of his presidential years warring with Congress. Caught in the middle was the territory of Colorado. Republicans wanted Colorado as an additional pro-Republican state. Johnson wanted southern states back in the union with full rights as if the war had never happened before approving new states. In the end, Johnson won the Colorado game 3 to 0.

Vice President Johnson became president April 15, 1865, three hours after Abraham Lincoln's death. Johnson was placed on the Republican ticket in 1864 as a "Civil War Democrat" supporting the union. When Johnson was sworn in as president, there were only 50 U.S. Senators from 25 states. Eleven defeated southern states had no House or Senate members.

The first step to become a state is an enabling act by Congress. That happened in March of 1864 with Republicans seeking more electoral votes for Lincoln's re-election. But Colorado voted Sept. 2, 1864 against becoming a state, 3,152 to 1,520. In an 1865 election Colorado, by a margin of 155 more ayes than nays, voted for statehood and adopted a constitution.

As far as Johnson was concerned, the 1864 vote against becoming a state voided the enabling act of 1864. He was right (Johnson 1, Colorado 0). So in 1866, Congress adopted enabling acts for Colorado and Nebraska. Johnson vetoed them and Congress didn't try to override the vetoes (Johnson 2, Colorado 0). There were other more important items on the table.

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866: Every male citizen is a free man without regard to race, and no state can deprive them of enjoying full and equal benefit of all laws. Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights bill, claiming it violated state's rights and "operated in favor of colored and against the white race." Congress overrode his veto.

In the summer of 1866, Congress voted to place the 14th Amendment to the Constitution before state legislatures for ratification. It incorporated philosophy from the Civil Rights Act. States could not deprive a person of life, liberty, or property without due process, nor deny any person equal protection of the laws. If any male inhabitant (insert freed slave) was denied the right to vote by a state, representation of that state in Congress would be reduced.

Johnson's home state Tennessee approved the 14th Amendment and was restored to statehood, even while Johnson campaigned nationwide against the amendment.

Ben Wade, Radical Republican from Ohio was chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories. In 1867, he introduced enabling bills for Colorado and Nebraska, but insisted the two state constitutions provide language not previously included: The constitution shall make no distinction in civil or political rights on account of race or color.

Johnson vetoed both bills, pointing out the population of both territories was too small. He was accurate. For example, Colorado's census three years later in 1870 was only 39,864. But the Senate still overrode the Nebraska veto. Nebraska became the 37th state in 1867 (with 10 southern states still not restored to statehood). Colorado lost on a Senate vote to override the veto, 29 in favor, 19 opposed and four absent. Score: Johnson, 3, Colorado 0.

In 1868, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

Colorado became the overlooked territory until 1875 when Congress adopted an enabling act to ensure three more probable Republican electoral votes for the presidential campaign of 1876.

On July 1, 1876, Colorado voted 15,443 to 4,062 to become the 38th state. If Colorado had not become a state in 1876, Republican Rutherford Hayes would have lost the presidential campaign by two electoral votes.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House of Representatives.

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