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The Deeply Political Birth of a State

How naked political maneuvering guided the creation of Colorado 138 years ago.
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Aerial view of the Colorado State Capitol Building. (Photo: John Maushammer/Wikimedia Commons)

Aerial view of the Colorado State Capitol Building. (Photo: John Maushammer/Wikimedia Commons)

Colorado marked its 138th birthday last week on August 1. The state celebrated in the way many states do, with a combination of events involving food, beer, and some history. But this seems like an occasion to note the deeply political and partisan creation of the state in 1876 and its pivotal role in the major social and political movements of the mid 19th century.

The story of statehood starts considerably earlier, when thousands of gold miners flocked to the western Kansas territory in the late 1850s in hopes of striking it rich. As Susan Schulten points out in this New York Times column, the town of Denver developed to service those on their way to mine gold in the Rockies. Kansas' territorial government proved inadequate to govern this distant region, and when Southern states began seceding in 1860-61, the new Republican Congress quickly established sympathetic territories in this area with the hope of fast-tracking them to statehood.

Congressional Republicans, concerned over Lincoln's prospects for the 1864 presidential election and eager to find enough votes in the Senate to ratify the 13th Amendment banning slavery, pushed the new territories of Nebraska, Nevada, and Colorado (among others) to apply for statehood. (States, of course, each come with two senators and three electoral college votes, no matter how small they are, and these territories appeared to have strongly Republican residents.)

Colorado's own residents voted against statehood in 1864, apparently concerned with the costs of self-government.

This push for new states was a very transparent power grab by Republicans, made even more obvious by the violation of the population norm. As Charles Stewart and Barry Weingast note in their article "Stacking the Senate," the typical path to statehood required a territory to have at least the population of a single congressional district. By 1860, that number was around 127,000 residents. The Colorado territory had only about a quarter of that at 34,277, according to the 1860 Census. Nevada had fewer than 7,000 residents at the time. Indeed, as Stewart and Weingast note, had the population norm been adhered to, Nevada wouldn't have been admitted as a state until 1970. Instead, it was admitted in 1864, conveniently providing three electoral college votes for Lincoln and two senate votes for the 13th Amendment.

Interestingly, Colorado's own residents voted against statehood in 1864, apparently concerned with the costs of self-government, and the Sand Creek Massacre, perpetrated by territorial militia against hundreds of Arapahoe and Cheyenne, did little to demonstrate that Colorado was ready for statehood. There were several further attempts at statehood throughout the 1860s, but none were successful. The push for Colorado statehood was dampened again by the Panic of 1873, which depressed the economy and drove some to leave the state for opportunities elsewhere.

A renewed push came in the mid-1870s. Territorial Representative Jerome Chaffee lobbied Congress in 1875 for Colorado statehood, pushing the dubious claim that the territory now had 150,000 residents. Congress passed the statehood resolution in the summer of 1876, and President Grant issued a proclamation on August 1 making it official.

That left only a few months until the crucial national elections in November. The Republican-dominated state legislature rewarded Chaffee for his efforts by making him one of Colorado's first U.S. senators. The legislature also made the determination that there just wasn't enough time to organize a statewide presidential election (the outcome of which was somewhat uncertain anyway), so they would appoint electors for the electoral college instead. Colorado provided three electoral college votes for Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes that year, an election that Hayes would win by just one electoral vote.

So that's the origin story of just one state. Its beginnings aren't necessarily more or less craven than others, but it's pretty easy to see how naked political maneuvering guided every aspect of it. It's also worth remembering that today's aggressive power grab can become tomorrow's universally popular celebration. So maybe we can celebrate a bit this year by appreciating some of the positive things that can come out of partisan politics.