Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rise of the Centennial State

The Rise of the Centennial State: Colorado Territory, 1861-76 by Eugene H. Berwanger
232 pages, 2007, University of Illinois Press, $40

Colorado became a territory under Lincoln achieved statehood at the end of Reconstruction. It fits the Civil War era time frame perfectly although its actual involvement was much less. Colorado's involvement in the war does not get as full a treatment here as I would like, the focus is more on the Indian conflict that raged during this time and continued after the war. I thought the author did a good job of putting the entire Indian conflict in perspective, including the Sand Creek fight. He rates it as a massacre but also explains that the residents even a year later were calling for Indian extermination. While Easterners might have thought the Colorado troops went overboard the locals thought they had done right, even with plenty of hindsight to think otherwise.

One story I always hear in connection with Sand Creek is that it cost Colorado the opportunity to be a state in 1864/1865. That the Eastern press and Federal politicians were so horrified that they shot down attempts in 1864-65 to become a state. The territory was being punished. But Berwanger explains that what killed that attempt to be a state was that Colorado citizens would not grant the vote to blacks. They voted down black suffrage in 1864 and continued to oppose it until 1867 when Congress made black suffrage a fact. There were also factions in the territory that did not want to become a state so it was not until 1876 that everything aligned for it to achieve statehood.

Interestingly, and a story I don't remember ever hearing, is that statehood was pushed through hastily in 1876 to the point that there was not a popular vote for presidential electors and instead Colorado's 3 Electoral College voters were determined by the state legislature. While this was common practice previously most states had changed to popular vote nearly 40 years earlier. Colorado went Republican and the disputed election of 1876 eventually went to Hayes 185-184. But if Colorado had not been a state then 184 votes would have been enough to win the Electoral College and Tilden had those 184. We normally think of the disputed votes in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana being the reason Hayes was allowed to win but its also interesting to think about what if Colorado's entrance had been delayed just a little longer and those three votes had not been cast. Then Hayes would likely not have been awarded the 20 disputed votes and Tilden would have won 204-165. Or maybe there would have been another batch of disputed votes, maybe the fix was always in.

The rest of the book concerns activities of Colorado that would not interest a Civil War audience, such as political power struggles and railroad building. Overall the book was good. I picked my copy up from the library and I don't think I'd pay $40 for it but cheaper ones can be found online.

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