A History of Populism in Colorado from the Colorado Encyclopedia Project

This week, Erstwhile draws attention to an ongoing online encyclopedia project on the state of Colorado. A number of our editors have contributed entries to the encyclopedia. Contributing editor Graeme Pente produced the piece below on the history of Populism in the state. For more information on the Colorado Encyclopedia, please visit their website and explore the Centennial State. For an overview of the history of third-party movements, revisit our piece from last year.


Davis Hanson Waite, Populist governor of Colorado from 1893 to 1895. {{PD-US}}

Populism was a third-party political movement of the 1890s that left an enduring imprint on Colorado history. The Populist or People’s Party was especially strong in the South, Midwest, and West because it focused on the grievances of farmers, workers, and members of what Populists called “the producing classes.” These laboring people felt that changes in the economic structure of the United States during the Gilded Age (c. 1870–1900) such as the consolidation of monopolies were making it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. In the Rocky Mountain West, miners in the booming silver camps agreed with farmers that those who produced wealth were deriving less and less benefit from their labor. In 1892 these dissidents convened in Omaha, Nebraska, to create the Populist Party to channel their discontent into political action.

The People’s Party held the Colorado governorship for only one term, 1893–95, and the Populism movement had largely dissolved by 1900. Although short lived, this insurgent movement from below nonetheless enabled working people to wage a challenge to the prevailing two-party political order, forcing the Democratic and Republican Parties in Colorado and beyond to take note of their grievances. In the following decades, state and federal governments would institute numerous proposals from the Populist platform, most notably women’s suffrage and the secret ballot.

Politics in Colorado

Colorado was one of the few states in which the state Populist Party won an election. Political conditions in Colorado were unique. Since the state was still new in the 1890s, the traditional national parties were not yet fully entrenched. People also knew their elected representatives well, which led electors to identify with personal relationships rather than party loyalties. These aspects of state political life offered the opportunity for a third party to come to power.

Silver also helped make Colorado into a populist bastion. In 1873, before Colorado achieved statehood, the US government established the gold standard, meaning that it no longer minted silver currency. But Colorado was on the cusp of a massive silver boom; the value of silver mined in the state surpassed that of gold in 1874, forcing mine owners to find other markets for the silver output in Leadville, Aspen, and other mining districts. Miners and mine owners alike seethed at the federal government’s rejection of the silver industry, making them prone to populist sentiments.

Shifts in other economic trends also accelerated the rise of populism in Colorado. By the 1880s, mining in the state required large amounts of investment capital in order to operate deep-shaft mines. As a result, the vast majority of Colorado’s miners worked not as individual prospectors but as wage workers in large operations owned by big corporations. This reality went against the myths of independence and self-sufficiency that had propelled so many Americans westward, making Colorado fertile ground for a populist movement that would undermine established politics and politicians.

The Republican Party controlled the state. From 1876 to 1890, the Republicans won five gubernatorial elections, while the Democrats triumphed only twice. Even then, Republicans maintained control of one or both houses of the legislature. So far as Colorado’s established parties were concerned, national issues mostly took precedence over local ones. During the 1880s, working-class Coloradans increasingly complained that no great difference separated platforms, rhetoric, goals, or attitudes of the two major parties. Rather, both the Democrats and the Republicans seemed to champion the state’s business interests and were more concerned with attracting continued investment than addressing the concerns of Coloradans. While investment in mines largely came from eastern cities, British capitalists often owned Colorado’s irrigation and cattle corporations. These out-of-state investments bred resentment among Coloradans who wanted profits earned in Colorado to stay in the state.

Political dissatisfaction sowed the seeds for several third-party movements in late nineteenth-century Colorado. The state’s newness, relatively small population, and anti-monopolistic sentiment opened the way for a number of challenges to the two-party system. Greenback, Greenback-Labor, Prohibition, and Union-Labor Parties were all active alternatives in the state in the 1880s, though none came close to challenging the two main parties.

Many of these independent parties drew their strength from economic organizations of working people, such as the Knights of Labor, an organization for industrial workers, and the Farmers’ Alliance. In the summer of 1890, these two groups joined together to form the Independent Party. This protest party put forth an antimonopoly platform calling for government ownership of railroads, telegraphs, ditches, and reservoirs, as well as the prohibition of foreign ownership of Colorado land. Although the Independent Party’s candidate received a meager 6 percent of the vote in that year’s gubernatorial election, the party’s supporters remained hopeful. Delegates to a party convention in Denver decided in September 1891 to reorganize the Independent Party as the People’s Party. Populism had arrived in Colorado.

Election of 1892

Colorado’s Populists won their first major victory in 1892, when pro-labor candidate Davis Hanson Waite won a three-way governor’s race with 47 percent of the vote. Waite’s victory—the biggest the Populists had yet achieved anywhere in the nation—marked a great advance for the party and its advocates.

The Populists’ third-party insurgency was fueled by a broader shift toward corporate consolidation across many industries, but especially in mining, during the late 1880s and early 1890s. The Populists led an uneasy coalition of prohibitionists, urban reformers, free-silver advocates, socialists, agrarian reformers, and labor leaders into the election of 1892. They touted their proposals to reform Colorado’s existing political system—proposals that included the secret ballot, the referendum, and the recall—as tools for enhancing the power of everyday people in their relationships with Colorado’s large and increasingly powerful corporations. In this way, Populists tapped into the anti-corporate and anti-colonial sentiments of Coloradans who blamed eastern and foreign investors for many of the woes confronting the state’s farmers, miners, and other workers.

The Populists’ platform in Colorado focused on greater regulation of passenger and freight rates, an eight-hour work day, reduction of state officials’ salaries, equal franchise for women, and, crucially, the free coinage of silver. The national party organizations of both the Democrats and the Republicans refused to restore silver to the status of legal tender. Because silver mining and production were so pivotal to the Colorado economy, this decision placed state leaders of both the Democrats and Republicans in an awkward position. Pro-silver factions emerged within each of the major parties, and these pro-silver allies proved instrumental in the victory of Populist candidate Davis Waite. Most notably, the influential editor of the Rocky Mountain News, Thomas M. Patterson, called on the Democratic Party’s silverites to vote for Waite. As a result, Waite carried almost all of the northern and central mining counties as well as the ten counties ranking highest in silver production. Waite’s campaign also received widespread support in Colorado’s burgeoning agricultural regions, particularly in northeastern Colorado, an irrigation-dependent area where many residents had grown resentful of foreign control of irrigation resources.

Populism in Power

Waite and the Populists had won a fair victory; they nonetheless were in a precarious position as they entered office. With the help of the Silver Democrats, the People’s Party controlled the state Senate, but the GOP continued to dominate the House. Furthermore, Waite’s headstrong manner and moral absolutism soon wore thin. Not only did he have difficulty coordinating the alliance with the Silver Democrats, but tensions between his own party’s farming and mining factions stymied his efforts to pass legislation. For example, Waite’s attempt to create tougher regulations on railroad shipping and passenger prices failed, resulting only in the abolition of the existing railroad commission. Weak though it was, this action offered some check against corporate power since its establishment in 1885. Although Waite tried to veto a bill that broke up the original commission, eight Populists broke party ranks to override the veto. Conflicts over nepotism and cronyism further marred the first six months of Waite’s administration.

A serious global economic downturn known as the Panic of 1893 posed even more serious threats to Waite’s tenure. The recession particularly affected Colorado’s mining and smelting industries. In June 1893, Great Britain closed the mints of India to silver coinage, shutting off the last subsidized market for American silver. The price of silver on the world market dropped from over one dollar per ounce in 1890 to sixty-three cents per ounce in 1894. Almost half the mines in Colorado closed. By July 1893, some 2,000 of Aspen’s 2,200 mine workers had lost their jobs. Railroad traffic and steel output also declined, and banks across the state began to close. Twelve banks in Denver alone went under between July 17 and July 19. A week earlier, as the crisis mounted, Waite delivered an impassioned speech that tarred the rest of his career. “Another revolution,” he thundered, “may be the answer to the crippling silver crisis, for it is better, infinitely better that blood should flow to the horses’ bridles than our national liberties should be destroyed.” His critics and detractors immediately seized upon the inflammatory rhetoric, dubbing the Populist governor “Bloody Bridles” Waite.

Although the Populists struggled to respond to the economic collapse, they did score some political successes. They managed to pass legislation mandating a maximum eight-hour workday for government employees, for instance. Their greatest achievement was probably the passage of equal suffrage. On November 7, 1893, a Populist-supported referendum extended the franchise to women. A mixed victory for Waite came with the resolution of the miners’ strike at Cripple Creek in 1894. Local law enforcement requested that the governor send in the militia to break the strike, but Waite, always a friend to labor, ordered the militia to protect the striking miners. In the meantime, he managed to get the mine owners and union leaders together in Colorado Springs, where they negotiated a settlement to the industrial strife. While the governor’s actions further endeared him to miners, they further convinced Colorado’s business leaders that “Bloody Bridles” was a dangerous radical.

Other incidents of 1894 contributed to Waite’s failure to win reelection. Hoping to root out endemic corruption in Denver’s powerful Fire and Police Board, Waite attempted to dismiss commissioners D. J. Martin and Jackson Orr. Refusing to leave office, Martin and Orr armed police officers and firemen and barricaded themselves inside Denver’s City Hall. Waite called upon the state militia to surround the building, and federal troops arrived from Fort Logan. Tensions ran high as the parties waited for the state supreme court to decide whether Waite was justified in removing Martin and Orr. After the court ruled in the governor’s favor, the two commissioners relented, thus averting violence. To Waite’s opponents, Denver’s so-called City Hall War offered further evidence of the governor’s dangerous tendencies.

Waite’s unorthodox methods were perhaps best exemplified in his proposal to ship Colorado silver to be minted in Mexico, a scheme that would have made Mexican currency legal tender within Colorado’s borders. Waite’s troubled term as governor gave his political enemies plenty of ammunition in the 1894 election, which returned the Republicans to power. The loss of support in the agricultural counties spoke to the growing rift between the agrarian and the labor factions in the People’s Party.

Election of 1896

Leading up to the presidential election of 1896, the tensions within Colorado’s People’s Party grew. Reform figures such as Waite worried about the growing influence of non-Populist silver advocates within the party. Waite and his allies thought of silver less as an end in itself and more as an electoral tactic from which they could enforce a broader reform agenda once in power. Most Populists, however, were worried that they would scare off pro-silver allies from the major parties if they pursued too radical an agenda. To avoid the formation of an independent silver party, the Populists increasingly trumpeted free silver as their major and sometimes only goal. In a blow to Waite and the radical wing of the Colorado Populists, the former Democrat Thomas Patterson led the delegates of the state’s People’s Party to the national convention in St. Louis. At the state level, the race for the governorship split between Democrats and Silver Republicans on the one hand and Populists and the National Silver Party on the other. Running as an independent Populist candidate, ex-governor Waite garnered less than 2 percent of the vote. The Democrat-Silver Republican candidate, Alva Adams, won the governorship. Although William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat-Populist presidential candidate, lost the election, he took Colorado with more than 80 percent of the vote, the first time a Democrat had claimed the state’s presidential electors.

Decline and Legacy

The People’s Party continued to fruitlessly run candidates in Colorado through the turn of the century. The tactic of fusing the pro-silver wing of the Democratic Party around the free coinage of silver only brought many of Colorado’s Populists into the Democratic fold in 1896. In 1902, without the support of the Democrats and with Colorado’s major parties all forming consensus on the silver question, the Populist challenge evaporated.

Even though Populism waned, Colorado’s labor movement intensified. Demands for an eight-hour workday; the referendum; and the nationalization of telephones, telegraphs, railroads, and mines all increased. Populist agitation had politicized many workers. The Populist challenge also resulted in a general political realignment of the state, delivering most of Colorado’s labor and immigrant voters to the Democratic Party. As the Democrats became the majority party for twenty years following Waite’s defeat in 1894, they grew more responsive to labor’s needs and more willing to take an active stance toward economic regulation. At the national level, too, the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century adopted many of the Populists’ demands for political reform, trying to stem the rising influence of powerful corporations on the government, extending the franchise to women in 1920, and laying the groundwork for greater federal involvement in the nation’s agricultural, industrial, and financial sectors.


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