Guest Essayist: David Kopel


The 1876 Colorado Constitution contains the strongest declaration of state’s rights of any American constitution: “The people of this state have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves, as a free, sovereign and independent state.” (Colo. Const., art. II, § 2). The powerful affirmation of the people’s right to govern themselves arose from the conditions of early Colorado and has shaped Colorado ever since.

In modern times, Coloradoan’s right of self-governance has been vigorously exercised, such as by the 1992 citizen initiative adding the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) to the Colorado Constitution. The strictest tax and expenditure limit in the nation, TABOR requires voter approval for all increases in taxes, and all government spending increases greater than inflation plus population growth.

Back in 1972, big business and big government teamed up to procure the 1976 Winter Olympics for Colorado. But Coloradoans were leery of anything that would promote the state’s already rapid growth. And they did not want their money being used to fund the already-rich International Olympic Committee. So Coloradoans passed a constitutional amendment by voter initiative, forbidding all taxpayer funding for the 1976 Olympics. As a result, the 1976 Winter Olympics were instead held in Innsbruck, Austria, which already had the necessary facilities, having hosted the 1964 Winter Olympics.

In the twenty-first century, the voters of Colorado adopted constitutional amendments for the regulated sale of medical marijuana (2000) and adult use marijuana (2012). In essence, the voters ordered state government officials to conspire to violate the federal Controlled Substances Act by setting up government-supervised systems for the distribution of marijuana. Given total quantities involved in this “conspiracy” (tons of marijuana, and many millions of dollars), the Colorado government officials have, arguably, been committing federal felonies that qualify them as drug “kingpins,” subject to very severe mandatory sentences.

Yet consistent with the “sole and exclusive right” of Coloradans to govern themselves, state executive branch officials and the Colorado General Assembly have obeyed the Colorado Constitution, and created a carefully controlled, highly taxed, government-supervised system for the production and retail sale of marijuana. “Sole and exclusive” indeed.

As a practical matter, Coloradoans in the State’s founding era had no choice but to be their own “sole and exclusive” governors. While there had been mountain men and a few trading posts in Colorado since the early 19th century, substantial American settlement of Colorado did not begin until the discovery of gold in 1858. By 1859, a rush of settlers had created the towns of Denver and Colorado City (today, Colorado Springs), as well as mining camps in the nearby mountains.

Formally, the land that would become the State of Colorado was part of four territories: Kansas (whose population center was in eastern Kansas), Utah (Salt Lake City), New Mexico (Santa Fe), and Nebraska (Omaha). The Colorado settlements were in the far west of the Kansas Territory, near or in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

But the territorial government of Kansas had little influence in Colorado. It was busy with conflict in eastern Kansas between pro‑slavery and anti‑slavery forces. There was a Kansas judge for Colorado, but he never went to Colorado. None of the territorial governments could do much to assist remote Colorado. The settlers were on their own.

The first Colorado governments were created by the people themselves, as “miner’s districts” in the mining regions, as “claims clubs” in farming areas, and as “town companies.” These voluntary associations recorded and certified property ownership, provided courts for settling disputes, and organized vigilance committees for law enforcement. Some towns elected their own legislatures. They created “people’s courts” for criminal prosecutions. The decisions of the miner’s districts were later ratified in the first session of the territorial legislature. They were also approved by the Colorado Territorial Supreme Court. By accepting and integrating the decisions of the ad hoc miners’ courts and other early bodies, the developing territorial courts provided continuity of law.

Early Colorado never devolved into the anarchy that had characterized California in its own early gold rush years. Because about thirty percent of Colorado’s miners had experience in California, they understood the importance of creating effective local self-government immediately. Thus, the miners’ districts were quickly established. Experienced code writers traveled from town to town, helping to create local law.

Defying the nominal authority of the Kansas territorial government, the settlers in September and October 1859 created their own ad hoc government for what they called the “Territory of Jefferson.” Provisional Governor Robert Steele addressed the opening of the Jefferson legislature on November 7, 1859. He explained that the people had been denied protection of life and property; being sovereign, they had taken measures for their security.

As of 1860, Denver had five competing court systems. Meanwhile, “the mountain counties stood by their Miner’s courts, and as much of the Provisional Government as suited them.” W.B. Vickers, “Territorial Organization,” in Legislative, Historical and Biographical Compendium of Colorado (Denver, C.F. Coleman’s Publ’g House 1887), p. 145. Other Coloradans created judicial districts for what they called “Idaho Territory.”

In short, there were multiple governments in Colorado with alleged jurisdiction, and in fact the people of Colorado entirely governed themselves:

“Side by side sat the Idaho “central judicial” officers, the provisional government of Jefferson, the Kansas county officials, the Denver people’s government, scores of miners’ courts, and local governments and vigilante committees. Never had frontier democracy blossomed so vigorously. With popular sovereignty in the saddle, the northern part of Bent’s old empire was already a far cry from the tradition‑bound and caste‑conscious territory of New Mexico. A new kind of democratic, middle‑class, commercial‑minded frontier had arrived on the borders of the Spanish Southwest.”

Howard Roberts Lamar, The Far Southwest 1846–1912: A Territorial History (rev. ed. 2000), pp. 187–88.

As Territorial Secretary Frank Hall later wrote, they were “a free and radically independent people.” 1 Frank Hall, History of the State of Colorado (vol. 1, 1889), p. 369.

The survival of the Colorado Territory was in constant peril. In 1861, as the Civil War began, a Confederate invasion launched from Texas and swept far into New Mexico. The Texans were turned back by Colorado volunteer militia at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, near Santa Fe, in February 1862, a battle known as “the Gettysburg of the West.”

Not long after, and for years to come, Indian wars threatened to wipe out the Colorado settlers.

Three trails led to the Colorado settlements: in the southeast, a branch of the Santa Fe Trail; in the center, the Smoky Hill Trail, from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Denver; and in the north, the South Platte Trail, which traversed Nebraska and then dropped down to Denver. Goods were transported in wagons drawn by oxen or mules.

The white settlers, clustered along the Front Range and in mining towns, could not survive a cutoff of their trade routes with the States. The territory was not self‑sufficient in food, and imports were essential for survival. Not long after the Civil War began, the Smoky Hill Trail and the Santa Fe Trail became too dangerous to use. Federal troops there were sent east, leaving travelers vulnerable to Confederate guerillas and to Indians in the river valleys. The South Platte Trail was the only lifeline connecting Colorado to the States.

The Colorado War began in April 1864, led by the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers—the tribe’s leading military society. In alliance with the Arapahoe, Sioux, Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache, they shut down the South Platte Trail and all other trails. Food prices soared, mail and telegraph communication were cut off, and starvation threatened. When the Governors of Kansas and Colorado asked for federal troops, they were told by the federal commander of the Trans‑Mississippi Theater, General Samuel R. Curtis, “We have none to spare, you must protect yourselves.” Hall, p. 328. For the remainder of the decade, Colorado’s survival was precarious.

In 1861 and 1864, Coloradoans had voted against seeking statehood. Since the federal government bore the cost of administering the territory, Coloradoans would not have to tax themselves to pay for government. Although the thrifty attitude has endured to the present, by the early 1870s the territorial governors appointed from Washington, D.C., had become so corrupt at to be unbearable to the people of Colorado. So they began to seek statehood.

Congress passed the Colorado Enabling Act on March 3, 1875, the final day of the congressional session. President Grant immediately signed it, having called for Colorado’s admission in his December 1873 written message to Congress.

The Colorado Constitutional Convention convened on December 20, 1875. The Convention finished its work by unanimously adopting a proposed constitution on March 14, 1876.

On most issues, including the Bill of Rights, partisan divisions were not important. On issues where there was controversy—such as votes for women or whether to acknowledge the deity in the preamble—the divisions did not break down along party lines.

The fundamental problem for the Convention to solve was not a partisan one. Rather, it was the inherent tension in what the delegates wanted. They knew they did not want a “do nothing” government. To the contrary, their constitution ordered the creation of state institutions for higher education, for care for the insane, and for the blind, deaf, and mute. The delegates required the establishment of “a thorough and uniform system of free public schools,” and that such schools not be racially segregated. The Framers created a commissioner of mines, and ordered the general assembly to enact laws prohibiting child labor in mines, and to enact laws for safe working conditions in the state’s most important industry. The Convention wrote the first American constitution to mention forests, instructing the general assembly to “enact laws in order to prevent the destruction of, and to keep in good preservation, the forests upon the lands of the state.” This was an early manifestation of the Colorado ethos of conservation.

The new constitution further provided that the general assembly “shall” enact “liberal homestead and exemption laws,” “shall” pass arbitration laws, and “shall” enact laws against “spurious, poisonous or drugged spirituous liquors.”

Yet while the Convention had a list of things it mandated the legislature to do, at the same time, the Convention profoundly distrusted the legislature. In the words of one scholar, “The delegates created a legislature and then, as though they regretted their work, they took most discretionary authority from it.” Donald Wayne Hensel, A History of the Colorado Constitution in the Nineteenth Century (Aug. 9, 1957) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Colorado), p. 133.

The 1876 Convention was meeting in “the post-Civil War era, when popular distrust of legislatures was at its height.” G. Alan Tarr, Understanding State Constitutions (1998), p. 199. The Colorado Constitution went especially far to hem in the government, with the longest state constitution up to that point in American history. As amended, the Colorado Constitution remains the one of the longest, reflective to Coloradans’ inclination to instruct their government exactly what it should do and cannot do.

Article V, creating the Colorado House of Representatives and Senate, is much longer than Article I of the U.S. Constitution, which creates the Congress. Article V contains many procedural restrictions on the process of enacting legislation. In addition, legislative sessions were limited to forty days, with no legislative sessions in even-numbered years. A variety of constitutional provisions outlaw taxing, spending, or borrowing on behalf of corporations or other private interests. Later, the first constraints on the legislature would be bolstered by amendments, adopted by the people.

The people of the Colorado Territory adopted the Colorado Constitution on July 1, 1876: 15,443 in favor and 4,052 opposed.

Colorado’s Fourth of July celebrations in 1876 may have been the most exuberant in the nation. A large parade in Denver was led by the Colorado militia, with officers on white horses and the troops on black ones. Each of the thirty-eight states was honored with its own float. On August 1, 1876, President Ulysses Grant issued the proclamation making Colorado the thirty-eighth state.

David B. Kopel is adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law. This essay is adapted from his article The Right to Arms in Nineteenth Century Colorado, 95 Denver University Law Review 329 (2018).

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