Colorado, Populism in

The Populist movement in the state of Colorado coalesced most significantly in the form of the state's People's Party, the leader of which, Davis H. Waite, successfully ran for governor in the election of 1892. Populism in Colorado was remarkable for its wide-ranging platform. Alongside the traditional call for monetary, agrarian, land, and transportation reform were planks for woman suffrage and comprehensive labor reform. Although Waite was defeated after only one two-year term, the reforms he attempted to introduce made his gubernatorial administration one of the most progressive in the state's history, and indeed of the entire Populist movement.

The formation of the Colorado's People's Party in 1892 marked the culmination of more than a decade of disaffection with the traditional two-party system and the belief that the “Eastern Establishment” did not sufficiently meet the needs of Coloradans. The Greenback Party, Knights of Labor, and the Farmers’ Alliance were all active in the state throughout the 1870s and 1880s. However, the advent of Populism as a national political movement by 1892 afforded these reformist organizations the first real opportunity to operate under the auspices of a united movement. In July 1892, the Colorado People's Party nominated Davis H. Waite as its candidate for governor. A prospector and lawyer, Waite achieved prominence across the state as coeditor of the Aspen Union Era, a highly influential proreform and Populist weekly. He based his campaign upon the promises of the Omaha Platform adopted by the national People's Party at its convention in 1892.

Silver played the key role in Waite's campaign as the precious metal's preeminent position in Colorado's economy made it an issue supported by mine owners and miners alike. The three state parties supporting bimetallism did so to varying degrees. The Republicans adopted a moderate platform, hoping to attract voters on both sides of the issue, while the Democratic slate became dominated by hard-line Silverites. Waite and the Populists espoused the most radical view and ultimately attracted votes from Silver Republicans and Democrats dissatisfied with the conservatism of their respective parties. Waite decisively won the governorship primarily upon the strength of silver, becoming one of only two Populist governors elected nationwide. The Republican Party maintained control of Colorado's House and Senate.

The Populists did enjoy one of their most noteworthy successes when on November 7, 1893, Colorado's citizens voted for woman suffrage in a general election. The woman suffrage movement in the state had a long history and found support, much like Populism itself, from a diverse number of sources including labor unions, leaders of the business community, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and religious organizations. Waite himself had called for woman suffrage as editor of the Aspen Union Era and made an election to determine the extension of the vote to the women of the state an explicit plank of his gubernatorial platform. The victory of the November 1893 general election made Colorado the first state to adopt woman suffrage by popular vote, predating the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution by 27 years.

Despite such victories as the establishment of woman suffrage, the national economic depression of 1893 further polarized Populists and Republicans and compounded Waite's difficulties in further promoting his reformist agenda. The economic slowdown coupled with the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act resulted in widespread unemployment throughout Colorado. In response Waite called a special session of the State Assembly wherein he introduced an extensive program of bills designed to ease the plight of Colorado's working classes. The conservatives in the Assembly viewed most of these bills as too radical, a view not helped by Waite, who earned the nickname “Bloody Bridles” after a militant speech in which he railed against the domination of the common man by the “money power” and warned it would be “infinitely better that blood should flow to the horses’ bridles than our national liberties should be destroyed.” As a result of Republican ideological opposition and growing fragmentation of the Populists between labor, agriculture, and Silverites brought on by the economic panic, the special session passed only 11 of Waite's 78 proposed bills into law. Although Waite's proposed special session reforms were largely unsuccessful, his attempts to implement a comprehensive legislative program to palliate the effects of the economic crisis were mirrored by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal almost 40 years later.

Controversy continued to dog Waite into 1894. In February a bitter strike erupted at Cripple Creek, one of the few lucrative mines operating in economically ravaged Colorado, when the mine's owners attempted to increase arbitrarily the laborers’ work day. When the county sheriff amassed a sizeable armed force with which to break the strike, Waite intervened and ordered the state militia to protect the protesting miners. The confrontation ended in favor of the strikers and won the enduring support of labor in the state for Waite, but the governor's actions alarmed mine owners and other members of Colorado's financial elite.

Davis's loss to McIntire did not signal the end of Populist agitation in Colorado. The now ex-governor continued to promote his reformist agenda for many years after his gubernatorial term even as Populism's influence as an overt political force began to wane as the new century approached. Indeed, even after the movement's decline, Populist tenets lived on as part of the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century. Waite's administration left an indelible legacy upon Colorado state politics and demonstrated the power and appeal of the Populist movement at its zenith.

Brendan Dominick

See also: Cripple Creek War (1894) ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; People's Party ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Sherman Silver Purchase Act (1890) ; Waite, Davis (1825–1901) ; West, Populism in the


Morris, John R. Davis H. Waite: The Ideology of a Western Populist. Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982.

Morris, John R. “The Women and Governor Waite,” Colorado Magazine 44 (1): 11–19.

Wright, James Edward. The Politics of Populism: Dissent in Colorado. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974.