Henry M. Teller: Colorado’s Grand Old Man, by Duane A. Smith
[amazon-product]0870816667[/amazon-product]Review by Ed Quillen
Colorado History – September 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine
Henry M. Teller – Colorado’s Grand Old Man
by Duane A. Smith
Published in 2002 by University Press of Colorado
Henry Moore Teller isn’t well known today, but a century ago he was Colorado’s most eminent politician — as evidenced by our map. There are Teller streets in Gunnison and Salida (and doubtless many other towns), and also a ghost town named Teller City in North Park, and the well-known Teller House hotel in Central City, and most notably, Teller County, the home of Victor, Woodland Park, and Cripple Creek.
Teller was one of Colorado’s first two U.S. senators. Taking office with statehood in 1876, he served as both a Republican and a Democrat before retiring in 1909. Teller was also the first Westerner to serve in a presidential cabinet, as Secretary of the Interior during the administration of Chester A. Arthur, and he gained national stature as a supporter of silver and an opponent of imperialism.
A native of upstate New York, where he taught school before taking up the law, Teller headed west in 1857. His first stop was in Illinois, where he helped establish the Republican Party. In 1861, he took a stagecoach to Colorado and settled in Central City.
He specialized, as much as any lawyer of that era could specialize, in mining law, and that put him in contact with some of Colorado’s leading financiers and mine owners, like David Moffat and Horace Tabor. He was also active in public affairs, promoting statehood for Colorado Territory and traveling around to speak on behalf of the Republican ticket.
In those days, U.S. senators were chosen by the legislature, and in Colorado, a “balanced ticket” meant that not all the offices went to Denverites. Teller had come to be the voice of out-state Colorado, so it was natural that a Republican General Assembly sent him to the U.S. Senate. The legislature re-elected him at six-year intervals, and he left the senate only to serve as Interior Secretary.
The big moment in Teller’s political life came in 1896, when he left the Republican Party. The issue was silver, which Colorado produced by the ton.
But by 1896, the United States was on the gold standard and the mint wasn’t buying or coining silver dollars. At their convention in St. Louis that year, the Republicans voted to support the gold standard.
But Teller told the convention: “I am vehemently opposed to the gold standard plank, and I believe that if the Republican Party takes this course it will depart from its vaunted position as defender of the rights of the people — the masses — and throw itself into the hands of the bond-clippers of Lombard and Wall Streets. This policy is un-American, unpatriotic, and opposed to all the best interest of good, safe government and humanity.”
Teller, joined by Utah Sen. Frank Cannon and 23 other delegates, marched out of the convention. He supported Democratic (and Populist) nominee William Jennings Bryan that November, and when the senate reconvened, Teller took his seat on the Democratic side of the aisle.
In this biography — the first since 1941 — of “Colorado’s Grand Old Man,” Duane Smith tells a complex story well. It’s complex because Colorado’s early politics weren’t so much Democrat vs. Republican as two Republican factions (the Golden Crowd and the Denver Crowd) whose leadership and goals shifted frequently. Throw in Teller’s own shifts, from regular Republican to Silver Republican to Democrat, and the vicissitudes of 19th-century mining, and there’s a lot to keep track of.
The book is almost entirely about Teller’s public life, perhaps because his private life was more than respectable. A proper Victorian, Henry waited until he could afford to marry his beloved Harriet. They had two sons and a daughter, none of whom caused any scandal. Henry drank sparingly, he didn’t gamble, and he didn’t patronize brothels.
Smith argues that Teller was about as representative of Colorado as anyone could be, and he makes his case. Like Colorado in general, Teller was progressive in some areas (Indian treaties, women’s suffrage), and reactionary in others, as when he opposed national forests and parks: “I would rather see people living on the land than to see timber on it, no matter how beautiful it is or how fine.” He was personally honest while often associating with some first-rate scoundrels.
He believed in a growing America, but opposed the imperialism of the Spanish-American War. Indeed, it was Teller who attached an amendment which specified that the United States wanted an independent Cuba, so it never became a U.S. territory like Puerto Rico. Thus, the recent Elian Gonzales saga might be traced back to the mining-camp lawyer — another indication of his lasting influence, even if today not one Coloradan in 20 could identify Henry M. Teller.
He deserves better from modern Coloradans, and this biography should help. It’s an engaging look at an active man during our state’s formative years.
– Ed Quillen
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