Denver Democrats – Retrospect: Circa 1906-08

speer_02-12_0199_edited-1.jpg “Booster Bawb,” Robert W. Speer, Mayor of Denver, 1904-1912, 1916-1918.

Following my initial entry on this topic, and watching the tortuous disintegration of a cohesive national Democratic Party, I thought it would be if not instructive, at least interesting to take a look at Denver, circa 1906-08. 1908 was, of course, when the Democracy first came to Denver for their national confabulation.

NOTE: If you’re not a history buff, then you’ll probably find this quite boring. Additionally, quoted material comes from editions of the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post published in 1906 and 1908.

William T. Davoren, who, in 1908, was Chairman of the Democratic City Central Committee of Denver and had served in numerous patronage and elective offices in Denver (patronage largely bestowed by Mayor Robert W. Speer), described for the Denver Post his conception of the potency of machine politics. He talked about his great love for the perpetual contest involved in politics–a contest of human nature, men and women. “But with the machine,” he told the Post, “you know, the game is simplified.”

Davoren noted that he was “…in favor of machine politics. I believe in the efficacy and fairness of machine politics. Better public officers and more satisfactory administrations are obtained through machine politics than by any other means. And then, by thorough organization, you have a better change of victory.”

The Post’s interviewer, Martin Dunn, looked at Davoren, the big Irishman, and concluded that “The Irish demand order and certainty. That is why they are Roman Catholics. The Church never changes.”

“That is why the Irish are the best soldiers and the best policemen and the best machine politicians on earth,” Dunn continued. “They sink or swim with their cheifain or their machine.”

Interesting to note, what was called the “Speer Delegation,” to the 1906 Democratic State Convention, included men with the following surnames: Kenehan, Daly, McGuire, Murphy, Callahan, Dooley, McIntyre, Hyder, Horan, Delaney, Sullivan, Mahoney, Carney, Finn, Meehan, McCarty, Leary, Harrington, McPhee, McGilvray, Donovan, Riordan, Rooney.

The Post piece continued with Davoren explaining, “With a machine politics becomes cold-blooded business. The machine enters the fight with the intention of winning. To be the conquerer the machine knows that substantial men must be nominated. The machine selects only the men it thinks will win. The weaker men are excluded and are not permitted to be candidates.”

Davoren suggested that he was not the “…inventor of machine politics. No one has accused me of that. The original political machine was mothered by Necessity. It appeared long ago. President Roosevelt is a machine politician. …He operates his machine just as machines are operated in Denver, only on a larger scale.”

Dunn asked Davoren what it was that constituted a machine. “It consists of party leaders,” Davoren said, “district leaders and their assistants. Every ward has a district leader. This leader has a committeeman in every precinct. It may be that some of the district leaders and precinct committee men are holding political jobs. If they are it makes them anxious to assist their party.”

Davoren noted that the “…sole object of a machine is to pick out good candidates and induce all the men and women of its political faith to register and vote.”

Davoren lectured Dunn: ‘Tammany in New York has a machine man in every block who is called a ‘block man.’ If the block man don’t bring every vote he promised to bring he is fired. You see, it is business with the Tammany machine.”

1906 was a vintage year for discord within the Democratic Party in Colorado. This was the year that self-respecting, self-righteous members of the Colorado Democracy–led chiefly by the owner of the Rocky Mountain News, ex-Senator Thomas “Owl Eyes” Patterson, succeeded in “spewing-out” the Speer delegation to the State Democratic Convention.

What bothered the Democrats who wore the white hats, was that they believed Robert Speer, along with the public utility-Republican-corporation-machine, had sold out the Democracy to the wealthy Republicans of the state, and especially, in the city of Denver. In the words of one of the Democratic white knights, T.J. O’Donnel, the need to “spew-out” the Speer delegation was clear and simple: “Mr. Bryan [William Jennings],” he said, “has been making a fight in Illinois against the domination of one man, Sullivan [a Chicago political boss]. We are making a fight in this state against the domination of one man, Mr. Speer. Mr. Byan’s objections to Mr. Sullivan is that he owns a gas company. Our objections to Mr. Speer is that the gas company owns him.”

The 216 Speer delegates to the 1906 state Democratic convention, upon hearing that they had been voted out of their own party gathering, rose from their seats, formed themselves in Champa Street outside the meeting hall, and marched two abreast to the Albany Hotel where they held their own convention, of sorts. It was at the Albany that “…occurred one of the strangest scenes ever seen in the strange politics of Colorado.” And, it was at the Albany where members of the Denver machine spoke-up, emotionally bearing their deepest feelings about the party; their machine.

The Speer delegation looked on each other as “…the boys who had stayed with the party when there wasn’t carfare in the treasury and [had] canvassed their precincts through a dozen campaigns with their little pencils and pads when they knew they didn’t have a look-in, [now] only to be kicked out of their own house by strangers.”

At the Albany where the ousted Speer [Denver] delegation to the State Democratic Convention gathered, it was reported that the Speer band struck up the tune “Tammany,” to the wild cheers of the Denver machine delegates. It was then that the Boss, Speer, rose to address his chums, those black-hatted, hard-hitting party workers who knew more about politics and winning elections than any slew of “progressive” Democrats like T.J. O’Donnels or Tom Pattersons.

Speer told the crowd that he “…would rather be a member of this delegation and out of that convention tonight, than be a member of any delegation in a hundred such conventions.”

“This organization,” Speer continued, “raised over $20,000 two years ago, not a dollar of which came from any corporation and not a single penny from Patterson [the owner of the Rocky, at the time]. The only thing he ever gave to the Democratic Party was trouble and a loud voice denouncing the men who did the real work of the party. Every employee of the city gave twenty-five per cent of his monthly salary. Men came to me, and they are sitting here now, and begged to be allowed to give more. And when I refused to take any more of their money, knowing them to be poor men, they left with tears streaming down their cheeks.” (Oh, my…)

Charles J. Hughes, Jr., the attorney for many of the public utility concerns in Denver at the time–who would become in a few years the U.S. Senator from Colorado–then rose from his chair beside Speer and declared, “I don’t care how they vote in Pueblo and Paonia. I vote in Denver! Let them breakfast on that with what appetite they have left. In Denver! And I mean it! We are still and ever will be true examples of what I have all my life loved to call the ‘unterrified, invincible and terrible Democracy! …And those who jeered, as our delegation marched out of the hall today will shed bitter tears and come to us in prayer before they will ever get our assistance again.”

True to Hughe’s prediction, the Denver machine in November, 1906 elected a Republican, Buchtel, to the Governor’s chair. Indeed, when the tallying of votes was over it was discovered that the Democratic nominee, Alva Adams, lost in every single ward in Denver and Buchtel won in Denver by almost 10,000 votes.

Alice Rohe, a writer for the New York Evening World noted in an article in 1909, “Denver’s Mayor Can Give Tammany Pointers on Absolute Bossism.” She wrote, “For so long has the Tammany tiger reigned supreme as the symbolic figure head of political bossism that a new species of the genus politicus entering the public arena might be regarded with skepticism.

“There is a mountain lion, however, right in the Western Rockies who could give this long undisputed Tammany tiger a few pointers on absolute bossism.

“…It is said of Denver that it has no political parties, only organizations. And in this mixed-up political situation Mayor Speer rises in his absolutism above them all. He is the dodge of Denver, and political puppets dance to the pulling of the strings in the hands of the big blond man in city hall.

“Although a Democrat, the laisser-faire regime of politics in Colorado, which saw a Democratic Mayor [Speer] and a Republican Governor [Buchtel] elected by the same machinery is only one more proof of the absolutism of the machine boss of city hall, who when party issues become muddled, takes on the standard of ‘independence.'”

This is a fascinating period in Denver’s history. Speer is a fascinating character in Denver’s history. And, the backdrop for the 1908 Democratic National Convention was a city, Denver, where “…when party issues [became] muddle[d]…” relied upon the organization, not the party, to make all right with the world; to put God in his heaven.

We’ll see how this bygone scenario plays out in August, 2008.

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5 Responses to Denver Democrats – Retrospect: Circa 1906-08

  1. Ariel says:

    Great post! I am writing a paper on the history of Denver from around 1850 to 1920, and I am wondering where you found these news paper articles. I have been searching for some myself and haven’t found many that are relevant. If you could send me a link or let me know where to go to look myself it would be GREATLY appreciated!

  2. georgeindenver says:

    Ariel. The quotes in my post came from research completed for a course at UCD, “The Progressive Era.” I spent many, many a day within the confines of the Colorado Historical Society and the Western History collection of the DPL. Microfilm galore of Denver newspaper articles at the time, as well as original source documents, as well as books written about the era. If there is something specific you’re interested in, I could provide source references. I’d be happy to do it. As to a link… I’ve found both the DPL and the Historical Society are fairly behind the times with regard to on-line sourcing.


  3. Diana Copsey says:

    Dear George:
    I also would very much like to know more about your research and your sources for this fine article.
    Martin Dunn married my great aunt Ida Holthusen, who was one of my grandmother’s four younger sister. I have just begun tracing the lives of the Holthusen children. Their mother, Louise Maria Stegmann Holthusen, died at the family ranch 3 miles from Como on July 6, 1892. Their father committed suicide–shooting himself in the abdomen and in the head–on the train platform in Buena Vista on May 1, 1894.

    Ida and Martin met when they were both employed by the Denver Times. Martin went from there to the Denver Post and later was the managing editor of the New York Journal American newspaper. I guess the next step is a session with the microfiche!
    Diana Copsey 303-733-2178

  4. Janiak says:

    hi George,
    great post, i am actually writing a dissertation, but on the earlier corruption that preceeded speer, I was just surfing around to help flesh out my epilogue. Denver was never dull!
    And to Ariel– I have also done my time with the microfilm,
    a bit of a trick is to search in the colorado historic newspaper collections online, which is not very complete, but if you can find anything, you can at least get a date.
    Also, that fabulous card catalog at the DPL will give you some dates if you have a name.

  5. georgeindenver says:

    Thanks, Janiak. I have a particular fascination with the Populist/Progressive eras in and around Denver. The source material is, of course, disparate. The job of putting it all together is, at times, tedious but nevertheless rewarding. I wish you luck on your dissertation!


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