Willoughby: First president elected with Aspen votes | AspenTimes.com
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Willoughby: First president elected with Aspen votes

Inauguration of James Garfield, 1881. Library of Congress

The coming inauguration will likely have a few footnote firsts, but the 1881 inauguration of James Garfield was the first celebrated in Aspen as it was the first presidential election in the town’s history. Unfortunately there was no newspaper for seven more months so we can only speculate about it.

The election of 1880 is still the closest in history for the popular vote with a slim .1% difference. The Electoral College vote was not close but was the beginning of a pattern that still holds today. This was the first election after Reconstruction and the beginning of a solid southern state vote (then for Democrats).

Aspen in November of 1880 had few citizens. Many of the prospectors departed for the winter. Pitkin County had not been formed yet so Aspen was part of Gunnison County. The total of votes for the county counted a few more than 2,000 out of the roughly 53,500 for the whole state. Note, this was only the second presidential election for Colorado.



Garfield won Colorado, but Democrat General Winfield Hancock won Gunnison County. Republican presidential candidates won Aspen for many elections after that until Franklin Roosevelt.

The inauguration in those days was not in January, it was March 4th. Garfield’s speech was not thought of as notable, even then. He complained that the South was impeding the African American right to vote, something that could have been said at every inauguration since then. He also railed against polygamy in Utah. Aspen would have complained about his advocacy for the gold standard.



Garfield’s inaugural ball was held at the Smithsonian’s new Arts and Industries Building that had just opened. A notable item, the Statue of America, was placed in the large entry room. It featured something really new, an electric light in the hand of statue’s outstretched arm. Music featured John Philip Sousa compositions because he was the conductor.

Garfield was only president for 199 days. He was shot by an assassin and suffered for eleven weeks before he died.

Aspen’s first paper, the Aspen Times Weekly, was not around for the election or the inauguration, but it was for his death. The fledgling town formed a formal committee to come up with an appropriate ceremony, a local funeral. The committee passed some resolutions that were printed in the Times. In one they noted, “party strife has been hushed, the weapons of political warfare laid aside, and the great heart of the nation has throbbed in sympathy and sorrow – we reverently trust that Providence, who has so stricken this nation, will in some way provide that in the open grave of the president will be buried those animosities.”

The committee also resolved that, “in the life of President Garfield we have one of the purest and brightest examples of patient industry, integrity and heroism that the pages of history in any age and in any clime afford.”

A president of only 199 days is not one we pay much attention to. Aspen mourned his passing, but it was too busy creating a town and searching for silver to concern itself with a very distant Washington. It is fun to note and think about 1880-81 when there were only 53,500 voters in the state. Aspen grew rapidly after that and was big enough for a presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, to campaign there just 16 years later.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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