Legends & Legacies: What would Waite say? | AspenTimes.com

Legends & Legacies: What would Waite say?

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Davis H. Waite, Aspen’s most famous politician

The possibility to elect America's first woman president would likely stir mixed feelings in Aspen's populist champion of women's suffrage, Davis H. Waite. He likely would have felt flummoxed that this opportunity emerged 123 years from the time he helped secure the right for women to vote. He would have felt proud that he contributed. And he may not have trusted that women as voters would choose his preferred presidential candidate.

Waite is Aspen's most famous politician. He left his position as editor of the Ashcroft Herald and came to Aspen in the 1880s. He partnered in a law office with B. Clark Wheeler, Aspen Times owner and editor. Also, Waite served as a local judge and school board member.

The two men were widowers. Eventually, Waite remarried in Aspen and his daughter married B. Clark Wheeler. The two couples formed a close family-social relationship.

Waite stopped writing for The Aspen Times and started the Aspen Union Era, a newspaper that promoted populist interests. Waite became a spokesman for miners and tradesmen in Aspen, a union town. A precursor to Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Movement, Waite promoted the eight-hour workday, child labor laws, a graduated income tax and the right for workers to organize.

Waite campaigned for women's suffrage and, as populism swept Colorado, voters chose Waite for governor in 1892. The Colorado Legislature did not go along with Waite on many issues, but it did pass a women's suffrage bill that Waite signed into law in 1893.

In the same election, Wheeler landed in the state House. Although he was a well-known Republican, Wheeler ran on the populist ticket. No matter what political allegiance Wheeler declared, voters approved his statewide advocacy for silver.

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As in 2016, anger and angst over unemployment and a stalled economy fertilized far-ranging ideas. Waite and other populists pushed for the government to take ownership of the railroads. They had watched railroad magnates control government for their own interests. These influential businessmen had overextended themselves when they borrowed money to build their lines, considered a major cause of the Panic of 1893 when 115 railroads failed bringing down bans with them. To balance their books these men raised shipping rates, an added cost that put farmers out of business and diminished mine profits.

Wait suffered the misfortune of sitting in the governor's seat when Congress demonetized silver. The ensuing Panic of 1893 ranks second only to the Great Depression for economic mayhem.

In Colorado, the election of 1894 focused even more tightly on the status of silver and the economy. Voters shifted from Waite's list of populist issues and ousted him from office. Some considered Waite to have been the most controversial and eccentric of Colorado's governors. Others viewed him as the only true fighter for the working man.

Waite felt bitter over his loss and cast around for scapegoats. He believed that Catholics — the unwelcome immigrants of the time — had voted against him. Worse, he believed women voted against him. As he had championed women's suffrage, this perception particularly grated on him.

Waite traveled on the lecture circuit. Until his death in 1901, he remained a firm believer in the issues that evolved into the Progressive Movement. He died nearly two decades before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

I am sure Waite would have found many parallels between the issues of his time and those of the 2016 election. He had too much integrity to identify with Trump's version of populism. But he likely would have identified with the angst and anger over moneyed interests felt by the followers of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. And Waite likely would have predicted that women would determine the outcome, although he distrusted their choices.

Tim Willoughby's family story parallels Aspen's. He began sharing folklore while teaching for 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.