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TCL > July 2004 Issue > John Franklin Shafroth

July 2004       Vol. 33, No. 7       Page  15
Six of the Greatest

John Franklin Shafroth
by Frank Hagerman Shafroth

John Franklin Shafroth

by Frank Hagerman Shafroth


Frank Haggerman Shafroth, great-grandson of John F. Shafroth, is an adjunct professor in public policy in the graduate school at George Mason University, a columnist ("The Tax Doctor") for State Tax Notes, and federal liaison for Arlington County, Virginia. He also is a member of the District of Columbia Bar Association, with a specialty in public budgeting, municipal finance, and intergovernmental tax issues. His father, Frank H. Shafroth, Denver, is with the firm of Shafroth and Toll and is an Honor Life member of the Colorado Bar Association.

Before the days when leaders were asked to throw the first pitch in a baseball game, Colorado Governor John Franklin Shafroth was asked to do the honor of the opening kickoff in a football game between the University of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines. Clad in a three-piece suit and a bowler hat, amidst twenty-two football players and a cloud of dust, the Governor obliged.

The kick sailed a long way from the small town of Fayette, Missouri, where this future Colorado statesman was born and raised. Once in Colorado, he served as a Denver City Attorney, U.S. Representative, Governor, and U.S. Senator. He was in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1895 to 1903, Governor of Colorado from 1909 to 1913, and in the U.S. Senate from 1913 to 1919. Former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm wrote of John Franklin Shafroth:

Rarely in Colorado history has an individual made such an impact in his lifetime and influenced future generations as much as John Shafroth. It is tragic that an individual of his caliber has been so largely forgotten and so little appreciated by the generations that followed his.1

Who was this transplanted Missourian who was elected in Colorado as a Republican, a Silver Republican, a Populist, and a Democrat? The man who salvaged the country’s honor in a transatlantic chess match between the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress contributed richly to the heritage of Colorado over his career, establishing a legacy not just for honesty, but also for causes. These causes included campaign finance reform, initiative and referendum laws, women’s rights, mine safety, and bank deposit insurance. He earned his enduring reputation as "Honest John" when, on February 15, 1904—just over a century ago—he announced his resignation as a five-term U.S. Representative, declaring to the House that he had unwittingly benefited from an election tainted with fraud.

"Go West, Young Man"

Born in Fayette, Missouri, on June 9, 1854, Shafroth attended the public schools of Fayette and then went to the University of Michigan, where he graduated in 1875, having earned a law degree. He returned to Fayette and began practicing law.

In 1879, obeying the words of Horace Greeley, Shafroth pulled up stakes and headed west, acting upon advice and counsel of his longtime friend and future wife, Virginia Morrison. En route, he stopped in the then "cowtown" of Denver, where he formed a legal partnership with Andrew Brazee, a former Justice of Colorado’s Territorial Supreme Court. By 1881, he had earned sufficient income to write to request the hand of his intended and to marry Virginia Morrison and bring her to Denver.

Also, by 1881, Shafroth had already established strong legal and political roots in Colorado. That year, he and other attorneys established the Denver Bar Association. In 1882, he became involved in the political arena when one of his new law partners, Herman Luthe, was elected district attorney and made Shafroth his deputy. After returning to private practice for two years, Shafroth was easily elected on the Republican ticket as Denver City Attorney for two terms from 1887 to 1891.

It was during this hectic period of political immersion and leadership that Susan, the first of his and Virginia’s five children, was born,2 followed by John, Jr. (better known as Jack, who served as a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy during World War II), Morrison ("Morrie"), George, and William. With a rapidly growing family and a new position as City Attorney, Shafroth also entered into a law partnership with former Denver Judge Platt Rogers, who was elected Denver’s Mayor in 1891.


From that springboard, John Shafroth’s growing reputation won him elections to the U.S. House of Representatives on the Republican ticket in 1894, 1896, and 1898—years when his support for silver and his growing concern about political integrity began his evolution from a Republican to eventually taking on the Denver Democratic political machine. He had been nominated by Colorado Republicans in 1894 in the wake of the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, an act that thrust the silver-dependent Colorado economy into a tailspin.

He then joined senior U.S. Colorado Senator Henry M. Teller in splitting from the Republicans and joining a third party, the Silver Republicans. The Silver Republicans endorsed the Nebraskan nominated in 1896 by the Democrats in Chicago: that silver-tongued candidate William Jennings Bryan. The split and subsequent massive victory by Bryan (in that election in Colorado) fundamentally altered Colorado politics and the domination of the Republican Party. By 1900, Shafroth completed the transformation and ran and won as a reform Democrat and remained so for the rest of his life.

In his years in Congress, Shafroth was one of the leading advocates for women’s suffrage and economic development of the West through support for reclamation and irrigation projects, and good roads. Through advocating campaign donation procedures and stemming the corporate influence on elections, he worked for campaign reform. He also opposed a bellicose or expansionist foreign policy. Colorado had provided the right to vote to women in all state and local elections just the year before his election—making it the only state other than Wyoming to have women’s suffrage (some states permitted women to vote in some, but not all elections). With more women in his Denver Congressional District than all of Wyoming, Shafroth represented the greatest body of women voters in the U.S. Congress.

In those early years, Shafroth moved his family back and forth between Washington, D.C. and Denver. His son, Morrie, told me that he remembered as a boy going to the Capitol at the end of a day’s session (in the days before there were House or Senate office buildings). His father would hire a horse and buggy to transport them through the swamps of today’s downtown Washington and up the hill to Georgetown, where his father maintained an office and where he would hire a temporary stenographer to respond to Colorado constituents.

The Congressman also had a chance to recall an old skill and represent his country in a transatlantic chess competition. Shafroth, playing in the fifth and final game by telegraph—with the U.S. desperate for a victory to salvage a draw—secured a victory over British Parliament Member John Howard Parnell.

"Honest John"

Shafroth won reelection in 1902, but by the narrowest margin of his career and amid significant evidence of fraud. After the new Congress was seated the following year, Shafroth reviewed the information collected by a congressional subcommittee examining illegal ballots and, concluding it was impossible to determine which ballots were legal and which were tainted, he resigned on February 15, 1904, asking the House to seat his defeated opponent. With every indication that the House would not have expelled him, as fraud was proven on the part of Democrats and Republicans alike, Shafroth’s reputation remained unscathed.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Brewer wrote to him, "Only a brave and honest man would do as you did. Such actions make one proud of his country and sure of its future."3 Although he lost the election of 1904, this action, which earned him the moniker "Honest John," became the foundation for his subsequent election as Governor of Colorado and U.S. Senator, not to mention his enduring reputation.

Seventeen-Gun Salute

Shafroth lost his effort to return to Congress in 1904, but in running for an at-large seat in a congressional district that crossed the entire state, he expanded his reputation and laid the groundwork for his 1908 gubernatorial campaign. With the Speer Democratic machine in Denver at least temporarily allied with his reform Democrats, Shafroth crisscrossed the state on the Red, White, and Blue Special—a three-car train that he and other candidates ponied up for to lay out his fourteen-point reform platform to Colorado voters in thirty towns over six days. The effort, financed by the candidates after they refused to accept corporate contributions, paid off when he was elected Governor by a margin of nearly 12,000 votes.

On January 12, 1909, seventeen guns were fired on the grounds of the Capitol to mark the inauguration. The guns might well have been a warning of his deep commitment to fight for the reforms that constituted his platform. This included a direct primary law, direct election of U.S. Senators, the Australian ("headless") ballot,4 legal protection for bank deposits, railroad regulations, and a registration and corrupt practices act relating to campaign finance reform, as well as various initiatives, referendum, and recall laws.

It was an ambitious platform, but he had high hopes. His election marked the first time in Colorado history that the Democrats controlled the Governor’s office, as well as both chambers of the legislature. He wanted to begin with a big bang.

Seeking Another

Notwithstanding what appeared to be solid control, the temporary alliance with the Democratic machine was short-lived, at best. Moreover, the legislature was scheduled to meet for only ninety days in its 1909 session—a shortness of duration that enabled anti-reform forces to engage in every manner of chicanery and stalling. Shafroth understood that he would need every ounce of skill he had acquired as a chess player if he were to succeed. And he would require luck.

The latter occurred when the Speer machine suffered a stunning defeat. Denver voters approved the use of a referendum and initiative to permit blockage of city council ordinances. Shafroth quickly struck with his bishop, ordering a special session of the legislature to meet in August—just twelve weeks before the 1910 elections. Shafroth’s deft move meant the proceedings would take place under the threat of elections. He knew he would have a supportive media to make sure the public understood what was at stake. He wanted to take on the corporate and machine interests in both parties that he firmly believed had corrupted the will of the people.

Initiative and Referendum Movement

Direct democracy, Shafroth believed, was the key to taking on not just the corporations, but also machine politics. Having lost in the legislature on the initiative and referendum issue to the Democratic Speer machine and vested Republican interests the prior year, Shafroth pulled out all the stops in the special session. Capitalizing on former President Teddy Roosevelt’s trip to Colorado in late August 1910, Shafroth wielded his own big stick. Shafroth joined Roosevelt, after which Roosevelt addressed the legislature.

After twenty-four days of debate, the Colorado legislature passed an initiative and referendum bill, which the Governor signed into law on September 2, 1910. The voters subsequently adopted the proposed constitutional amendment to grant themselves the right to make laws directly and amend the state constitution just two months later by a three-to-one margin.

1,001 Knights

The Governor’s own reelection to become the first Colorado governor to serve consecutive two-year terms since 1880 was not nearly as straightforward. When the Democrats convened on September 14, the Speer anti-reform forces controlled 284 delegates, refusing to permit any pro-reform Democrats from Denver to be seated. Shafroth secured his party’s nomination by a scant twenty-seven votes out of 1,001. The slim margin no doubt gave him a taste of not just a difficult campaign ahead, but further frustrations if he were reelected. The divided Republicans opened the door for his successful election, but the voters returned enough anti-reformers to control both chambers of the legislature.

For his new term, the Governor was unabashed in pressing his agenda. He demanded a better voter registration system (so that voters could not register up to five additional voters per person), campaign finance reform (the Colorado Supreme Court had struck down his act), mine-workers’ safety, a bank guaranty law, better control of the railroads, and reorganization of the state prison system. He also advocated for an amendment to the Colorado Constitution to provide for four-year gubernatorial terms and for the legislature to ratify amendments to the U.S. Constitution to provide for a federal income tax and direct election to the U.S. Senate.

Labor Reform: Hoisted
By His Own Petard

The discovery of rich troves of minerals had transformed Colorado’s economy in the late nineteenth century and provoked repeated clashes between workers and industry, especially between mine workers and mine operators. In the 1880s, efforts commenced by the legislature to set an eight-hour workday finally culminated in 1911 with a law to limit a miner’s workday to eight hours in any twenty-four-hour span. This was, as historian David Lonsdale wrote, "the law that the miners and smelter workers had wanted in 1905. After a six-year delay, it was finally enacted and signed into law by reform-minded Governor Shafroth."5

No sooner had Shafroth signed the measure, however, than the mine owners set out to undermine it, utilizing the very constitutional amendment Shafroth had successfully sought. They had opposed the move to place a popular referendum (Measure 21) on the ballot that would require statewide approval of the new law. In addition, the owners proposed a substitute (Measure 19) to the new law to limit its effect to only those miners in "continuous contact with noxious fumes," which, as the Colorado Bar Association determined, could permit men to work ten hours a day for three weeks and then be laid off for the fourth week to meet the legal average.6 The vote ended in conflicting victories. This led the Colorado Supreme Court, in response to a legislative interrogatory, to rule that the Colorado legislature could protect its own laws from future popular referenda by attaching an "emergency clause" at the end of a bill.7

Closing a Chapter

In his last years before taking office in the U.S. Senate, Shafroth began reaping some of the benefits of the initiative and referendum movement when, in the 1912 general election, voters adopted the "headless" ballot and an eight-hour workday for women in certain occupations. In 1913, the legislature adopted a coal-mine inspection law. It also ratified the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution to enable Congress to adopt a federal income tax and direct election to the U.S. Senate—making Shafroth one of the last U.S. Senators to be elected by a state legislature. It was not until 1958, however, that Colorado voters amended the state constitution to provide for four-year terms for governor.

Back to Washington

As his term as Governor wound down, Shafroth faced a question about his future: Should he stay as a leader in public policy or return to the private sector? While concerned about the sacrifice public service had cost his family (his salary as governor was $5,000 a year), events at home probably helped shape his decision. His son George unexpectedly died on April 5, 1911. Although George had suffered from spinal tuberculosis for most of his life—incapacitating him for sixteen years—the death came as a bitter shock to the family. In addition, his oldest son John was already established in his naval career, and both Morrison and Will were at the University of Michigan. In short, income pressures were reduced at home, the children were no longer at home, or even in Denver, and a change of scenery might relieve the haunting loss of his son.

Therefore, on July 13, 1912, he declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, only to have the party machine opt for former Governor Alva Adams at the Democratic Convention. But, thanks to Shafroth’s own populist and direct election efforts, all three candidates were required to be listed on the Democratic primary ballot. The voters overwhelmingly nominated him for the six-year term. The general election pitted him against the badly riven Republicans, who fielded two candidates (a Bull Mooser and a regular), paving the way for victory.

The general vote was technically only advisory (and that only because Shafroth’s relentless pressure had secured changes in the law), as the legislature still retained the final discretion regarding whom to send to Washington. Noting the writing on the wall, the General Assembly elected Shafroth—although as his son Morrie told me years ago, it might well have been that they wanted this reformer, who had challenged Republicans and Democrats alike throughout his career, as far away from Colorado as quickly as possible.

The Federal Reserve and
Foreign Affairs

Returning to Washington, D.C. as a U.S. Senator, Shafroth used his previous experience in the U.S. House of Representatives to manage the transformation from the executive back to the legislative responsibilities. He quickly immersed himself in trade, foreign policy, banking, and tax issues. He became a key advocate of women’s suffrage and consistently worked for public land laws, which would benefit the western states.

His many years of effort to provide better access to capital and a national and sound money supply system in the rapidly growing U.S. economy made him instrumental in the framing and passage of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. Similarly, his recognition of the adverse impact of trade tariffs on his Colorado constituents led him to work closely with the Wilson administration in securing enactment of the Underwood Tariff Act—efforts that forced him to walk a fine line with Colorado sugar beet growers and to support retention of some sugar tariffs. Senator Shafroth also was able to see his efforts to enactment of a national income and inheritance tax reach fruition while he was in the Senate.

On the international front, he returned to the anti-imperialism leadership he had earlier displayed in the House. As Europe edged closer and closer to war, Shafroth urged a change in U.S. treatment of the territories of the Philippines and Puerto Rico. In the case of the former, he unsuccessfully, but presciently, warned that a U.S. presence would serve as a lure to Japanese threats to a territory the United States could ill defend.

In the case of Puerto Rico, he worked closely with the White House to secure enactment of the Jones-Shafroth Act. The law, which President Woodrow Wilson signed in March 1917, gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. The Act separated the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of Puerto Rican government, provided civil rights to the individual, and created a locally elected bicameral legislature.

In Loco Parentis

As war raged across the Atlantic, Senator Shafroth remained strongly supportive of President Wilson’s efforts to keep the United States out of the war and to try to impose a U.S. peace. But, as unprovoked German submarine attacks threatened more and more Americans, Shafroth supported Wilson’s shift to declaring war.

He had more at risk than his twenty-six years of public commitment against intrusion in other nations’ affairs. He had his three sons to consider: John, commander of the destroyer Terry, and Morrison and Will, both in the Army. His and his wife’s stakes were very personal. But, Shafroth was worried not just about the children’s safety, it seems. He also was worried about exposure to alcohol and cigarettes, causing him to extend his offer to the boys of monthly payments of $10 apiece for abstention from the twin evils.

A Bishop is Lost

Senator Shafroth’s senatorial re-election campaign in 1918 was unsuccessful. His absence from the state during those busy pre-war and war years, combined with a resurgence of the Speer machine in Denver, once again fractured Democratic voters. In addition, campaign slurs about his "German" (actually his father was Swiss) heritage, a virulent campaign by a women’s splinter group, and a savage flu that struck the state all contributed to erosions in the base that had served him so well for so many years. He was unseated by Lawrence C. Phipps.

Although not re-elected to the Senate, he was selected as chairman of the War Minerals Relief Commission. His responsibility was to adjudicate claims of mining companies against the government for the cancellation of wartime contracts—an issue of great importance to many of his Colorado constituents. After helping his son Morrison secure the Democratic nomination for Colorado Attorney General in 1920, he announced his retirement from politics. In May 1921, after settling 1,203 claims—and settling at levels nearly 66 percent below the amount Congress had appropriated to settle the claims—Shafroth resigned.8

He spent the last months of his life supporting the political and legal ambitions of others, in private law practice in Denver, and travel in Europe with his wife. He died in Denver, on February 20, 1922, at the age of 68, and is buried at Fairmount Cemetery.

Perhaps the Boulder Daily Camera put his contributions to Colorado most succinctly: "Real leadership was Shafroth’s and it was due to his intrinsic ability, force of character, rather than to any attribute of personal good looks, voice, manner, or fortune. He had no eloquence, but he had lots of common sense."9


1. Lamm and Smith, Pioneers and Politicians (Boulder, CO: Pruett Pubs. Co., 1984) at 89.

2. Susan died when still a young child.

3. Leonard, Noel, and Walker, Honest John Shafroth (Denver, CO: Colorado Historical Society, 2002) at 35.

4. The "Australian ballot" refers to the way of voting in the United States that most of us have come to assume is the way it has always been: the state providing a single ballot on which voters may vote in secret. At the time, in Colorado, as in every other state, the parties provided voters slips of paper with the party’s candidate(s). The term comes from the adoption of the Electoral Act 1856 of the Australian Colony of Victoria, which was adopted by Parliament (with a one-vote majority) on March 13, 1856, and received the Governor’s Assent. The Australian Colony Victoria thus became the first Australian colony, and the first legislature anywhere in the world, to adopt the practice of the secret ballot, as opposed to open voting. The arguments for the practice—designed to protect electors from pressure and recrimination—had been discussed in Britain, but secret voting was not adopted there until later. When secret voting was later adopted in the United States, it was called "the Australian ballot."

5. Lonsdale, "The Move for an Eight-Hour Law in Colorado, 1893–1913," doctoral dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder (1963) at 271.

6. Colorado Bar Association, Analysis of Thirty-Two Measures at 66; "The Eight-Hour Laws," Rocky Mountain News at 24 (Oct. 1912), cited in Smith and Lubinsky, "Direct Democracy During the Progressive Era: A Crack in the Populist Veneer?" 14 The J. of Policy History 349 (2002).

7. Smith and Lubinsky, supra, note 6, at 367.

8. Id.

9. Boulder Daily Camera (Feb. 1922), from the "Shafroth Papers," cited in Leonard et al., supra, note 3.

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