Appointed by President Andrew Johnson in 1865, Alexander Cummings (1810–79) was the third governor of the Territory of Colorado. Originally from Pennsylvania, Cummings gained his office as governor in 1865 largely because he served the Union during the Civil War.
His time in office was fraught with conflict and controversy. He made efforts to promote suffrage for African Americans, and Coloradans condemned his opposition to statehood and frequent absences. Allegations that he illegally tampered with the 1866 congressional campaign ultimately led to his removal from office in 1867. Although his term as governor was short lived, Cummings’s time in office reveals important economic, social, and political issues that shaped the early history of Colorado.
Alexander Cummings was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on November 11, 1810. Little is known about the first thirty-five years of his life. He aspired to become a printer, and in 1845 acquired a half-interest in the Philadelphia North American. Two years later, political differences prompted Cummings to sell his half of the newspaper. He went on to found his own publication, which he called Cummings’ Evening Telegraphic Bulletin. The paper evolved into the Philadelphia Bulletin, one of the most popular newspapers in the United States for decades. Cummings published the Bulletin until 1859, when he sold the paper and went on to found the New York World, a religious, Republican newspaper. The New York World did not prosper under Cummings, and in 1862 it was taken over by new owners, who shifted the paper’s political views toward the Democratic Party.
Cummings’s time as a publisher put him in contact with Simon Cameron, a well-connected politician who was the state printer of Pennsylvania before serving as secretary of war in the Lincoln administration. Cummings’s influence with Cameron led to his appointment as a special purchasing agent for the War Department. Cummings was tasked with purchasing supplies and arranging troop transportation via railroads, but he was soon brought under investigation for making irresponsible purchases that were either way over budget or that troops never used. On April 30, 1862, the House of Representatives passed a resolution dismissing Cummings on charges of profiteering. The investigation showed that Cummings had wasted much of his $2 million budget and that $140,000 in expenditures could not be accounted for.
After his dismissal, Cummings continued to contribute to the Union war effort. He recruited the Nineteenth Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry, of which he became colonel in October 1863. The regiment was involved in combat in Mississippi and Tennessee in 1864, though Cummings was not in command in the field. He then became Superintendent of Troops of African Descent for Arkansas the following February. He helped organize five regiments of Black infantry and one artillery battery. President Andrew Johnson later promoted Cummings to the rank of brigadier general for his service. Cummings’s service with Black troops during the war would influence his later opposition to Colorado statehood because statehood would deny Black Americans the right to vote.
President Andrew Johnson appointed Cummings as the third governor of Colorado Territory on October 17, 1865. Public opinion was against Cummings from the start, as many were unhappy with the removal of the previous governor, John Evans, from office following the Sand Creek Massacre. Many of the territory’s citizens considered the Sand Creek Massacre a heroic battle rather than a “foul and dastardly massacre,” as the US Joint Committee on the Conduct of War determined following an investigation in 1865.
One of the major contentions between Cummings and the public was his opposition to statehood. Cummings and his antistatehood followers opposed the proposed state constitution because it allowed only white males over twenty-one to vote. Cummings was against segregation and supported giving Black citizens the right to vote. He tried to sway Coloradans to his side by traveling through the territory’s mining regions, delivering speeches, and talking to miners and businessmen. While he was away on this trip, a group of statehood supporters met in Golden to elect a legislature and governor and frame a constitution, assuming that their actions would force the governor’s hand. When he returned, Governor Cummings publicly opposed the legislature that the prostatehood group had appointed. Colorado citizens were forced to take sides, either pro- or antistatehood, and so many people considered themselves pro- or anti-Cummings.
To a certain extent, Cummings’s tactics worked. While Congress approved Colorado statehood in late 1865, President Johnson vetoed the act based on the proposed constitution’s failure to recognize Black suffrage. Another bill was submitted for statehood in 1866, but because it still denied Blacks the right to vote, it was again rejected. A Democrat, Johnson was also concerned about the territory’s low population and its Republican politics. Colorado later attained statehood in 1876, with a Constitution that gave the right to vote to all men over the age of twenty-one, in keeping with the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified in 1870).
Controversies While in Office
Cummings’s time in office was fraught with controversy, and public opinion generally was against him. Many citizens charged him with engaging in corrupt and often tyrannical political practices. The Rocky Mountain News gave him the nickname “His Craftiness,” claiming that “everything emanating from [Cummings] in regard to Colorado, [was] calculated to mislead the public.”
Besides opposition to statehood, Cummings had several conflicts with other politicians. In 1865 he got involved in a feud between territorial secretary Samuel Elbert and former governor John Evans. They were fighting over rightful possession of the Great Seal of the Territory, which was affixed to public documents. Cummings believed the current governor should hold the seal and took it for himself. Accusations flew back and forth, eventually escalating to the point where US secretary of state William Seward became involved, and Elbert resigned his office.
Cummings also generated controversy during the 1866 congressional campaign, which pitted antistatehood candidate Alexander Cameron Hunt against prostatehood candidate George Chilcott. Cummings campaigned against Chilcott, claiming that only “galvanized rebel soldiers” of the Civil War, the same who committed the Sand Creek Massacre, would vote for him.
After the election, Cummings allegedly went much further. According to the Territorial Canvassing Board members, who were responsible for counting votes, Cummings interfered with vote counting, claiming that there was no point in counting because Hunt had won in a landslide. Cummings reported to the House that Hunt had won the election, though when the board counted the ballots, Chilcott had won by 108 votes. The matter was taken to House Committee on Elections in Washington, DC, which eventually determined that Chilcott had indeed won the election, and he was officially appointed to Congress.
The election scandal did not bode well for Cummings. In 1867 the Sixth Territorial Council passed a resolution requesting that President Johnson dismiss Cummings and appoint a Colorado resident in his place. According to the council, Cummings had been “intermeddling with duties of other territorial officers,” making him unfit for his position. Cummings was dismissed, and, ironically, Hunt took his place as territorial governor on April 24, 1867.
Cummings held several jobs after being dismissed as governor. Initially, he returned to Pennsylvania, where President Johnson appointed him as a collector of internal revenue for the state’s Fourth District. He was also nominated for the position of commissioner of internal revenue, but the Senate refused to confirm him. When President Johnson left office in 1869, Cummings lost most of his political connections. However, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him US consul in Hawaii in 1877. Cummings held this office until his death in June 1879 in Ottawa, Canada. His body was returned to Pennsylvania, where it was interred in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
While Cummings’s time in Colorado was fraught with controversy, he did have lasting effects on state politics. His effort to grant Black Coloradans the right to vote delayed statehood until 1876, which brought suffrage to Blacks in the new state and influenced the decision to grant women suffrage in 1893. Cummings’s many misdeeds, including the time he spent away from Colorado while in office, also helped open Congress’s eyes to the common practice of absenteeism among Western governors, prompting reforms that promoted more local citizens to office.