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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 198

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This is the grave of Henry Teller.

A surprisingly decent man for a Gilded Age senator, Teller was born in 1830 near Granger, New York. He became a lawyer in 1858, moved to Illinois, and got involved in Republican politics there. In 1861, he moved to Colorado, where the 1859 gold strike had brought thousands of whites, and set up a new law practice in Central City. He was primarily a corporate attorney and this made him a lot of powerful Republican friends in territorial Colorado, especially given that he did a lot of work for the railroads. When Colorado became a state in 1876, Teller was an easy choice for the new state legislature to send to the Senate. There was little reason to think he would be anything other than a friend to powerful interests, for that’s what he had been in Colorado. Other than a three year stint where he was Secretary of the Interior under Arthur, from 1882-85, he would remain in the Senate until 1909.

But in the Senate, Teller proved a pretty complex figure. First, he got involved in the free silver question. As a western senator, this wasn’t necessarily against corporate interests; most of the Populist support in the Rocky Mountain states came from people with vested interest in silver coinage. But this put him at odds with gold standard Republicans in the east. When the 1892 Republican convention decided to support the gold standard, Teller led a group that walked out of the convention. He and other started an affiliated third party, the Silver Republican Party, who would urge votes for William Jennings Bryan. Most of the people involved in this eventually returned to the Republicans, as after the gold strikes in Alaska and South Africa, gold flooded the market and the inflationary desires of the cash-starved farmers were fulfilled and silver coinage became less of a political movement. But Teller switched to the Democrats in 1903. He remained a Democrat the rest of his life.

Teller was also one of the few senators, especially surprising coming from the West, to oppose the Dawes Act, which stole most of Native Americans’ reservations in the allotment process that reduced their holdings to 160 acres a person and allowed whites to buy the rest. This was part of a much larger process of attempting to extinguish every vestige of indigenous culture and perhaps drive native peoples to extinction entirely. As Secretary of the Interior, Teller had charge of the notoriously corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs and he opposed the allotment plans developing at that time, which became the Dawes Act in 1887. Teller said of the Dawes Act:

“The real aim this bill is to get at the Indian lands and open them up to settlement. The provisions for the apparent benefit of the Indians are but the pretext to get at his lands and occupy them. … If this were done in the name of greed, it would be bad enough; but to do it in the name of humanity, and under the cloak of an ardent desire to promote the Indian’s welfare by making him lie ourselves, whether he will or not, is infinitely worse.”

Now, Teller was no saint. He served in the Colorado militia during the Sand Creek Massacre era, even though he was not there. He also thought that Native American customs needed to be repressed. He approved the Indian Religious Crimes Code while at Interior, which essentially made Native American marriage and religious practices illegal, including polygamy and war dances. This would be the law of the land until John Collier’s Indian New Deal repealed this and other repressive laws in the 1930s. But Teller did not believe that the ability to Native Americans to have economic sustainability should not be repressed, which is something at least, as is calling out the sheer hypocrisy behind the bill.

Teller’s most prominent moment though came in the rush to the Spanish-American War. After the yellow press and imperialists made a huge deal about the Spanish blowing up the USS Maine, which almost certainly did not happen as a boiler explosion is far more likely, the general narrative about the war is that the U.S. rushed in. But that’s not really true. It took quite a political effort to get a skeptical Congress to declare war and it was about a six-week process from when McKinley asked for it. Even there, McKinley had to be cajoled into it by that bloodthirsty white supremacist maniac Theodore Roosevelt and other imperialist Republicans, who openly challenged the president’s manhood for his reluctance. There were a lot of different factions opposed to imperialism and that included most Democrats and some Republicans. Grover Cleveland for instance had outright rejected annexation of Hawaii during his second term, forcing the sugar planters to wait until William McKinley took office to finish their plans of joining the USA. Teller was among those who were suspicious of this war and American imperialism. He actually had once supported imperialism, but as he moved toward the Democrats on economic issues, he did the same on expansionism.

In response to this, Teller forced an amendment through the Senate that is how we most know his name today. This stated that if the U.S. went to war with Spain, it could not take Cuba as a colony. The Teller Amendment did indeed limit American intentions and it’s quite likely that without it, had the votes been there for war, Cuba would have been an American colony. As it was, U.S. troops stayed there until 1902 and the conditions for withdrawal, outlined in the Platt Amendment, were so onerous, with clauses that effectively guaranteed the U.S. full right of invasion for almost anything, including Cuban debts and making deals with foreign nations that the U.S. disapproved of, not to mention ceding the land at Guantanamo Bay for a military base (and what bad things ever came of that land!) that it created a quasi-colony. And the U.S. would send in troops to occupy Cuba from 1906-09 and again from 1917-22, not to mention support right-wing kleptocratic dictators such as Fulgencio Batista, all the way until Fidel Castro took power in 1959. But Teller tried at least. Again, he wasn’t a saint here. A big part of his opposition is that he feared Cuban sugar imports undermining Colorado sugar beet farmers. Classic local politics. But still, this was a good thing, even if it was the final compromise that allowed the war to happen.

Teller finally left the Senate in 1909, returning to his law practice in Colorado. He died there in 1914.

Henry Teller is buried in Fairmount Cemetery, Denver, Colorado.

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