"God-Sent into Politics"
A champion jockey in his youth, Charles Curtis recalled that once before a race in Texas, a horse owner called him over for final instructions. The man, seated with a rifle across his lap, said, "Son, the last dollar I have in the world is on this race. If you don't win, don't stop when you cross the finish line. Keep right on going." Curtis won that race and many more. Famous for his one-eighth Native American ancestry, he rose to prominence in the House of Representatives, became the Senate's first official majority leader, and served as vice president under Herbert Hoover. The self-made Kansan seldom stirred an audience with a speech, but preferred to meet each constituent personally and do all his "fixing" behind the closed doors of Congress.
Curtis' adversity-filled childhood fed the legends that would help elect him into office. Born in 1860 on a North Topeka farm, Curtis was three when his mother died. His father, a quartermaster sergeant in the Kansas Cavalry, left the young boy in the care of his paternal grandparents. In 1866, Curtis moved from Topeka to the Kansa (or Kaw) Indian reservation in central Kansas. There, he stayed with his maternal grandmother, a half Kaw, and attended a nearby mission school. Three years later, Cheyenne Indians raided the reservation, and nine-year-old Curtis reportedly walked or rode a horse the sixty miles to Topeka in order to summon help for his tribe. While the feat made him a hero among the Kaws, it also convinced his Topeka grandmother to raise him in the more "civilized" environment of the state capital. When he was fourteen, he hoped to rejoin the tribe, but his Kaw grandmother convinced him to cut his Indian ties, stay in Topeka, and get an education.
Friendly and outgoing, Curtis worked his way through high school, racing horses at county fairs, driving a "hack" cab, and selling fruit, newspapers, and peanuts. Following graduation, he took a job as a janitor at a law firm in order to use its library to study for the bar exam. In 1881, he joined a law practice in Topeka and became active in the Republican party. Supported by the "wets" in the illegal liquor trade, he became Shawnee County's prosecuting attorney. Once his elected term began, however, he surprised both the "wets" and the "drys" by vigorously prosecuting the state constitution's prohibition amendment. In 1892, Kansas' Fourth District sent Curtis to the House of Representatives. A conservative in a populist state, he won the election in part by his remarkable ability to remember thousands of names and faces and by publicizing the unusual circumstances of his upbringing.
In the House, Curtis stood out as the first member of Congress descended from Native Americans. Proclaiming the benefits of individual enterprise, he attempted to alleviate the harsh conditions of reservation Indians by dismantling their communal institutions. Most notably, he sponsored the Curtis Act of 1898, which promoted tribal land allotment, dissolved the Five Civilized Tribes, and led to Oklahoma statehood. Curtis remained in the House until January 1907, when he was elected to complete a vacant term in the Senate as well as to serve the six-year-term commencing on March 4, 1907.
During his first full Senate term, Curtis chaired the Committee on Indian Depredations and became the president pro tempore for one week in 1911. The following year, the progressive wing split the Republican party in Kansas, and the state legislature elected the Democratic Senate nominee. Temporarily forced out of office, Curtis won his state's other Senate seat in the 1914 election–the first popular election under the Constitution's newly ratified 17th Amendment.
Soon after his return to the Senate chamber, members of the Republican Conference elected him as their whip. As such, Curtis helped pass the debate-limiting cloture rule in 1917, organized opposition to the Versailles Treaty, and promoted high tariffs and relief for farmers. An outspoken proponent of women's rights, he hastened the vote on the 19th Amendment and sponsored an Equal Rights Amendment as well as legislation protecting the assets of married women. However, few bills bore his name. Indeed, Curtis made party development, not individual issues, his first priority. Republican senators rewarded his diligence in 1921 by naming him assistant to Henry Cabot Lodge, the chairman of the Republican Conference and de facto party floor leader.
In 1924, Lodge died within days of Calvin Coolidge's presidential election. Curtis filled the vacant party conference chairmanship that November, and at the start of the next Congress, the Republican senators elected him to be the first official Senate majority leader. Considered a partner to the president, he primarily brought administration-sanctioned legislation to the Senate floor. In doing so, Curtis endured the criticism of liberal-leaning members from his own party.
Curtis' opponents, the so-called Senate "insurgents," had long been estranged from the Republican "regulars" in Congress. The factional rift widened in 1924 when Senator Robert La Follette, supported by like-minded senators, ran for the presidency on the Progressive ticket. That year, the "regulars" expelled La Follette's allies from the Republican Conference, denying the progressive senators Republican slots on the committees. Curtis continued this policy of exclusion once he assumed the Conference's chairmanship. The defeat of several Republican senators in the 1926 mid-term elections, however, threatened the party's majority status. In a "back-room deal," Curtis convinced the insurgents to vote with the regulars to organize the Senate under Republican control. In exchange, the regulars readmitted the insurgents into the Conference, assuring them that there would be "no unnecessary delay" in the consideration of key progressive legislation.
As senator and majority leader, Curtis generally enjoyed good press relations. Once he announced his intention to run for president in 1928, however, columnists attacked his legislative record, calling him the "apotheosis of mediocrity." A campaign biography, From Kaw Tepee to Capitol, countered this assertion, while it emphasized his heroic past. Curtis' colorful background, which had aided him in every election, failed to muster the support needed to launch a successful campaign, and he reluctantly accepted the nomination for vice president.
Following his inauguration, Curtis took his role as president of the Senate seriously, but had few responsibilities under President Hoover. In fact, the former majority leader's most demanding task was to represent the White House at social functions. As Hoover organized his 1932 reelection campaign, there were rumors that Republican party leaders would drop Curtis from the ticket. Instead, Curtis was re-nominated and thereby experienced first-hand Hoover's landslide defeat to Franklin Roosevelt. Disillusioned by presidential politics, he spent his last years practicing law in Washington.
On February 8, 1936, Curtis died of a heart attack. Thousands of mourners, Republicans and Democrats, traveled to Topeka to honor the former senator. Gathered in the state capitol's rotunda, they heard testimonials covering forty-seven years of public service. Curtis, in death, soared in popularity as the myth-makers portrayed a poor Indian boy who became an all-American role model: "Our Charley, God-sent into politics."