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Charles Curtis

Charles Curtis

Charles Curtis rose to political prominence as a U.S. representative from Kansas from 1893 to 1907. Elected to the Senate in 1906, he became Senate majority leader in 1924. He served in that position until 1929 when he became vice president of the United States under Herbert Hoover. Curtis is the only vice president known to have Native American heritage. The self-made Kansan seldom stirred an audience with a speech, but as a skilled politician he met each constituent personally and did all his "fixing" quietly behind closed doors.

Curtis's adventurous childhood provided an endless supply of colorful stories that enhanced his image and helped get him elected to 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 woman of Kaw heritage, and attended a nearby mission school. Three years later, Cheyenne Indians raided the reservation and nine-year-old Curtis reportedly walked the 60 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 urban environment of the state capital. When he was 14, he hoped to rejoin the tribe, but his Kaw grandmother convinced him to 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 state’s 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 enforcing the state constitution's Prohibition amendment. In 1892 Kansas's Fourth District sent Curtis to the U.S. House of Representatives. A conservative in a populist state, he won the election in part because of his remarkable ability to remember thousands of names and faces and by publicizing the unusual circumstances of his childhood.

While in the House, Curtis’s Native American heritage did not lead necessarily to policies in defense of Indian rights. In 1898 Curtis sponsored an amendment to the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act that broke up tribal lands and distributed them as individually owned plots. His amendment applied that law to the previously exempted Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory. The Curtis Act effectively dissolved tribal government in Indian Territory, a key step towards imposing federal government control, which led to eventual statehood for Oklahoma. Curtis remained in the House until 1907, when he moved to the Senate, having been elected simultaneously to fill a Senate vacancy and to the six-year term beginning 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, resulting in the election of the Democratic nominee by the state legislature. Forced out of office, Curtis won his state's other Senate seat in the 1914 election—the state’s first popular election of a senator under the U.S. Constitution's newly ratified Seventeenth Amendment.

Soon after he returned to the Senate, members of the Republican Conference elected Curtis as whip to serve alongside conference chair and party leader Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. As such, Curtis helped pass the debate-limiting cloture rule in 1917, organized opposition to the Versailles Treaty in 1919, and promoted high tariffs and relief for farmers. An outspoken proponent of women's rights, he supported the Nineteenth Amendment and sponsored an Equal Rights Amendment as well as legislation protecting the assets of married women. Few bills bore his name, however, as Curtis prioritized party development over individual policy issues.

When Lodge died in November of 1924, Curtis was elected as chair of the Republican Conference and as the party’s floor leader, the first time Republicans awarded that position without regard to seniority. Considered a partner to President Calvin Coolidge, Curtis brought administration-sanctioned legislation to the Senate floor. In doing so, he angered the so-called Senate "insurgents" who had long been estranged from the Republican "regulars" in Congress. The factional rift widened in 1924 when Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette, supported by like-minded senators, ran for the presidency on the Progressive ticket. That year, the "regulars" expelled La Follette and his allies from the Republican Conference, denying the progressive senators Republican slots on committees. As conference chair, Curtis continued this policy of exclusion. When defeat of several Republican senators in the 1926 midterm elections threatened the party's majority status, however, Curtis forged a deal that 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 as majority leader, Curtis was a popular figure who enjoyed good relations with the press. When he announced his intention to run for president in 1928, however, columnists attacked his slim legislative record as mediocre. A campaign biography, From Kaw Teepee to Capitol, countered this assertion while emphasizing his heroic past. Curtis's colorful background, which had aided him in every election, failed to muster the support needed to launch a successful presidential campaign. Instead, he accepted the nomination for vice president. Elected on the ticket with Herbert Hoover, Curtis became vice president—and president of the Senate—on March 4, 1929.

Curtis took his role as president of the Senate seriously and regularly presided over Senate proceedings. While he attended some cabinet meetings, he 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, but he was again nominated and experienced firsthand Hoover's landslide loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Disillusioned by presidential politics, Curtis spent his last years practicing law in Washington, D.C.

On February 8, 1936, Curtis died of a heart attack at age 76. Thousands of mourners traveled to Topeka to honor the former senator and vice president. Many provided testimonials covering Curtis’s 47 years of public service. Oregon senator Charles McNary, a successor as Republican leader, described Curtis as a "quiet and yet successful Republican leader" who was an "able and lovable character." Particularly moving were tributes from Native Americans honoring Curtis’s pride in his Kaw heritage. Apache chief Deerfoot presented the Curtis family with a bow and arrow, requesting they follow a long-standing tradition and bury the items with the statesman. Obituaries labeled Curtis as a "sturdy wheelhorse" who was both shrewd and amiable, but perhaps the Los Angeles Times summed it up best—"To everybody he was just 'Charley.'"1


1. “Nation Mourns Curtis’ Passing,” Daily Boston Globe, February 9, 1936, A1; “Charles Curtis,” Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1936, A4.