Charles Curtis (January 25, 1860 – February 8, 1936) was an American attorney and politician, who served as the 31st vice president of the United States from 1929 to 1933.
After serving as a United States representative and being repeatedly re-elected as United States senator from Kansas, Curtis was chosen as Senate Majority Leader by his Republican colleagues. A member of the Kaw Nation born in the Kansas Territory, Curtis was the first person with significant Native American ancestry and the first person with acknowledged non-European ancestry to reach either of the highest offices in the Federal Executive Branch, and is still the highest-ranking enrolled Native American ever to serve in the federal government. He also was the last Executive Branch officer born in a territory rather than a state. His mother was Native American of mixed Kaw, Osage and French ancestry. His father was of British origins, being half-English, a quarter Scottish and half-Welsh.
As an attorney, Curtis entered political life at the age of 32. He won multiple terms from his district in Topeka, Kansas, beginning in 1892 as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected to the US Senate first by the Kansas Legislature in 1906, and then by popular vote in 1914, 1920 and 1926. Curtis served one six-year term from 1907 to 1913, and then most of three terms from 1915 to 1929 (after his election as vice president). His long popularity and connections in Kansas and national politics helped make Curtis a strong leader in the Senate; he marshaled support to be elected as Senate Minority Whip from 1915 to 1925 and then as Senate Majority Leader from 1925 to 1929. In these positions, he was instrumental in managing legislation and accomplishing Republican national goals.
Curtis ran for vice president with Herbert Hoover as President in 1928. They won a landslide victory. When they ran together again in 1932, because Hoover had failed to alleviate the Great Depression, the public elected Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Nance Garner in a subsequent landslide.
Early life and education
Born on January 25, 1860 in Topeka, Kansas Territory, prior to its admission as a state in January 1861, Charles Curtis had roughly 3/8 Native American ancestry. His mother, Ellen Papin (also spelled Pappan), was Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi, and French. His father, Orren Curtis, was of English, Scots and Welsh ancestry. On his mother’s side, Curtis was a descendant of chief White Plume of the Kaw Nation and chief Pawhuska of the Osage.
Curtis’s first words as an infant were in French and Kansa, learned from his mother. She died when he was three, but he lived for some time with her parents on the Kaw reservation and returned to them in later years. He learned to love racing horses; later he was a highly successful jockey in prairie horse races.
On June 1, 1868, 100 Cheyenne warriors invaded the Kaw Reservation. Terrified white settlers took refuge in nearby Council Grove. The Kaw men painted their faces, donned regalia, and rode out on horseback to confront the Cheyenne. The rival Indian warriors put on display of superb horsemanship, accompanied with war cries and volleys of bullets and arrows. After about four hours, the Cheyenne retired with a few stolen horses and a peace offering of coffee and sugar from the Council Grove merchants. No one had been injured on either side. During the battle, Joe Jim, a Kaw interpreter, galloped 60 miles to Topeka to seek assistance from the governor. Riding with Joe Jim was eight-year-old Charles Curtis, then nicknamed “Indian Charley”.
After Curtis’s mother’s death in 1863, his father remarried but soon divorced. Orren Curtis was captured and imprisoned during his Civil War service, and during this period, the infant Charles was cared for by his maternal grandparents. They helped him gain possession of his mother’s land in North Topeka, which, in the Kaw matrilineal system, he inherited from her. His father tried unsuccessfully to get control of this land. Orren Curtis married a third time and had a daughter, Theresa Permelia “Dolly” Curtis, born in 1866 after the war.
Curtis was strongly influenced by both sets of grandparents. After living on the reservation with his maternal grandparents, M. Papin and Julie Gonville, he returned to Topeka. He lived with his paternal grandparents while attending Topeka High School. Both grandmothers encouraged his education.
Curtis read law in an established firm where he worked part-time. He was admitted to the bar in 1881, and began his practice in Topeka. He served as prosecuting attorney of Shawnee County, Kansas from 1885 to 1889.
Marriage and family
On November 27, 1884, Charles Curtis married Annie Elizabeth Baird (1860–1924). They had three children: Permelia Jeannette Curtis (1886–1955), Henry “Harry” King Curtis (1890–1946), and Leona Virginia Curtis (1892–1965). He and his wife also provided a home in Topeka for Dolly Curtis before her marriage. His wife died in 1924.
A widower when elected vice president in 1928, Curtis had his half-sister “Dolly” Curtis Gann (March 1866 – January 30, 1953) act as his official hostess for social events. She had lived with her husband Edward Everett Gann in Washington, DC since about 1903. He was a lawyer and at one time an assistant attorney general in the government. Attuned to social protocol, Dolly Gann insisted in 1929 on being treated officially as the #2 woman in government at social functions, and the diplomatic corps voted to change a State Department protocol to acknowledge this while her brother was in office.
To date, Curtis is the last vice president to be unmarried during his entire time in office. Alben W. Barkley, who served as vice president from 1949 to 1953, entered office as a widower but remarried while in office.
House of Representatives (1893–1907)
First elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives of the 53rd Congress, Curtis was re-elected for the following six terms. He made the effort to learn about his many constituents and treated them as personal friends.
While serving as a Representative, Curtis sponsored and helped pass the Curtis Act of 1898; it extended the Dawes Act to the Five Civilized Tribes of Indian Territory. As such, it ended their self-government and provided for allotment of communal land to individual households of tribal members, to be recorded on official rolls. It limited their tribal courts and government. Any lands not allotted were to be considered surplus and were sold to non-Natives.
Based on his personal experience, Curtis believed that Indians could benefit by getting educated, assimilating, and joining the main society. Implementation of this act completed the extinguishing of tribal land titles in Indian Territory, preparing it to be admitted as the state of Oklahoma, which was done in 1907. The government tried to encourage Indians to accept individual citizenship and lands, and to take up European-American culture. By the end of the century, it had set up boarding schools for Indian children as another method of assimilation.
Curtis re-enrolled in the Kaw Nation, which had been removed from Kansas to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) when he was in his teens. In 1902, the disbanded the Kaw Nation as a legal entity and provided for the allotment of communal land to members, in a process similar to that endured by other tribes. The act transferred 160 acres (0.6 km²) of former tribal land to the federal government. Other land formerly held in common was allocated to individual tribal members. Under the terms of the act, as enrolled tribal members, Curtis (and his three children) were allotted about 1,625 acres (6.6 km²) in total of Kaw land in Oklahoma.
Curtis served in the House from March 4, 1893, until January 28, 1907.
Senate (1907–1913; 1915–1929)
Curtis resigned from the House after having been elected by the Kansas Legislature to the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the resignation of Joseph R. Burton. Curtis served the remainder of the current term, ending on March 4, 1907. (Popular election of US senators had not yet been mandated by constitutional amendment.) At the same time, the legislature elected Curtis to the next full Senate term commencing March 4; he served until March 4, 1913. In 1912, Democrats won control of the Kansas legislature, so Curtis was not re-elected.
The 17th Amendment providing for direct election of Senators was adopted in 1913. In 1914, Curtis was elected to Kansas’s other Senate seat by popular vote, and re-elected in 1920 and 1926. He served from March 4, 1915 to March 4, 1929, when he resigned to become Vice President.
During his tenure in the Senate, Curtis was President pro tempore of the Senate, Chairman of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of the Interior, of the Committee on Indian Depredations, and of the Committee on Coast Defenses, and Chairman of the Republican Senate Conference. He also was elected for a decade as Senate Minority Whip and for four years as Senate Majority Leader after Republicans won control of the chamber. Thus he held all the senior leadership positions in the Senate and was highly respected for his ability to work with members on “both sides of the aisle.”
In 1923, Senator Curtis, together with fellow Kansan, Representative Daniel Read Anthony, Jr., proposed the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution to each of their Houses. The amendment did not go forward.
Curtis’s leadership abilities were demonstrated by his election as Republican Whip from 1915 to 1924 and Majority Leader from 1925 to 1929. He was effective in collaboration and moving legislation forward in the Senate. Idaho Senator William Borah acclaimed Curtis as “a great reconciler, a walking political encyclopedia and one of the best political poker players in America.” Time magazine featured him on the cover in December 1926 and reported, “it is in the party caucuses, in the committee rooms, in the cloakrooms that he patches up troubles, puts through legislation” as one of the two leading senators, with Reed Smoot.
Curtis was remembered for not making many speeches. He was noted for keeping the “best card index of the state ever made.” Curtis used a black notebook, and later a card index, to record all the people he met while in office or campaigning, and continually referred to it, resulting in his being known for “his remarkable memory for faces and names”.
“Never a pension letter, or any other letter for that matter, came in that wasn’t answered promptly… And another name went into the all-embracing card index. The doctors were listed. The farm leaders. The school teachers. The lists were kept up to date. How such an intricate index could be kept up to date and function so smoothly was a marvel to his associates. It was one of Curtis’s prides.”
Curtis was celebrated as a “stand patter,” the most regular of Republicans, and yet a man who could always bargain with his party’s progressives and with senators from across the center aisle.
Vice presidency (1929–1933)
Curtis received 64 votes on the presidential ballot at the 1928 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, out of 1,084 total. The winning candidate, Herbert Hoover, secured 837 votes, having been the favourite for the nomination since August 1927 (when President Calvin Coolidge ruled himself out of contention). Curtis was a leader of the anti-Hoover movement, forming an alliance with two of his Senate colleagues, Guy Goff and James E. Watson, as well as Governor Frank Lowden of Illinois. Less than a week before the convention, he described Hoover as a man “for whom the party will be on the defensive from the day he is named until the close of the polls on election day”. However, despite his opposition, Curtis had no qualms about accepting the vice-presidential nomination.
While covering the convention, H. L. Mencken described Curtis as “the Kansas comic character, who is half Indian and half windmill. Charlie ran against Hoover with great energy, and let fly some very embarrassing truths about him. But when the Hoover managers threw Charlie the Vice-Presidency as a solatium, he shut up instantly, and a few days later he was hymning his late bugaboo as the greatest statesman since Pericles”.
The Hoover–Curtis ticket won the 1928 presidential election in a landslide, securing 58.2% of the popular vote. Curtis resigned from the Senate only the day before he was sworn in as vice-president. He took the oath of office in the Senate Chamber, with the presidential party then proceeding to the East Portico of the United States Capitol for Hoover’s inauguration. Curtis arranged for a Native American jazz band to perform at the inauguration.
Curtis’s election as vice president made history because he was the only native Kansan and only Native American to hold the post, as well as the first person of acknowledged non-European ancestry. The first American of significant Native American ancestry to be elected to such high office, Curtis decorated his office with Native American artifacts and posed for pictures wearing Indian headdresses. He was 69 when he took office, making him the oldest incoming vice-president at the time. He is now the second-oldest, behind Alben W. Barkley at 71.
Curtis was the first vice president to take the oath of office on a Bible in the same manner as the President. Since he employed a woman as secretary to the Vice President, instead of the customary man, he scored another minor first. Lola M. Williams of Columbus, Kansas, who had been working for Curtis for some time, was one of the first women to enter the Senate floor, traditionally a male monopoly.
Soon after the Great Depression began, Curtis endorsed the five-day work week, with no reduction in wages, as a work-sharing solution to unemployment. In October 1930, in the middle of the campaign for 1930 mid-term elections, Curtis made an offhand remark that “good times are just around the corner”. This statement was later erroneously attributed to President Hoover, and became a “lethal political boomerang”.
At the 1932 Republican National Convention, President Hoover was renominated almost unanimously. Despite having no major opposition himself – Charles Dawes ruled himself out – Curtis failed to secure a majority of votes on the first ballot for the vice-presidential nomination. He received 559.25 out of a possible 1,154 votes (or 48.5%), with Generals Hanford MacNider (15.8%) and James Harbord (14.0%) being his nearest contenders. On the second ballot, the Pennsylvania delegation shifted its votes to Curtis from Edward Martin, giving him 634.25 votes (54.9%) and securing him the nomination for the second time.
After the stock market crash in 1929, the problems of the Great Depression led to the defeat of the Republican ticket. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 as president, with a popular vote of 57% to 40%. Curtis’s term as vice president ended on March 4, 1933. Curtis’s final duty as vice president was to administer the oath of office to his successor, John Nance Garner. Garner’s swearing-in ceremony was the last to take place in the Senate Chamber. Curtis was 73 years and 38 days old when his term as vice president ended, making him the oldest VP in history until Vice President Alben W. Barkley surpassed him on January 2, 1951.
Curtis decided to stay in Washington, D.C., to resume his legal career, as he had a wide network of professional contacts from his long career in public service.
Legacy and honors
- He was featured on the cover of Time magazine, December 20, 1926 and June 18, 1928, while serving as US Senator from Kansas. Full-length articles discussed his life and politics.
- He was featured as Vice President on the cover of Time, December 5, 1932.
- His house in Topeka, Kansas has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a state historic site. The Charles Curtis House Museum is now operated as a house museum.
- Curtis Act of 1898
- List of Chairpersons of the College Republicans
- List of people on the cover of Time Magazine: 1920s – December 20, 1926 and June 18, 1928
- List of people on the cover of Time Magazine: 1930s – December 5, 1932
- List of Native Americans in the United States Congress
- McKie, Scott (4 February 2014). “Charles Curtis: America’s Indian Vice President”. Cherokee One Feather. Retrieved 20 June 2016.
- “January 29 – This Date in History: Kaw Member Charles Curtis Becomes US Senator”. Native News Online (29 January 2014). Retrieved 20 June 2016.
- Christensen, Lee R. The Curtis Peet Ancestry of Charles Curtis Vice-President of the United States 4 March 1929-3 March 1933.
- “Genealogy of Vice President Charles Curtis – Mother’s side: Pappans (of Charles Curtis)”. VPCharlesCurtis.net. Retrieved July 19, 2010.
- “Charles Curtis, 31st Vice President (1929–1933)”. U.S. Senate: Art & History. US Senate.gov. Retrieved December 14, 2011., reprinted from Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789–1993. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. 1997.
- Unrau, William E. (1971). Mixed Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 72–75. and Crawford, Samuel J. (1911). Kansas in the Sixties. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg. p. 289.
- Blackmar, Frank Wilson (1912). Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons, Etc. Standard Publishing Company. p. 487.
- “Dolly Gann, 86, Dead; Winner in Social Feud”, Chicago Tribune, 31 January 1953; accessed 26 July 2016
- United States Congress. “Charles Curtis (id: C001008)”. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- “The Congress: Quiet Leader”. Time. December 20, 1926. Archived from the original on December 20, 2008. Retrieved December 30, 2009.
- “Obituary”. Kansas City Star. 9 February 1936. Quoted in J.R. Mendoza (23 March 2003). “Charles Curtis: Doing it his way”. Topeka Capital-Journal.
- Harris Gaylord Warren, Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 38.
- Warren (1959), p. 52.
- Native American Netroots American Indian Biography: Vice-President Charles Curtis
- “U.S. Senate: Charles Curtis, 31st Vice President (1929–1933)”. www.senate.gov.
- Ryan, John A. (1967) Questions of the Day
- Warren (1959), p. 190.
- Warren (1959), p. 253.
- “Our Campaigns – US Vice President – R Convention Race – Jun 14, 1932”. www.ourcampaigns.com.
- Warren (1959), p. 293.
- “Former Vice President, Charles Curtis. Succumbs”. Southeast Missourian. February 8, 1936. p. 1. Retrieved August 13, 2011.
- “Senator Charles Curtis”. Time. June 18, 1928. Archived from the original on November 21, 2010. Retrieved December 30, 2009.
- “Lamest Duck”. Time. December 5, 1932. Archived from the original on April 2, 2009. Retrieved January 21, 2010.
- Charles Curtis House Museum, official website
- Seitz, Don Carlos (1928). From Kaw Teepee to Capitol: The Life Story of Charles Curtis, Indian, who Has Risen to High Estate. Frederick A. Stokes Company.
- Unrau, William E. (1989). Mixed-Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 9780700603954.
- United States Congress. “Charles Curtis (id: C001008)”. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- “Charles Curtis; Native-American Indian Vice-President; a biography”, Vice President Charles Curtis Website
- Whispers Like Thunder, Moro Films official movie web site
- Don C. Seitz, From Kaw Teepee to Capitol; The Life Story of Charles Curtis, Indian, Who Has Risen to High Estate, full text, Hathi Trust Digital Library
- Charles Curtis House Museum, official website
- Newspaper clippings about Charles Curtis in the 20th Century Press Archives of the German National Library of Economics (ZBW)