Curtis, Charles, 1860-1936

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Charles Curtis
"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 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 more "civilized" environment of the state capital. When he was 14, 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 Seventeenth 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 Nineteenth 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 47 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."

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
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referencedIn Humphrey, Lyman Underwood, 1844-1915. Lyman Underwood Humphrey correspondence, 1834-1944. Kansas State Historical Society
creatorOf Charles Curtis Letters, 1921-1930 Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries
referencedIn Case File of James D. Coddington United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Frederick M. Dearborn collection of military and political Americana, Part I: The Revolution and the Administration, 1669-1958. Houghton Library
referencedIn Reports Regarding Proposed Air Force Academy Site Selection, 1950: Topeka Kansas, 1950. National Archives at Denver
referencedIn White, William Allen, 1868-1944. William A. White papers, 1899-1961. Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Hoover-Curtis Republican Club. Hoover-Curtis Republican Club list of members, ca. 1928. Connecticut Historical Society
referencedIn Rudolph E. Reichert Papers, 1907-1962 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
referencedIn Margrave family. Margrave family papers, 1861-1961 (bulk 1900-1930). Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Arthur H. Vandenberg papers, 1884-1974, 1915-1951 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
referencedIn Gleed, Charles S. (Charles Sumner), 1856-1920. Charles Sumner Gleed papers, 1872-1928 (bulk 1880-1920). Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Message from the President of the United States Vetoing H.R. 12445 Herbert Hoover Library
referencedIn Montgomery, Ada Jarboe, 1884-1970,. Montgomery family papers, [ca. 1862-ca. 1963]. Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Horton, Albert H. (Albert Howell), 1837-1902. Albert H. Horton letters and telegrams received [microform], 1872-1933 (bulk 1892-1895). Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Indian School Journal: Volume 6, Number 4 United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Southwest Region
referencedIn Letters Sent by Commissioner Tams Bixby, 3/1902 - 4/1907 United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Southwest Region
referencedIn Hubbard and Curtis family histories collection. Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Correspondence, 1863-1920 University of Kansas Kenneth Spencer Research Library Kansas Collection.
creatorOf Curtis, Charles, 1860-1936. Charles Curtis papers, 1863-1933. Stanford University, Hoover Institution Library
creatorOf Charles Curtis papers, 1863-1933 Hoover Institution Archives.
referencedIn Fox Movietone News Collection. 1957 - 1963. Motion Picture Newsreel Films. 1957 - 1963. MOVIETONE NEWS
referencedIn Willis, Frank Bartlett, 1871-1928. Papers 1871-1928. Ohio History Connection, Ohio Historical Society
referencedIn Manuscripts, land grants, deeds, bonds and other legal papers covering titles to lands in Gloucester County, Lancaster County, Middlesex County, and Rappahannock County, Va. [manuscript] 1666-1777. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Jones, Howel, 1844-1924. Howel Jones and Ross Burns collection, 1858-1941. Kansas State Historical Society
creatorOf Grace A. Rush, Inc. Grace A. Rush, Inc. records, 1912-1976. Cincinnati History Library, Cincinnati Museum Center
referencedIn Private Forrest R. Herron letters : TLS, 1919 Mar. 6-10. Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Indian School Journal: Volume 7, Number 4 United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Southwest Region
referencedIn Dean, John S., 1861-1937. John S. Dean and John S. Dean, Jr., papers, [ca. 1912-ca. 1936]. Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Case File of Asa S. Cobb United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer. 1860 - 1985. Historical Films. 1914 - 1936. PRESIDENT CALVIN COOLIDGE National Archives at College Park
referencedIn Letter from Harry S. Truman to Bess W. Truman, 4/19/1928 Harry S. Truman Library
referencedIn American Film Institute Collection. 1913 - 1960. Assorted Films. 1913 - 1960. Pathe News
referencedIn Portrait file: Guide. Houghton Library
referencedIn Hilles, Charles Dewey, 1867-1949. Charles Dewey Hilles papers, 1823-1955 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn Case File of Lindley M. Carter United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Earhart, Amelia, 1897-1937. The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers, 1785-1948 (inclusive), 1928-1937 (bulk). Purdue University Library
referencedIn Sumner Welles Papers. 1909 - 1989. Office Correspondence
creatorOf Curtis, Charles, 1860-1936. Charles & Anna E. Curtis correspondence, papers & autobiography, 1860-1992 (bulk 1892-1932). Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Records of the U.S. Senate. 1789 - 2015. Berryman Political Cartoon Collection. 1896 - 1949. Untitled
referencedIn Records of the Extension Service. 1888 - 2000. Miscellaneous Films. 1913 - 1942. CALVIN COOLIDGE National Archives at College Park
creatorOf Reichert, Rudolph E. (Rudolph Edward), 1887-1965. Rudolph Edward Reichert papers, 1907-1962. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn Horton, Albert H. (Albert Howell), 1837-1902. Albert H. Horton letters and telegrams received, 1872-1933 (bulk 1892-1895). Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records: Kansas: Kansas SP Curtis, Charles, House National Archives Library, National Archives Records Administration
creatorOf Scott, Charles F., b. 1860. Charles F. Scott papers, 1883-1938. Kansas State Historical Society
referencedIn Robinson, Elmer E., 1894-1982. The Elmer E. Robinson manuscript collection of American history and government, 1764-1944. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Records of the White House Office. 1814 - 1977. Motion Picture Films. 1925 - 1932. REPUBLICAN CONVENTION IN SESSIONS
referencedIn McGill, George S., 1879-1963. George S. McGill papers, 1930-1957. Kansas State Historical Society
creatorOf Reichert, Rudolph E. (Rudolph Edward), 1887-1965. Rudolph Edward Reichert papers, 1907-1965. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
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referencedIn Correspondence, business forms, receipts, and petitions., 1862-1913 University of Kansas Kenneth Spencer Research Library Kansas Collection.
referencedIn Charles Dewey Hilles papers, 1823-1955 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Collection of Charles Curtis photographs, n.d. Utah Division of State History, Utah Historical Society
referencedIn Autograph File, C, 1554-2002. Houghton Library
creatorOf Charles Curtis correspondence, 1912-1932, 1951 University of Kansas Kenneth Spencer Research Library Kansas Collection.
referencedIn Case File of Samuel L. Austen United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Fosseen, Carrie, 1875-1963. Carrie Fosseen papers, 1914-1951. Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Reily, E. Mont. Papers. Ohio History Connection, Ohio Historical Society
referencedIn Shouse, Jouett, 1879-1968. Jouett Shouse papers, 1911-1967, 1915-1967 (bulk dates). University of Kentucky Libraries
referencedIn Milton Caniff Collection, 1805-2007, 1910-1988 The Ohio State University Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum
referencedIn William H. Taft Papers, 1784-1973, (bulk 1880-1930) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Taft, William H. (William Howard), 1857-1930. Papers of William H. Taft, 1784-1973. Library of Congress
referencedIn Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer. 1860 - 1985. Historical Films. 1914 - 1936. PRESIDENT HERBERT HOOVER
referencedIn Joint Resolution Proposing the Twenty-First Amendment to the United States Constitution United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Letter from William Loeb to E. A. Hitchcock United States. National Archives and Records Administration
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referencedIn Case File of Martin A. Bender United States. National Archives and Records Administration
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Charbo, Eileen Miles. person
associatedWith Connelley, William Elsey, 1855-1930 person
associatedWith Coolidge, Calvin, 1872-1933, person
spouseOf Curtis, Anna E. (Anna Elizabeth Baird), 1860-1924. person
memberOf Curtis family family
childOf Curtis, Orren Arms, 1829-1898 person
grandchildOf Curtis, Permelia Hubbard person
grandchildOf Curtis, William person
associatedWith Dean, John S., 1861-1937. person
associatedWith Dearborn, Frederick M. (Frederick Myers), b. 1876 person
associatedWith Earhart, Amelia, 1897-1937. person
associatedWith Fosseen, Carrie, 1875-1963. person
associatedWith Gilmore, John S., 1848-1913 person
associatedWith Gleed, Charles S. (Charles Sumner), 1856-1920. person
correspondedWith Grace A. Rush, Inc. corporateBody
associatedWith Hilles, Charles Dewey, 1867-1949. person
associatedWith Hill, Mrs. Esther Mary (Clark) 1876-1932 person
associatedWith Hoover-Curtis Republican Club corporateBody
subordinateOf Hoover, Herbert, 1874-1964, person
associatedWith Horton, Albert H. (Albert Howell), 1837-1902. person
associatedWith Humphrey, Lyman Underwood, 1844-1915. person
associatedWith Huron, George A., person
correspondedWith Jones, Howel, 1844-1924. person
associatedWith Margrave family. family
associatedWith McGill, George S., 1879-1963. person
correspondedWith Milton Caniff person
correspondedWith Montgomery, Ada Jarboe, 1884-1970, person
associatedWith National Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians. corporateBody
associatedWith Nicholsen, C. C., Mrs, person
associatedWith Reichert, Rudolph E. (Rudolph Edward), 1887-1965. person
associatedWith Reilly, E. Mont, addressee person
associatedWith Reily, E. Mont. person
memberOf Republican Party (Kan.) corporateBody
memberOf Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- ) corporateBody
associatedWith Robinson, Elmer E., 1894-1982. person
associatedWith Scott, Charles F., b. 1860. person
associatedWith Shouse, Jouett, 1879-1968. person
associatedWith Stillwell, Leander, 1843-1939 person
correspondedWith Taft, William H. (William Howard), 1857-1930. person
memberOf United States. Congress. corporateBody
memberOf United States. Congress. House corporateBody
memberOf United States. Congress. Senate corporateBody
associatedWith United States. Office of the Vice President corporateBody
associatedWith United States. President (1923-1929 : Coolidge) corporateBody
associatedWith United States. President (1929-1933 : Hoover) corporateBody
associatedWith Vandenberg, Arthur H. (Arthur Hendrick), 1884-1951 person
associatedWith White, William Allen, 1868-1944, person
associatedWith Willis, Frank Bartlett, 1871-1928. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Washington, D. C. DC US
Topeka KS US
Subject
Vice presidents' spouses
Politics, government and public administration
Vice presidents
Indians of North America--Politics and government
Vice--Presidents--United States--Correspondence
Legislators--United States, correspondence, reminiscences, etc
Legislators
Election campaigns
Occupation
Vice Presidents--United States
Representatives, U.S. Congress--Kansas
Statesmen--United States
Politicians
Senators, U.S. Congress--Kansas
Lawyers--Kansas
Function

Person

Birth 1860-01-25

Death 1936-02-08

Male

Americans

French,

English

Information

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