His politics were always purely personal. Issues never bothered him.
—William Allen White
In the spring of 1932, George and Ira Gershwin's Broadway musical, "Of Thee I Sing," spoofed Washington politics, including a vice president named Alexander Throttlebottom, who could get inside the White House only on public tours. The tour guide, who failed to recognize Throttlebottom, at one point engaged him in a discussion of the vice-presidency:
Guide: Well, how did he come to be Vice President?
Throttlebottom: Well, they put a lot of names in a hat, and he lost.
Guide: What does he do all the time?
Throttlebottom: Well, he sits in the park and feeds the peanuts to the pigeons and the squirrels, and then he takes walks, and goes to the movies. Last week, he tried to join the library, but he needed two references, so he couldn't get in.(1)
Audiences laughed heartily at these lines, in part because they could easily identify the hapless Throttlebottom with the incumbent vice president, Charles Curtis. Curtis was never close to President Herbert Hoover and played no significant role in his administration. Despite Curtis' many years of experience as a member of the House and Senate and as Senate majority leader, his counsel was rarely sought on legislative matters. His chief notoriety as vice president came as a result of a messy social squabble over protocol, which only made him appear ridiculous. Many Republicans hoped to dump Curtis from the ticket when Hoover ran for reelection. Given Curtis' Horatio Alger-style rise in life, and his long and successful career in Congress, how did he become such a Throttlebottom as vice president?
Formative Years on the Reservation
Although colorful in itself, Charles Curtis' actual life story often became obscured by its political mythology.(2) He began life in 1860 in North Topeka, Kansas, where he spent his earliest years partly in the white and partly in the Native American community. The son of Orren Curtis, a white man, and Ellen Pappan, who was one-quarter Kaw Indian, Charles Curtis on his mother's side was the great-great grandson of White Plume, a Kansa-Kaw chief who had offered assistance to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. White Plume's daughter married Louis Gonville, a French-Canadian fur trader, and their daughter, Julie Gonville, married Louis Pappan. As a result of the Kansa-Kaw treaty of 1825, the tribe relinquished its claims to its traditional lands in Missouri and Kansas. A two-million-acre reservation was established west of Topeka for full-blooded Indians, while a series of fee-simple land grants along the Kansas river were set aside for "half-breeds"—those who had intermarried with whites. Curtis' grandmother Julie Gonville Pappan received "Half-Breed Reservation No. Four," directly across the river from the Kansas capital, where she and her husband ran a profitable ferry business.
Reflecting his mother's heritage, Charles Curtis spoke French and Kansa before he learned English. His mother died in 1863, about the time that his father left to fight in the Civil War. Soon thereafter, Orren Curtis remarried, divorced, remarried again, and was dishonorably discharged from the Union army. At the end of the war, Curtis was court martialled for having hanged three prisoners in his custody—or as the charges read for "executing the bushwakers." Sentenced to a year's hard labor at the Missouri State Penitentiary, he was pardoned a month later and returned to Kansas. Given Orren's unstable circumstances and roving nature, young Charley remained in the custody of his paternal grandparents. In 1865, his maternal grandparents, Louis and Julie Pappan Gonville, left North Topeka to return to the Kaw reservation at Council Grove, concerned that otherwise they might be excluded from future land settlements and compensation. The next year, young Charley went to live with them on the reservation.
Since Charley could speak the Kaw language, he fit comfortably into the tribe. "I had my bows and arrows," he later recalled, "and joined the other boys in shooting arrows at nickles, dimes, and quarters which visitors would place in split sticks." In those still-frontier days, the Kaw reservation was frequently raided by nomadic Cheyenne Indians, and during one attack Charley was sent on a mission to inform Topeka. "I volunteered to make the trip," he later told audiences. "When we heard the Cheyennes were coming, the horses and ponies were driven to pasture, some distance from my grandpa's home, so there was no horse or pony to ride. I therefore, started out on foot, traveling during the night." The next day, he arrived in Topeka, some sixty miles away. Curtis' "cross-country run" made him a celebrity in North Topeka, but the incident also convinced his paternal grandparents, William and Permelia Curtis, that their grandson should be raised in the more "civilized" atmosphere of Topeka rather than return to the reservation.
Curtis had learned to ride Indian ponies bareback and won a reputation as a "good and fearless rider." Back in North Topeka, his grandfather William Curtis had built a race track, and in 1869 Charles Curtis rode in his first race. He soon became a full-fledged jockey and continued to ride until 1876. A fellow jockey described Curtis as "rather short and wiry" and "just another brush boy jockey," explaining that eastern riders "called us brush boys because we rode in what would be called the sticks." As a winning jockey, Curtis was known throughout Kansas as "The Indian Boy." His mounts made a lot of money for the local gamblers and prostitutes who bet on him, and he recalled that after one race a madam bought him "a new suit of clothes, boots, hat and all," and had a new jockey suit made for him; others bought him candy and presents. "I had never been so petted in my life and I liked it," Curtis reminisced.
His family, however, had greater ambitions for the boy than horse racing. In 1871, grandfather William Curtis brought suit on behalf of Charley and his sister Elizabeth to establish their claim, over that of their father, for title to their mother's share of the Half-Breed Lands in North Topeka. When Curtis' father lost this suit, he left Topeka for good. Grandfather Curtis wanted Charley to stop racing and go back to school, but after his grandfather's death in 1873, the boy set out to join his other grandparents, Louis and Julie Pappan, who were traveling with the Kaw Tribe from Kansas to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. Still on the tribal roll, and "longing for the old life," he wanted to live on the reservation. Grandmother Julie talked him out of it. She invited him to her wagon and asked why he wanted to go to the Indian Territory. While she would have liked nothing better than to have him live with her, she told him that on the reservation he would end up "like most of the men on it," without an education or future prospects. If Charley expected to make something of himself, he should return to Topeka and attend school. "I took her splendid advice and the next morning as the wagons pulled out for the south, bound for Indian Territory, I mounted my pony and with my belongings in a flour sack, returned to Topeka and school," Curtis recounted. "No man or boy ever received better advice, it was the turning point in my life."
A Passion for Politics
In Topeka, Curtis lived with grandmother Permelia Hubbard Curtis, a decidedly strong-minded woman. "She brooked no opposition," recalled Charley's half-sister, Dolly. "I think she regarded being both a Methodist and a Republican as essential for anyone who expected to go to heaven." When Charley was offered a contract to race at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, Permelia Curtis put her foot down. Instead, he retired as a jockey and went to high school. After graduating, he studied law, supporting himself by working as a custodian in a law firm and by driving a hack. When he had no customers, he would stop under street lamps to read his law books. In 1881, at the age of twenty-one, Charles Curtis was admitted to the Kansas bar. Although his life appeared to be a rags-to-riches story, Curtis had in fact a considerable inheritance in land in North Topeka. The young lawyer plunged into real estate, selling lots and building houses. He also opened his own firm and practiced criminal law. In 1884, Charles Curtis married Anna Baird. They had three children and also took in his half-sister Dolly when her mother died.
As a young man, Curtis showed a passion for politics. In 1880, during James Garfield's campaign for president, Curtis donned an oilcloth cap and carried a torch in a Republican parade through Topeka. It was only a matter of time before the popular "Indian jockey" ran for office himself. In 1884, after shaking every hand in the district, Curtis won election as Shawnee county attorney. Since both his father and grandfather Curtis had operated saloons in North Topeka, he was supported by the liquor interests, which had also retained his law firm. But once elected, Curtis insisted on enforcing the state's prohibition laws and closed down all of the saloons in the county. He won attention not only as a "dry," but as a law-and-order prosecutor.
By a single vote in 1889, Curtis lost the nomination to fill a vacancy in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was a time of agrarian depression, when voters in the West were turning away from conservatives like Curtis in favor of the more radical solutions put forward by the Farmers' Alliance and its political offspring, the Populist party. In 1891, William Allen White, editor of the Emporia Gazette, first met the "young prince," Charles Curtis, and later provided this description:
He came down from Topeka to campaign the county, sent by the Republican state central committee. His job was to fight the Farmers' Alliance. He had a rabble-rousing speech with a good deal of Civil War in it, a lot of protective tariff, and a very carefully poised straddle on the currency question (which, I was satisfied then—and still think—that he knew little about, and cared nothing for). For his politics were always purely personal. Issues never bothered him. He was a handsome fellow, five feet ten, straight as his Kaw Indian grandfather must have been, with an olive skin that looked like old ivory, a silky, flowing, handlebar mustache, dark shoe-button eyes, beady, and in those days always gay, a mop of crow's wing hair, a gentle ingratiating voice, and what a smile!
For three days, White and Curtis toured the county together, with White making the introductions and Curtis making the speeches. Never had White met anyone who could charm a hostile audience as effectively as did Curtis, whose personality could overshadow whatever he was speaking about. This trait helped Curtis defeat the Populist and Democratic fusion candidate for a seat in the House in 1892—the same election that saw Kansas vote for the Populist presidential candidate and elect a Populist governor. Curtis' upset victory brought him to the attention of prominent easterners, such as House Republican leader Thomas B. Reed, who were delighted that someone who thought the way they did on tariff, railroad, and currency issues could win election in so Populist a state as Kansas. Reed took a particular liking to "the Indian," as he called Curtis, and made him one of his lieutenants.
When Curtis first came to Washington, Democrats firmly controlled the federal government. Grover Cleveland had just been elected to his second term as president, and in the House Democrats held 218 seats, Republicans 124, and the Populists 14. Then in 1893 a severe economic depression dramatically reversed party fortunes. Campaigning against the Democrats as the party of the "empty dinner pail," Republicans won 254 seats in the next Congress, leaving the Democrats with 93 and the Populists with 10. Tom Reed, who had resumed the speakership with the return of a Republican majority, trusted Curtis' political judgment. According to an often-repeated story, Curtis once entered Speaker Reed's office and found a group of Republicans discussing the restoration of the gold standard. "Indian, what would you do about this?" Reed asked. Curtis suggested taking the matter out of the hands of the standing committees that had been dealing with it, since it was apparent they would never agree. Instead, he recommended appointing a special committee to write a new bill. Reed liked the idea so much that he appointed Curtis as a member of the special committee that drafted the Gold Standard Act of 1900.
Curtis devoted most of his attention to his service on the Committee on Indian Affairs, where he drafted the "Curtis Act" in 1898. Entitled "An Act for the Protection of the People of the Indian Territory and for Other Purposes," the Curtis Act actually overturned many treaty rights by allocating federal lands, abolishing tribal courts, and giving the Interior Department control over mineral leases on Indian lands. Having reinstated his name on the Kaw tribal rolls in 1889, Curtis was able, through his position on the House Indian Affairs Committee, to calculate the benefits he might receive from government allotments to his tribe. In 1902, he drafted the Kaw Allotment Act under which he and his children received fee simple title to Kaw land in Oklahoma.
Congressman Curtis, hailed throughout Kansas as "Our Charley," assiduously built his political base in the state. William Allen White recalled that Curtis carried with him little books containing the names of all the Republicans in each township and used to mumble these names "like a pious worshiper out of a prayer book" to commit them to memory. When Curtis greeted a voter, he could recall the man's name and ask about his wife, children, and business. He left voters convinced that they were intimates. In 1903, Curtis made a bid for a Senate seat, competing against fellow Republican Representative Chester Long. Both men had strong support from the railroads, Long being allied with the J. P. Morgan interests and Curtis identified with the Jay Gould railroads. Editor William Allen White grumbled that the money and influence in the election came from the railroads and "the people had nothing to do with it."
When the Republicans deadlocked, Long and Curtis reached an agreement that Long would gain the nomination in 1903 and would then support Curtis for the next Senate opening—which occurred sooner than anyone anticipated. In 1904, Kansas Senator Joseph R. Burton was indicted by a federal grand jury in St. Louis, Missouri, for representing clients for a fee before the Post Office in violation of federal statutes. Although the U.S. Supreme Court overturned this conviction on the grounds that Missouri lacked jurisdiction, Burton was tried and convicted again in 1905. In May 1906, the Supreme Court upheld Burton's second conviction, and as the Senate prepared to expel him, Burton resigned on June 4, 1906.
At that time, state legislatures still elected U.S. senators, but since the Kansas legislature was not in session, the governor appointed Alfred W. Benson to fill the vacancy. When the legislature reconvened, Curtis and several other Republicans challenged Benson for the seat. Kansas progressives promoted the candidacy of Joseph L. Bristow, arguing that he would more faithfully support the reform legislation of President Theodore Roosevelt. Curtis turned for help to Roosevelt's chief conservative opponent, Rhode Island Senator Nelson W. Aldrich. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Aldrich handled all tariff legislation and was able to channel considerable amounts of money from business interests to pro-tariff politicians. Aldrich supplied Curtis with funds to purchase newspapers that would support his senatorial candidacy. William Allen White, who supported Bristow, warned President Roosevelt that attorneys for every railroad in the state were for Curtis. "Two railroad attorneys when I asked them why they were for Curtis, frankly told me in confidence of friendship that orders came from higher up to be for Curtis and they are obeying orders," White wrote to the president. But Roosevelt seemed less concerned, assuring White that "so far my experience with Curtis has been rather more pleasant than with the average of his colleagues."