Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Only Real American Ever Elected Vice President

A 1928 Republican Party Election poster.

On March 4, 1929 Charles Curtis was sworn into office as the 31st Vice President of the United States.
Historically, Vice-Presidents tend to be an obscure lot.  The job has only two prescribed duties—presiding over the Senate and being the stand-by in case the President kicks the bucket, is impeached, or is somehow indisposed.  Unless a Vice President succeeds to the big job, he is usually destined for oblivion.  In recent years the job has been seen as a stepping stone, but only the senior George Bush succeeded in actually getting elected president on his own directly from the second rank job and he turned out to be a one termer.
Through most of our history the running mate on the Presidential ticket was at best an afterthought who was usually chosen for reasons of political expediency—to balance the ticket geographically or between party factions.  But since the job had so little power or authority, it was typically shunned by those with either serious credentials or real career aspirations.  No wonder that one disgruntled former Veep, John Nance Garner described the job as “not worth a warm bucket of piss.”
Given the low status of the job and inattention paid to it by even through history buffs, you may be forgiven for never having heard of Charles Curtis, who had the misfortune of being elected as Herbert Hoover’s running mate.  But unlike others of his era, Curtis came to the job with a long and distinguished political history including exercising real power, most recently as Senate Majority Leader.  But Curtis was also a Native American and enrolled member of the Kaw tribe.
Curtis was born in January of 1860 in Topeka in Kansas Territory.  His mother, Ellen Papin was mixed Kaw, Osage, Pottawatomi, and French.  She was descended from the Kaw Chief White Plume and Osage Chief Pawhuska.  His white father was evidently something of a scoundrel.  He spent most of his early childhood among his mother’s people on the Kaw reservation.  His father got into serious trouble in the Army during the Civil War and was in prison for much of the war.  After his mother died in 1863 his care was split between his maternal and paternal grandparents, although he spent most of his time on the reservation until his Curtis grandparent took him in so that he could complete high school in Topeka.  His father was in and out of his life, mostly out.  He later tried to take control of land in Topeka that the boy inherited from his mother, but was squelched when his own parents intervened on the boy’s behalf.
Charlie, as the boy was known, was an adept horseman.  In 1868 he and an older companion made a famous 60 mile ride from the Kaw reservation to Topeka to get help when Cheyenne Dog Soldiers threatened to attack the reservation.  He was soon an accomplished an in demand jockey for match races across the state.
Charles Curtis as 24
After graduating from high school Curtis read law in Topeka and was admitted to the bar.  He was both personable and intelligent and soon had a thriving practice.  He entered politics and became Shawnee County Prosecutor in 1885 just four years after passing the bar.  In 1892 he was elected to the first of six terms as a Republican Congressman.  In the House he was naturally interested in Indian affairs.  Because of his own experience, he advocated education and assimilation of Native Americans into the broader culture as their best option for the future.  He authored the Curtis Act of 1898 which placed sever limitations on the so-called Five Civilized tribes in Indian Territory including limitations on the authority of their tribal council and courts and ended their exemptions from land allotments under the Dawes Act.  Communal tribal lands were broken up and distributed as parcels to enrolled members.  The Curtis Act helped pave the way for Oklahoma statehood a few years later.  Curtis wrote later that he was disappointed in the final draft of the Act as it emerged from the Senate because it stripped many of his proposals for easing the transition.

In 1907 Curtis was elected by the Kansas legislature to fill the few remaining days of a Senate vacancy and then to a full six year term.  Although he was not re-elected at the end of his term, he was only out of the Senate for two years before being elected again.  After the passage of the 17th Amendment which called for direct election of Senators, Curtis twice won re-election by the popular vote.
Senator Curtis at the steps of the Capitol.

His career really took off in the Senate.  He was noted for his skills for quietly moving legislation forward.  Legendary powerhouse Idaho Senator William Borah praised Curtis as “a great reconciler, a walking political encyclopedia and one of the best political poker players in America.”  He advanced to the Chairmanship of the Committee on Expenditures in the Department of the Interior and of Coastal Defenses as well as being Chair of the Republican Conference.  He was Minority Whip from 1915 to 1924 and Majority Leader from 1925 to 1929.  During his time in the Senate, Curtis became an original sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment.
In 1928 the hugely popular Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who anticipated an easy election walk-over for President against New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic and anti-prohibitionist, defied the conventions of “ticket balancing” to tap Curtis for the second spot despite the fact that he came from an adjacent state to the native Iowan.  Together they romped to victory 58% of the popular vote and even managed to break-up the Solid South, by winning the electoral votes of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas.
With Chief Plenty Coups and other Crow dignitaries at a Montana fair grounds during the 1928 campaign.

The Stock Market Cash and ensuing Great Depression doomed Hoover’s and Curtis’s chances of reelection.  There was some tension between the running mates the second time around as Curtis openly advocated the five-day work week, with no reduction in wages, as a work-sharing solution to unemployment.  Maybe Hoover should have listened to him.  At any rate, they were crushed at the polls by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his running mate John Nance Garner.
After being involuntarily retired from public life, Curtis decided to stay in Washington where he practiced law and lobbied Congress on behalf of his clients.  He died of a heart attack in the city in 1936.  His remains were returned to Kansas where he was laid to rest beside his wife in Topeka.  And then, for all of his accomplishments, his reputation faded into obscurity.



  1. Patrick, I am working on a short documentary and a long biography of Curtis and hopefully that will remove him from obscurity! Great post!

  2. And I'm working on a book - based on the manuscript he left behind that was never published. Kansas is working on getting his story told again! I portray his paternal grandmother, Permelia Hubbard Curtis, who helped raise him after his mother died. His story is amazing and complicated.