Thursday, January 25, 2007

January 25, 1860:

Charles Curtis' Birthday

A number of things distinguish Vice President Charles Curtis from more run-of-the-mill forgotten veeps. Unlike any other vice president or president for that matter, his ancestry included Indians. He was one-eighth Kaw, a tribe living in Kansas in 1860, and by the Indian Office standards of the time, a legal member of that tribe. For a time as a child, he and his sister lived with their maternal grandmother, the daughter of a French Canadian man and a Kaw (Kansa) woman who had married a Frenchman from the St. Louis area.

So Curtis is also one of the few vice presidents or presidents to count the French among his ancestry, though his Indian roots attracted more attention during and after his lifetime, and Curtis himself made political hay with his Indian ancestry when it was expedient. He was also the last vice president to wear a mustache. (The last president was William Howard Taft.)

Curtis' political career was long and distinguished. Admitted to the Kansas bar at 21, at only 24 he was elected Shawnee (Kan.) County Attorney. "Illicit saloon keepers in Topeka had supported Curtis' election in 1884 on the belief that as an Indian he surely was against prohibition and thus would go easy on them; in fact, he virtually ended the illegal flow of alcohol in Topeka and in 1886 was easily re-elected," wrote William E. Unrau in The Vice Presidents (1998). Curtis went to the US House in 1892 and the Senate in 1907 as a Republican, eventually becoming majority leader of that body in 1924.

As a progressive, he supported the 19th Amendment (women's suffrage) and an anti-child labor amendment that wasn't ratified, among other measures. He was also instrumental in passing legislation (the Curtis Act, in fact) that hastened the political demise of the Five Civilized Tribes in the Oklahoma Territory -- an act that probably would now be regarded as an abrogation of tribal rights, but which Curtis surely regarded as progressive measure to benefit individual Indians at the expense of tribal governments. In any case, noted Unrau, "...more than any other person in Congress, Curtis laid the foundation for Oklahoma statehood."

In 1928, his party passed him over for the presidential nomination, choosing Herbert Hoover instead. Curtis accepted the vice presidential nomination and became the 31st Vice President of the United States on March 4, 1929. Unlike Hoover, Curtis didn't get any of the blame for the Depression, but then again vice presidents seldom get blamed for much, or credited with anything either. The vice presidency proved to be the end of his political career, as he went down in defeat with his boss on the Republican ticket in 1932.

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