Meet the Man Who Was Our First Multiracial Vice President
Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover's running mate, was part Native American.
Kamala Harris’s upcoming ascendancy to the vice presidency has been celebrated as a victory for women, for black Americans, and for Indian Americans. But it’s also led to some false claims that she will be the first multiracial vice president. Decades before she was born, a man with Native American heritage served as Herbert Hoover’s vice president from 1929-1933.
Charles Curtis, the son of a white father and a mother with French and Native American heritage, is not well-remembered today, but he was once one of America's most influential politicians. He became the last person elected to the vice presidency to be born in a U.S territory, and he was the first to be born west of the Mississippi. But he deserves to be remembered for more than his identity and background: He was a vocal opponent of Woodrow Wilson, a strong ally of the suffrage movement, and an early supporter of Zionism.
Curtis’s mother, Ellen Pappan, was of Osage, Kansa, Pottawatomie, and French heritage. He was the great-great-grandson of White Plume, a Kansa chief who had negotiated with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. His first language was not English, but Kansa and French.
His father had been a Civil War veteran, and Curtis was largely raised by his grandparents after his mother died. He became locally famous as the “Indian jockey” on the regional horse tracks of the era. Yet he eventually traded the saddle for desk-jockeying.
Curtis even overcame discrimination to become a lawyer, though it required him to take a more circuitous route than Harris did by attending the University of California Hastings School of Law.
“He became a lawyer without attending law school—as a Native-American he was not allowed [to attend],” says Laura AM McLaughlin, author of a history of Charles Curtis. “Instead he apprenticed to local attorney AH Case for two years, then passed the bar.”
Abraham Lincoln followed the same path to his legal career, and it’s still an option in many U.S. states. Curtis proved an adept understudy and soon used his growing contacts to launch a political career.
He would go on to win multiple congressional races, and he also became the first democratically elected senator from Kansas. Curtis was first elected to the Senate by the Kansas Legislature in 1907 after the resignation of Joseph R. Burton over a corruption scandal. In 1912, Democrats won the Kansas legislature and Curtis finished out his term the following year. Upon the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913, Curtis returned to the Senate in 1914 by winning the popular vote. He remained there until resigning to become vice president.
One fact that modern conservatives should appreciate: He was one of the staunchest opponents of progressive President Woodrow Wilson, especially Wilson’s effort to get the United States to join the League of Nations.
As the official Senate history notes:
“No one ever accused him of being a Progressive,” wrote one Washington correspondent, “but the feminists nevertheless called him friend, and it is one of the proudest of his claims that he led the floor fight for the Nineteenth Amendment,” granting women the right to vote."
When Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge left his position as Senate Majority Leader in 1924, Curtis was also a dark horse candidate for President at the Republican presidential conventions of 1924 and 1928 with the second contest being bitterly contested.
Curtis had some early advantages in that 1928 race. He believed that his path to victory at the presidential ballot box would come through the cigar box and the smoke-filled rooms of 1920s Republican Party politics, and he was close with Calvin Coolidge (who had shocked the nation by deciding not to run in 1928). Furthermore, many Republicans recalled that Hoover campaigned for Democrats in 1918.
At the convention held in Kansas City, Missouri, many Republicans supported a “draft Coolidge” effort. When those collapsed, Curtis attempted to rally this wing behind his cause. He ended up balloting third at the convention behind Hoover, then the secretary of commerce, and former Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden. However, Curtis ended up dominating the vice presidential ballot with 1,052 votes—the next closest candidate had 19.
Curtis was a good fit on the ticket because he had influence and appeal in the Midwest, whereas farmers in the farm states distrusted Hoover. Interestingly—despite the 1920s being a peak era for Ku Klux Klan influence and various immigrant scares—Curtis's ethnic heritage seems to have been largely a non-issue. He was not even the only prominent Native American politician of the era. In 1920, Robert Latham Owen of Cherokee heritage launched a Democratic presidential campaign and enjoyed early support from political titan Williams Jennings Bryan.
“He was disappointed as vice-president, he thought Congress would come to him when it did not; he became a vice president-in-waiting only with no power,” said McLaughlin.
Curtis is often criticized for the 1898 Curtis Act. One impetus behind the legislation was his belief that Native Americans should be increasingly assimilated into American society. However, the legislation itself ended up effectively abolishing tribal governments.
McLaughlin says her research shows that his original bill was changed from his original intent by a congressional subcommittee and he did not even attend the congressional session in which it passed. Later in life, he expressed regret for the final form of the Curtis Act. He went to play a leading role in the passage of legislation in 1924 that gave birthright citizenship to Native Americans, though in some states Native Americans would be denied the right to vote for several more decades.
Curtis was proud of his Native American heritage and decorated his office in Washington with Native American and posed for photos in Native American garb. He was also a defender of the gold standard, an early advocate for women’s rights, and according to McLaughlin, a passionate Zionist, writing about the issue and donating money to the Jewish cause.
Despite his contributions to history, Curtis is little recognized today. Maybe, though, with the attention brought to him indirectly because of Kamala Harris’ election, an ongoing petition to get him recognized with an official U.S. stamp will be given renewed attention.