Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Charles W. Fairbanks

Charles Warren Fairbanks was born on May 11, 1852, in Union County, Ohio. His parents were Methodists, and his mother was active in the temperance movement. They were also devoted abolitionists and welcomed runaway slaves to stay at their farm. As a child, Fairbanks worked in the fields with his father and attended local schools. Although his family was of modest means, there was enough money to send Fairbanks to college, and he left to attend Ohio Wesleyan University at the age of fifteen.

After he graduated in 1872, he worked as a reporter for the Western Associated Press, which his uncle managed. At night, he attended Cleveland Law School and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1874. That year he married Cornelia Cole, whom he had met in college. Shortly after their wedding, they moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where Fairbanks opened his law practice.

He practiced law for twenty-three years in Indianapolis and built a considerable fortune doing so. He specialized in legal matters concerning railroads. While he did not hold elected office during this time, he acquired considerable power in the state Republican Party, largely because of his wealth. Additionally, he held a majority stake in The Indianapolis News, which allowed him to promote Republican causes.

Fairbanks sought election to the U.S. Senate in 1893 but was unsuccessful. During the 1896 elections, he developed a friendship with William McKinley and delivered the keynote address at the 1896 Republican Convention. The Indiana legislature elected Fairbanks to the U.S. Senate in 1897.

Senator Fairbanks served on the Foreign Relations Committee and supported President McKinley during the Spanish-American War. He also served on a commission on Alaskan affairs, and the town of Fairbanks, Alaska, was named for him. He was well regarded by his colleagues and generally followed the party line. He was mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee in 1900 but the effort failed despite the support of powerful allies, most notably Senator Mark Hanna of Ohio.

When President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, Fairbanks lost a close ally in the White House. The ascension of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency coincided with the increasing power of more progressive elements of the Republican Party over the pro-business conservatism of McKinley, Hanna, and Fairbanks. Nonetheless, Roosevelt needed to placate the conservative wing of his party and did so by unenthusiastically selecting Fairbanks as his running mate for the 1904 election. Together the pair defeated the relatively weak Democratic ticket of Alton Parker and Henry Davis.

As vice president, Fairbanks had a fairly limited role even though Roosevelt had previously argued in favor of a more substantial role for the vice president. President Roosevelt did not invite his vice president to cabinet meetings and rarely consulted him. This was partially the result of ideological differences between Fairbanks and Roosevelt as well as their distant personal relationship. Fairbanks was dedicated to his role as presiding officer of the Senate and worked with congressional leaders to undermine unwanted legislation.

Fairbanks harbored presidential ambitions throughout his political career and made a concerted attempt to secure the nomination in 1908. However, President Roosevelt designated Secretary of War and close friend William Taft as his successor and used his power and popularity to secure Taft's nomination. When Fairbanks failed in this effort, he retired to Indiana and was relatively inactive in party politics for a number of years. In 1916, he was again nominated as a vice presidential candidate to run with Charles Evans Hughes, who narrowly lost to Woodrow Wilson. Charles Fairbanks died on June 4, 1918.