Charles Curtis was born January 25, 1860, on an Indian reservation in North Topeka, Kansas. He was one-eighth Kaw Indian and is one of the few Native Americans to achieve such stature in U.S. politics. As a young man, he supplemented his income by working as a jockey in horse races and studied law on his own after he graduated from high school. He was admitted to the bar in 1881 and was elected county attorney in 1885. He married Anna Baird on November 27, 1884.
As county attorney, Curtis gained notice throughout the state for his zealous enforcement of recently passed Prohibition laws. He was reelected county attorney in 1886, but lost (by a single vote) a contest for the nomination to a vacant seat in the House of Representatives in 1889. In 1892, however, Curtis was elected to the House as a Republican despite the fact Kansas had voted for a Populist presidential candidate that year and elected a number of Populist candidates to the House. His surprise victory for the Republican Party captured the attention of party leaders.
After seven terms in the House, the state legislature chose Curtis to fill a vacant Senate seat in 1907. He won the seat on his own accord in 1914, the first election year in which senators were elected by popular vote instead of by state legislatures. Curtis's knowledge of Senate rules and his devotion to the party made him an ideal selection for the recently created position of party whip. As whip, Curtis was an important figure in the congressional opposition that doomed President Woodrow Wilson's attempts to secure U.S. entry into the League of Nations. When Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge died in 1924, Curtis inherited the position, which he held until he was nominated as vice president.
Curtis sought the presidential nomination in 1928 and hoped a deadlocked convention would allow him to win as a dark horse candidate. However, Herbert Hoover won the nomination and then offered the vice presidential nomination to Curtis, hoping that the senator from Kansas would balance the ticket and help Hoover overcome his unpopularity in farm states. Hoover easily won the presidential election with a margin of more than six million votes. As vice president, Curtis was rarely consulted and had a distant relationship with Hoover. Their union was one of political convenience, and lingering hard feelings from their contentious battle for the 1928 nomination did little to foster a functional relationship. Curtis attended a few cabinet meetings but as a whole did not substantially affect policy during his tenure.
In the 1932 election, Curtis did little to help President Hoover's already slim election hopes. His insistence that the Depression was simply a natural economic fluctuation did not appeal to voters desperate for relief and jobs. Hoover was trounced in the election, receiving only 59 electoral votes to Franklin Roosevelt's 472. Curtis then retired from public life and practiced law in Washington, D.C., until his death on February 8, 1936.