Charles Fairbanks was vice president of the United States and a senator from Indiana. He was born near Unionville Center, Ohio, on May 11, 1852, to Mary Adelaide Smith Fairbanks, a local temperance and antislavery advocate, and Loriston Fairbanks, a farmer. Charles Fairbanks attended the common schools and then Ohio Wesleyan University, where he edited the school newspaper. After graduating in 1872, he took a job with the Associated Press in Pittsburgh before entering Cleveland Law School. In 1873, Fairbanks passed the bar and moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he worked as a lawyer for a railroad company. His successful legal career, including a stint as counsel to financier Jay Gould, and wise investments allowed him to purchase railroads and become a millionaire. In 1874, he married Cornelia Cole; the couple later had five children.
A supporter of protective tariffs and the gold standard, Fairbanks became active in Republican Party politics. In 1888, he managed the unsuccessful campaign of former treasury secretary Walter Q. Gresham of Indiana for the GOP presidential nomination. When the Republican National Convention instead chose Benjamin Harrison, another Indianan, Fairbanks campaigned for the successful nominee. In 1892, Fairbanks failed in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat, but his prominence on the money question led to his selection as the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention in 1896. That same year, he was elected to the Senate, defeating Lew Wallace, the former Union general and author of Ben Hur. Although Fairbanks’s oratorical and legislative skills were not remarkable, he exerted influence through his close ties to President William McKinley and consistently supported the Republican administration.
In 1898, McKinley chose the Indiana senator to chair a joint commission to resolve a boundary dispute between Canada and the United States. The city of Fairbanks, Alaska, was named after him. The only controversial stance of his career was to support the efforts of black soldiers to have black commanders (in the racially segregated military, all black units had white commanders). Under his influence, the Indiana state militia implemented the policy. In 1893, Fairbanks had become a silent partner in the ownership of the Indianapolis News, and in 1901 he purchased the Indianapolis Journal.
In 1900, Fairbanks was considered as a possible running mate for McKinley, but the ticket would have lacked geographical balance since both men were Midwesterners. The senator’s real ambition was the presidency, but he began to lose political power at this time. His political base in Indiana was challenged by the popular and articulate Albert Beveridge, the state’s new junior senator who aligned with the progressive wing of the GOP. Furthermore, when President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, Fairbanks lost not only a friend but also a political mentor. The new president, Theodore Roosevelt, favored Beveridge over Fairbanks when distributing patronage and seeking counsel.
In 1902, Fairbanks was elected to a second term in the U.S. Senate, but the popularity of President Roosevelt blocked the way to the senator’s quest for the White House. However, delegates to the 1904 Republican National Convention recognized that the Indiana senator’s conservative philosophy and Midwestern home were a good balance to Roosevelt’s progressivism and New York residency; therefore, Fairbanks was nominated for vice president. Perhaps the greatest difference between the two men was personality: the exuberant president and his restrained running mate. Nevertheless, Roosevelt reluctantly abided by the tradition against sitting presidents openly campaigning, leaving Fairbanks to go on a 33-state speaking tour. That November, the Republican national ticket scored an impressive victory—336-140 in the Electoral College and 56%-38% in the popular vote—over the Democratic ticket of Alton B. Parker and Henry Davis.
Fairbanks was a typical vice president of the period who mainly attended ceremonial functions and had little influence on policy or administration. In the vice-presidential role as presiding officer of the Senate, he helped pass the president’s agenda but worked with conservatives to block more progressive legislation. Fairbanks still wanted to be president, but Roosevelt groomed Secretary of War William Howard Taft for the position. Fairbanks was Indiana’s favorite-son candidate at the 1908 Republican National Convention, but Taft won a first-ballot victory with an overwhelming majority.
When the Roosevelt administration ended in March 1909, Fairbanks returned to his farm in Indiana. In 1912, he endorsed the reelection of President Taft over Roosevelt, who ran on the Progressive Party ticket. In 1916, Fairbanks was again nominated for vice president, against his express wishes. He and presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes of New York were defeated as President Woodrow Wilson won a second term. After the election, Fairbanks returned to his quiet life in Indiana. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he spoke on behalf of Liberty Bonds and visited American troops. Charles Fairbanks died at his Indianapolis home on June 4, 1918, leaving an estate worth nearly $5 million (almost $60 million in 2002 dollars).
Sources consulted: American National Biography; Harper’s Weekly; Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), pp. 313-32; Indiana Historical Society online biography.