Name:  George William Curtis

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Born:  February 24, 1824
Died:  August 31, 1892
Complete HarpWeek Biography:
George William Curtis was a reformer, journalist, novelist, and public speaker.  He was associated with Harper’s Weekly for 35 years, authoring “The Lounger” column from October 1857 to December 1863 and the editorials from December 1863 to July 1892. 

He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 24, 1824, to Mary Elizabeth Burrill Curtis and George Curtis.  As a teenager, young Curtis moved to New York City when his father took a position there with Continental Bank.  Educated by private tutors and in a boarding school, Curtis and his older brother, Burrill, spent 18 months at the Brook Farm commune in order to take advantage of its academic opportunities.  They then traveled to Concord, Massachusetts, where they lived among some of America’s leading literary figures, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.  From 1846 to 1850, the Curtis brothers undertook a “grand tour” of Europe and the Middle East. 

Upon his return to the United States, George William Curtis began a career that combined journalism and literature.  During the 1850s, he worked as a critic and travel writer for the New York Tribune, an editor for the short-lived but highly esteemed Putnam’s Magazine, and a columnist for Harper’s Monthly (“The Easy Chair,” 1854-1892) and Harper’s Weekly (“The Lounger,” 1857-1863).  In December 1863, he assumed the editorship of Harper’s Weekly, writing weekly commentary while oversight of the newspaper was left to a series of managing editors.  During the 1850s and early 1860s, Curtis was a best-selling and critically acclaimed author of travel books and novels.  He was also one of the most popular speakers on the lyceum circuit from the 1850s until 1873. 

In 1856, Curtis married Anna Shaw; they lived on Staten Island, New York, and later had five children.  He had previously been aloof to politics and reform, but in the mid-1850s began speaking out against slavery and for the new Republican Party.  In 1862, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in a heavily Democratic district in order to promote the Union cause and the Lincoln administration.  Over the years, he turned down several offers of ambassadorships from Republican presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes. 

During the Civil War, Curtis supported Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as an immediate military necessity and a long-term social obligation.  In addition, he encouraged the enlistment of black men into the Union armed forces and, along with his brother-in-law, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry, petitioned Congress for their equal pay with white soldiers.  Curtis endorsed Radical Reconstruction, including federal civil rights legislation and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.  For 25 years, he highlighted the discrimination and violence faced by black Americans.  He also advocated justice for American Indians and Chinese Americans.  A strong supporter of equal rights for women, he helped found the American Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1869, and served for 20 years as one of its vice presidents. 

In 1870-1871, Curtis joined Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast to help topple from power New York City’s corrupt political boss, William Tweed of Tammany Hall.  Although the views and personalities of Curtis and Nast sometimes clashed, they stood together again to bolt the Republican Party in 1884 when it nominated James Blaine for the presidency.  Thereafter, Curtis continued to press for a reform agenda in his commentaries, while remaining independent of party affiliation.

A longtime supporter of public education, the New York state legislature elected Curtis in 1864 to lifetime tenure on the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, the supervisory agency for all of the public institutions of higher learning in the state.  Curtis was named vice chancellor of the Board of Regents in 1888 and chancellor in 1890.  He advocated university extension programs and correspondence courses in order to bring the opportunity of a college education to those who were unable to attend a residential college on a regular basis.  He also promoted education for women, blacks, and American Indians.

Curtis was an early proponent of environmental conservation.  In the 1850s, he celebrated the glories of nature in his travel books, compiled and edited essays by one of America’s pioneering landscape architects, Andrew Jackson Downing, and backed the creation of Central Park in New York City.  In the 1870s and 1880s, he promoted the establishment of land reserves at Niagara Falls and in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.

The reform for which Curtis is best remembered is civil service reform, which replaced the patronage system of government service with a professional, nonpartisan bureaucracy.  He served as president of both the National and the New York Civil Service Reform Associations, and in 1871 was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant to chair the first federal Civil Service Commission.  Congress established civil service rules for the federal bureaucracy with the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883.

George William Curtis died on August 31, 1892, at his home on Staten Island. 

Source consulted:  Kennedy, Robert C.  “George William Curtis.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 223:  The American Renaissance in New England, 2nd series.  Detroit:  The Gale Group, 2000.  Pp. 88-98.





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