Biography of George William Curtis

From New England Families Genealogical and Memorial
William Richard Cutter, A.M., New York, 1915

Pages 1876 & 1877

George William Curtis, L.H.D., LL.D., second son of George and Mary E. (Burrill) Curtis, noted author and reformer, was born February 24, 1824, in Providence, and died at West New Brighton, Staten Island, August 31, 1892. He received his early education at a school at Jamaica Plain, and in 1842 became, with his elder brother, James Burrill Curtis, a member of the famous "Brook Farm Comunity" at West Roxbury, which included Charles A. Dana, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ripley, Dwight, and other distinguished names in American Literature. He remained there for a year or more, deriving much from the teaching of Emerson, who was greatly interested in this social experiment, and spent the next few years at Concord, in company with Emerson, Hawthorne, Ellery Channing, Henry D. Thoreau, George Bradford, and others. In 1846 he went to Europe, spending the next four years in traveling through Italy, Germany, Spain and Egypt, and in the study of art and literature, remaining for some time as a student at the University of Berlin, and forming acquaintanceships in the course of his travels with Thackeray, the Brownings, and others of the most distinguished literary persons of the day. Returning to New York in 1850, he began to write and lecture on literary subjects, and for some time was a member of the editorial staff of the New York Tribune. In 1852 he became one of the editors of "Putnam's Monthly." In 1855 the magazine passed into the hands of a firm, and in the course of the next few years became a commerical failure. Although neither legally nor morally responsible for the indebtedness, Mr. Curtis resolved to protect the creditors from loss. This he finally accomplished, but not until he had devoted his entire personal fortune and the efforts of sixteen years' unremitting labor to the arduous task. In 1853 he began the remarkable series of essays in "Harper's Monthly," known as the "Easy Chair." In 1856 he first entered the field as a political speaker and made many speeches in behalf of the newly organized Republican party. In the same year he became the leading editorial writer of "Harper's Weekly," a position which he continued to hold until his death. He was a delegate to the national Republican convention in 1860 which nominated Lincoln, and it was largely due to his efforts that the plank in the platform protesting against human slavery was adopted. He was a delegate also to the national Republican conventions of 1864 and 1876. In 1867 as delegate-at-large in the constitutional convention of the state of New York, he was chairman of the committee on education, and framed the constitutional provisions on that subject. In 1862 he declined the position of consul-general to Egypt offered to him by President Lincoln. In 1877 he declined the position of ambassador to England offered to him by President Hayes, and also the position of ambassador to Germany. In 1864 he accepted the office of regent of the University of the State of New York, and in 1890 became chancellor. He was one of the first and most powerful advocates of civil service reform. Appointed by President Grant chairman of the commission to draw up new rules for appointment in the civil service, he soon resigned on account of differences between himself and the President in regard to the manner of applying the rules that had been adopted. He was chosen president of the National Civil Service Reform League, and his annual addresses to the league were the most important contributions to the literature on that subject. He received the following honorary degrees: A.M., Brown University, 1854; A.M., Madison University, 1861; A.M., Rochester University, 1862; LL.D., Madison University, 1864; LL.D., Harvard University, 1881; LL.D., Brown University, 1882; L.H.D., Columbia University, 1887.

Among his published writings are: "Nile Notes of a Howadji" (1851); "The Howadji in Syria" (1852); "Lotus Eating" (1852); "Potiphar Papers" (1853); "Prue and I" (1856); "Trumps" (1862); "Eulogy on Wendell Phillips" (1865); "Motley's Correspondence" (1890); "From the Easy Chair" (1892); "Eulogy on James Russell Lowell"; "Literary and Social Essays" (1902); "Orations and Addresses," edited by Charles Eliot Norton (1905). His life was written by Edward Cary, "American Men of Letters Series," Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1894. The George William Curtis memorial committee was formed in 1893 with Seth Low as chairman, and through private subscriptions caused a bust of Mr. Curtis to be made by the sculptor, J.Q.A. Ward, and presented to the New York Public Library, and has also founded a scholarship at Columbia University known as the "George William Curtis fellowship."

On all the political questions of the day he exerted a powerful influence touched with a lofty idealism. As a writer and speaker he was justly esteemed for the grace and beauty of his style and the wide range of his culture. And apart from his accomplishments in oratory and literature, he was widely known and honored for his disinterested patriotism and his pure and high-minded enthusiasm for all good causes.

He married, November 29, 1856, Anna Shaw, a daughter of Francis George and Sarah Blake (Sturgis) Shaw, and a sister of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Children: 1. Elizabeth Burrill Curtis, born April 15, 1861, died March 7, 1914. 2. Sarah Shaw Curtis, born May 17, 1863, died April 11, 1874. 3. Francis George Curtis, born December 5, 1857; graduated A.B., Harvard University, in 1879; M.D. from College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, New York, 1883; married, February 21, 1887, Ruth W. Davison, daughter of Edward F. and Charlotte S. (White) Davison; children: Francis Shaw Curtis, born June 10, 1888; Margaret Burrill, April 27, 1890; Edward Davison, December 20, 1891; George William, March 29, 1895.

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