American writer, orator, and, especially, civil service reformer, George William Curtis (1824-1892) was a patrician whose ideals and causes are blurred in historical retrospect by a personal elitism that bordered on priggishness and was out of step even in his own time.
George William Curtis was born into a very old New England family in Providence, R.I. After attending school in Massachusetts, he spent several years in New York City, where he worked as a clerk. Already a disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Curtis lived for 2 years at the transcendentalist utopian colony, Brook Farm. He returned to New York City, then in 1846 left on the grand tour of Europe fashionable for well-to-do New Englanders. However, he added to this an unusual side trip to the Near East and wrote two books on his impressions of Egypt and Syria.
Curtis also published a satire of New York City life but in 1856 virtually abandoned "high" literature for journalism and politics. Curtis's New England sense of propriety showed clearly when, that same year, he assumed the debts run up by a magazine of which he was an editor, debts for which he was not legally liable. This sense of duty and rectitude characterized his whole career, as editor of Harper's Weekly during the Civil War and as a professional reformer.
Most of the well-known reforms of the century attracted Curtis. He was an abolitionist and a spokesman for woman's suffrage, and he spoke frequently on the need for reconciliation between industrial capitalists and laborers according to his concept of social justice. But he was best known and most active as an advocate of civil service reform in an age when politics seemed to mean little more than a scuffle for spoils.
Curtis was the classic "Mugwump," the name given to those Republicans who bolted the party in 1884 because its candidate, James G. Blaine, had some financial irregularities in his career. Curtis was genteel, hobnobbing with the prominent literati of his day, and more than a little condescending in his political dealings. In 1877, for example, the leading New York Republican spoilsman, Roscoe Conkling, denounced Curtis and other "snivel service" reformers in a vitriolic speech before the New York State Republican Convention. "It was the saddest sight I ever knew," Curtis noted in the patronizing tone that characterized much of his writing, "that man glaring at me in a fury of hate, and storming out his foolish blackguardism. I was all pity. I had not thought him great, but I had not suspected how small he was."
Curtis's personal life was exemplary and refined. To his admirers, of whom there were many, he was remembered—as one eulogist put it—as the "firm and sweet-souled leader of the public conscience." He died on Aug. 31, 1892.
There is no recently published biography of Curtis. All standard accounts of the "gilded age" discuss his important role in the civil service reform movement, for example, Matthew Josephson, The Politicos, 1865-1896 (1938), and H. Wayne Morgan, From Hayes to McKinley (1969).