Charles Fairbanks was born May 11, 1852, the son of Loriston Monroe Fairbanks, a farmer, and Mary Adelaide Smith. His parents were Methodists, and his mother was active in the temperance movement. They were also devoted abolitionists and welcomed runaway slaves to stay at their farm. As a child, Fairbanks worked in the fields with his father and attended local schools. Although his family was of modest means, there was enough money to send Fairbanks to college, and he left to attend Ohio Wesleyan University at the age of fifteen.
After he graduated in 1872, Charles Fairbanks worked as a reporter for the Western Associated Press, which his uncle managed. At night, he attended Cleveland Law School and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1874. On October 6, 1874, Charles married Cornelia Cole and moved with her to Indianapolis, Indiana, where, with the help of an uncle, Charles took a position as attorney with the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad system. Over the next decade, young Fairbanks built a sterling reputation—as well as a personal fortune—as a lawyer for numerous railroad interests in the Midwest. He specialized in dealing with bankrupt railroads and he prosecuted strikers after the Indianapolis railroad strike in 1877. These activities brought the young lawyer to the attention of Indiana's Republican party
While Charles Fairbanks did not hold elected office during this time, he acquired considerable power in the state Republican Party, largely because of his wealth. Additionally, he held a majority stake in The Indianapolis News, which allowed him to promote Republican causes.
Fairbanks sought election to the U.S. Senate in 1893 but was unsuccessful. During the 1896 elections, he developed a friendship with William McKinley, who made him a key player in his campaign strategy. Fairbanks ran McKinley's campaign in Indiana and delivered a united Hoosier delegation for McKinley at the Republican National Convention in St. Louis. As temporary chairman of that convention, Fairbanks uncharacteristically delivered a stirring keynote address, in which he lambasted the Democrats and advocated the gold standard for currency.
On the state level, the Republicans also did well enough to regain control of the Indiana legislature, guaranteeing that they would determine that body's choice of a United States senator. Speculation naturally turned to Charles Fairbanks. The wealthy lawyer had assisted many of the Republican legislators during their campaigns; now they could return the favor. With a little help from President McKinley, Fairbanks easily won election to his first political office.
Fairbanks' Senate career proved competent if unspectacular. He stuck to the party line and was well respected among his colleagues. As chairman of the Immigration Committee, he favored restricting immigration and requiring a literacy test before entry into the United States—both popular positions. When the Immigration Committee proved too contentious for his liking, Fairbanks moved to the chairmanship of the more agreeable Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds.
The president appointed him to the Joint-High Commission to decide the U.S.-Canadian boundary in Alaska. No settlement was reached, but Fairbanks helped his own popularity by declaring, "I am opposed to the yielding of an inch of United States territory." The people of Alaska showed their appreciation by naming the city of Fairbanks in his honor. Perhaps Fairbanks' only controversial stand in the Senate was his support for the demands of black soldiers fighting in Cuba that they be commanded by black officers. Thanks to the senator's intervention, Indiana became the first state to accept this position as general policy for its militia units
Charles Fairbanks' political fortunes changed dramatically on September 6, 1901, when President McKinley was assassinated while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. He lost not only a friend, but also a political patron. Although McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, promised to continue the fallen president's policies, Fairbanks' close connection to the White House was severed.
Nonetheless, Roosevelt needed to placate the conservative wing of his party and did so by unenthusiastically selecting Fairbanks as his running mate for the 1904 election. Together the pair defeated the relatively weak Democratic ticket of Alton Parker and Henry Davis.
As vice president, Fairbanks had a fairly limited role even though Roosevelt had previously argued in favor of a more substantial role for the vice president. President Roosevelt did not invite his vice president to cabinet meetings and rarely consulted him. This was partially the result of ideological differences between Fairbanks and Roosevelt as well as their distant personal relationship. Fairbanks was dedicated to his role as presiding officer of the Senate and worked with congressional leaders to undermine unwanted legislation.