He was born in Barnet, Vermont, the third of nine children of Erastus Fairbanks (who had been a Republican Governor of Vermont) and his wife Lois Crossman. He was educated in the county schools and Phillips Andover Academy. He became confidential clerk of E. & T. Fairbanks & Co. at age twenty, eventually becoming partner and then president. He was manufacturer of the world’s first platform scale. He promoted the construction of a railway line from Portland to Ogdensburg via the White Mountain Notch, and became president of the Vermont division of the railroad, as well as president of the First National Bank of St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
In 1871 he presented to St. Johnsbury the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, incorporating a free public library containing 8,000 volumes and an art gallery. He was a trustee of the University of Vermont and Andover Seminary.
He was elected Governor in 1876, serving a two-year term.
Fairbanks died in New York.