I should hate to think that the Senate was as tired of me at the beginning of my service as I am of the Senate at the end.
—Charles G. Dawes
It is ironic that "Silent Cal" Coolidge should have a vice president as garrulous as Charles Gates Dawes. A man of action as well as of blunt words, "Hell'n Maria" Dawes (the favorite expression by which he was known) was in so many ways the opposite of President Coolidge that the two men were never able to establish a working relationship. The president probably never forgave his vice president for stealing attention from him at their inaugural ceremonies, nor did he ever forget that Dawes was responsible for one of his most embarrassing defeats in the Senate. As a result, although Dawes was one of the most notable and able men to occupy the vice-presidency, his tenure was not a satisfying or productive one, nor did it stand as a model for others to follow.
Charles Dawes was not Calvin Coolidge's choice for a running mate. It would have taken a far more self-confident president to want a vice president with a longer and more distinguished career than his own. Dawes had been a prominent official in the McKinley administration when Coolidge was still a city council member in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dawes became a highly decorated military officer during the First World War, was the president of a prestigious financial institution, was the first director of the Bureau of the Budget, and devised the "Dawes Plan" to salvage Europe's postwar economy, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Dawes had a keen concern for foreign affairs, in which Coolidge showed little interest. As an activist in domestic policy, Dawes convinced the Senate to pass the McNary-Haugen farm relief bill; Coolidge vetoed the bill. Dawes was a problem solver, Coolidge a problem avoider. The 1920s might have been a very different decade if the Republican ticket in 1924 had been Dawes-Coolidge rather than Coolidge-Dawes.
Banking, Business and Politics
Born in Marietta, Ohio, on August 27, 1865, Charles Dawes was the great-great grandson of William Dawes, who had ridden with Paul Revere to warn the colonists that the Redcoats were coming. Dawes' father, Rufus Dawes, was a Civil War veteran and lumber merchant who served as a Republican for one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Young Charlie, who even as a boy had a reputation for "flying off the handle" when something angered him, attended the Marietta Academy in Ohio and graduated from Marietta College in 1884. Two years later he received his law degree from the Cincinnati Law School. While in law school he worked during the summers as a civil engineer for the Marietta, Columbus & Northern Ohio Railway Company.
In 1887, former Ohio Governor Rufus Walton hired Dawes to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, and look after his real estate holdings. Dawes was admitted to the bar in Nebraska and opened the law office of Dawes, Coffroth & Cunningham. He established a reputation for handling railroad rate cases under the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and as a "people's advocate against the railroad lobby." The same year that Dawes opened his law office, William Jennings Bryan started his law practice in the same building in Lincoln. Dawes, who was then twenty-two, and Bryan, who was twenty-seven, attended Sunday services and Wednesday night prayer meetings at the same Presbyterian church and even lived two houses apart on the same street. As a consequence, the two men, from different parties and with very different views on the issues, had many opportunities to meet and debate politics. (In 1924, Dawes would run for vice president against Bryan's brother Charles, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.) Dawes became director of the American Exchange National Bank, a small bank in Lincoln, which he and other directors fought hard to save during the panic of 1893. As a bank director, he strongly disagreed with Bryan's advocacy of free silver to stimulate inflation and help the indebted farmers. Dawes became so engrossed in the currency issue that he published his first book, The Banking System of the United States and Its Relation to the Money and Business of the Country, in 1894.
"I struck Lincoln right at the top of a boom," Dawes noted, "then it started sliding." The panic of 1893 had undermined his business and banking career in Lincoln, sending him in search of new business ventures elsewhere. Attracted by the utilities industry, he bought control of the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Gas Light & Coke Company, and became president of the People's Gas Light & Coke Company of Chicago. In January 1895, he moved his family to Chicago to make that city the center of his business interests. But within two weeks he met the Cleveland industrialist Marcus A. Hanna, who was promoting the presidential aspirations of Ohio Governor William McKinley. Writing in his diary that "McKinley seems to be the coming man," Dawes was bitten by the political bug. He managed McKinley's preconvention campaign in Illinois, winning that state's delegates away from the erstwhile "favorite son" candidate, Senator Shelby M. Cullom. Not only did McKinley win the Republican nomination, but Dawes' old friend William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination. While Dawes disagreed profoundly with the logic of free silver, he listened to Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech with a feeling of great pride "for the brilliant young man whose life for so many years lay parallel to mine, and with whom the future years may yet bring me into conflict as in the past."
Comptroller of the Currency
Mark Hanna put Dawes in charge of the Chicago headquarters, which largely ran the McKinley campaign. Dawes also served on the Republican National Executive Committee as McKinley's "special representative." McKinley's victory led to Dawes' appointment as comptroller of the currency, a post in which he sought to reform banking practices that had led to the depression of the 1890s. McKinley treated Dawes "as a father would a son." Dawes frequently had lunch at the White House with McKinley and his invalid wife Ida and returned for an evening of cards or of playing the piano for the McKinleys' entertainment. (A self-taught pianist, Dawes later wrote a popular piano piece, "Melody in A Major," and when lyrics were added in 1951 it became the well-known song "It's All in the Game.") More than a companion to the president, Dawes was a trusted adviser. In 1900 when Mark Hanna tried to block the vice-presidential nomination of New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, it was Dawes who intervened with McKinley on Roosevelt's behalf.
In June 1901, Dawes decided to resign as comptroller of the currency to return to Illinois and run for the Senate. He was assured of McKinley's endorsement, but his resignation did not take place until October, a month after McKinley's assassination. Dawes' political ambitions were thwarted by new President Theodore Roosevelt, who endorsed another candidate, and by the "blond boss" of the Illinois Republican party, William Lorimer. Running for vice president in 1924 and reflecting on his only other run for elected office in 1901, Dawes remarked: "I don't know anything about politics. I thought I knew something about politics once. I was taken up on the top of a twenty story building and showed the promised land—and then I was kicked off."
A day after losing the Senate nomination, the thirty-six-year-old Dawes began to organize the Central Trust Company of Illinois. He became its president and devoted his attentions to banking and to family life until the First World War. Dawes had married Caro Blymyer in 1889. They had two children and later adopted two more. In the late summer of 1912, Dawes suffered the greatest tragedy of his life when his only son drowned at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, while on a brief vacation before returning to Princeton University. Deeply saddened, Dawes and his wife withdrew from most social life and turned to philanthropy. In memory of their son, they founded the Rufus Fearing Dawes Hotel for Destitute Men in Chicago and Boston, and later established the Mary Dawes Hotel for Women in honor of Dawes' mother.
Supplying the War in Europe
When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, Dawes received a telegram from Herbert Hoover, who had organized American relief efforts in Europe and was now serving as Food Administrator. Searching for talented administrators, Hoover wanted Dawes to take charge of grain prices. But instead of a desk job in Washington, Dawes longed to be in uniform. Hoover considered that a mistake. "I can find a hundred men who will make better lieutenant colonels of engineers, and I want you right here," he argued. "No, Mr. Hoover, I don't want to consider it," Dawes replied. A few days later, Dawes at age fifty-two received his commission as a major in the 17th Railway Engineers, bound for France, and, just as Hoover predicted, he was soon a lieutenant colonel.
The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was commanded by General John J. Pershing, who had known Dawes since the 1890s when Pershing was a military instructor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. In August 1917, Pershing summoned Dawes to Paris and made him chief of supply procurement for the American forces in Europe, assigning him to head the board that collected supplies and to coordinate purchases to hold down inflation and duplication of orders. Dawes rose to the rank of brigadier general. When the Allied command was unified, General Dawes became the U.S. member of the Military Board of Allied Supply. While representing the United States Army in conferences with other Allied armies and governments, Dawes particularly admired men of action rather than those who simply talked. "Action, then, is everything—words nothing except as they lead immediately to it," he commented, adding, "I came out of the war a postgraduate in emergency conferences." After the Armistice in 1918, he remained in Europe to oversee the disposition of surplus military property. In 1919 he resigned his commission and returned to the United States. His wartime experiences in negotiating and coordinating efforts with his Allied counterparts left him an internationalist in outlook, advocating ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and United States membership in the League of Nations. After the war, everyone called him "General Dawes," despite his protests to the contrary.
In 1920 Dawes supported his good friend, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, for the Republican presidential nomination, but that prize went to Ohio's Warren G. Harding. In February 1921, however, an event occurred that brought Dawes to the attention not only of president-elect Harding but of the entire nation. A House of Representatives committee to investigate war expenditures called Dawes to testify. Republicans—who held the majority—were clearly eager to uncover any information about "extravagant purchases" in the AEF that might tarnish the outgoing administration of Woodrow Wilson. Journalist Bascom Timmons recorded that Dawes, a busy man, had resented being called by the committee. On the morning that he was due to testify, he walked around the Capitol waiting for the committee to assemble, getting angrier all the time. It took only a spark to set him off. In the course of the interrogation, Representative Oscar Bland, an Indiana Republican, pressed Dawes on how much the American army had paid for French horses.
"Hell'n Maria!" Dawes exclaimed, jumping up from his seat and striding to the mahogany table where the committee sat. "I will tell you this, that we would have paid horse prices for sheep, if they could have hauled artillery!" Peppering his remarks with profanity, Dawes lectured the committee on the urgency of getting supplies to soldiers who were being shot at. He recounted how he had cut through the red tape and "had to connive with the smuggling of horses over there," but he got the horses to drag the cannon to the front. Turning the fire on "pinhead" politicians, Dawes roared: "Your committee can not put a fly speck on the American Army. . . . I am against that peanut politics. This was not a Republican war, nor was it a Democratic war. It was an American war."
Afterwards, Dawes explained that he had "suddenly decided that so far as I could bring it about either the Committee or I would go out of business." His "Hell 'n Maria" testimony took up seven hours for three sessions of the committee, with the official stenographers complaining that he often spoke too rapidly. Dawes' defense of the AEF won great praise from both parties. The newspapers, and especially the editorial cartoonists, loved Dawes' indignant outburst and quaint expletive. His published testimony, even with the expletives deleted, became a Government Printing Office best seller. The incident made him a national figure, and in July 1921, when Congress created the Bureau of the Budget, Harding appointed Dawes as its first director. Adding to his colorful personality, Dawes at this time adopted his trademark pipe. For years he had smoked as many as twenty cigars a day, but during the war a British officer had given him a pipe. Soon after his appointment to the Bureau of the Budget, a newspaper photograph showed him smoking his pipe on the Treasury Department steps. A Chicago pipe manufacturer sent him a new, strangely shaped pipe with most of its bowl below rather than above the stem. Dawes tried it, liked it, and ordered a gross more. From then on, he was rarely seen without this distinctive pipe, which together with his wing-tip collars and hair parted down the middle, reinforced his individualistic, iconoclastic, and idiosyncratic public image.
The Nobel Peace Prize
After spending a year setting up the first federal budget under the new act, Dawes returned to Illinois, concerned about graft and political corruption, especially in Chicago. He organized "The Minute Men of the Constitution," to watch elections and prevent vote fraud. The group opposed the political activities of the Ku Klux Klan, and it also assailed what it considered to be unfair labor union practices. Dawes insisted that his group was not anti-union, but that it opposed the closed union shop. At one point the "Minute Men" had a membership of 25,000, but after his election as vice president the group disbanded.
In 1923, the economy of Germany had deteriorated drastically. Since Germany was unable to repay its war debts, France sent troops to occupy the industrial Ruhr valley. President Harding appointed Dawes to head a commission to study and solve the German financial problem. The "Dawes Plan" offered ways to stabilize the German currency, balance its budget, and reorganize its Reichbank, but the plan postponed action on the most difficult issue of delaying and reducing the German war reparations. Nevertheless, the "Dawes Plan" was recognized as a significant enough contribution to world peace to win Dawes the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with his British counterpart, Sir Austen Chamberlain. Dawes donated his share of the prize money to the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University.
The Second Choice for the Second Spot
At the Republican convention in 1924, Calvin Coolidge was nominated without significant opposition, but the front-running candidate for vice president, Governor Lowden, had let it be known that he did not want the second spot on the ticket. Nor did the popular Idaho Senator William E. Borah want to be the number two man. A story at the time recorded that President Coolidge had offered Borah a place on the ticket. "For which position?" Borah had supposedly replied. On the second ballot, the delegates nominated Lowden, but he declined to run, as threatened. Republican National Chairman William Butler promoted Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, but Hoover remained too unpopular with the farm states for his price fixing as food commissioner during the war, and the delegates on the third ballot chose Charles G. Dawes for vice president. President Coolidge, who had already sent a congratulatory note to Frank Lowden, accepted Dawes as someone who would add strength to the campaign and who he expected would remain personally loyal to him.
When the unexpected news came over the radio, Dawes was back at his birthplace of Marietta, Ohio, delivering the commencement address to his alma mater. "There is one recollection I shall always treasure," he later wrote. "It is of the gathering of thousands of the people of the town, the next day, to hear me speak briefly from the front porch of the old family home; and the church bells of the town were rung in honor of the occasion. Some people may claim that the vice-presidency does not amount to much, but just then it seemed to me the greatest office in the world."
During the campaign, Coolidge maintained his stance of speaking infrequently and keeping his remarks as bland and inoffensive as possible. He left it to Dawes to attack the Democratic candidate, John W. Davis, and the Progressive candidate, Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette. Dawes entertained his audiences with the type of "Hell'n Maria" speeches they expected, shaking his fist and denouncing La Follette—whose platform among other things advocated allowing Congress to overturn Supreme Court decisions—as a demagogue and dangerous radical "animated by the vicious purpose of undermining the constitutional foundation of the Republic." Dawes went so far as to suggest that La Follette was a Bolshevik, although La Follette had publicly rejected Communist support and had been attacked by them.
Coolidge and Dawes were overwhelmingly elected in 1924, winning more votes than the Democratic and Progressive candidates combined. "When Coolidge was elected President the world desired tranquility," Dawes noted in his journal, "—a reaction of its peoples from the excesses of war." But tranquility was not Charles Dawes' style.