Public Service Exemplars: A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement: Charles G. Dawes
Charles Gates Dawes is not well known in the twenty-first century, but in his time, he was an influential figure in the Republican Party and an accomplished leader in multiple government positions. He served as vice president of the United States under President Calvin Coolidge from 1925 until 1929, but his reputation rests on his other government service. As the chairman of the committee deciding on German reparations for World War I, his Dawes Plan helped to resolve an international crisis. His work on the committee earned him the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize. I discuss Dawes’s life and career in my upcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.”
Dawes was born to an august family in Marietta, Ohio, on August 27, 1865. His lineage was impressive. He was descended from Edward Doty, a passenger on the Mayflower. Another ancestor, William Dawes, rode with Paul Revere to alert the American colonists that the British army was advancing on Lexington and Concord. His maternal great-grandfather, Manasseh Cutler, helped to adopt the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, formed the Ohio Company and Associates, and was known as the “Father of Ohio University.”
Charles Dawes’s father, Rufus R. Dawes, was a Union army officer who served in the famous Iron Brigade and fought in important Civil War battles, including Gettysburg. Rufus’s younger brother, Ephraim, was a major in the Union army and served General Ulysses S. Grant in the battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg before suffering a grievous wound in fighting near Dallas, Georgia, in May 1864.
After the war, Rufus became a prominent businessman as well as a congressman and author. His four sons proved to be successful. Rufus C. Dawes was a well-known banker and oil company executive. Beman G. Dawes was an oil company executive and congressman. Henry M. Dawes was also a banker and businessman. He served as comptroller of the currency from 1923 until 1924.
Charles Dawes graduated from Marietta College in 1884 and Cincinnati Law School two years later. Admitted to the Nebraska bar in 1887, he settled in Lincoln to practice law. During those years, he was married and began raising his family. He also met Lieutenant John Pershing, later a high-ranking general officer during World War I. Dawes also became friends with a Nebraska congressman, William Jennings Bryan, a future secretary of state and perennial presidential candidate, despite their numerous disagreements over policy.
During the Panic of 1893, Dawes moved to Chicago. He acquired interests in several gas plants and became president of two gas companies. Demonstrating a level of virtuosity not normally seen in lawyers and political figures, Dawes demonstrated his love of the arts after he composed a piano and violin song, “Melody in A Major.”
His rising prominence in the Chicago business world caught the eye of local Republican Party leaders. A small group approached Dawes to ask if he would serve as William McKinley’s Illinois campaign manager in the Ohioan’s 1896 run for the presidency. He agreed. After McKinley won the election, the new president rewarded Dawes with an appointment to serve as comptroller of the currency in the United States Treasury Department, a position that his brother Henry would hold more than a quarter century later.
He proved to be adept at financial matters. As comptroller, Dawes collected $25 million from banks that became insolvent during the Panic of 1893. He also changed banking procedures to make it more difficult for a future panic to cause as much damage.
A month after President McKinley’s September 1901 assassination, Dawes left the Treasury Department to campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. He hoped to parlay his national prominence into a career in elective politics. Although McKinley had been a reliable benefactor, Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s successor, favored Dawes’s opponent. Following his election loss, Dawes entered the private sector, serving as president of the Central Trust Company of Illinois. He remained in that position, with interludes in military and civilian service, until 1921.
His family suffered a tragedy in 1912 when Dawes’s 21-year-old son, Rufus, drowned in a lake while he was on summer break from Princeton University. Anxious to ensure that the young man’s life had meaning, Dawes paid to construct a dormitory at the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, his son’s alma mater. He also paid to establish homeless shelters in Boston and Chicago in his son’s honor.
After the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Dawes was commissioned as a major in the 17th Engineers. He later won promotions to lieutenant colonel and colonel. A month before war’s end he became a brigadier general.
Beginning in August 1917, he served in France as chairman of the purchasing board for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). He also served as a member of the Liquidation Commission within the U.S. War Department. For his exemplary service, Dawes received the Distinguished Service Medal as well as the French Croix de Guerre.
Dawes earned a whimsical nickname during a U.S. Senate hearing on war expenditures in February 1921. Frustrated by the nit-picking of his interlocutors, he erupted. "Hell and Maria, we weren't trying to keep a set of books over there,” he exclaimed. “We were trying to win a war!” Thereafter, he was joking referred to by some admirers as “Hell and Maria Dawes, although he insisted that he had said, “Helen Maria.”
Dawes earned his everlasting claim to fame during the 1920s. President Warren G. Harding appointed Dawes as the first director of the Bureau of the Budget, a precursor to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In 1923, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover appointed Dawes to the Allied Reparations Commission to determine how the unfolding financial crisis in Europe should be addressed. The resulting Dawes Plan loaned large sums of money from American banks to the German government. The loans permitted Germany to recover its industrial production and reparation payments to France and Belgium as required by the Versailles Treaty. Although a different, permanent plan subsequently replaced the Dawes Plan, the initial proposal assisted Germany in stabilizing its postwar economy. Dawes shared the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize for this initiative.
With his newfound prominence, Dawes became a favorite choice for the vice presidency at the 1924 Republican National Convention after other possible nominees either bowed out of the competition or proved to be insufficiently popular. He traveled the country widely during the campaign, proving to be an effective orator. President Calvin Coolidge was reelected, and Dawes became his second.
Dawes’s tenure as vice president was an unhappy one, which is hardly surprising. Many vice presidents have been dissatisfied with the position. John Nance Garner—famous as “Cactus Jack,” a speaker of the United States House of Representatives as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president for eight years—once described the office as “not worth a bucket of warm spit,” although he may not have said “spit.” Dawes started off in the good graces of his president, Calvin Coolidge, but they had a falling out. Dawes eventually stopped attending cabinet meetings. When Dawes attacked the Senate filibuster as a frustrating dilatory tactic, Coolidge became irked. Dawes also urged passage of the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill, a measure to help farmers during the 1920s, even though Coolidge was against the measure. When the bill passed the Congress with Dawes’s assistance, Coolidge vetoed it.
Dawes’s standing with Coolidge suffered another blow over the president’s nomination for attorney general. Charles B. Warren was known for his ties to the Sugar Trust, which made him an unattractive nominee in the wake of the Teapot Dome scandal in the Harding administration. Warren faced fierce opposition during the confirmation process. It was possible that the vote would be tied, in which case Vice President Dawes, as president of the U.S. Senate, would be called on to break the tie.
Dawes decided to leave the Senate chamber and take a nap. He spoke with the Senate majority and minority leaders, and they assured him that no vote would be taken that afternoon. After Dawes left the Senate, all but one of the scheduled speakers decided to forgo making formal remarks. This surprising turn of events accelerated the schedule. The senators immediately voted. When a 40-40 tie occurred, Republican leaders frantically called Dawes at the Willard Hotel.
On learning the news, the vice president immediately returned to the Capitol. While the senators waited for Dawes to arrive, however, the only Democratic senator who had voted for Warren unexpectedly switched his vote to “no.” The nomination failed 41-39. It was the first rejection of a president's nominee in nearly 60 years and a humiliating defeat for the Coolidge administration.
As a result of his newly acquired reputation of a man caught napping, Dawes became the subject of a sarcastic poem based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which opens with the words, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” The parody begins with the sardonic line “Come gather round children and hold your applause for the afternoon ride of Charlie Dawes." It was an inspired choice because Charles Dawes was descended from William Dawes, who rode with Paul Revere.
When Coolidge declined to run for another term as president, Herbert Hoover captured the Republican presidential nomination. Rumors suggested that Dawes might again be selected as a vice presidential candidate, but Coolidge sent word that he would consider the choice to be an insult. Dawes showed little interest in reprising his role as a political eunuch, in any case.
Instead, Dawes served as the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James from 1929 until 1931. He proved to be an effective ambassador, although he caused one minor controversy. On his first visit to the royal court, Dawes refused to wear the customary court dress, including knee breeches. This decision apparently aggravated King George V, who had been prevented by illness from attending the event.
At President Hoover’s request, Dawes left diplomatic service to head up a new organization, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was supposed to provide financial support to state and local governments and make loans to banks, railroads, mortgage associations, and other businesses. The goal was to boost the country's confidence and help banks resume daily functions during the Great Depression. Dawes stayed only a few months. He left to try and save the failing Central Republic Bank and Trust Company of Chicago. As chairman of that bank, he believed that he had an obligation to save it if he could. Detractors later charged that Dawes showed favoritism to the bank while he was head of the RFC. True or not, the allegations marred his reputation.
He died on April 23, 1951, having never served in a public role again.
Today, Dawes is best remembered—to the extent that he is remembered at all—for the Dawes Plan to assist postwar Europe in recovering from the Great War. He was a man skilled in politics, finance, and bureaucratic wrangling. Dawes played a major part in high-stakes politics, and he played it exceedingly well.