Study Guide

Charles Dawes in Calvin Coolidge's Inaugural Address

By Calvin Coolidge

Charles Dawes

Only 20-ish Americans have won the Nobel Peace Prize (source). Even fewer have won the Nobel Peace Prize right before declaring a very unsuccessful "war" on the U.S. Senate.

Although we can never forget Martin Luther King Jr.'s epic storming of the Senate chamber, complete with a record of Florence Foster Jenkins songs and a horde of 1,000 doves that were released inside.

Wait, that may have been from a fan fiction story we read. Never mind.

Charles Dawes made his name (and money) in the financial world before making a whole other kind of name for himself as Calvin Coolidge's vice president. When Coolidge delivered his inaugural address, Dawes had recently become a celebrity by helping salvage Europe's financial situation in the aftermath of World War I. In doing so, he also put the U.S. in the center of the global economy.

He and Coolidge may not have gotten along very well, but Dawes' financial ideas had a real presence throughout Coolidge's presidency—and his Inauguration Address.

From Dusk 'Til Dawes

Charles Dawes came from an old American family, which was about as old-school as you could get if you weren't part of a Native American tribe. The first Daweses arrived with the Puritans in 1628. Charles' great-grandfather rode with Paul Revere to give some warning about the British (sounds vaguely familiar), and his father fought in the Civil War (source). Charlie himself reached the rank of brigadier general during WWI, so the Daweses clearly had all the major conflicts covered.

His career got going when he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1887 after finishing law school. There, he happened to live and work in very close proximity to one of the other giants of early 20th-century American politics and finance: William Jennings Bryan.

He rose up the ranks in the financial world of Lincoln, becoming director of a local bank, not to mention owning commercial real estate and helping run a meat packing business (source). When the Panic of 1893 hit, his business took a serious hit. He diversified into utilities, and moved to Chicago in 1895 (source).

Once in Chicago, Charles became the leader of Dawes Brothers, Inc., which acquired a bunch of businesses between 1902 and 1917. At the heart of it all was the Central Trust Company, otherwise known as "the Dawes Bank" (source). The bank would be Charles' main focus for most of the rest of his life—except when he served in Coolidge's administration, of course.

And except when he wasn't indulging his musical interests. In 1911, Dawes composed "Melody in A," which was later adapted to a famous song called "All in the Game," recorded by a number of greats including Nat King Cole, whom you never heard of but take our word for it.

International Man of Mystery—Or Supply Chains

In Chicago, not only did Dawes find some amazing deep-dish pizza, but he caught the political fever.

If you're wondering, there's no real cure for political fever, so if you or a family member becomes affected, give them a couple aspirin, sit them down in front of The West Wing, and call Shmoop in the morning.

Like Calvin Coolidge, Dawes got his political start campaigning for William McKinley in 1898. He impressed the Republican party so much during the campaign that he was put in charge of the Chicago headquarters. After McKinley's victory, he was appointed comptroller of the treasury.

Dawes quit that job to run for senator, with McKinley's promised endorsement—unfortunately, McKinley is one of the few U.S. presidents to be assassinated, and Dawes' senate chances died with him (source). After that, Dawes focused on his business enterprises until the U.S. got involved in World War I in 1917.

Once the U.S. went to war, General John Pershing called on Dawes to take charge of the flow of supplies to the army in Europe, known as the American Expeditionary Force, making sure the soldiers got what they needed without too much waste. Even after the end of the war, Dawes stayed in Europe to help deal with procuring and distributing all those military supplies to the countries involved.

His experience in Europe made him an advocate of the U.S. being internationalist rather than isolationist. He wanted the U.S. to ratify the Treaty of Versailles (they didn't) and join the League of Nations (they never did) (source). Let that be foreshadowing for his later dealings with Congress.

In 1921, the House of Representatives created a commission to try and uncover wasteful spending that they assumed had happened during the war. When they called Dawes to testify, Dawes was, shall we say, displeased—not just at the insinuation that the U.S. wasted money supplying the troops, but just the whole prospect of having to show up at the hearing in the first place.

Dawes went off on the committee about how it was, you know, a war and they had needed supplies. When asked about the price of horses for the French army, he famously yelled: "Hell 'n Maria! I will tell you this, that we would have paid horse prices for sheep, if they could have hauled artillery!" (source).

Hence the nickname he was very quickly given: Hell 'n Maria Dawes.

Supply-Man to the Rescue

Soon after screaming at the House committee, Dawes was made the director of the first Bureau of the Budget by then-president Warren Harding (not sure what life lesson to take away from that). He only lasted a year, though, giving up the position in 1922 to re-take control of his Chicago businesses.

But alas, Dawes was in too deep. When Europe started imploding again over the issue of war reparations and Germany's inability to pay, Dawes was once again called on to help solve the crisis. After all, who knew more about the situation than the guy who'd been over there dealing with all these countries during the war (source)?

The situation in Europe was a mess. Germany owed about $15.5 billion in reparations, but their economy was in the toilet and they were falling badly behind in their payments. France insisted on sticking to the payment plan set out in the Treaty of Versailles, but the U.K. was willing to make some changes. U.S. Secretary of States Charles Hughes called for a nonpolitical group to go over there and come up with a plan.

On December 23, 1923, Charles Dawes set sail for Europe on the SS America, along with his brother Rufus (see: family business), plus fellow economy mavens Owen Young and Henry Robinson. They all paid their own way and made all their own arrangements, to make sure no one could doubt their independence (source).

Dawes made sure meetings stayed on track and was the public face of the committee to the press back home. By April of 1924, they'd submitted a proposal to all the European nations involved, and they'd all accepted. The resulting "Dawes Plan," as it's still known, had the U.S. lending money to Germany to pay off the Allies, who would then use that money to help pay off their debt to the United States. It also outlined sources of revenue for Germany to raise money (source).

Although the Dawes Plan had its critics, it was accepted and implemented. Things settled down for a while. International trade started to recover. The plan seemed to work so well, Dawes was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 for his work.

Dawes didn't actually go to Oslo to accept the Nobel Prize in person, though. He also donated all the prize money (about $16,000 then, close to $240,000 now) to the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, which was the pet project of fellow committee member Owen Young.

Putting the "Vice" in Vice President

Maybe you're thinking: "Of course Coolidge picked this guy to be his VP, dude had a Nobel Prize." Well, actually Dawes was not Coolidge's original pick in 1924, but the first two people he asked turned it down because they didn't want to be #2. They wanted to be president. Dawes, however, accepted with relative enthusiasm (source).

He probably shouldn't have been so enthusiastic.

Dawes and Coolidge had a pretty frigid relationship; they were very different people with very different ideas and ways of doing things. Silent Cal had chosen a loudmouth, action-oriented Veep. His official Senate bio comments that "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" (source).

Of course, they never publicized the fact that they kinda hated each other, but kept things polite for the cameras.

Dawes completely stole Coolidge's thunder during the inauguration process by preceding Coolidge's calm speech about the state of the country with his own speech, a loud tirade aimed directly at the Senate about the horrors of the filibuster. He was literally pointing at specific senators and yelling at them (source). He became a sort of public joke for this outburst, and Coolidge never really forgave him.

All the same, Dawes spent his entire vice presidency trying to get rid of filibustering. He didn't succeed.

Dawes had good relationships with other people in the administration, especially Andrew Mellon and Herbert Hoover, so he had other boys to play with when he and Coolidge didn't get along. (source).

The bigger problem with Dawes as Vice President was his terrible relationship with the Senate. One of the main duties of the Veep is to lead the Senate, and clearly Dawes didn't start off on the right foot during the inauguration. His other famous mishap was during the Senate debate over whether or not to approve the nomination of Charles Warren for Attorney General in March of 1925.

The debate was going on so long that Dawes left to take a nap. Yes, a nap. The senators purposefully took advantage of his absence and rejected Warren's nomination, the first time a presidential cabinet nomination had been rejected since 1868. The jokes were endless. Someone even put up a sign at the Willard Hotel, where Dawes had taken his fateful nap, that read "Dawes Slept Here" (source).

At the end of his term as Vice-President, Dawes quipped, "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" (source).

Trust the Trust

Once Coolidge stepped down in 1928, Dawes returned to Chicago to retake control of his Central Trust Company, since he'd given up his position during his stint in government. But again, he was called to service again by that bat signal in the sky.

In 1929, President Herbert Hoover appointed Dawes to be the U.S. ambassador to England. So when the Great Depression hit, Dawes watched from a relative distance, still trying to keep Europe on track with their finances under the Dawes Plan (source).

Hoover brought him back to the U.S. in 1932 to take charge of the newly-formed Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which was supposed to help deal with the Great Depression. Dawes didn't stay long, though, because soon his own company was facing bankruptcy in Chicago.

He managed eventually to restructure and rescue the Central Trust Company into City National Bank & Trust Company, and he finally stayed put until his death in 1951 at the ripe old age of eighty-five (source).

Calvin and Charles: Best of Frenemies

Despite his reputation as "Hell 'n Maria" and his terrible relationship with the Senate, Charles Dawes was a fairly humble, practical guy who shared his wealth and success with his brothers. He and his wife adopted two children in addition to the two that they had, and throughout the 1940s he gave a lot of money to a new organization called the Boys' Club of America (source).

His role in the aftermath of World War I was hugely important. The Dawes Plan made the U.S. the most important economic power of the 1920s, for better or for worse (pesky stock market crashes), and made the country a major international player. It also helped avert some serious conflict between the countries that had literally just stopped fighting.

Coolidge talks about the economic situation of Europe and America's role in the global economy in his Inauguration Address. Even if the speech was overshadowed by Dawes's theatrics, Dawes's policies and ideas had a direct impact on the content of Coolidge's speech, not to mention the country overall.

And what the heck does "Hell 'n Maria" mean, anyway?