Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 762

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 762


This is the grave of Charles Dawes.

Born in 1865 in Marietta, Ohio, Dawes grew up quite well off. His father was General Rufus Dawes, who played a key role at Gettysburg and then ran a successful lumber operation after the war. Rufus also served a term in Congress but lost his seat after voting against the Chinese Exclusion Act, so kudos to him for standing on some level of principle, a rare thing for the Gilded Age. Anyway, Charles Dawes went to Marietta College, graduating in 1884, and then went on to the University of Cincinnati Law School, finishing there in 1886.

Dawes moved to Nebraska, a good place for an ambitious young Republican. He was admitted to the bar there and practiced in Lincoln from 1887-94. He clashed politically with the rising young Nebraska Democrat William Jennings Bryan, particularly over Dawes’ commitment to hard money, but they were good personal friends. Dawes left Nebraska for Chicago after the Panic of 1893. He started running gas plants there and made quite a fortune for himself. He also was a rapidly rising Republican. He was asked to manage William McKinley’s 1896 presidential run in Illinois against Dawes’ old friend Bryan. He gladly accepted the challenge. McKinley paid him back too, naming him Comptroller of the Currency, which is a very powerful position in the Treasury Department. He stayed in that position from 1898-1901.

Dawes left the Treasury in order to run for Senate from Illinois. But McKinley was assassinated and Dawes and Roosevelt didn’t get along well. Dawes was an old-school Gilded Age hack and Roosevelt a Progressive reformer. So he didn’t win the nomination and he left politics. Dawes went into banking and made a lot of money over the next twenty years, largely staying out of the limelight but as an important Republican insider and money man.

Interestingly, Dawes was actually a well-respected composer of popular music while rising in business and politics. His most popular tune, “Melody in a Major” was published in 1912. It was a fairly popular song at the time. Then in 1951, Carl Sigman wrote lyrics to the song and changed it’s name to “It’s All in the Game.” That song then became a #1 pop hit in the U.S. for Tommy Edwards in 1958. It’s since been covered by everyone from Van Morrison and Isaac Hayes to Barry Manilow and Keith Jarrett. Trivia, but actually rather interesting trivia.

During World War I, Dawes was extremely important as a banker, giving critical support to the first Anglo-French loan. Many saw this as a ploy by the House of Morgan. Dawes provided critical non-Morgan support. Given that President Wilson himself was reluctant to violate American neutrality here, Dawes’ role was huge. When the U.S. entered the war, Dawes joined the Army, being commissioned as a major in the 17th Engineers. He quickly rose through the ranks to become a brigadier general. And while, sure, this was because he was a well-connected rich guy, no question about that, it was also that he was very good at working out supplies and logistics and was a big influence on the Military Board of Allied Supply.

Dawes was not on the Harding train in 1920. Who really was but a bunch of corrupt hacks? He supported Frank Lowden, the governor of Illinois, for the nomination. When it went to Harding though, like every other Republican, he lived with it. Harding named him as the director of the Bureau of the Budget in 1921. And then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover asked Dawes to be on the Allied Reparations Committee in 1923. I hardly need to explain to LGM readers the problems with the harsh reparations placed on Germany after World War I. Dawes tried to figure out a way to stabilize Germany without alienating Britain and France. The Dawes Plan basically had the U.S. fund the German economy but floating it huge bank loans in order to restart its industrialization while then allowing the nation’s other revenue go to pay off the British and French. For awhile, it looked like this might actually stabilize Germany. We all know that didn’t happen. But it was hardly the fault of Dawes. He went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 for his work here.

By this time of course Harding had dropped dead. Calvin Coolidge became president and was nominated for his own term in 1924. Who would be VP? It was a difficult deal here. The first two people Coolidge asked–Frank Lowden and William Borah–said no. There was support for Herbert Hoover, but to many Republicans, the Secretary of Commerce was too associated the Progressives they wanted to forget existed after World War I. So Dawes became a compromise candidate, someone who offended no one but also posed no real political threat to anyone.

It was a disastrous pairing in the end. The two men ended up loathing each other. Some of it was his very poor running of the Senate in getting through the nomination of the new president’s choice for Attorney General, Charles Warren. The was a lot of nervousness about Warren because he was probably corrupt. A bought and sold man of the sugar industry, he reminded too many people of Albert Fall and other corrupt Harding officials. A combination of Democrats and Progressives opposed him. The vote in the Senate was 40-40. But Dawes was away from the Senate floor. He was taking a nap. By the time he could be found and brought back to the Senate to break the tie, a Democrat who had voted for Warren changed his vote. Warren was defeated. Dawes was embarrassed. Coolidge was furious.

Relations only deteriorated further. Dawes just stopped showing up to Cabinet meetings. He decided to take on the issue of eliminating the filibuster, irritating Coolidge. He also proved to be way too reform oriented for the reactionary president, actively supporting the McNary-Haugen Farm Relief Bill, one of the big fracture lines in American politics and a precursor to AAA and the power of Henry Wallace in the Roosevelt administration. Basically, it would have forced the government to buy up surplus farm products to raise farm prices around the country. Then the government could have sold it overseas. Dawes helped get it passed and the Coolidge vetoed it because for him, this sort of government action in the “free market” was anathema.

Hoover and Dawes were a lot more closely aligned that the former VP was with Coolidge. So Hoover named the now former VP as ambassador to Britain in 1929. He stayed there two years. Having significant foreign policy experience, this was a good choice and he helped improve relations between the two nations. Dawes returned to the U.S. in 1931 to head the Reconstruction Finance Corporation as Hoover desperately tried to find some answer to the Depression that would not compromise his closely cherished free market individualism. But Dawes saw the writing on the wall and left the RFC after a few months, instead working on stabilizing his own banking properties in Chicago, heavily threatened like so many banks in the early years of the Depression.

By 1932, Dawes left politics completely. He was hardly a fan of FDR, but he largely stayed out of active politics, instead focusing on his banking empire. He remained pretty active with that until his death in 1951. He was 85 years old.

Charles Dawes is buried at Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois. This particular grave visit has a strong memory for me. I visited Dawes last March 15. That’s right, just as the pandemic was hitting. I was in Oregon, spiraling downward quickly as the world seemed to be ending. I have a 5 hour layover in Chicago the day after the disastrous night where all the people fleeing back home from Europe were forced to wait in lines at immigration for hours. I had images of COVID everywhere. So I rented a car and went to Rosehill, figuring it could be the last grave I saw for a long time. And it was for a few months. That has, uh, since changed.

To this day, Dawes and Bob Dylan are the only Nobel Prize winners to pen a #1 hit. Dawes was the more deserving winner of the Nobel. Incidentally, Dylan’s only #1 hit was “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and it hit the top of the charts for The Byrds, not him. The grave series teaches us so much.

If you would like this series to visit other vice-presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Charles Curtis is in Topeka and John Nance Garner is in Uvalde, Texas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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