Charles Gates Dawes: The forgotten man and his home

December 19, 2011

"Once upon a time there were two brothers. One of them went to sea, and the other became Vice President of the United States. Neither of them was ever heard of again."

That's an old vaudeville joke, and it always got a laugh. It was true enough. Charles Gates Dawes was our 30th vice president, and he lived right here in Illinois. But unless you're from Evanston, you probably never heard of the guy.

Dawes was born in Ohio in 1865, became a lawyer, and practiced in Nebraska for a while. Then he got into banking and Republican politics. In 1909 he moved into the house at 225 Greenwood Street in Evanston.

During World War I, Dawes was a brigadier general in charge of procurement. He was called before a congressional committee investigating waste. The questions became heated, and he finally exploded. "Hell and Maria, we weren't keeping a set of books!" he yelled. "We were trying to win the war!" The newspapers loved it, and he became known as Hell-and-Maria Dawes.

(We will pause here to ponder what Dawes meant by "Hell and Maria." Does anybody cuss like that today?)

After the war Dawes went to work in the Harding Administration. He was Budget Director, and was later put in charge of German reparations payments. Because they'd lost the war, Germany had to pay billions of dollars to the victors.

So Dawes came up with the Dawes Plan, which worked something like this--(1) U.S. loaned money to Germany, (2) Germany used the money to pay reparations to Britain and France, and (3) Britain and France sent the money back to U.S. to pay their own war debt.

If you're not an international banker, this may sound like an odd way of doing business. But the plan did win Dawes the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1924 Calvin Coolidge was president, and running for re-election. Party leaders wanted someone from swing-state Illinois on the ticket. After ex-Governor Frank Lowden turned down the VP slot, Dawes was selected. He delivered his acceptance speech from the porch of the house on Greenwood.

Coolidge and Dawes won the election. After that the two men didn't get along. It didn't help when Vice President Dawes missed a crucial tie-breaking vote in the Senate. He was back in his hotel, taking a nap.

After his single term as vice president, Dawes was ambassador to Britain, then returned to banking. He died in 1951. Today his Evanston home is a museum.

Dawes was also an amateur composer. His "Melody in A Major" was often played as his theme song at political gatherings. Lyrics were added to the original Dawes music later, and in 1958 Tommy Edwards's recording "It's All in the Game" reached #1 on the Billboard chart. Can Cheney or Biden match that?