Hell and Maria – The Story of Charles Dawes

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Vice-President Charles G. Dawes is remembered for several reasons. He is the only Vice-President to win the Nobel Peace Prize (excluding Teddy Roosevelt who won it for his actions as President in settling the Russo-Japanese War). He was the great-great-grandson of William Dawes, who joined Paul Revere on his famous ride to Lexington and Concord. He is the only Vice-President to write a hit song, composing the lyrics to an old standard titled “All In The Game” which was reprised 30 years ago by Tommy Edwards. Charles Dawes is also remembered for a famous ride of his own, made shortly after he became Vice-President.

To paraphrase a famous poet:

Listen my children, but hold your applause
for the afternoon ride of Charlie Dawes.

Charles Dawes began his career as a lawyer. He bought a utilities company and became a very wealthy businessman. He then became active in fields of banking and finance. To protect his financial holdings, he organized the Minutemen of the Constitution. The Minutemen were a private police force numbering almost 50,000 at its height. This group was used to break up labor union activities, although they were officially present at such events to support the police. Needless to say, Dawes became one of the wealthiest men in the country.

When World War I began, his position, plus a personal friendship with General John J. Pershing, helped him win the position of Chief Procurement Officer for the army. In this position he rose from major to brigadier general. It was this position that gained him his first national fame.

After the war, Congress was investigating various aspects of the war. One committee was investigating the financing of the war. They called Charles Dawes to question him about certain financial arrangements he had approved. After a number of petty questions, Dawes exploded with an expression for which he would become famous. He yelled, “Hell and Maria! We weren’t trying to keep a set of books, we were trying to win the war!” He added that “I’d have paid horse prices for sheep if the sheep could have hauled artillery….It’s a hell-fire shame for everybody to be trying to pick flyspecks on the greatest army the world ever knew. We went to France to win the war and we did it.” The country did not approve of his profanity, but they admired his direct approach and his courageous stand before Congress. “Hell ‘n’ Maria” became a popular phrase, and a nickname for Charlie Dawes.

In 1921, Charles Dawes became the first director of the new Bureau of the Budget, created by President Warren G. Harding. In 1924, he served as chairman of a commission to settle the complex problems of German war reparations. The plan, called the Dawes Plan, helped solve the German reparations problem and had a beneficial effect on the economy of Europe. For this, Dawes was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925.

Later in 1924, The Republican Convention met and nominated President Calvin Coolidge for a full four year term of his own. Coolidge had been elected Vice-President in 1920, and had become President after the death of President Harding in 1923. When asked for a Vice-Presidential selection, Coolidge left it up to the convention to choose one as it had in 1920 when it selected him, rather than pick one of his own. Coolidge said the convention was able to handle the task of choosing the Vice-President. Coolidge said, “It did in 1920, and it picked a durned good man.”

The convention picked “Hell ‘n’ Maria” Dawes for Vice-President. The selection of Dawes was the most exciting event of the entire convention. The convention had been so boring that humorist Will Rogers had suggested that the people of Cleveland throw open the doors of the churches to liven up the convention.

Dawes got into trouble almost immediately after the election. Dawes sent a message to Coolidge stating that he did not think he should attend cabinet meetings. He feared it might create a precedent and future Vice-Presidents might not be as qualified as he to advise the President. Dawes also sent a copy of his message to the press. The only problem was that Coolidge had not invited Dawes to attend cabinet meetings, and had not even asked his opinion on the subject. Coolidge was not pleased.

A second problem was Dawes’ inaugural speech. Dawes decided that, as the incoming presiding officer of the Senate, he should lay down some rules. Dawes lectured the Senate on how he planned to run the place, and especially about the filibuster rule, which he opposed. He literally shook his finger at them as he lectured them. He warned them that if they didn’t change this rule, it would “lessen the effectiveness, prestige, and dignity” of their body. The Senators were highly offended. One called it a “clownish performance.”

Reporters left after Dawes’ speech to file their stories, leaving few of them to hear Coolidge’s inaugural address. Again, Coolidge was not pleased. It was a week later that the Senate got its revenge on Dawes.

Coolidge had nominated Charles Warren of Michigan to be Attorney-General, but many Senators were opposed to the nomination because of Warren’s ties to big business. The vote was going to be very close, and President Coolidge was counting on Dawes to cast the deciding vote in the case of a tie. (Note: The Vice-President, as President of the Senate, presides over the Senate and casts the deciding vote in the case of a tie.)

On the day the appointment was scheduled to come up for a vote, several Democratic Senators were scheduled to speak against the nomination. After checking with the Republican leadership, Dawes turned the chair over to a President Pro Tem (a Senator who presides in the absence of the President of the Senate). It was well known that Dawes took a nap every afternoon, and this day was no different. The Democrats waited until they figured Dawes was safely asleep in his bed at the Willard Hotel, and then they struck.

The Democrats scheduled to speak against the nomination waived their chance to speak, and the nomination was called to a vote. Republican leaders were caught off guard, and in a panic, sent word to Dawes to get back to the Senate immediately. As they waited, it became obvious that the vote was going to end in a tie. (Note: A majority vote is required to confirm a nomination in the Senate. A tie vote defeats the nomination.)

Charles Dawes made a fast ride, much like his great-great-grandfather did with Paul Revere. Dawes ran down the hotel hallway and out the door still putting on his clothes. The taxi took him to the front of the Capitol, where a group of younger Republicans “pulled and tugged him up the steps like a rugby scrum.” He ran through the halls of Congress and got to the chamber just in time to see the gavel come down announcing the defeat of Charles Warren’s appointment. Again, Coolidge was not pleased.

The Senators had their revenge on Dawes for his lecturing them. Remembering his Minutemen of the Constitution, one Senator remarked that the Minuteman of Chicago was two minutes too late. Another person hung a sign on the doors of the Willard Hotel proclaiming that “Dawes Slept Here.” Needless to say, Dawes never played a significant role in the Coolidge Administration.

The New Republic predicted that “It is extremely doubtful whether [Dawes] will again be able to get himself taken seriously in political circles.” Another Senator who had witnessed the ill-fated ride of the Vice-President entered a poetic tribute into the Congressional Record:

…when his statue is placed on high,
Under the dome of the Capitol sky…
Be it said in letters both bold and bright:
O, Hell and Maria, he has lost us the fight!

Charles Dawes later served as ambassador to Great Britain and then head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation under President Hoover. But it is for the excitement his Vice-Presidency brought to the colorless Coolidge Administration that he will be most remembered.

The copyright of the article HELL AND MARIA – THE STORY OF CHARLES DAWES is owned by John S. Cooper. Permission to republish HELL AND MARIA – THE STORY OF CHARLES DAWES in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.