Born in Marietta, Ohio, on August 27, 1865, Charles Dawes was the great-great grandson of William Dawes, who had ridden with Paul Revere to warn the colonists that the Redcoats were coming. Dawes' father, Rufus Dawes, was a Civil War veteran and lumber merchant who served as a Republican for one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Young Charlie, who even as a boy had a reputation for "flying off the handle" when something angered him, attended the Marietta Academy in Ohio and graduated from Marietta College in 1884. Two years later he received his law degree from the Cincinnati Law School. While in law school he worked during the summers as a civil engineer for the Marietta, Columbus & Northern Ohio Railway Company.In 1887, former Ohio Governor Rufus Walton hired Dawes to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, and look after his real estate holdings. Dawes was admitted to the bar in Nebraska and opened the law office of Dawes, Coffroth & Cunningham. He established a reputation for handling railroad rate cases under the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and as a "people's advocate against the railroad lobby." The same year that Dawes opened his law office, William Jennings Bryan started his law practice in the same building in Lincoln. Dawes, who was then twenty-two, and Bryan, who was twenty-seven, attended Sunday services and Wednesday night prayer meetings at the same Presbyterian church and even lived two houses apart on the same street. As a consequence, the two men, from different parties and with very different views on the issues, had many opportunities to meet and debate politics.
Dawes became director of the American Exchange National Bank, a small bank in Lincoln, which he and other directors fought hard to save during the panic of 1893. As a bank director, he strongly disagreed with Bryan's advocacy of free silver to stimulate inflation and help the indebted farmers. Dawes became so engrossed in the currency issue that he published his first book, The Banking System of the United States and Its Relation to the Money and Business of the Country, in 1894.
The panic of 1893 had undermined his business and banking career in Lincoln, sending Charles Dawes in search of new business ventures elsewhere. Attracted by the utilities industry, he bought control of the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Gas Light & Coke Company, and became president of the People's Gas Light & Coke Company of Chicago. In January 1895, he moved his family to Chicago to make that city the center of his business interests. But within two weeks he met the Cleveland industrialist Marcus A. Hanna, who was promoting the presidential aspirations of Ohio Governor William McKinley. Not only did McKinley win the Republican nomination, but Dawes' old friend William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination.
McKinley's victory led to Dawes' appointment as comptroller of the currency, a post in which he sought to reform banking practices that had led to the depression of the 1890s. McKinley treated Dawes "as a father would a son." Dawes frequently had lunch at the White House with McKinley and his invalid wife Ida and returned for an evening of cards or of playing the piano for the McKinleys' entertainment. More than a companion to the president, Dawes was a trusted adviser.
In June 1901, Dawes decided to resign as comptroller of the currency to return to Illinois and run for the Senate. He was assured of McKinley's endorsement, but his resignation did not take place until October, a month after McKinley's assassination. Dawes' political ambitions were thwarted by new President Theodore Roosevelt, who endorsed another candidate.
In 1923, the economy of Germany had deteriorated drastically. Since Germany was unable to repay its war debts, France sent troops to occupy the industrial Ruhr valley. President Harding appointed Dawes to head a commission to study and solve the German financial problem. The "Dawes Plan" offered ways to stabilize the German currency, balance its budget, and reorganize its Reichbank, but the plan postponed action on the most difficult issue of delaying and reducing the German war reparations. Nevertheless, the "Dawes Plan" was recognized as a significant enough contribution to world peace to win Dawes the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with his British counterpart, Sir Austen Chamberlain.
At the Republican convention in 1924, Calvin Coolidge was nominated without significant opposition, but the front-running candidate for vice president, Governor Lowden, had let it be known that he did not want the second spot on the ticket. Nor did the popular Idaho Senator William E. Borah want to be the number two man. Republican National Chairman William Butler promoted Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, but Hoover remained too unpopular with the farm states for his price fixing as food commissioner during the war, and the delegates on the third ballot chose Charles G. Dawes for vice president.Coolidge and Dawes were overwhelmingly elected in 1924, winning more votes than the Democratic and Progressive candidates combined. At his swearing-in in the Senate chamber in March 1925, Dawes was called upon to deliver a brief inaugural address, a tradition that dated back to John Adams in 1789.
The rules of the Senate, he declared, ran contrary to the principles of constitutional government, and under these rules "the rights of the Nation and of the American people have been overlooked." Dawes focused his attack on filibusters, which at that time were being carried out most frequently by the small band of progressive Republicans, such as Robert La Follette, Sr., and George Norris, who held the balance of power in the Senate. Dawes declared that Rule 22, which required a two-thirds majority of those present and voting to shut off debate, "at times enables Senators to consume in oratory those last precious minutes of a session needed for momentous decisions," thus placing great power in the hands of a minority of senators.
As vice president, he would not accept direction from the president, and whenever his views did coincide with Coolidge's his lobbying on behalf of administration measures was more likely to hurt rather than help. Dawes' forthrightness and tactlessness incurred the anger of many senators. Although his "bull-like integrity" won Dawes recognition as an outstanding vice president, that quality antagonized the Coolidge Administration more than aiding it. As for Dawes, he believed that the vice-presidency "is largely what the man in it makes it." And for his part, he made the most of it.