TBT: Next in line

A 1892 campaign poster showing the Cleveland-Stevenson
(Cleve and Steve) ticket.
Illinois has been the home of four U.S. Presidents. Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Reagan and Obama all called Illinois home at some point. All four were chosen for a second term in the Oval Office. Each achieved the ever-lasting fame that comes with the Presidency.

History has not been as kind to the two Illinoisans who served as Vice President.

Neither of Illinois’ two Vice Presidents achieved the stature of Lincoln. Neither got a second term and neither have long passages in the history books, if any at all. There is no Mount Rushmore for Vice Presidents. But both were highly accomplished and very prominent men of their times. One was the patriarch of an Illinois political dynasty, while the other helped organize a World’s Fair and won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, the name Adlai Stevenson calls up thoughts of the Illinois Governor, two-time Presidential nominee and UN ambassador who famously confronted the Soviets on live television during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it was the ambassador’s grandfather who in 1893 became the first Illinoisan to hold the office of Vice President of the United States.

Adlai Stevenson I holds his son Adlai Stevenson II,
who would later go on to become the 31st Governor
of Illinois.  Photo courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Library and Museum.
Vice President Adlai Stevenson was born in Kentucky and came to Illinois with his family in his teens. His father ran a sawmill in the Bloomington area. In 1859, he graduated from Centre College, where a residence hall today bears his name. Stevenson returned to Illinois to run the sawmill after his father’s death.

Stevenson took up the practice of law, and soon found himself in the company of both Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. He was elected prosecutor in 1864, coming just before he married Letitia Green, daughter of the head of Centre College. The couple had four children and they were together until her death in 1913. Letitia Stevenson would go on to be one of the founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Stevenson served two terms in Congress in the 1870s. He attained great prominence in the Bloomington community: founding a newspaper, the Bloomington Daily Bulletin, and helping to run a local bank and a coal company.

When Stevenson’s friend William Vilas was named Postmaster General in the first Cleveland administration in 1885, Stevenson was chosen as his assistant. When Cleveland was defeated, Stevenson left office with him, but Cleveland came back for another try in 1892. That year, the nominating convention was held in Chicago, where Stevenson’s Illinois friends and supporters, including Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison could work in his favor. Eager to carry a large Midwestern state, Cleveland chose the Illinoisan as his running mate and the ticket was victorious in the fall.

Almost immediately, Stevenson came closer to the presidency than he may have realized. In 1893, Cleveland was diagnosed with mouth cancer and underwent a risky surgery. Because the nation was in the midst of a financial panic at the time, Cleveland ordered the surgery be kept secret to avoid unsettling the markets even further. Fortunately, the surgery was successful and there was no transfer of power.

Stevenson was admired in Washington for his sense of humor, his courtesy to others and his “fine personal bearing.” Unlike some of his predecessors, he enjoyed the Vice President’s role of presiding over the deliberations of the Senate. Stevenson found himself at odds with the new president on the dominant issue of the day: the question of currency. Stevenson was a Midwestern paper-currency and silver supporter in an administration headed by an East Coast backer of the gold standard. While publicly supportive of the administration’s position, Stevenson would eventually break with some of Cleveland’s team and support the pro-silver William Jennings Bryan in his run for the White House in 1896.

With the exit of the Cleveland administration in March 1897, Stevenson’s time in the national spotlight did not come to an end. He was picked by Bryan as his running mate in 1900, making him the first Vice President to be nominated for another term with a different person heading the ticket. The Bryan-Stevenson ticket lost to the team of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt that fall and Stevenson returned to his law practice in Bloomington. He fell short in a race for Governor in 1908 and died in 1914.

The 23rd Vice President of the United States is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington. He left a legacy of which his distinguished grandson is only one part. His son, Lewis, served a term as Illinois’ Secretary of State from 1914 to 1917 and his great-grandson, Adlai Stevenson III was one of Illinois’ U.S. Senators from 1971 to 1981.

A quarter of a century after Stevenson left the vice presidency, another Illinoisan was in the second slot on a winning national ticket. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge, who had ascended from the vice presidency following the death of President Warren Harding, chose Illinoisan Charles Dawes as his running mate. While Dawes helped to geographically balance the New Englander Coolidge, he also balanced the ticket personality-wise. While the taciturn Coolidge was nicknamed “Silent Cal,” his running mate, “Hell’n Maria” Dawes was a man of many words.

Vice President Charles Dawes stands with
President Calvin Coolidge, 1923.
Dawes was born in Ohio, the great-great-grandson of William Dawes who had joined Paul Revere in his famous ride. He practiced law in Nebraska, in the same building as Bryan. The two became friends, and Dawes’ first experience in politics came from debating with the famed orator. He moved to Chicago in 1895 after becoming president of the People’s Gas Light & Coke Company. There he chaired McKinley’s 1896 efforts in Illinois. In the McKinley administration, Dawes was appointed comptroller of the currency, charged with making reforms to the nation’s banking practices.

Dawes ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 1902. He left politics and focused his attention on his wife Caro and their four children. But America’s entry into World War I summoned him back into the service of the nation. By war’s end Dawes had been named chief of supply procurement for the American Expeditionary Force and was eventually the American representative on the Military Board of Allied Supply. In that role, Dawes learned about international conferences and negotiations.

He gained fame in Washington in 1921 when testifying in front of a congressional committee investigating wartime spending. Fed up with what he saw as politically-motivated second-guessing he leapt from his seat and shouted, “Hell’n Maria! We weren’t trying to keep a set of books over there, we were trying to win a war!” He then launched into a tirade defending the Army’s efforts to make sure soldiers were adequately supplied.

Harding named Dawes the first director of the Bureau of the Budget in 1921. Two years later, Dawes’ reputation as a capable budgeter and an administrator led Harding to appoint him to chair a commission to restructure the way a bankrupt Germany was paying reparations to the victorious allies. The commission’s report, known as the Dawes Plan, helped quell a growing crisis in the German economy and banking system and earned him the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize.

Learning of his vice presidential nomination while delivering a speech in his old hometown, Dawes heard the town’s church bells ringing in celebration. “Some people may claim that the vice-presidency does not amount to much,” he wrote, “but just then it seemed to me the greatest office in the world.”

“Hell’n Maria” Dawes carried his passion to Washington, where it led him into trouble. On inauguration day he launched an attack on the Senate’s filibuster rule, saying it, “enables Senators to consume in oratory those last precious minutes of a session needed for momentous decisions.” The speech offended senators and upstaged Coolidge’s inaugural address. Neither ever forgave him. Coolidge would also blame Dawes for the failure of his nominee for Attorney General a few days later.

Charles Dawes (top hat) joins other dignitaries for a military event at
 Fort Sheridan, 1925.  Photo from the Illinois Digital Archives.
Dawes championed efforts at farm relief, trying to extend the prosperity of the 1920s to the farmers whom it had passed by. Dawes helped broker an agreement among senators to pass both a farm bill and a banking reform bill. Unlike Stevenson, Dawes did not enjoy the dull work of presiding over Senate debates, nor was he or Caro Dawes enthusiastic about the Washington social scene.

In 1928, Coolidge did not stand for another term. Dawes’ name came up for a spot on the national ticket, but Coolidge made it clear that he did not approve. The nomination went to Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover instead. Before leaving town, Dawes leveled one last broadside at the Senate: “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.”

Dawes was named ambassador to Britain, and then returned to Illinois to help finance Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933. With America sinking deeper into the Great Depression, Dawes became head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to help save the nation’s banks and corporations from failure. However, Dawes’ own bank was in trouble and found itself in need of a loan from the RFC. Facing an obvious conflict of interest, Dawes resigned from the RFC.

Dawes was badly hurt when the bank was placed in receivership, but he worked to reorganize it as the City National Bank & Trust Company of Chicago. In keeping with his fiery pursuit of his goals, Dawes dedicated himself to repaying the loans. He did so and remained with the bank until his death in 1951.

The 30th Vice President of the United States is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Chicago. His home in Evanston now hosts the Evanston History Center.