|Members of Coxey's Army Assemble in Ohio.|
On March 25, 1894, an Easter Sunday not entirely by accident, the Commonweal in Christ set off from a farm near Massillon, Ohio aiming to reach the capital of Washington, D.C. by May First. The marchers came to be known as Coxey’s Army after their leader, Jacob Coxey.
The country was in the midst of the worst of the great economic panics that punctuated Nineteenth Century. The Panic of 1893 would stretch on for four, painful years. Unemployment reached an estimated 20% across much of America. The collapse of commodity prices wiped out huge number of family farms, many of which had been successful for generations even through previous downturns. Small business failed and predatory robber barons were snapping up struggling firms to build the great trusts that would dominate the economy for years. There was no safety net and beyond churches and ethnic benevolent societies not even an extensive network of charities to pick up the slack.
Yesterday’s worker was today’s homeless bum and menace to society. Coxey, a middling Ohio businessman who dabbled in mystical Christianity, thought he saw a way out. He noted the terrible conditions of roads in his home state and across the country. Why not put the unemployed to work building modern roads that would expedite commerce? He envisioned paying for a massive national public works program with $500 million in non-interest bearing government bonds. It was, he believed, not only sound economics, but “The Christian thing to do.”
Coxey lobbied Congress to no avail. Government intervention in the economy on such a scale was unheard of and supported by neither Republicans nor Democrats. The newly emerging Populists showed interest, but had no power. So Coxey decided to bring the unemployed to Washington to petition Congress.
Word of Coxey’s plan spread and attracted wide attention. Many came to Ohio to join him. Many others planned to join in on the line of march. Western contingents—known as Kelley’s Army—made up largely of rugged lumberjacks, railroad construction workers, and hard rock miners, set out from Seattle, Portland, San Diego, and other points. To speed their way east they traveled by freight train—riding the rods. Although the dreamy Coxey was the nominal leader, actual day-to-day command of the main body fell to Carl Browne, who was said to believe himself to be the reincarnation of Christ. Browne was an experienced huckster and pitchman who decked himself out as buckskinned pioneer and was a charismatic orator for the free coinage of silver. At his right hand was a mysterious fellow who seemed to have some sort of military experience who was dubbed simply The Great Unknown.
Despite the eccentric leadership, the Army was quite well organized. Made up largely of Civil War veterans, Grand Army men, they organized themselves into military style battalions, set up and took down camps with precision, and generally maintained discipline on what was often an arduous march in harsh conditions.
Not so the more anarchic western contingent. One group commandeered a train in Montana and was chased for hundreds of miles before being stopped and the leaders arrested. Other bands straggled. By the time they reached Iowa the railroads had organized enough force to keep them off their trains. Some tried to continue by river. Few, if any ever made it east to join the main army.
The main body got considerable support from some locals as they passed through. Because they were mainly native born Americans instead of the foreign rabble from the festering slums of the cities, they even gained some support among the press. At least 44 reporters tagged along filing stories.
In Pittsburg local authorities feared that immigrant workers would indeed join the Army so they harassed it on its march and arrested many for vagrancy. As the Army finally neared its destination, Coxey mysteriously departed on un-named business. The Unknown made a bid for leadership rallying the men and commandeering wagons and supplies from local farmers and businessmen. Alarmed, Browne wired Coxey to return. Although a vote of Commonwealth leaders supported the Unknown 158-4, Coxey calmly announced that he was personally casting 154 votes for Browne resulting in a tie that left Browne in day-to-day command. The Unknown was expelled and revealed by Browne at a press conference to be a patent medicine salesman and occultist named A.P.B. Bozarro.
Needless to say the Army was demoralized by the fracas. When the Army finally entered Washington as planned on May 1, President Grover Cleveland was ready for them. Thousands of troops were mobilized and barracks up and down the East Coast were on alert, special trains waiting, to bring them to the city if necessary. Hundreds of armed guards surrounded the Treasury, thought to be a possible target for trouble because many marchers were passionately opposed to the Gold Standard.
|Crowds gathered at the Capitol to witness the long anticipated confrontation between Coxey and the authorities on May 1, 1894.|
Yet about 20,000 local folks turned up out of curiosity to see just what would happen. The Army marched into the city in orderly battalions, quietly carrying banners and signs. The main body was stopped by authorities before they arrived at the Capital. Coxey and other leaders slipped through the police lines and when he attempted to mount the stairs to give a speech, he was blocked by police. Browne struggled with officers and both men were arrested.
And then…Coxey’s Army simply melted away. It was an anti-climax to an epic story. Coxey and Browne were charged with walking on the grass of the Capitol.
Some of the men lingered at their bivouac on the outskirts of the city for two weeks until police ordered them to go home. Some business leaders raised money for railway tickets out of town for the indigent. The camp broke up without resistance and the last vestiges of the great protest was over.
The legacy of the event, however, was great. The causes of public works to combat unemployment and an end to the Gold Standard were finally realized by the New Deal. This first organized national march on the Capital inspired many others. Within decades everyone from Suffragists to Ku Klux Klansmen were marching. In the depths of another Depression the Bonus Marchers would receive even rougher treatment at the hands of the Army under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Dr. Martin Luther King, A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and others organized and led the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech before a quarter of a million marchers on the National Mall and a live national television audience.
In recent years huge mass demonstrations in Washington, often involving hundreds of thousands of marchers against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for and against abortion rights, for national health care reform, immigrant rights, and marriage equality have become so routine that they scarcely rate a mention in the press or a moment of national TV coverage.