On April 30, 1894, Coxey’s Army, a rag-tag group of unemployed Americans, marched into Washington, D.C., demanding federal jobs for the unemployed. Articulating ideas that would be accepted by New Dealers forty years later, Coxey’s Army scared the nation’s political and capitalist elites, who feared hordes of the unworthy poor were attacking the fundamental tenets of capitalism.
The Panic of 1893 destroyed the American economy. Caused by massive (and corrupt) railroad speculation and exacerbated by the terrible economic policies of the Cleveland Administration, the Panic of 1893 led to the greatest depression in American history before 1929. Lasting five years, unemployment reached as high as 18%, banks failed left and right, and currency supplies dried up after Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The post-Civil War economy had been marked with ups and downs, but the Panic of 1893 convinced many Americans that the Gilded Age economy flat out did not work in their favor.
Jacob Coxey owned a sand quarry in Massillon, Ohio. Although personally wealthy, Coxey was outraged at the government’s lack of response to the poverty he saw around him. In response, he organized a protest march of the unemployed to Washington, D.C. On March 25, 1894, 100 men marched out of Massillon. Other groups began forming around the country to join the march of the unemployed. Coxey hoped his group would reach 100,000, but by the time he reached Washington, only about 500 men had joined.
Coxey’s Army is another example of how late 19th century Americans had great difficulty understanding the economic changes overwhelming their lives. Republican free labor ideology had fallen by the wayside for elites during the 1870s. The growth of massive corporations after the Civil War quickly led Republican Party leaders into a full-fledged defense of plutocracy. But a huge number of native-born Americans still believed that the natural employer-employee relationship was one of mutual respect, with workers laboring in small shops, independently, or as farmers. Many immigrants from Europe knew how to respond to their degraded conditions–through radical ideologies such as anarchism and socialism. But for native-born Americans uncomfortable with so-called foreign ideologies, responses were deeply varied, including joining craft unions like the American Federation of Labor, supporting simple ideas that would supposedly solve all problems like Henry George’s single tax or the Knights of Labor’s 8-hour day, opposition to immigration, etc. This helps explain the intense popularity of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Coxey’s Army was another manifestation of American workers attempting to come to grips with an economy out of their control. Demanding government employment was a sensible response to the crisis workers faced.
Unfortunately, the president in 1894 was Grover Cleveland, a man with even less sympathy for working-class people than your usual Gilded Age president. A man who just a few months later would crush the Pullman Strike, Cleveland was less than enthusiastic to hear the calls of the unemployed. Coxey’s Army freaked out the forces of order. Newspapers attacked this so-called radical movement, painting it in harsh terms. When Coxey’s Army reached Washington, a reduced force in any case because of official harassment, it attempted to camp on the lawn of the Capitol. But the Army immediately kicked it out. The next day, May 1, Coxey then attempted to read a statement on the steps of the Capitol, but was arrested for trespassing. Yes, an American citizen was arrested for trespassing at the seat of government. Specifically, he was charged with walking on the grass of the Capitol. Coxey’s allies in Congress did read the speech into the Congressional Record. An excerpt:
We stand here to-day in behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been unresponded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative, productive labor have been taken from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers: we come to remind the Congress here assembled of the declaration of a United States Senator, “that for a quarter of a century the rich have been growing richer, the poor poorer and that by the close of the present century the middle class will have disappeared as the struggle for existence becomes fierce and relentless.
Coxey’s Army at the Capitol
Coxey served 20 days in prison and was fined $5. Coxey continued his political actions, unsuccessfully running for Congress in 1894 and serving as a delegate to the Populist Party convention in 1896, as well as being two-time Populist nominee for governor of the Buckeye State. He also named his youngest child Legal Tender Coxey, a reflection of his obsession with monetary reform. He stayed active in politics throughout his very long life, finally winning the position of mayor of Massillon in 1931.
Coxey’s Army however completely collapsed upon his arrest. There was no real ideology tying it together–like so much native-born American protest in the late 19th century, it was a single person with a single idea. When the authorities cracked down on that single person, there was nothing else to sustain the movement. It became a touchstone for the Populist movement, but then even Populism genuflected to the single idea of free silver by 1896.
There’s not a ton of recent historical work on Coxey’s Army. For further reading, I’d recommend Carlos Schwantes, Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey.
This series has also covered the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 and the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.