|This Week in American History
April 25 May 1, 1894
Coxey's Army Marches on Washington To Obtain Jobs for the Unemployed
The terrible worldwide depression of 1893-1897 was agonizingly similar to the subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s. The first warnings were seen a decade before, when a severe agricultural crisis hit the South and Great Plains. Speculation and manipulation of the international money markets then led to an actual Wall Street crash in 1893. As happened during 1929, very little was done to restart the American economy, and the result was that a quarter of the nation's railroads went bankrupt, and in some cities unemployment among industrial workers reached 25%.
This depression hit only 28 after the triumphant end of the Civil War, and many veterans of that war were in a state of shock. Some unemployed veterans carried placards with the message that slavery had been defeated in 1863, and now, in 1893, a new kind of slavery had descended upon the country.
An ironic spectacle was provided by the 1893 Columbian Exposition that opened in Chicago in May, which was visited by 27 million people and featured the latest in American technology. Yet by the time it closed, Chicago had been overwhelmed by another large group of visitors who had come by the trainload from the West, desperate to find work in the industrial center of the Midwest. Many were well-dressed, yet they wound up crowding into police-station hallways, and even the unoccupied cells, at night to escape the cold. Every evening, a thousand men and boys filled the corridors and stairwells of Chicago's City Hall.
On Oct. 28, two days before the Columbian Exposition was to close with a gala celebration, Chicago's Mayor Carter Harrison, who had tried to mitigate the suffering of the unemployed, was shot to death in his home by a man described as a disappointed office seeker. The great "White City" was demolished a few days later, and the wood of many of its buildings was distributed to provide fuel for the increasingly desperate unemployed population.
While the Columbian Exposition was going on, another kind of meeting took place in Chicago. Six hundred delegates, mostly from the West, had attended the Bimetallic League convention in August, formulating plans for the free and unlimited coinage of silver. At the conference, Jacob Coxey, an Ohio delegate, met Carl Browne of California, and Browne later visited Coxey in Ohio to discuss Coxey's plans for public works, which he had been developing since 1891.
Jacob Coxey was born in Pennsylvania in 1854, and had worked in iron-rolling mills, operated a stationary engine, and then moved to Massillon, Ohio where he bought a sandstone quarry in 1881. The quarry yielded very finely ground silica which was used in the production of both steel and glass, and the business prospered enough to allow Coxey to buy three ranches in various parts of the country. But when the depression hit, and he was forced to lay off 40 of his workers, Coxey determined to do something about the economy and the problem of unemployment.
Coxey had been a Greenback Democrat and then became a member of the Greenback Party. He had been an unsuccessful candidate for the Ohio Senate in 1885, and by the 1890s his sympathies were with the Populist Party. He merged many of the ideas circulating among those circles and developed a program which he believed would aid the unemployed, and, at the same time, prevent future depressions.
Coxey's Good Roads Bill, which he sent to a Populist Party Congressman, called for the issuance of $500 million to construct a national network of rural roads. Wages for the unemployed who would be hired to build the roads would be $1.50 for an eight-hour day. Coxey's second bill was the Non-Interest-Bearing Bond Bill, which allowed state and local governments to obtain funds for public works from the Federal government, putting up as security their own state or municipal bonds which would be non-interest-bearing. These projects would also hire the unemployed at a minimum of $1.50 a day.
Carl Browne's suggestion for publicizing this legislation was a march on Washington by the unemployed, ending in a speech by Coxey from the steps of the Capitol. Up until this time, there had been no large protest marches to the Capitol, and there was an 1882 law, not changed until 1972 by judicial action, which prohibited the carrying of banners and the making of any oration or harangue on the Capitol grounds. The law had originally been introduced by Sen. Justin Morrill to counter vandalism and limit the hawking of souvenirs, but it now threatened to stifle any action by the unemployed.
Coxey and Browne sent out announcements of the march, setting May 1 as the day they would reach the Capitol. About 100 unemployed men assembled in Massillon, and this small "Commonweal," as Coxey called it, was dubbed an "army" by the 40 reporters who faithfully followed it all the way to Washington. Many newspapers portrayed "Coxey's Army" as a bunch of tramps, implying that violence would result. Further west, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Tacoma, Montana, and Chicago, larger groups of the unemployed were forming in response to Coxey's call. They called themselves an "industrial army," and were determined to meet Coxey's deadline for reaching Washington.
In the nation's capital, President Grover Cleveland's administration was fearful of violent protests by the unemployed, and planned for Coxey's arrival by beefing up security at the White House and the Capitol, and by sending agents to infiltrate the march. Cleveland himself was scornful of taking any action to help the unemployed beyond the ministrations of private charity. In his Inaugural Address, he had explained that, "The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include the support of the people."
With the exception of a few members, Congress, too, sought to discredit the march. Sen. Edward Wolcott of Colorado asked his fellow Senators to have "the courage to stand together against socialism and populism and paternalism run riot, which is agitating and fermenting this country." Congressmen also claimed that Coxey's group was not representative of "the great voice of the American people," and Sen. Joseph Hawley of Connecticut claimed that it was the Senators who knew the "will of the people."
Coxey's small group of marchers set off from Massillon on Easter Sunday, supported by the Populist Party and by organized labor, who activated their networks to provide food and, sometimes, campsites. Samuel Gompers, the head of the new American Federation of Labor, had himself proposed a temporary Federal works program to improve the roads when he spoke at a 25,000-person rally in Chicago in August of 1893.
The marchers were feared by those who had not felt the hardest blows of the depression, but nevertheless, they often received gifts of food and blankets from people who either felt pity, or wanted to hurry them on their way. In the larger cities they passed through, they were often confronted by the local constabulary, were sometimes briefly arrested as vagrants, but were allowed to continue their slow, foot-sore march across the Alleghenies. When they reached Cumberland, Md., they boarded canal boats and sailed on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal most of the way to Washington.
By the time the group camped on the outskirts of Washington, it had grown to 500 unemployed. On May 1, a huge crowd of 30,000 people was waiting to see the march up Pennsylvania Ave., larger than most inaugural crowds had been. The marchers halted a safe distance away from the Capitol, but Coxey and Browne advanced. Browne created a diversion by running across the grass, and he and some spectators were beaten by the police. Coxey slipped unseen up the Capitol steps, but was stopped before he could begin speaking. Coxey and Browne were convicted of taking banners (the small insignias they wore) onto the Capitol grounds, and spent 20 days in jail.
Meanwhile, the western part of Coxey's Army had added a new dimension. Charles T. Kelley, a typographer for the San Francisco Chronicle and a member of the International Typographical Union, had been persuaded to lead 1,500 of the San Francisco unemployed to Washington. He proposed that the Federal government put the western unemployed to work building the vast irrigation systems needed to bring water to arid lands. "When the ditches are dug and the lands reclaimed we can register homestead claims and be self-supporting ever after." This became the proposal of all units of the western "industrial army."
Gen. Grenville Dodge, who had built the Union Pacific line west from Omaha, endorsed the program of the western contingents. "The fertile and tillable lands are pretty well taken up," said Dodge, "and there is no doubt but that there is a vast area in the West that might be made into valuable farms by the construction of irrigation ditches."
The western units suffered incredible hardships, because almost all the western railroads were adamantly opposed to their reaching Washington. At one point, the governor of Texas had to face down a railroad that had deliberately stranded a large group of unemployed at a desert siding for five days, with no supplies of food or water. At another, Kelley's group was stranded in Iowa because the four railroads that led to Chicago had agreed that they would refuse to carry his group no matter what price was paid. When Kelley and his men managed to build 120 small boats to float down the Des Moines River, the railroad goons harassed them all the way to the Mississippi, refusing to let them come to shore when supporters brought food for them.
Portions of the western units that had survived the cross-continent journey straggled into Washington after Coxey had been arrested, and set up camps in Maryland and Virginia. Like the Veterans Bonus Marchers of President Hoover's administration, they waited for Coxey's public works bill to be acted on by Congress. But the bill died in committee, and eventually the governors of the two states broke up the encampments and provided railroad transportation as far as the Mississippi River.
Jacob Coxey went back to Ohio and ran for many political offices, but did not succeed until 1931, when he was elected Mayor of Massillon. The following year, he received 75,000 votes in the Republican Presidential primaries, but Herbert Hoover was renominated. In Massillon, Coxey's program of building a municipal water system did not endear him to Hoover's Republican Party, and he was not renominated for the position.
In 1932, Coxey travelled to Washington to encourage the Veterans Bonus Marchers, and in the following years he had the pleasure of seeing many of his proposals become reality through President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. Then, on May 1, 1944, at the age of 90, Jacob Coxey finally delivered his long-delayed 1894 speech on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
His address began: "The Constitution of the United States guarantees to all citizens the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, and furthermore declares that the right of free speech shall not be abridged.
"We stand here today to test these guarantees of our Constitution. We choose this place of assemblage because it is the property of the people. Here, rather than at any other spot upon the continent, it is fitting that we should come to mourn over our dead liberties and by our protest arouse the imperiled nation to such action as shall rescue the Constitution and resurrect our liberties.
"Up these steps the lobbyists of trusts and corporations have passed unchallenged on their way to committee rooms, access to which we, the representatives of the toiling wealth-producers, have been denied.
We stand here today 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.'"