AMERICAN HISTORY ILLUSTRATED
March/April 1994, pp. 39-45
by Joseph Gustaitis
Some praised them as heroes; others called them villains. Some described them as honest working men; others derided them as idle tramps. Some applauded them as reformers; others condemned them as revolutionaries. Some said they were peaceful; others warned that they threatened anarchy. One observer wrote that their ideas would inevitably bring "better, wiser and more humane laws" to the United States; another claimed that their ideas would destroy "the very keystone of our social fabric." For the better part of a year their exploits riveted the American public. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, they faded away, eventually to become forgotten and unsung, their movement barely a footnote in the history books. And yet--though some of their notions were ludicrous--they gave America at least one bold, overriding idea that has since played a central role in the federal government's social and economic policies.
They were the men (and a few women) of the phenomenon called "Coxey's Army." One hundred years ago this ragtag collection of dreamers, itinerants, adventurers, idealists, and just plain unemployed workers--drawn together during the depths of economic depression and psychological despair--set out on one of the great crusades of American history.
During the 1920s Americans used to talk about the Great Depression. Not the one that was coming, but the one that was past. As far as they were concerned, in 1893 the United States had already experienced the worst imaginable hard times. In those days such economic slumps were known as panics--taking their name from the frame of mind that hit Wall Street when stock prices suddenly and inexplicably nose-dived--but they actually were depressions, with all the associated unemployment, social dislocation, and political turmoil that the term implies. Other "panics" had occurred in 1819, 1837, and 1873.
More than six hundred banks closed in 1893; there were more than fifteen thousand commercial failures; and by June of the following year, nearly two hundred railroads had fallen into receivership. The government did not yet keep statistics on unemployment, but estimates of the jobless ranged from one to three million. At the end of the year one source calculated that twenty-five percent of normally employed men were out of work.
All of this misery was too much for Jacob Sechler Coxey, and in 1894 he decided to do something about it. A prosperous businessman in Massillon, Ohio--he owned a thriving sandstone quarry, sold silica sand to iron and steel mills, and also was an avid breeder of racehorses--Coxey was not personally threatened by the depression. But he did know what it meant to struggle.
Born in 1854 in a log house in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, Coxey was sixteen when he went to work in an iron mill. At twenty-four he became a dealer in scrap iron, and when he went to Massillon in May 1881 to buy an abandoned blast furnace for scrap, he found that he liked the place. He bought a small sandstone quarry and then, with classic nineteenth-century pluck, turned it into a successful concern.
Coxey had married Caroline Ammerman in 1874. She disapproved of his horse-racing ventures, and they divorced in 1888 after having produced two children. Two years later he married Henrietta Jones. One of the four children from this union was a son named Legal Tender--a sign that Coxey, outwardly decorous, could be inwardly unconventional. He would prove to be a genuine American type--the social reformer with an eccentric tinge.
By 1893 two powerful contemporary doctrines had captured Coxey's attention and favor. The first was "free silver," or, more generally, an inflationary monetary policy. There was at the time a schism between those who believed that currency should be based on gold alone--generally business people and financiers-- and those who held that it should be based on gold and silver. Proponents of the latter tended to be (besides silver miners) farmers, workers, renters--anyone owing money who hoped that an inflated currency would facilitate paying debts. They believed that there was not enough money in circulation; if there were more, they reckoned, it would be cheaper.
Pressure from free-silver advocates had brought about the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, which provided that the U.S. Treasury would buy silver to be made into silver dollars. When the Panic of 1893 hit, President Grover Cleveland, a solid gold-standard man, engineered the repeal of the act, which he blamed for the depression--much to the dismay of Coxey and like-minded reformers.
Coxey's other creed was Populism. A coalition of various groups, including western and southern farmers, representatives of labor, and reformers had formed the Populist Party in 1892. The Populists supported the idea of free silver and had other platform planks such as the direct election of U.S. senators, a graduated income tax, an eight-hour workday, and the responsibility of the federal government to fight unemployment through public works projects--a notion that sounded quite radical at the time. The movement that Coxey spearheaded garnered great support from Populists around the country.
To this collection of ideas Coxey added one that occurred to him in December 1891 as he was driving home from Massillon on a rainy night, jostling along a muddy, rutted road. He decided that the country needed a top-drawer road system and that the unemployed should be hired by the federal government to build it. Not until New Year's Eve, 1893 did he light on a way to pay for this scheme, however. It came to him, he said, in a dream. The money would come from the issuing of non-interest-bearing bonds. (For Coxey, and Populists in general, interest was a tool by which extortionist bankers squeezed money out of honest working people.)
When Coxey added these two notions of his own to the network of Populist views, he constructed a full-blown political credo. All that was needed now was a way to make everyone in the United States aware of its worth. Then he met Carl Browne.
In 1893 Browne blew into Chicago for the convention of the Bimetallic League--a band of earnest pro-silver advocates (along with a diverse collection of cranks, fanatics, and street-corner orators). A flamboyant, forty-five-year-old native of California, Browne dressed the part of the frontiersman. Tall and heavy, with a graying beard and wayward hair, he affected a "Buffalo Bill" suit whose fringed buckskin coat was adorned with buttons made from Mexican half-dollars (silver, of course); a sombrero; and around his neck a sentimentally invaluable string of amber beads that had belonged to his recently deceased wife. A reporter from the PITTSBURGH PRESS described Browne's outfit as the kind of costume "a bad actor would use in playing the role of a wild and woolly cowboy." Browne was also known as "Old Greasy"--a reference, it was said, to his careless bathing habits.
In addition to supporting silver-backed currency and other Populist nostrums, Browne had other more eccentric ideas. He believed in his own kind of reincarnation, in which the souls of the deceased mingled in a kind of cosmic pool that provided newborns with their immortal substance. Thus, he averred, both he and Coxey shared a part of the soul of no less than Jesus himself. Coxey was the Cerebrum of Christ; he was the Cerebellum of Christ.
Coxey, in Chicago for the same convention, took a liking to Browne. Although outwardly dissimilar (in appearance as well as temperament--Coxey was slight of build and fastidious in appearance, sporting gold spectacles and a respectable business suit with winged collar), the two visionaries were actually complementary. Coxey was the political thinker and--importantly-- the financier of the movement. Browne, for all his unusual ideas and singular garb, was a public relations genius.
For it was Browne who came up with the idea that would make Coxey famous. What better way to awaken the slumbering politicians in Washington, he reasoned, than to make a grand march upon the city--an enormous procession into the nation's capital by which the distressed, the unemployed, the helpless, and the homeless would make their grievances known and force Congress to see the necessity of road-building programs, non- interest-bearing bonds, and the use of the federal government's powers to alleviate the plight of the unemployed. "A petition with boots on," Coxey called it.
Browne thought that the march should begin in Chicago, but he deferred to Coxey, who preferred to give Massillon the distinction of being the cradle of the crusade. They published their plan in a local newspaper in late January 1894. The march would begin, fittingly, on Easter Sunday and conclude on Capitol Hill on, also fittingly, May Day.
They expected that thousands would take part in what they called the Commonweal of Christ but which the newspapers dubbed Coxey's Army. Coxey himself was given the title "General," an honorific that stuck to the very unmilitary businessman for the rest of his life.
Easter Sunday came on March 25 in 1894, and it dawned a cold, windy day. Not thousands, but 122 marchers headed out of Massillon. Leading them was the standard bearer, a robust black man from West Virginia named Jasper Johnson, who was accompanied by a bulldog named Bunker Hill. Behind Johnson came the seven- piece Commonweal band, followed by Carl Browne on a white stallion and Coxey in an open carriage. Also with them rode the assistant marshal, a man known only as the Great Unknown. He was one of Browne's best public relations stunts; the press, who faithfully escorted Coxey's army every step of the way, spent gallons of ink speculating on the identity of the mystery man.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Coxey's campaign was the unprecedented press coverage it received. No less than forty- four reporters and four Western Union telegraphers left Massillon with the group, and few papers failed to carry a daily report about the quixotic crusade. Coxey eventually grew distrustful of reporters and Browne later labeled them "argus-eyed demons of hell," but they nevertheless were invaluable. Coxey stood at the beginning of an American tradition: he needed the press for publicity; they needed him to fill their pages.
On the first day out, the army marched nine miles to Canton. Wind, snow, and sleet quickly made the Commonwealers aware that their venture would be no picnic. While the tired marchers pitched their two large tents that night, Coxey and Browne (and a few others who could afford it), went off to a local hotel--a practice that would continue throughout the march.
As the men slogged eastward through the slush, averaging fifteen to twenty miles per day, sympathetic residents along the way turned out to feed them. When they crossed into Pennsylvania and entered the Beaver Valley, thirty thousand supporters lined the road. With the exception of the police, who were very nervous, the folks in Pittsburgh were equally ardent. Wherever they pitched camp, the marchers held a meeting where they sang hymns (it was important to Coxey that the religious nature of his movement be emphasized), listened to speeches by Coxey and Browne denouncing the eastern capitalists, and passed the hat.
By the time they reached Homestead, site of a bitter strike against the Carnegie Steel Company only two years before (and full of Populist sympathizers), the marchers had grown to a number estimated by reporters at more than five hundred. On and on the would-be reformers tramped, through foul weather and along soggy roads.
When it left Uniontown at the foot of the Allegheny Mountains on April 11, the army plunged into yet another snowstorm. Struggling on to Addison, the marchers were dismayed to find a pack of armed men descending upon them. But cheers went up when the leader of the frightening band--the local sheriff-- announced, "My mission is one of peace and good will. I have a posse of twenty-five deputy sheriffs with me, and we will escort you across our little county until you reach the Maryland line."
Great was the pilgrims' relief when the snow finally quit and they crossed into Maryland. Yet they still had to struggle over Big Savage Mountain, a steep thirteen-mile ascent in mud and wind. By now their number had dropped to less than 140 hardy souls.
In addition to coping with the weather and terrain, the group also had to deal with dissension among its leaders. While Coxey was off on a trip to Pittsburgh and Massillon, Browne clashed with the Great Unknown, who tried to take control of the march. Summoned back by Browne, Coxey returned just in time to cashier the Great Unknown, now revealed to be one A.P.B. Bozarro, a Chicago patent-medicine huckster.
When the army arrived in Cumberland, Maryland, Coxey--hoping to escape the press, which by this time had largely abandoned objective reporting in favor of a more satirical approach--hired two canal boats. The Commonwealers floated ninety miles down the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal to Williamsport. Undaunted, the reporters followed in a craft of their own. One newsman described the gliding troops as being "like a floating picture of Victor Hugo...the ragged forms swarming like rats over every foot of the craft."
Thousands of onlookers lined the canal's banks, and as trains rolled by, engineers sounded their whistles in salute. The army was now slowly being reinforced; by the time the travelers departed Hagerstown their number had grown to 310. On April 23 the marchers arrived at Rockville, less than twenty miles from their destination. There they were joined by a contingent of fifty marchers from Philadelphia led by another true character, one Christopher Columbus Jones, age fifty-nine, a little man with a big gray beard and an even bigger silk hat. Unfortunately, on that same day Washington's police chief promised that if Coxey's Army attempted to assemble on the U.S. Capitol grounds, its leaders would be thrown into jail.
A parade, however, would be legal. So Coxey duly went ahead and acquired a parade permit. Nonetheless, the city was nervous. "Coxey's Army is no longer a joke," wrote the WASHINGTON NEWS, adding that the "growth and progress of this horde of dangerous characters are most serious matters...." Officials even feared the army might try to loot the U.S. Treasury.
When it finally reached Washington and marched up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol on May 1, however, the procession proved to be more entertaining than threatening. At its head came members of the Public Comfort Committee (local supporters) and the Commonweal Band playing Marching Through Georgia. Then came a striking figure, dressed all in white, known as the Goddess of Peace. She was seventeen-year-old Mamie Coxey, the general's daughter. Riding one of her father's finest horses, Mamie was apparently a beauty, with long golden hair, a blue liberty cap, and a parasol. (Browne, who was following behind on a gray stallion, had fallen hopelessly in love with Mamie and, despite their age difference, married her a year later.)
Jesse Coxey, eighteen, then came by, followed by his father in an open carriage with Mrs. Coxey and the infant Legal Tender. Next came Coxey's soldiers, each one carrying a white flag bearing the words, "Peace on earth, good will toward men, but death to interest on bonds." Thousands of spectators along the avenue cheered and called out the general's name.
Facing a phalanx of policemen, the contingent halted before the Capitol. A crowd of spectators estimated at between fifteen and twenty thousand watched as Coxey, Browne, and Jones climbed over a low wall and made for the Capitol steps. The mounted police pursued; the crowd followed. Two policemen tackled Browne, while others took Jones into custody. Coxey managed to reach the steps before being led away. As he left, he threw toward the reporters a copy of the speech he had intended to deliver.
Although the army's leaders were now in custody, the club- wielding police nevertheless charged the crowd, indiscriminately battering Coxeyites and onlookers. When the melee was over, Jesse and Mamie led the army back to camp. The three leaders were bailed out the same day. Their crime: walking on the grass.
Thus ended the adventure of Coxey's Army, but not the complete story of Coxeyism. In the Far West, where the Populist movement was strongest, other leaders, inspired by Coxey's example, also formed armies in that difficult year and made treks that dwarfed his march on Washington.
Charles T. Kelly, a small, slim thirty-two-year-old natural leader headed the San Francisco army, the largest of them all. Coxey had his good roads idea; Kelly believed that the unemployed should be put to work on irrigation projects in the West. Like the other western armies, Kelly's could not realistically plan to walk to Washington; for the most part they used trains, sometimes with the cooperation of the railroads, sometimes without. On the day that Coxey made his May Day march, Kelly and his men--now numbering some 1,300--had made it as far as Des Moines, Iowa. From there they struggled on by way of river transportation, arriving in Washington on July 12 after a journey of three months and seven days.
Lewis C. Fry's Los Angeles army crossed the western deserts in boxcars by way of Tucson, Arizona and El Paso, Texas; continued on via Little Rock, Arkansas and Saint Louis, Missouri; and reached Washington in late June.
A man named Hogan led an army of unemployed miners from Montana that had one of the most colorful adventures. On April 24, Hogan and his men broke into a Northern Pacific roundhouse at Butte, stole a train, and raced eastward at sixty miles an hour, with another train bearing a posse in hot pursuit. The lawmen caught up with them in Billings. In the ensuing gunfire, one person was killed and several were wounded. Federal soldiers arrested Hogan, but his men pushed on and reached the Mississippi before their ranks fizzled out.
Frank (Jumbo) Cantwell left Tacoma, Washington, in late April and got to Washington, D.C., in early July, but few of his army made it with him. Another Washington army, headed by Edward J. Jeffries, traveled from Seattle across the Northwest to Duluth, Minnesota, where its members boarded a Lake Superior steamer. They then worked their way to Washington via Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh.
Coxeyism as a movement had truly become nationwide. Yet, it was also short-lived. By the end of the summer, the western Coxeyites had joined the remnants of Coxey's own men, and the crusaders settled into two camps on the outskirts of the national capital. (After serving his twenty-day jail sentence for walking on the grass, Coxey himself returned to Ohio in July.) There were probably never more than a thousand Coxeyites in the Washington environs at any one time. Authorities, growing weary of the men in their midst, eventually sent in police and militia to close the encampments.
Coxey himself, though he never again attained national prominence, continued to speak out for reform. He ran for Congress on the Populist ticket in the fall of 1894, receiving twenty-one percent of the vote. He subsequently ran for public office often (he even ran for president in 1932), but enjoyed only one victory--in 1931, when he was elected mayor of Massillon.
In 1944, on the fiftieth anniversary of his crusade, Coxey, still hale and hearty at ninety years of age, returned to Washington. This time, when he arrived at the Capitol steps on May 1, Coxey (with the blessings of House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Vice President Henry Wallace) finally gave the speech that he had once been prohibited from delivering.
By the time he died on May 18, 1951, Coxey was no longer controversial. The United States had gone through the agony of the Depression of the 1930s; the idea of employing the jobless on public works projects had been put into practice in a big way during the New Deal; and one of the favorite ways of creating jobs was through the repair and construction of highways.
The Coxeyites, realizing the value of good public relations, had bent over backward to be non-aggressive, and indeed their movement was as pacific a one as has been seen in the United States. But at the time they conjured up visions of the French Revolution, the Civil War, socialism, or anarchism.
In 1894 the philosophy of laissez-faire ruled. Although public officials were sympathetic to the plight of the unemployed, the idea of expanding government's role to include providing jobs was, except for visionaries (former President Benjamin Harrison was one), unthinkable. H.L. Stetson, the president of Des Moines College, spoke for many when he said, "The business of government is not to furnish employment to all at $2.50 a day. The very hour that the United States agrees to do so, that hour it goes out of existence."
The United States at the time was in the midst of a painful transition from an agrarian, rural society to an urban, industrial one. The frontier had officially closed, a flood of European immigrants was heading across the ocean, labor unions were being forged, and it had become necessary to rethink the traditional role of government. To understand such strenuous times, one could do worse than to study, as a microcosm of discontent, the desperate marchers of Coxey's Army and the ideas that percolated in its leader's fertile brain.
New York writer Joseph Gustaitis is a regular contributor to AMERICAN HISTORY ILLUSTRATED.