Apr 28, 2020
This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we
take a look at the original March on Washington. “Coxey’s Army” was
a group of 500 men who amidst a terrible economic depression in
1894, marched from Ohio to the nation’s capital to demand that
Congress provide employment through public works projects. They
were turned away, but many of the Populist ideas that inspired them
were enacted into law in the coming decades.
Feature Story: “Coxey’s Army” Arrives in Washington, DC
On April 30, 1894 a man named Jacob Coxey arrived in Washington,
DC at the head of a group of about 500 men. By then the whole
nation knew them as “Coxey’s Army.” They had set out weeks earlier
from Coxey’s hometown of Massillon, Ohio in what was the first ever
March On Washington.
So what was the fuss all about? The immediate answer was that in the spring of 1894 the United States was in the midst of the most severe economic depression in its history. It was triggered one year earlier by the financial Panic of 1893 which caused tens of thousands of businesses and farms to fail, and the unemployment rate to soar to 20% - and often. Double that in big cities like Chicago and New York. The US had seen its share of economic depressions in the 19th century – the panic of 1837, the panic of 1857, the panic of 1873, just to name a few. In each of these previous cases, political leaders agreed that the best policy was: do nothing. Depressions, the reasoning went, were like bad weather or an illness. Wait long enough, and the good times would return. The most dangerous thing the government could do was provide assistance to the people because, so the logic went, that would only foster dependence and lead the US down the path to socialism. Here’s how President Grover Cleveland put it in his second inaugural address, in March 1893. “The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned,” said Cleveland, “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.”
But despite proclamations such as these, there was growing support among many Americans in this period known as the Gilded Age for the government to take a more active role in the economy to protect the vulnerable from exploitation and promote the greatest possible amount of opportunity for all. They argued that laissez-faire might have made sense back in the late-18th century when the US took form. But not anymore in an age of industry, wage work, mass immigration, huge cities, and giant corporations.
That was the view that inspired Jacob Coxey. He was no radical, at least compared to the socialists, communists, and anarchists of the day. He was a successful farmer who also bred horses for sale and owned a sand quarry business. But as a farmer in the 1880s, he’d gotten involved in the burgeoning protest movement among farmers that came to be called Populism. Its leaders argued that the only way to effectively battle the power of the monopolies and trusts was to create a political movement that would elect farmers or pro-farmer politicians to office, so they could use political power to curb the power of banks, railroads, and brokers and save the honest American farmer from ruin. And in 1892 they established a new national party called the People’s Party that called for a wide range of new government policies, everything from taking over the railroads and telegraphs, to the adoption of a graduated income tax that would make the rich pay their fair share. Its candidate for president that year polled a million votes and won four states. It was no joke.
So his embrace of Populism explains Jacob Coxey’s motivation behind his protest march. He advocated that, given the severity of the depression, the federal government must abandon its traditional commitment to laissez-faire and provide funding to states to create public works projects such as road building to alleviate mass unemployment and stimulate the economy.
Now, if this sounds familiar, it’s because Coxey was advocating an approach to economic crisis that 40 years later would be embraced by Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. And succeeding administrations, of course, have turned to varying forms of “stimulus packages” to boost the economy and help workers in times of economic crisis.
To draw attention to this idea, Coxey organized his march to Washington, D.C. He actually got the idea from a fellow activist named Carl Browne who was more of a true blue radical. He not only came up with the idea of a march, but also the group’s official name, the “Commonweal of Christ,” which was intended to evoke both the ideals of the common good and Christianity. About 120 men gathered in Massillon, OH and on Easter Sunday 1894 they set off for the nation’s capital.
As the press picked up the story, the group acquired a new name, “Coxey’s Army.” It was meant on the one hand to evoke ridicule and on the other to stoke fears of radicalism and civil unrest. The press alternately dismissed them as a bunch of delusional cranks, or a dangerous group of losers who wanted handouts and a socialist revolution. But Coxey dismissed this talk and declared that his army’s campaign was one to save the republic and honest capitalism from the clutches of corporate trusts and the politicians they controlled.
Despite the negative press, as they marched, more men joined the ranks, including some African American men. Coxey had hoped to assemble an "army" of 100,000 men. But he had to settle for a peak of 500.
In some places they were met by hostile townspeople and policemen who threatened arrest if they set up camp. But in many places Coxey and his growing number of followers were greeted by enthusiastic supporters who offered money, food, clothing, and shoes, as well as words of support.
Finally, after walking 400 miles in 35 days, Coxey’s Army arrived in Washington on April 30, 1894. As this was the first ever protest march on Washington, apprehension was in the air as the men set up a makeshift camp. Hundreds of police and 1,500 soldiers stood by, ready for a confrontation. The next day, May 1, Coxey tried to enter the US Capitol to deliver a speech before Congress, but security guards turned him away. So, Coxey tried the next best thing: delivering the speech in front of the Capitol. But before he started speaking, police arrested him and took him off to jail. He was charged with “disturbing the peace,” but the charges were eventually reduced and he was convicted only for walking on the lawn of the Capitol grounds.
Had he spoken, Jacob Coxey would have said, in part: “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.”
While Jacob Coxey did not get what he came for in Washington DC, the larger Populist movement to which he belonged did influence a generation of reformers who, in what we now call the Progressive Era, achieved notable successes in enacting many of the Populist Party demands, and so much more, ranging from regulations on trusts to measures to improve working conditions, public health, and political reform.
And then there’s this - 50 years later to the day after he was arrested for trying to give a speech on the steps of the US Capitol, in Washington, DC, a 90-year old Jacob Coxey was allowed to deliver that speech. On May 1, 1944, he stood on the Capitol steps and said what had been on his mind back in 1894.
But by then, in the wake of the New Deal and its vast array of government programs to alleviate suffering during the Great Depression, Coxey’s speech seemed hardly radical at all. What a difference half a century makes.
So what else of note happened this week in US history?
April 28, 1967 heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali defies the draft and refuses to be inducted into the US military to fight in Vietnam. Ali argued that his religious beliefs prohibited him from participating in a war against the poor, nonwhite people of Vietnam. He was widely condemned for his stand, and subsequently stripped of his boxing title and sentenced to five years in prison. “I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs,” said Ali. “So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years.” The sentence was later overturned.
April 30, 1789 The first presidential inauguration took place in New York City. George Washington took the oath of office at Federal Hall on Wall St before a crowd of thousands.
April 30, 1975 South Vietnam fell to the forces of North Vietnam, marking the unofficial end of the Vietnam War. For Americans, this moment is captured in the photograph of people boarding a helicopter on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War, check out ITPL episode 39 featuring my interview with Ken Burns about his documentary on the war.
And what notable people were born this week in American
April 27, 1822 – Union Army general and 18th POTUS, Ulysses S. Grant
April 28, 1758 – 5th POTUS James Monroe
April 29, 1899 - composer and jazz orchestra leader Duke Ellington
May 2, 1903 - Dr Benjamin Spock, author of the best selling book on baby care
May 3, 1919 – folk singer and social justice activist Pete Seeger
The Last Word
Let’s give it to Jacob Coxey, who 126 years ago this week arrived at the head of the first march on Washington.
Here’s a passage from the speech he hoped to deliver that day from the steps of the US Capitol.
“We stand here to declare by our march of over 400 miles through difficulties and distress…that we are law-abiding citizens, and as men our actions speak louder than words. We are here to petition for legislation which will furnish employment for every man able and willing to work; for legislation which will bring universal prosperity and emancipate our beloved country from financial bondage to the descendants of King George. We have come to the only source which is competent to aid the people in their day of dire distress. We are here to tell our Representatives, who hold their seats by grace of our ballots, that the struggle for existence has become too fierce and relentless. We come and throw up our defenseless hands, and say, help, or we and our loved ones must perish. We are engaged in a bitter and cruel war with the enemies of all mankind—a war with hunger, wretchedness, and despair, and we ask Congress to heed our petitions and issue for the nation’s good a sufficient volume of the same kind of money which carried the country through one awful war and saved the life of the nation.
… we appeal to every peace-loving citizen, every liberty-loving man or woman, every one in whose breast the fires of patriotism and love of country have not died out, to assist us in our efforts toward better laws and general benefits.”
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Sergey Cheremisinov, “Gray Drops” (Free Music Archive)
Pictures of the Flow, “Horses” (Free Music Archive)
Ondrosik, “Tribute to Louis Braille” (Free Music Archive)
Alex Mason, “Cast Away” (Free Music Archive)
Squire Tuck, “Nuthin’ Without You” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “Multiverse” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “Memories Renewed” (Free Music Archive)
Dana Boule, “Collective Calm” (Free Music Archive)
Borrtex, “Motion” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, "Pat Dog" (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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