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Coxey’s Army Marched on Washington

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Late in the nineteenth century, an economic crash caused high unemployment and hardship for millions of Americans. Political junkie Jacob A. Coxey decided something needed to be done about their plight.

The march begins.

The march begins.

The Good Roads Bill

Jacob Coxey came from a working-class family who worked his way up in the metal industry. Born in 1854 in Pennsylvania he moved to Ohio where he bought a farm and a sandstone quarry. He read widely about politics and monetary reform.

One of his ideas was to start a federal program to build good-quality roads to replace the rutted and muddy tracks in use at the time. With the high unemployment of 1893-94, he conceived a plan to put these men to work on national infrastructure. It was Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, 40 years before FDR introduced it.

To raise awareness of his Good Roads Bill, Coxey set about organizing a march of unemployed men on Washington.

Jacob Coxey.

Jacob Coxey.

Carl Browne Joins Jacob Coxey

To help his campaign along, Coxey sought out and recruited one of the most colourful characters of the period.

Carl Browne was described by historian Donald McMurry as a man whose commanding presence could not be ignored. He was “Tall, heavy, and bearded, his unkempt hair streaked with gray, he added to the effect by wearing an exaggerated Western costume … Closer inspection revealed the reason why his men called him ‘Old Greasy.’ It was suggested that he would have been a more pleasant companion if he had bathed oftener.”

He was also a spellbinding public speaker, and is described as a “labour agitator.”

He joined Coxey in leading 86 unemployed men out of Massillon, Ohio, destination, the national capital. The journey began on Easter Sunday, which fell on March 25 in 1894.

The March on Washington

As they travelled, the marchers camped outside small towns overnight and relied on local people for donations of food and money. Journalists tagged along and wrote highly exaggerated reports of what had become known as Coxey’s Army.

Historian Carl Schwantes wrote that “What Coxey and Browne did was essentially create an unemployment adventure story that the press found irresistible. With characters sufficiently colourful and the perils of the journey sufficiently great, curiosity alone drew to the drama readers …”

As news of Coxey’s Army spread, many others decided to join in. From the west unemployed women and man hopped freight trains and headed east. In Montana, unemployed miners stole a train and drove it for more than 300 miles as sheriff’s deputies tried to arrest them. Shots were fired and people died before the train was stopped. Undaunted by the violence, out-of-work men seized more than 50 locomotives nationwide.

Other “armies” formed and began trekking to the nation’s capital, but they all lost members and fizzled out, with only a few stalwarts reaching Washington.

Marchers en route look glumly at the camera.

Marchers en route look glumly at the camera.

Coxeyites Arrive in Washington

On April 30, 1894, Coxey’s Army arrived at Colmar Manor, Maryland and set up its camp. The next day was set for a march on the Capitol.

The organizers could muster only about 500 marchers. They were outnumbered two-to-one by police and many dozens-to-one by the folks who turned out to watch the fun.

Contemporary journalist Kate Fields described the march as a “ragamuffin pageant,” and she was not impressed. She wrote that “Coxey’s men seemed to be of the type that would take a million or two to command your attention.”

They reached the Capitol steps, which Coxey climbed, and then started to read his Good Roads Bill. He didn’t get very far before the police waded into the marchers with clubs. They cracked a few skulls and arrested Coxey and Browne and some others and dusted off an obscure law forbidding people to walk on the grass at the Capitol to lay charges.

It was all over in a quarter of an hour.

The marchers in Washington.

The marchers in Washington.

Little Sympathy for Coxeyites

The march for equality, what Coxey called a “petition in boots,” had no effect where it mattered. Congress was then, as now, controlled by business interests that had no enthusiasm for giving workers a better deal.

The view of the authorities was expressed by the Superintendent of the New York Police Department, Thomas Byrne. He described the marchers as “idle, useless dregs of humanity―too lazy to work, too miserably inefficient to earn a living.”

However, Robert McNamara (ThoughtCo.com) writes that the march was not entirely futile: “Yet the outpouring of support for the unemployed created a lasting impact on public opinion and future protest movements would take inspiration from Coxey’s example.”

Coxey Finally Made His Plea

With Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the notion of government intervention in the economy to relieve hardship achieved acceptance.

On May 1, 1944, Jacob Coxey, now 90 years old, was invited to Washington and made his plea from the steps of the Capitol:

“We have come here through toil and weary marches, through storms and tempests, over mountains, and amid the trials of poverty and distress, to lay our grievances at the doors of our National Legislature and ask them in the name of Him whose banners we bear, in the name of Him who plead for the poor and the oppressed, that they should heed the voice of despair and distress that is now coming up from every section of our country, that they should consider the conditions of the starving unemployed of our land, and enact such laws as will give them employment, bring happier conditions to the people, and the smile of contentment to our citizens.”

The more things change the more they stay the same. Jacob Moxey (right) watches hunger marchers in Washington in 1931.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Jacob Moxey (right) watches hunger marchers in Washington in 1931.

Bonus Factoids

  • When news of Coxey’s Army reached California, the authorities clamped down on the unemployed to make sure they didn’t join in any protests. They were rounded up from hobo camps, put on trains, and dumped in barren regions of Arizona and Utah.
  • There was something of a rebellion within the ranks of Coxey’s Army. A provocative character known only as “The Great Unknown” challenged Carl Browne’s leadership. Such harsh words were spoken that Coxey had to step in. The marchers sided with Coxey and Browne and The Great Unknown drifted into obscurity.
  • Coxey’s daughter, Mamie, was prominent in the march. She is described as very beautiful with magnificent auburn hair. She dressed in white, rode a white horse, and was referred to as the “Goddess of Peace.” A year later, the 18-year-old Mamie eloped with Carl Browne, 45, much to the distress of her father. But, the relationship with the mercurial Browne did not last.

Sources

  • “Massillon History: General Jacob Coxey.” Amanda Wismer, Massillon Museum, undated.
  • “How a Ragtag Band of Reformers Organized the First Protest March on Washington, D.C.” Jon Grinspan, Smithsonian Magazine, May 1, 2014.
  • “Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements.” Doug McAdam, et al, Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • “Kate Field’s Washington.” 1894.
  • “The Industrial Army Movement of 1894 and Transitions in American Labor Activism During the Gilded Age.” Aaron Welt, Columbia University, 2009.
  • “Coxey’s Army: 1894 March of Unemployed Workers.” Robert McNamara, ThoughtCo.com, April 8, 2019.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor