Friday, June 19, 2009

A Petition in Boots

Unemployment was everywhere. In places like Michigan, over 43% of the work force was jobless. Caused by market speculation, the Panic of 1893 led to a shortage of cash. Families were going hungry, and the conditions weren’t getting better. In Massillon, Ohio Jacob Coxey witnessed the poverty around him. A populist and a successful business owner, Coxey was also a self-made man, who at age 16 worked in the iron mills. To combat the economic depression, Coxey called on the federal government to build modern roads and community buildings and employ the unemployed to build them.

Coxey was joined by frontiersman and free-lance journalist Carl Browne. The odd couple, one a straight-laced businessman and the other a rough and tumble cowboy, needed to raise awareness for their cause. Browne proposed a march on Washington. It would be he declared, “A petition in boots!” They would call themselves the “Commonweal of Christ” (see above right: at camp) and thousands of the unemployed would join them along their march from Massillon to Washington, DC. On the steps of the Capitol they would call for sweeping legislation that would employ thousands and get the economy back on track. It would be glorious! Akin to the Second Coming!

Their expedition was sensationalized by the national press, who was struggling to report on the human effects of the depression—covering stock markets and unemployment rates was dull and frankly, it was depressing. Readers wanted excitement and humor! When Coxey and Browne left Massillon on March 25, the Commonweal of Christ had just 100 followers. Throughout their trip the two leaders struggled to make their protest look respectable. Their parade was led by African-American man, named Jasper Johnson, who carried the American Flag, followed by a marching band. Coxey, his wife, and Legal Tender, his newborn son—I would not want to be this kid at recess—rode behind in a horse-drawn carriage (at left: Coxey and his son, Little Legal Tender). The media immediately dubbed them as Coxey’s Army, and mocked it was an army of cranks, vagrants, and tramps.

Hearing reports of the march’s progress, Congress and Federal authorities watched from afar, skeptical that the protest would reach the Capitol but preparing for it in any case. This would be the first march on Washington in history and it raised questions regarding freedom of speech and assembly. Do citizens have the right to use the Capitol grounds as public space, as a forum for debate? Not in 1894. Both parties in Congress fully supported the Metropolitan Police’s decision to allow Coxey’s Army to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, but to halt them at the Capitol and forbid them to enter the grounds.

Coxey’s Army reached camp at Bladensburg, Maryland in the last week of April. They were ready to protest on May 1st. The day before the march over 6,000 people visited their camp to hear speeches from Coxey and Browne. On May Day, Coxey’s Army, now 500 strong, entered the District and marched to the Capitol. There they were met by police, who reminded them that it was illegal to enter the grounds. As a distraction, Browne and a supporter jumped over a low wall and began running across the lawn. Browne was immediately swarmed by the police, clubbed, and taken away. At the same, Coxey climbed 5 steps at the Capitol and began to give his speech. A police officer shoed him off the steps and escorted him back to his carriage. The protesters returned to camp.

The next day Coxey attended the bail hearing for Browne. At the hearing both men were arrested and charged with carrying banners illegally. In fact their “banners” were 3 by 2 inch lapel pins. They were also charged with walking on the grass at the Capitol. They received a 20 day prison sentence with a $5 fine. Their loyal followers waited anxiously in camps around the district. Conditions in the camps were difficult as the men soon ran out of food and took to begging on the streets. By the time of their release, support for Coxey’s army had dwindled. The press was focused on the Pullman Riots in Chicago. Jacob Coxey returned to Ohio to run for Congress (he didn’t win). Carl Browne continued to speak on the rights of man, becoming increasingly socialist. In 1913, at age 64, he was often seen standing on a soapbox on 10th and Pennsylvania, preaching to any who would listen. He was considered a crackpot.

Though Coxey’s Army failed to achieve its goal, it marked a significant turning point in U.S. democracy. It established the city of Washington as a place where public protest could get substantial media attention. Marching on Washington became a form of political expression. Later in the year of 1894, the suffragists would borrow Coxey’s tactics and march in Washington themselves; their protest was better received by the media.

In popular culture we remember Coxey’s Army for the role it played L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Considered an allegory for the Gold Standard and Populism, Dorothy, the Scarecrow (farmer), the Tin Man (industry), and the Cowardly lion (political leader) follow the yellow brick road to Oz ( got it!... Washington). So what do you think? Are those group of four misfits representative of Coxey's Army?

Sources: Lucy G. Barber, Marching on Washington.

Coxey's Army Dwindling Away". New York Times (May 11). 1894.

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