(Click for full image)
Just a few weeks ago, on January 27th, hundreds of thousands of protesters
descended on Washington D.C. to speak in one voice about how they opposed the war in Iraq.
For too many people this was a "ho-hum" moment. We've all seen it before. It happened many times before the invasion of Iraq. It happened even more times during the Vietnam War. Protesters have been marching on Washington seemingly forever. Or have they...?
It turns out that there was once a time when a peaceful, mass march on Washington was a radical thing. Something that alarmed the establishment.
I want to take you back to 1893, when a small-business owner named Jacob Coxey
shook up the nation.
In 1893, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, one of the United States' largest railroad companies and employers, ceased operation. Soon thereafter, the National Cordage Company also closed its doors. As a result of the failure of these two companies, a crisis broke out on the stock market. As the financial crisis struck, banks and other investment firms began calling in loans, causing hundreds of business bankruptcies across the United States. Over fifteen thousand businesses closed during this crisis, which became known as the Panic of 1893.
Before the 1930's there was no term called a Depression
. It was simply called a Panic
On May 4, 1893, the stock market started crashing. Before the Panic finally ended a few years later, an unprecedented 15,252 American businesses. Unemployment soared
from about 3% in 1892 to 18% in late 1893, nearly as high as the Great Depression (note: I've seen estimates of 20-25% unemployment rates, but no evidence to back them up). It was the worst economic hit the country had taken up to that point, and the second worst that the country has ever experienced. This economic downturn would last much of the decade.
'The spectacle of men fighting for work...' My God! This is terrible! Battling for the privilege of working all day for enough to eat--and the next day go at it again; and so on until the earth rattles on their pine boxes.
Cannot the good God do something to relieve his wretched children? Or is this thing to go on forever? Why not give some good-hearted, honest man supreme power for four years, and let him improve God's world or blow it up. He could not make it much worse than it is, for the great mass of mankind.
A judicious hanging bee in Wall Street would be a good measure with which to begin the reformation.
-- I.D. [Ignatius Donnelly] in The Representative, 29 August 1894
Back then the federal government never bothered to try and help the average man during these times. Public works projects simply weren't done to try and alleviate hardships, nor was the ideas of welfare and unemployment insurance even invented in America at the time. Good, hard-working people were suffering
and the government did nothing.
In the bitter winter months, some poor families starved and others became wanderers. Unemployed "tramps" crisscrossed the countryside, walking or hiding on freight trains. Many appeared at the back doors of middle-class houses, pleading for work or food.
Despite the obvious structural crisis, many Americans blamed those who could not find work, accusing them of laziness or begging. Some among the unemployed blamed themselves, and stories of despair and suicide ran almost daily in many newspapers.
(Click for larger image)
Jacob Coxey was born April 16, 1854, in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. He graduated from public school and then went to work in a saw mill. In 1881, Coxey moved to Massillon, Ohio, where he established the Coxey Silica Sand Company. This business operated a sand quarry.
When the Panic hit, his business suffered as well. Coxey was frustrated by the lack of effort from the federal government. So very early in 1894 he began to organize an unprecedented nationwide march on Washington to petition the government to assist the masses of unemployment working class with work programs which would involve building roads and other public works improvements.. It was a bold move at the time and he had no funding behind it, but the idea took off.
On March 24, 1894, Coxey set off from Massillon, Ohio with 100 men, most of them on foot. Around the same time, dozens of other marches set off for Washington from around the country. Coxey predicted that 100,000 would eventually join his march, but he badly underestimated the difficulties of organizing a nationwide movement without funds. Especially when the establishment wanted to see it fail so much.
For instance, 650 men set off from Seattle
. It would take the train much of the way and link up with Coxey before he reached Washington.
On April 7, 1894, Seattle's unemployed, "all sturdy, active fellows, neatly dressed and with earnest faces," (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) organized themselves as the Northwestern Industrial Army in a vacant Northern Pacific Railroad storage shed at 2nd Avenue S and S Weller Street. They elected Henry Shepard, an unemployed surveyor, as their leader and formed a "regiment" of seven companies. While preparing to leave for Washington, D.C., the army staged several parades through Seattle led by the Rialto Band. One banner carried by the well-drilled marchers read "Gold at a Premium -- Humanity at a discount." Citizens and businesses in Seattle provided the men and needy families with food and with some funds.
The Coxey Army was very aware of appearences and played the media well. They issued decrees such as:
"The officers in charge of headquarters will not allow tramps or bummers, or any persons under the influence of liquor, to loaf around these premises. These rules shall be absolute. Any person not conforming shall be ejected and handed over to the police."
Coxey`s Army (Click for larger image)
However, problems confronted the Seattle marchers. They ran out of money before they could even board the trains. When they couldn't negotiate free rides, the order went out to break into small groups and hobo it. However, federal marshals and the U.S. Army had 200 men near Spokane to prevent this from happening. For days they cleared cars of riders and 154 were arrested, plus another 18 citizens for helping them. 111 were sentenced to 60 days in jail. Very few who set out from Seattle ever met up with Coxey.
On April 30, 1894, Coxey and an army of just 500 men reached Washington D.C. and presented their list of demands for public projects for the unemployed. They were met by 1,500 soldiers, with thousands more in Baltimore and Philadelphia ready to be called up. The U.S. Congress and President Grover Cleveland flat out refused their demands
They were driven form the Capitol lawn by the soldiers. When Coxey mounted the steps of the Capitol Building to read a prepared statement, he was arrested for trespassing on the Capitol lawn.
Without a leader, the "army" scattered (with help from the soldiers).
Coxey was released from jail and returned to Ohio where he spent the rest of his life involved with politics and fighting for the working man. In 1895 he received 52,000 votes in a losing effort while running for the governorship of Ohio.
In 1914 Coxey led another protest march on Washington. Once again, the federal government refused to listen to his proposals. He repeatedly ran for Congress as both independent and Republican candidates and lost every one. He finally managed to win the mayoral election of Massillon in 1931.
Back in 1894, the Democrats were routed in the November election for failing to respond to the economic depression. President Cleveland was soundly defeated in the 1896 election by McKinley.
Finally, 50 years later to the day that Coxey was arrested on the steps of Capitol Hill, 90-year old Jacob S. Coxey returned to Washington to give the speech that had been cut short by soldiers in 1894. The Democratic Party was now an entirely different party that responded to the concerns of the working man. This is what he said on the steps of Capitol Hill in 1944:
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 to-day to test these guaranties of our Constitution. We choose this place of assemblage because it is the property of the people, and if it be true that the right of the people to peacefully assemble upon their own premises and utter their petitions has been abridged by the passage of laws in direct violation of the Constitution, we are here to draw the eyes of the entire nation to this shameful fact. 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.
Upon these steps where we stand has been spread a carpet for the royal feet of a foreign princess, the cost of whose lavish entertainment was taken from the public Treasury without the consent or the approval of the people. 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 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: 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."
We stand here to remind Congress of its promise of returning prosperity should the Sherman act be repealed. We stand here to declare by our march of over 400 miles through difficulties and distress, a march unstained by even the slightest act which would bring the blush of shame to any, 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.
In the name of justice, through whose impartial administration only the present civilization can be maintained and perpetuated, by the powers of the Constitution of our country upon which the liberties of the people must depend, and in the name of the commonweal of Christ, whose representatives we are, we enter a most solemn and earnest protest against this unnecessary and cruel usurpation and tyranny, and this enforced subjugation of the rights and privileges of American citizenship. We have assembled here in violation of no just laws to enjoy the privileges of every American citizen. We are now under the shadow of the Capitol of this great nation, and in the presence of our national legislators are refused that dearly bought privilege, and by force of arbitrary power prevented from carrying out the desire of our hearts which is plainly granted under the great magna-charta of our national liberties.
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.
Coming as we do with peace and good will to men, we shall submit to these laws, unjust as they are, and obey this mandate of authority of might which overrides and outrages the law of right. In doing so, 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.
J. S. COXEY
Jacob Coxey died in Massillon in 1951.