Coxey’s Army: The First “Occupiers”

In 1893, the “Financial Panic” gripped the United States as the economy fell into recession and the ranks of the unemployed and homeless swelled. In response, an organized group of people from all over the US converged on Washington DC to protest against income inequality and to demand that Congress pass a jobs bill, and vowed to camp out in front of the Capitol Building for as long as necessary until their demands were met. It was the first “Occupy” movement in the US, and it was led by a man named Jacob Coxey.


Coxey’s Army on the march.

By 1890, the US had mostly recovered from the economic shock of the Financial Panic of 1873. The railroads were steadily expanding across the US, settlers and homesteaders were pouring into the conquered West, and the economy was booming.

But the good times did not last long.  In 1893, the wheat harvest in Argentina (in which American investors were heavily involved) was a disaster, causing a financial shock that rippled through Wall Street, and was compounded by over-investment in railroads and falling prices for silver and gold. The result was the Panic of 1893, the worst depression in US history up to that time. Unemployment in the US swelled to over 10 percent, eventually reaching 18 percent. Homeless people crowded into every city, and thousands were arrested and jailed for “vagrancy”. Popular resentment at the Gilded Age wealthy reached explosive proportions.

Then a little-known businessman in Ohio named Jacob Coxey, who owned a local sand quarry, proposed what was at the time a breathtakingly radical solution–the US Government should offer jobs to the unemployed by using them to expand and repair the nation’s roads network. In the 1930’s, Franklin D Roosevelt would propose the very same idea to deal with another Depression, but in 1893 the US was in love with laissez-faire “free market” economic ideology, and the very idea that the Federal Government should involve itself with economic policy or help the unemployed in any way was akin to socialist propaganda. Coxey knew that his proposal would never be acted on by Congress. So, working together with a labor union organizer from San Francisco named Carl Browne, Coxey formed a plan to organize a massive protest, an “army of the unemployed”, to march on Washington DC and force Congress to pass the “Good Roads Bill” providing $500 million in funding for a massive infrastructure-building jobs program. “Congress takes two years to vote on anything,” Coxey announced. “Twenty-millions of people are hungry and cannot wait two years to eat.”

Browne, the labor union leader, was an odd character–he often wore fringed buckskin suits, made incomprehensible speeches about religion and ghosts, and declared that he was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ (and promptly announced that Coxey himself was a reincarnation of President Andrew Jackson).  But he was a skillful organizer, and within months, word of “Coxey’s Army” had spread across the country. On March 25, 1894, Easter Sunday, Coxey left Massillon, Ohio, at the head of about 100 unemployed people, bound for Washington DC.

All across the US, in a wave of protest, similar groups formed, from San Francisco to Florida. The West, where the recession had hit particularly hard, was particularly enthusiastic: in several incidents, groups of unemployed people hopped on trains to make their way to Washington DC. In Texas, a Southern Pacific Railroad train stopped on the tracks, uncoupled the car containing 500 protesters, and chugged off, leaving them stranded in the middle of the desert. Unemployed railroad workers in Montana, on the other hand, stole an entire train to get themselves to DC: they managed to go almost 350 miles before the train was stopped by Federal Marshals. Press reports of the chase inspired others, and some 50 trains were commandeered by people on their way to join “Coxey’s Army”. Small groups set out from all over the country to converge at the Capitol Building, with each one swelling in numbers as they passed through towns and cities and recruited new followers. Thousands of people greeted the marchers as they passed through town, listening to speeches and providing the protesters with food and places to sleep. The “Army” contained both men and women, of all races. Estimates of the total number of marchers range as high as 20,000. Their rhetoric steadily grew, from simply proposing a jobs bill to demands for redistribution of wealth, labor law reforms, and social justice and equality. Red flags began to appear. The press made it a front-page story across the United States.

It was enough to scare the living daylights out of the Gilded Age super-rich. Fearing that the class war was about to break out again (the Paris Commune in France and the Great Railroad Rebellion in the US had been less then 20 years ago), the wealthy East Coast elite ran in terror to the Federal Government and begged for protection. New York City and Chicago banned any public protest gatherings. Local militia troops attacked and burned a Coxeyite camp outside of Washington DC. Most of the protest groups crossing the country towards Washington DC instead ended up in jail, or were forcibly dispersed with billy clubs and dumped onto trains for California or Arizona to get rid of them. When the day of the planned gathering at the Capitol came, May 1, 1894, only a few thousand of the protesters had made it. About 500 of “Coxey’s Army” entered Washington DC with Coxey and his daughter Mamie (dressed in white robes as “The Goddess of Peace”) at their head. They camped on the front lawn of the Capitol Building, with another 3-4,000 protesters still just a day or two’s walk away, and declared that they would stay there until Congress acted.

Coxey stood on the Capitol steps and unfolded his written speech asking for a jobs bill. He never got to give it. The protesters were surrounded by over a thousand police, who quickly moved in, clubbed them to the ground, and arrested the leaders (including Coxey and Browne) for “walking on the grass”.  Within half an hour it was over, and “Coxey’s Army” had melted away. Coxey and Browne spent 20 days in jail.

In April 1935, as part of FDR’s New Deal, Congress passed legislation setting up the Works Progress Administration, which provided jobs to the nation’s unemployed through work on the country’s road system and infrastructure. Coxey had won after all. During an FDR political rally on May 1, 1944, Coxey himself, now 90 years old, was invited to stand on the steps of the Capitol Building and give the speech he had planned to give 50 years earlier. Part of Coxey’s speech said:

“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 2011, a small group of protesters sat down in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street, and announced that they would not leave until their demands for economic justice were met. Although few of the Occupy Wall Street participants had ever even heard of Coxey or his Army, they had unwittingly duplicated his demands and his tactics.

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