The popular nickname
given to the first march on Washington
in the United States
After the Panic of 1893, a businessman from Massilon, Ohio, named Jason Sechler Coxey led a band of jobless men to Washington, D.C. to petition Congress for measures that they hoped would relieve unemployment.
Coxey had already received attention in national politics as a monetary reformer. He had named his son
"Legal Tender" and had once belonged to the Greenback Party. In 1892, now a Populist, he advocated the creation of a Federal public works project, putting to work the country's
unemployed. The "Good Roads Bill" called for the government to issue millions in legal tender notes, both to create inflation and to employ the nation's surplus labor on road construction projects. The bill died in committee. In 1894 Coxey once again presented a plan to expand the nation's currency supply and provide jobs. His proposed
"Noninterest-Bearing Bonds Bill" authorized states and local governments to issue
$500,000 in noninterest-bearing bonds that would be used to borrow legal tender notes from the federal treasury, again to pay for public works projects. This time, to gain publicity and support for his cause, Coxey called for America's unemployed to travel to Washington with him, to present the Congress "a petition with boots on."
Coxey believed that tens of thousands of the nation's unemployed would rally to his cause, and he told the press he wanted 100,000 men. Though called an "army," the march was always intended as a peaceful demonstration. Coxey was aided by Carl Browne, an agitator who named the army the "Commonweal of Christ." With the help of advertising, Coxey gathered more than 100 men for his opening day (although 40 of them were reporters covering the march). They left Massillon with them on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1894, intending to reach Washington for a May Day demonstration. As they travelled across Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, crowds would gather to see the march as it passed through their cities, but the thousands of recruits never materialized. The expenses of travel made it difficult for Western states to send supporters. Also, state militias and national guards, fearing an insurrection of the unemployed, worked to hinder the efforts of groups trying to meet up with Coxey.
Coxey entered Washington with 500 men, and was greeted by thousands of spectators, and a mounted police escort. A column of police blocked access the U.S. Capitol Building, where Coxey had hoped to present his petition, and the escort led the march right past it. Coxey doubled back, used the crowd to slow up police, and mounted the steps. He took out his speech, but the police stopped him from addressing the crowd. Browne, who was carrying a small banner, was beaten by mounted police. The police disbanded the marchers, and Coxey and his principal lieutenants (C.C. Jones and Carl Browne) were arrested for disturbing the peace.
With 5000 or so witnesses, the prosecuting attorney in Washington knew he couldn't make the charges stick, so the charges were changed-- Coxey would spend 20 days in jail for violating an ordinance prohibiting walking on the grass.
After "General" Coxey's forces had departed the capitol, the press continued to
report on Coxey's Army-- And a receptive audience in the Western states took up the cause of Coxeyism after the fact. In California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Montana new "industrial armies" of Coxeyites were raised from among the ranks of the unemployed. The hope was that if enough of them arrived in Washington, Congress would have to listen. When transportation couldn't be arranged or sponsored, it was seized. Local militias and national guards would be called in to keep the peace in several states.
By June, labor troubles at the Pullman Strike near Chicago, swept all traces of Coxey and his army off the pages of the newspapers and out of the public mind.
Coxey would go on to be a perennial political candidate in Ohio, unsuccessfully running for the House, Senate, and Presidency. He eventually won the mayoral election in his hometown of Massillon. On the 50th anniversary of his arrest, he returned to the steps of the Capitol and gave his original speech.
Columbia Encyclopedia, "Coxey, Jacob Sechler," <http://www.slider.com/enc/14000/Coxey_Jacob_Sechler.htm>
Rebecca Edwards, "The Depression of 1893," <http://www.iberia.vassar.edu/1896/depression.html>
Hal W. Neumann, "Militia Threatens March on Washington,"
Amanda L. Paige, "The Newspaper Writings of Susette La Flesche," <http://anpa.ualr.edu/Dtp/LaFlesche.htm#coxey>
Mark J. Price, "Coxey's Army," <http://www.ohio.com/bj/news/2001/April/09/docs/009627.htm>
Leslie M. Scott, "Coxey's Army," History of the Oregon Country. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1924. Volume III, p. 222. quoted in "Unsettling Events,"
David Wilma, "Northwestern Industrial Army marches to join Coxey's Army on April 25, 1894," <http://www.historylink.org/output.cfm?file_id=2181>