Water Man Spouts

Monday, February 19, 2007

Commander Coxey's Army

"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." – Jacob S. Coxey; May 1, 1944; Washington, DC.

When we were children, my father would tell my siblings and I stories that he had learned in his childhood. His father had been one of the immigrants from Ireland in the 1870s. Others from the Old Sod had come to the New York City area, and found work on the canals and then the railroads in upstate New York. My father’s education included learning from the older generations. He told me about their experiences as they looked to better their lives by hard work, by joining unions, and by educating their children.

They knew that not everything of value could be found in the text books in their schools, and so many of the most important lessons were those taught around the table during the evening meal. This is one of those lessons that was handed down to me, and that I have told to my own children. It is the true story of when Coxey’s Army invaded Washington, DC in 1894.

There are a few history books that have information on Commander Coxey (also called General Coxey in some accounts). Years ago, I published a book on the political influence of the railroad unions that included some stories about Coxey’s march. What he attempted in the 1890s was considered a failure at the time, but his dreams in part became reality under FDR, and found a voice when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in another March on Washington.

The United States, and indeed much of western Europe, suffered from economic depressions in the last quarter of the 19th century. In the southeast, the agrarian economy was not making ends meet. Industries in the northeast were stagnating, and the self-sufficient family farms were being replaced by the dairy industry. And there was a drain on the national economy because of the robber-barons’ speculation in the west.

Jacob Sechler Coxey on Easter Sunday in 1854. He had been educated in public school in Danville, PA, until the age of 15. He had been married at least twice, and worked in a steel mill, until he decided to seek a fortune elsewhere. He moved to Massillon, Ohio, and bought a stone quarry. This quarry produced the quality of silica used in glass and steel production, and Coxey was able to make a good living. (If he had been Irish, he would have been what my father called a "boomer" – a young man who thought his hometown was boring, and traveled in search of excitement in the "boom" towns.)

Coxey bought ranches and race horses, and expanded his business interests into other areas. But he also was concerned about the well-being of his workforce. When the national economy was on a severe downslide in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Coxey began to advocate that the state and federal governments take an active role in helping working (and unemployed) Americans. This was at a time when many business "leaders" were making a fortune by the benefit of Uncle Sam’s generosity towards the ultra rich.

We are taught about the west being "won" by the 1862 Homestead Act, which granted private citizens title to a 160-acre lot for a small registration fee. But "manifest destiny" was not accomplished by pioneers in covered wagons, so much as by the obscene policies that enriched the robber barons. Between 1865 and 1900, politicians gave these "investors" about a quarter of a million square miles of land.

After Coxey was forced to lay-off 40 workers, he began to put forth plans for substantial "public works" programs. The central theme involved having the state and federal governments coordinate rural road construction programs. His plan was for the unemployed men in rural communities to construct public roads; the significance being that the privately-owned canals and railroads would lose a degree of control over the transportation systems that primarily benefited the wealthy at the expense of the working class and poor.

Grover Cleveland’s first term as president (1885-89) had influenced Coxey’s thinking. Cleveland had angered the western timber industry, cattle ranchers, and the railroad barons by exposing corrupt land deals that they had enjoyed. Also, by trying to reduce tariffs, he made enemies of eastern bankers and industrialists. Thus, he lost his party’s support.

By 1892, Cleveland showed the lack of spine and morals that was required for the democratic leaders to again support him. He had turned against many of the core values he had had just a few years earlier. Thus, he won a second term (1893-97). He rejected the concepts that Coxey and others were advocating. In his Inaugural Address, he said, "The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include the support of the people."

In October, 1893, Coxey attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This "World’s Fair" showcased the amazing advances in technology. That same technology had been, in large part, responsible for the loss of employment that a large number of people visiting Chicago had experienced. Huge crowds of the newly unemployed flocked to Chicago to try to find jobs.

Coxey was prevented from giving a public speech advocating his public works projects by the city’s mayor, Carter Harrison. The mayor had attempted to ease the discomfort of the poor masses, by opening some public buildings for them to sleep in, and by feeding them. However, towards the end of the fair, he was murdered by a political opponent. The wealthy class used this as proof that the unemployed citizens were unstable individuals who posed a risk to public security.

Earlier during the fair, Coxey had attended a meeting of the Bimetalic League. This group had proposed that the federal government use unlimited amounts of silver for coin production. Coxey discussed his road plan with Carl Browne, Browne was despised by western business sources, because he had been a vocal supporter of Chinese immigrant laborers. He had a talent for organization of social movements that Coxey did not have, though he lacked Coxey’s understanding of economic policy. The two would join forces, and although Coxey was better known at the time, they formed an equal partnership.

The re-elected Cleveland had forced the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, and attempted to revive the treasury by buying gold from "private interests." He was causing huge divisions within the democratic party, by his attempts to gain the favor of the wealthy business leaders. The country faced serious labor confrontations, perhaps most notably the coal miners’ strikes, and the Pullman Strike (also called the Debs’ strike).

The labor disputes had a huge impact on rural, upstate New York. The rural communities were served by the railroads. At this time, coal played a role in that time similar to that played by oil today. The factories in the towns and small cities required coal. Also, most of the homes in urban settings had changed from heating by wood, to burning coal.

In 1893 in Chenango County, where some of my extended family had settled, more than 1200 residents were employed in factories that lined the railroads. But as the national depression took hold, it was the factory workers who suffered first. But that suffering spread. It is important to remember that in this era, in trying to recover from the savagery of the Civil War, much of the local population was invested in a concept known as "the Protestant Work Ethic." They believed that those who were true to their faith, who worked hard and saved for a rainy day, would be rewarded. But their reward was too often the same as those in recent times who were the victims of the Ken Lays and other corporate criminals.

So when Commander Coxey from Ohio called for a national poor people’s campaign, to march on Washington, DC to demand a national works program, it caught the public’s attention. Coxey was requesting that the federal government print $500,000,000 to invest in work crews to build roads connecting the rural communities of each state. Men would be paid $1.50 per 8-hour work day. Coxey himself left Ohio with an "army" on Easter Sunday, planning to unite in Washington on May 1, 1894, with troops from some 40 other armies from across the nation.

Thus, while numerous reporters were at first interested in the March on Washington, the editors and owners of newspapers were not. When a troop from Utica, NY was planning to pass through Norwich on the way to Washington, and was asking for 200 "volunteers," the local newspaper’s editorial warned of "tramps, and no-gooders …. Dagos … anarchists, highbinders, and the worst class of criminals." Although there were an estimated 500 unemployed men in and around Norwich, the editors viewed the Coxey Army as posing the danger to the social order.

A factor in the decision to attack Coxey’s Army may have been Commander Coxey’s decision to leave the "greenback" faction of the democratic party, and to join forces with the Populist Party. This party was gaining support from southern agrarian groups, the northern labor movement, and social reformers. A number of newspapers began to attack Coxey as suffering from a Christ complex. Browne answered this by saying that that he was convinced that "the soul of Christ has been fully reincarnated in thousands of people throughout the United States today, and that accounts for the tremendous response to this call of ours to try to bring about peace and plenty to take the place of panic and poverty. To accomplish it means the Second Coming of Christ, and I believe in the prophecy that He is to come, not in any single form, but in the whole."

Coxey’s Army was a true Rainbow Coalition. It was led by a black American carrying a flag, and the troops included American Indians, women, and a wide variety of citizens. Despite the fact that the vast majority were "working class" until recently losing their jobs, the newspapers attacked them as being "tramps." The US Secretary of Agriculture was quoted as calling the marchers, "Homeless … taxless … nomadic …. If a life history of each individual in Coxey’s army could be truthfully written, it would show, no doubt, that each of them has paid out, from birth to death, more money for tobacco, whiskey, and beer, than for clothing, education, taxes and food all put together."

The combination of paid disrupters, lack of the funding needed to travel, and human nature lead to confusion within the loosely-organized national army. When Coxey’s Army entered Washington, DC, it was comprised of a fraction of the anticipated crowds of unemployed. When Commander Coxey attempted to deliver his speech, he was arrested and charged with trespass. The charge was based on a law that was intended to reduce littering, but which would be used against citizens attempting to exercise their Constitutional rights until the 1970s. Coxey would serve 20 days in jail, while his movement abandoned him.

The local Norwich paper continued to try to focus blame on the victims of the depression. Editorials warned of "Jew pack peddlers, robbers, thugs, escaped convicts (and) murderers." Itinerant farm laborers, or "tramps," became the newest threat to the local communities. The local police printed up "No TRAMPS wanted in Norwich" signs, and sentenced offenders to six months in jail. The local "civic leaders" were kind enough to let the prisoners labor for free on their farms.

"Nativism" took a few easily anticipated routes. The newspaper began attacking "local Coloreds," although from 1860 to 1894, Norwich had been a relatively progressive in dealing with a growing black population. Most of the prejudice had been aimed at the Irish and Italian populations. The local police arrested and charged a disproportionate amount of Irish young men, for free labor on elect farms. When a local Irish-American attorney protested this policy, rumors began that the local parish was being used by the dangerous Irish to house a large collection of weapons.

That Irish-American "revolution" took an unexpected course, however, when that attorney was later elected County judge. His second cousin, Harry Stack Sullivan, who lived on a rural farm outside of Norwich (where the local KKK burned crosses on St. Patrick’s Day until the early 1920s), would become famous as "America’s Psychiatrist."

In 1941, a railroad union activist named A. Philip Randolph, who had founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, threatened a massive protest in Washington, DC. As a result, FDR created the FEPC (Fair Employment Practice Committee).

During FDR’s administration, there were federal works programs, including the WPA and CCC. The WPA hired unemployed men to take part in public works programs that included a significant amount of rural road improvements. Members of my family worked along the dirt roads, using the stone walls for fill and the foundation that would help the automobile replace the trains as the primary source of transportation in the near future.

On May 1, 1944 – fifty years to the day after being arrested and incarcerated for attempting to exercise his Constitutional rights – Jacob S. Coxey returned to deliver the speech he had prepared in 1894. "We have assembled here in violation of no just laws to enjoy the privileges of every American citizen," he said. "We are 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-carta 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 … plead for the poor and the oppressed, that (the National Legislature) 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. …. 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."

And in 1963, Mr. Randolph’s vision of another March on Washington became a reality. It was there that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" address.

Yesterday was the anniversary of my father’s death. I enjoyed looking through some of the old documents from his days as a union leader for The Order of Railroad Telegraphers. I think he would shake his head in disgust if he were alive to see what the economic policies of this country were doing to working class families. And I suspect that he would think Americans need to hear those stories about Commander Coxey that he learned as a youth.


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