- Historic Sites
Rebel In A Wing Collar
Marching on Washington is an old custom. When “General” Jacob Coxey and his Commonweal Army approached in 1894, the city trembled. But “the most dangerous man since the Civil War” meekly surrendered when nabbed for walking on the grass
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
At 12:30 P.M., Easter Sunday, 1891. a band of one hundred men began slowly to march eastward out of Massillon, Ohio. The group’s destination and purpose were summed up in the words ol an improvised battle hymn that a few of them sang as they trudged: We’re marching on to Washington, To right the nation’s wrongs .
It was not a good day for singing: the weather was cold and damp, the turnout of marchers disappointingly small. The more sensitive “soldiers” felt embarrassment at the publicity they were receiving, for forty-three special newspaper correspondents representing every major daily in the East were in attendance, with lour Western Union telegraph operators and two linemen. “Never in the annals of insurrection has so small a company of soldiers been accompanied by such a phalanx of recording angels,” wrote the visiting British reformer William T. Stead in the Review of Reviews .
The column formed behind a Negro carrying an American flag; another man dressed in typical cowboy attire of buckskin jacket, wide slouch hat, pantaloons, and heavy boots; a seven-piece band; and a buggy drawn by two bay mares—the official vehicle of the army’s “commanding general,” Jacob S. Coxey. For many months, this gold-spectacled, dapper man in conservative business attire had sent out page after page of advance publicity, warning the nation that the plight of America’s unemployed could be ignored no longer, that as many as 100,000 men would descend on Washington unless legislation were passed to provide work and food for the stricken millions.
The year 1893, the beginning of a four-year depression, had not been a good one for either employer or workingman. Farming was rapidly becoming an unreliable means of earning a living; overspec illation, tariff problems, and free-silver agitation had thrown business into chaos, with eight thousand business houses collapsing in six months—an extraordinary figure for the period. Dozens of railroads were in the hands of receivers, and Henry Adams wrote: “business executives died like (lies under the strain.”
For the workingman, conditions were deplorable. Struggling with long hours and low pay, bereft of any semblance of what we nowadays call job security, workmen attempted to band together in trade unions, but soon discovered that unless they resorted to violence they were ignored. The federal government, firmly dedicated to the prevailing laissez-faire policy, took no steps to ease the plight of business or of labor. As a result, three million men were left unemployed during the bitter winter of 1893-94. and the number of tramps wandering the countryside was said to be more than 60,000.
Against this gloomy background emerged the blackgarbed, wing-collared Massillon reformer: he was labor’s champion but the enemy of violence. Jacob Scchler Coxey was born in Selinsgiove, Pennsylvania, on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1854. Educated in the public schools at Danville, he quit at fifteen to work in a steel mill. He said later that the spare hours of his youth were spent reading and thinking about the fallacies of a money system that permitted frequent economic depressions. Ky iHyo, the thirty-six-year-old Goxey had been married twice, and had moved from his home state of Pennsylvania to Massillon. Ohio, where lie operated a successful stone quarry. He was a man with no particular hobbies, a nonsmoking Episcopalian who had established himself as a respectable, wealthy, and apparently conventional businessman.
Coxey’s political and economic: views, however, were anything hut conventional. A memher of the Populist Party, formed in i8ga out of western and southern agrarian groups, with some support from labor and from reform movements, Coxey entertained Greenback and other legal-tender theories that were predictably simplistic. “There’s nothing wrong with this country that money won’t cure” was one of his mottoes and a clue to his rather hazy ideas of finance. Everything would be all right, Coxey believed, if the government could be induced to issue virtually unlimited amounts of paper money and use it to pay the jobless hordes to labor on public works. The money was to be secured by non-interest-bearing bonds. Understandably, after daily buggy rides over the five miles of rutty roads between Massillon and his stone quarry, Coxey selected the building of good highways as the most pressing need of the nation.
Coxey’s attempts to spread these theories were not notably successful. In the summer of 1893, he tried to address a large gathering of unemployed on Chicago’s lake front, only to have the meeting dispersed on orders of Mayor Carter Harrison. At the Populist convention some months later, however, he did rather better. Not only did his ideas intrigue many delegates of the reform party, but he won an introduction to a man who could put these ideas before the public. Carl Browne, whom a contemporary writer called “the flower of American demagogism” was a veteran of Denis Kearney’s anti-Chinese-labor riots on the sandlots of San Francisco; he had also been a cartoonist, medicine man, orator, and organizer. No shrinking violet, Browne often wore a buckskin jacket buttoned with silver half-dollars, stamped with the word FREE. Long black hair flowed from beneath his Buffalo Bill cowboy hat, framing a round, heavily bearded face.