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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
Carl Browne’s flamboyant appearance and matching disposition brought him the dislike of many men, but Coxey found him delightful. Twenty years after their first meeting, Coxey wrote, “I can say no more here than I have said to my friends many, many times, that Browne was the most unselfish man of my entire life’s acquaintance. He never gave a thought to pecuniary gain. His whole heart was in the movement to emancipate labor. …” Coxey’s sincere admiration for Browne can hardly be doubted: he encouraged one of his young daughters to marry the former medicine man, an age difference of over twenty years notwithstanding. Together the two visionaries transformed Coxey’s assortment of theories into a vital cause.
Coxey’s plan had already been presented to Congress in the form of two bills providing for the creation of a country-road fund, backed by $500 million in noninterest-bearing government bonds. All of the road work was to be done by ihe unemployed on the basis of an eight-hour day at a $1.50 daily minimum wage. The plan not only looked to public; works as relief measures, but also, in effect, would have put the federal government in direct competition with private enterprise. Yet Coxey had no illusions. “Having- very little faith that Congress would do more than pigeonhole these bills,” he wrote, “the idea was conceived of presenting the demand to Congress in the form of a petition with boots on.” Coxey’s Army was born.
Carl Browne, although officially second in command, was the primary spokesman and publicist for the march. His design became the banner for the “Army of the Commonweal,” a portrait of Christ with the slogan: “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men, But Death to Interest on Bonds.” Browne also drew up an organizational chart for the army, dividing it into “communes, regiments, and cantons,” each led by a marshal. As things turned out, this was rather more than was needed, for when Coxey’s legion ended its first day’s march on the outskirts of Canton, Ohio, it was found to number not more than one hundred men.
Many things besides sheer impracticably dogged the footsteps of this little band. One was the effective rumor that Coxey and Browne had set themselves up as religious figures. Stead wrote that Coxey “is said to be convinced that he and Browne are between them sharers of the reincarnation of Christ.” Then, as if to reassure his readers that such a claim was entirely out of the question, Stead added, “Coxey wears spectacles, is married, and has six children.” But Browne did little to discourage this notion, referring to himself as the “cerebellum of Christ” and Coxey as the “cerebrum.” Yet he meant to create a religious atmosphere, not found a religion. In one of his bulletins to “the troops,” Browne wrote: “I believe that a part of the soul of Christ happened to come into my being by reincarnation. I believe also that another part of Christ’s soul is in brother Coxey … I also believe that the remainder of the soul of Christ has been fully reincarnated in the thousands of people throughout the United States today, and that accounts lor 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 people.”
The soldiers themselves did not please most people who saw them pass. Many recruits were simply unemployed workmen, but the army had its seamier side. Besides Browne, who was given to ranting, there were such fellow travellers as an astrologer; the author of a pamphlet entitled Dogs and Fleas, by One of the Dogs; a Cherokee Indian who was trying to live on a diet of oatmeal; a man calling himself “The Great Unknown,” who was trailed by a mysterious veiled lady; a trumpet player named “Windy” Oliver; and many ordinary tramps who had seized on the march as a good way of assuring themselves of a free meal. Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton summed up the qualities of the average marcher: “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.”
Few contemporary accounts credited the Coxeyites with being more than a gang of tramps, but there was one reasonably objective study of 290 members of the Commonweal Army made by a professor at the University of Chicago. One half were reported as American-born, and two thirds as English-speaking. The average age was between thirty and thirty-two; 181 were skilled mechanics representing seventy trades, of whom less than half were union members. Eighty-eight professed to be Democrats; thirty-nine, Republicans; and ten, Populists; the remainder had not voted or had not yet been naturalized. One fourth of the total claimed they had needed charity to get through the preceding winter, and the average length of unemployment was five months. The study claimed that only five or six of the 290 were of “questionable” character.