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Rebel In A Wing Collar

July 2024
14min read

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

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.

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.

Most Americans would have rejected such moderate views of the army, and many feared that this thin stream of the discontented could swell into a massive river of protest. There was much speculation about whether the movement was legal, and what might come of it if left uncontrolled. Representative Joseph Outhwaite of Ohio pleaded that “if Coxey’s followers will only think, they will see that if from 10,000 to 50,000 men can intimidate Congress to do one thing, then another 10,000 to 50,000 men can intimidate them to do another tiling—which leads to anarchy.” Senator William Stewart of Nevada wrote a letter to Coxey urging him to “use the ballot box to protect liberty,” while others professed concern that the army would starve along the way.

Coxey himself was vague when asked how he intended to feed his army. In an interview at Pittsburgh, he claimed that the army would emulate Christ by “plucking the ears of corn along the way,” but he also stated that his troops were “patriots, not bummers.” Actually, he hoped for donations along the route, and was not often disappointed. Police and town officials may have been hostile to his cause, but they had no desire to prod the army into riots. Most communities provided shelter by opening their jails or by setting up sanitary facilities in fields or public buildings. No doubt some townspeople donated food simply as a means of moving the army on its way, but there were more than a few places that welcomed the Army of the Commonweal with genuine enthusiasm. Allegheny City presented them with a new banner reading, “Laws for Americans. More money, less misery, good roads. No interest-bearing bonds.” And on Mardi 27, two days out of Massillon, the army was treated to a rousing reception at Economy, Pennsylvania, where it was given a wagonload of potatoes, bread, ginger cakes, and other food. Here and there the hat was passed, and at Cumberland, Maryland, with his men camped in the baseball park, Coxey charged the curious ten cents admission. The take was $145.

The job of disciplining the troops of the army fell to Browne, who attacked the task with such obvious enthusiasm that he was quickly clubbed “that greasy old humbug” by his men. Although he spent a good deal of time writing bulletins and haranguing capitalists, Browne did try out morale-building ideas, one of them the formal presentation of merit certificates whenever the situation was appropriate. When the army crossed the Blue Mountains in a snowstorm, one of these cards of merit was issued, a sample of which reads, “This is to certify that John Souther» of Group 3, Commune i, Chicago Community of the Commonweal of Christ, is entitled to this souvenir of heroic conduct in crossing the Cumberland Mountains in the face of ice and snow, and despite police persecution and dissension breeders.” At another lime, Browne thought that some music might cheer the troops, and as they crossed the Pennsylvania border heading south, he ordered the playing of “Maryland, My Maryland.”

During the first week of April, the army began to enlarge, though not as dramatically as Coxey had hoped and predicted. Passing through Homestead, Pennsylvania, the Commonweal ranks swelled from three hundred to six hundred, enough to cause a stir of apprehension in Washington. On April 18, Congress first took official recognition of the approach of Coxey’s Army by staying in special session until six thirty in the evening. A show of armed force was voted down, even after a newspaper article pointed out that “L’Enfant, who had experienced the horrors of the revolution in Paris … laid out the city [of Washington] with the especial design of preventing a repetition of such horrors. … The avenues radiated from centers which could be commanded by a few Galling guns.”

By this time the “march oil Washington” was something of a national movement, with contingents of unemployed ready to move out from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. They had been independently organized, but in the public mind they were inseparably associated with Coxey, whose group got most of the national attention. Typical was the “army” of 350, under Charlie Kelly, which gathered in San Francisco on April 3. When the mayor of San Francisco could find no way of dispersing them, he saw to it that they were given free transportation across the Bay—an act that did not endear him to the mayor of Oakland. The citizens of Oakland promptly raised enough money to hurry the army to Sacramento, but when the troops marched down to the railroad yards and saw common boxcars awaiting them instead of passenger cars, they turned around and marched back to Oakland. A general alarm was sounded, Galling guns were wheeled in front of City Hall, the police and fire departments were armed, and 1,200 citi/ens were deputized, before the Commonwealers and their commander finally accepted the boxcar offer. Few of them, however, were ever to reach Washington, for their troubles on the West Coast anticipated what they would encounter all the way.

In the meantime, Coxey’s own army was struggling through Maryland in the midst of a fight for power between two of his lieutenants. The discontent that bred mutiny may have erupted for any of a number of reasons, possibly because Coxey himself was off on a side trip, perhaps because Carl Browne was riding while the others were walking, and was staying in the best hotels while his men were sleeping in tents or on the floors of jails. On April 14, the man called The Great Unknown staged an uprising, and might have wrested the leadership from Browne, had Coxey not returned just in time to restore the peace. He ordered the Unknown and his lady friend out of camp. Even Coxey’s son, Jesse, was purged and banished for associating with the mutineers; later he was reinstated “on condition that he not sulk anymore.” After this melodrama, many correspondents who had been reporting Coxey’s march in an objective manner began to do what they had wanted to do from the start—that is, burlesque it. This was hotly resented by Coxey and Browne, who attacked the writers as “argus-eyed demons of hell.”

Long exasperated with the press, Coxey devised a plan to get ricl of them. Hiring two Chesapeake and Ohio canalboats at Cumberland, he piled the army aboard and announced that they would travel in that way for the next hundred miles. Previously, the newspapermen had followed the army by horseback and carriage, and had taken turns tagging along on foot. Now they could not bear to let the army sail away from them, so they rented a third canalboat for pursuit. A cook and ample supplies of food and drink were rounded up, and the vessel was christened the Flying Demon, after Browne’s hot words. From her deck, reporters sent back entertaining descriptions of the newly amphibious army. “It was like a floating picture of Victor Hugo,” one correspondent wrote, “… the ragged forms swarming like rats over every foot of the craft, and rough … faces … peering through the cabin windows like the victims of the old French galleys.”

The cruise of the Flying Demon came to an end at Williamsport, Maryland, where Coxey and his army took to the road again. Just outside of Washington they paused to await the arrival of a contingent from Philadelphia under the leadership of “Marshal” Christopher Columbus Jones—a force which amounted to eighteen men, an American Hag, and a bulldog. On the day Jones arrived, April 23, the District of Columbia commissioners issued a manifesto directed at the Coxeyites, forbidding the soliciting of funds in the capital and warning them against assembling on the grounds of the Capitol building or obstructing public roads or highways. Chief of Police William G. Moore announced that he intended to arrest Coxey it he moved into the city, citing an 1830 law that made it a penal offense to bring any person into Washington who was likely to become a public charge. Then the Commonweal Army and the constabulary paused, each waiting for the other to make the first move.

Unfortunately for Coxey, this was the moment when first blood was spilled in what until then had been a remarkably peaceful movement. Some portions of the western contingents had been appropriating boxcars as a means of transportation; and when a group of “Coxeyites” started to make off with a Northern Pacific Railway car at Butte, Montana, a pitched battle ensued, with each side suffering one casualty. President Cleveland quickly sent federal troops to Butte, with orders to arrest the leaders of “the mob” and bring them to trial. Public sentiment for Coxey, whatever there was of it, quickly dissipated. Nevertheless, he chose to carry on. “I dare the police to arrest my men!” he replied to the suggestion that there might be violent action; and to the suggestion that there might be complete inaction, “If they starve in the streets of Washington, the stench from their ashes will force Congressional relief.”

On May 1, 1894, thousands of spectators gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue to witness the arrival of Coxey’s army in downtown Washington. “Such a fantastic aggregration never paraded itself in seriousness before the public,” the Baltimore Herald reported:
There were 500 in line. Mrs. Annie L. Diggs, the Populist agitator of Kansas [was first] … then Coxey’s seventeen-year-old daughter in white on a cream-colored steed, representing the goddess of peace; Carl Browne on a great gray Percheron stallion; General Jacob Sechler Coxey, his wife, and infant son … together in another carriage; Virginia La Valette, said to be an actress, on horseback, draped in an American flag as the Philadelphia Commune’s goddess of peace; [then] the unemployed carrying white flags of peace on staves and the nondescript banners setting forth the doctrines of reincarnation, good roads, and enmity to plutocrats sprinkled through the caravan.

Arriving at the east steps of the Capitol, Coxey attempted to address the crowd, but was told it was against the law. He then asked permission to read a written protest, which was also denied him. At this point, just as he handed a written copy of the protest to the press, the crowd became unruly and what was described as a riot broke out. Browne’s horse leaped a low wall, followed by an entire squadron of mounted policemen. Less than five minutes later, order was restored, and Coxey, Browne, and Christopher Columbus Jones were placed under arrest. On May 8, the three were found guilty of walking on the grass of the Capitol, fined five dollars each, and sentenced to twenty days in jail. Meanwhile, all across the nation, scattered bits of the army continued to march toward Washington, unaware that the cause was already lost. About a hundred or more from the main army camped briefly across the Maryland line, but after many complaints by farmers of food being stolen, the governor sent a number of Baltimore policemen to round up the men, about eighty of whom were jailed as vagrants.

So ended what some had called the “red menace” of 1894. Carl Browne continued to agitate for organized labor until his death in 1913. Coxey returned to Ohio, but did not sink into the oblivion that would surely have come to him if he had been no more than a publicity-seeker. Indeed, for another half-century, he made further attempts to win over Congress, and in 1914 led a second, sadly unnoticed march on Washington, again for public-works projects. A lesser spirit might have quit then, but Coxey was a man who shrugged off abuse, derision, and failure. It did not impair his sense of his own immortal fame to be named candidate for President in 1932 on the Farmer-Labor ticket (in Minnesota, he received 5,371 votes, almost as many as the Communist candidate), and to lose.

His struggles were not altogether unrewarded. In the iggo’s he had the satisfaction of seeing some of his ideas incorporated in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s publicworks projects: he had been, in his time, a kind of harbinger of the New Deal.

His final ambition, to be a centenarian, was denied him: he died in 1951, at the age of ninety-seven. Several children survived him, but not that infant son he had carried down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1894, Legal Tender Coxey by name.

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