Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Before #Occupy: Coxey's Army

Here's a fun fact:  Over 100 years before the #Occupy movement, there was Coxey's Army, a protest march from Ohio to Washington in 1894, the second year of a depression that, up until that point, was the worst the country had ever seen (up to 25% unemployment in cities).

I am interested in Coxey's Army for a few reasons.  First, it was one of the earliest organized labor protests during the Gilded Age, as people were starting to realize that having lots of manufacturing wasn't any good if your workers were starving.  Second, they wanted Washington to help the country out of the depression by starting public works projects.  Congress sneered at this at the time - many still believed that unemployment was a sign of disfavor from God, so it would be sinful to mess around with it.  Plus, it was an anathema to the prevailing laissez-fair hands-off economic theory. It wasn't until the New Deal Congress in the 1930's, 40 years later, that we saw government take a proactive role in trying to do something about unemployment.

Jacob Coxey was a businessman from Pennsylvania who made money in Ohio and lived a patrician sort of lifestyle breeding horses.  Before practical joke names like North West, he even named one of his children Legal Tender.  But eventually he became an anti-monopolist, and a politician.  He led an "army" of protesters across the Allegheny mountains starting in March 1894, marching to DC, gaining supporters along the way who would bring them food and supplies.  The size of the march varied and estimates are between 5,000 and 12,000.  Apparently about 2,000 actually got to DC, and just when Coxey was about to start his speech at the Capital building, he was arrested for walking on the grass.

Fifty years later in 1944, Congress gave him the blessing to give his speech.  Here's an excerpt:

"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. We stand here today to test these guaranties of our Constitution. We choose this place of assemblage because it is the property of the people. . . Here rather than at any other spot upon the continent it is fitting that we should come to mourn over our dead liberties and by our protest arouse the imperiled nation to such action as shall rescue the Constitution and resurrect our liberties."

Apparently L. Frank Baum was one of the people watching and following the Coxey's Army progression, and many people think that there are political echoes of it in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as Dorothy, the Scarecrow (American farmer), Tin Man (industrial worker) and Cowardly Lion (William Jennings Bryan) marched to the Emerald City (the Capital) demanding relief from the Wizard (the President).  

Coxey's Army is often brought up in the same breath as the Pullman Strike where the workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company (sleeper railway cars) went on strike in 1894.  Pullman was one of the first Company Towns, and during the 1893 depression he lowered wages for workers while keeping rents steady and also increasing dividends paid to investors.  There were riots and 50,000 striking railway workers, with Grover Cleveland eventually stepping in to break up the strike.  

Here's a documentary put together by the Massillon Museum in Ohio and available on youtube.

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