In dreams, he sees an army. Then Coxey awakes, and sees only fifty tramps.

From The New York Times - March 25, 1894

The New York Times ran a number of wire service reports immediately before Coxey’s Army left Massillon, Ohio on March 25, 1894. Coming from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C., the tone of the writing can best be described as bewildered amusement.

It is claimed by Marshal Browne that nearly fifty recruits have arrived in Massillon, but up to last night, none of them had been discovered, and reputable Massillonians asserted that the arrivals were all in the mind of the the “Seer and Prophet” as the Marshal styles himself.  The headquarters of the Commonweal consist of one unfurnished room in a new block in West Main Street, one small desk, which when new, cost $7.25, one small soft-coal stove, one nail keg, two chairs, and one saloon table, which has recently seen some service.  Here the mail is opened every morning, and plans for the great movement are talked over.

Read the article from the New York Times archives here.

Mr Coxey’s attempt to storm the Capitol

From the archives of The Guardian - May 2, 1894

In the meantime numerous police, both mounted and on the floor, had assembled at the east part of the Capitol, where Coxey had declared his party would assemble. On reaching the street skirting the Capitol grounds to the north the procession found that the police barred the entrance. Coxey thereupon alighted from his buggy and jumped over the wall of the Capitol grounds, being followed by Browne. The police pursued them, and a number of the mob from the street made their way over the wall, the police cordon having been broken for a moment by the rush of the people. The people surged and shouted, but the police soon stemmed the rush.

The protest that made Occupy DC possible

Sam Chaltain - samchaltain.com

Chaltain ties the Occupy DC protest of 2011 to the Coxey’s Army march of 1894.  Notable is the mention of the Capital Grounds Act, a measure used to silence political speech in Washington D.C.

At the time of the parade, the United States was in the second year of a major economic depression and millions of Americans were unemployed; Coxey believed he had the answer to the nation’s economic woes. He proposed that the federal government issue $500 million in treasury bonds, that it apply those funds to initiate a massive program to build up the nation’s roads, and that it hire an army of workers, all of who would be guaranteed eight-hour days and daily wages of $1.50.

Convinced his plan would be ignored unless he presented it in person, Coxey intended to lead his peaceful parade of unemployed citizens all the way to Washington, D.C., where they would present a “petition in boots” to Congress on May 1 – International Labor Day. By the time they arrived, he promised reporters at a press conference on January 27, “We’ll have 100,000 men. We’ll not take a dollar with us, and instead of muskets every man will carry a white flag with the words, ‘Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men, but Death to Interest-Bearing Bonds.’”

What Coxey did not know was that a law forbade him – without the official permission of the Vice President and the Speaker of the House – from presenting his petition in the way he envisioned. The Act to Regulate the Use of the Capitol Grounds, originally passed in 1882 to “subserve the quiet and dignity of the Capitol of the United States,” prohibited “any harangue or oration” and outlawed the display of “any flag, banner or devices designed or adapted to bring into public notice any party, organization, or movement” on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

Prior to Coxey’s arrival, the act had almost never been enforced. Yet it reflected the sentiment of the time, which held that Washington was a place for official business, not active protest.

Chaltain’s article goes on to mention that the Coxey march ultimately helped to transform the perception of DC into a place where it is fitting for the people to take their concerns and to seek redress.  A far cry from spending 20 days in jail for trespassing.

The speech Jacob Coxey (almost) never gave

When participants in Coxey’s Army (estimated at 500 people) reached Washington on May 1, 1894, having started their march in Massillon, Ohio, they were met by 1500 soldiers, with more on call in case of trouble.  When Jacob Coxey went to speak, he was arrested for walking on the grass.

It is particularly interesting to think that he was arrested while reading the first two paragraphs…

May 1, 1894

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 to-day to test these guaranties of our Constitution. We choose this place of assemblage because it is the property of the people, and if it be true that the right of the people to peacefully assemble upon their own premises and utter their petitions has been abridged by the passage of laws in direct violation of the Constitution, we are here to draw the eyes of the entire nation to this shameful fact. 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.

Upon these steps where we stand has been spread a carpet for the royal feet of a foreign princess, the cost of whose lavish entertainment was taken from the public Treasury without the consent or the approval of the people. Up these steps the lobbyists of trusts and corporations have passed unchallenged on their way to committee rooms, access to which we, the representatives of the toiling wealth-producers, have been denied. We stand here to-day in behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been unresponded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative, productive labor have been taken from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers: we come to remind the Congress here assembled of the declaration of a United States Senator, “that for a quarter of a century the rich have been growing richer, the poor poorer, and that by the close of the present century the middle class will have disappeared as the struggle for existence becomes fierce and relentless.”

We stand here to remind Congress of its promise of returning prosperity should the Sherman act be repealed. We stand here to declare by our march of over 400 miles through difficulties and distress, a march unstained by even the slightest act which would bring the blush of shame to any, that we are lawabiding citizens, and as men our actions speak louder than words We are here to petition for legislation which will furnish employment for every man able and willing to work; for legislation which will bring universal prosperity and emancipate our beloved country from financial bondage to the descendants of King George. We have come to the only source which is competent to aid the people in their day of dire distress. We are here to tell our Representatives, who hold their seats by grace of our ballots, that the struggle for existence has become too fierce and relentless. We come and throw up our defenseless hands, and say, help, or we and our loved ones must perish. We are engaged in a bitter and cruel war with the enemies of all mankind—a war with hunger, wretchedness, and despair, and we ask Congress to heed our petitions and issue for the nation’s good a sufficient volume of the same kind of money which carried the country through one awful war and saved the life of the nation.

In the name of justice, through whose impartial administration only the present civilization can be maintained and perpetuated, by the powers of the Constitution of our country upon which the liberties of the people must depend, and in the name of the commonweal of Christ, whose representatives we are, we enter a most solemn and earnest protest against this unnecessary and cruel usurpation and tyranny, and this enforced subjugation of the rights and privileges of American citizenship. We have assembled here in violation of no just laws to enjoy the privileges of every American citizen. We are now 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-charta 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 lay our grievances at the doors of our National Legislature and ask them in the name of Him whose banners we bear, in the name of Him who plead for the poor and the oppressed, that they should heed the voice of despair and distress that is now coming up from every section of our country, that they 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.

Coming as we do with peace and good will to men, we shall submit to these laws, unjust as they are, and obey this mandate of authority of might which overrides and outrages the law of right. 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.

J. S. COXEY
Commander of the Commonweal of Christ

On May 1, 1944,  fifty years to the day of the first march, Jacob Coxey delivered his speech in its entirety on the steps of the U.S.. Capitol.  By this time, many of his ideas related to the creation of public works projects to put unemployed people back to work and stimulate the economy had been adopted.  He was 90 years old.


Jacob Coxey – May 1, 1944 (Picture courtesy Life Magazine)

Jacob Coxey’s speech was published in the Congressional Record, 53rd Cong., 2d sess., (9 May 1894): 4512.

You will also find this speech online here and here.