The speech Jacob Coxey (almost) never gave

Coxey behind the bars - from PBS

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.  Jacob Coxey went to speak, but only managed to make it through the first two paragraphs, before getting arrested for walking on the grass.

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We stand here to remind Congress of its promise of returning prosperity should the Sherman act be repealed.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.

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’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.

1 comment

  1. On Easter 1894, the Army of the Commonweal of Christ began a march to Washington, D. C. from Massillon, OH as a “petition in boots” to pass two bills, the Good Roads Bill and the Non-interest Bearing Bond Bill which would provide employment for many of those out of work in one of the worst economic depressions of the nineteenth century. The legislation and the movement was initiated and led by Jacob Coxey and became known as Coxey’s Army. It was the first organized march on Washington and may suggest a way for us today to rebuild our neglected infrastructure.

    Here is how Jacob Coxey explained the idea at Camp California, Williamsport, MD on April 18, 1894:

    [source The Story of the Commonweal by Henry Vincent
    NY: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969, a contemporaneous account]
    “The aim and object of this march to Washington has been to awaken the attention of the whole people to a sense of their duty in impression upon Congress the necessity for giving immediate relief to the four million of unemployed people, and their immediate families, consisting of twelve million fifteen million more. The idea of the march is to attract the attention of the whole people of this country to the greatest question that has ever been presented to them – the money question. Believing that the people can only digest one idea at a time, it was necessary to get up some attraction that would overshadow other matters and have their minds centered upon this one idea and to understand it intelligently.

    “Knowing that this march would consume thirty-five days from Massillon to Washington, that it would attract their attention and we could present this money feature to them in an impressive sense and a business[like] manner and thus be able to educate them more in six weeks’ time than through any one political party in ten years.

    “Our plan is to arrive at Washington by May 1, next, and camp there until Congress takes some action upon the two bills that have been presented to them by Senator Peffer, viz.: ‘The Good Roads Bill’ and ‘The Non-interest Bearing Bond Bill.’ Believing that the unemployed people and the business men of this country whose interests are identical will try and get to Washington the first week in May, from three hundred thousand to five hundred thousand strong. In this manner they will bring the strongest impression to bear upon Congress coming through the common people that has ever been made in the history of this country.

    “So long as Congress can keep the people isolated from each other all over the land, they will never grant them any relief, but when they come in a body like this, peaceably to discuss their grievances and demanding immediate relief, Congress can no longer turn a deaf ear, but will heed them and do it quickly.

    “The full text of the bill before Congress by which to build good roads, according to my plan, is as follows:

    “SECTION 1. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress assembled: That the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States is hereby authorized and instructed to have engraved and printed, immediately after the passage of this bill, five hundred millions of dollars of treasury notes, a legal tender for all debts, public and private, said notes to be in denominations of one, two, five and ten dollars, and to be placed in a fund to be known as the ‘general county road fund system of the United States’ and to be expended solely for said purpose,

    (52) “SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the Secretary of War to take charge of the construction of the General County Road System in the United States, and said construction to commence as soon as the Secretary of the Treasury shall inform the Secretary of War that the said fund is available, which shall not be later than ——-; when it shall be the duty of the Secretary of War to inaugurate the work and expend the sum of twenty millions of dollars per month, pro rata, with the number of miles of roads in each state and territory in the United States.

    “SEC 3. Be it further enacted, That all labor other than that of the Secretary of War, ‘whose compensations are already fixed by law,’ shall be paid by the day, and that the rate be not less than one dollar and fifty cents per day for team and labor, and that eight hours per day shall constitute a day’s labor under the provision of this bill.

    “Now the propositions are, that Congress shall issue and appropriate five hundred million dollars of full legal tender treasury note to the state and territories, pro rata, with the number of miles of roads in each state and territory at the rate of twenty million dollars per month, for the improvements of the public roads of this country, and to give employment to the unemployed in making these improvements. Another provision of this bill says that all labor shall be generally by the day – no contract labor – and the rate shall be not less than one dollar and fifty cents per day of eight hours.

    “This will settle the eight hour question, because it brings into competition the government, which stands ready at all times to employ the idle labor in making public roads at one dollar and fifty cents per day for a day of eight hours, and no employer of labor outside of the government will be able to employ a single man for less than one dollar and fifty cents per day of eight hours, so this will practically settle the eight hour question.

    “The other matter under consideration is the Non-interest Bearing Bond Bill, now before Congress, as follows:

    “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives, in Congress assembled, that whenever any state, territory, county, township, municipality, or incorporated town or village deem it necessary to make any public improvements, they shall deposit with the Secretary of the Treasury of the United State a non-interest bearing, twenty-five-year bond, not to exceed one-half the assessed valuation of the property in said state, territory, county, township, municipality, or incorporated town or village, and said bond to be retired at the rate of four per cent per annum.

    “Whenever the foregoing section of this act has been complied with, it shall be mandatory upon the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States to have engraved and printed treasury notes in the denominations of one, two, five, ten and twenty dollars each, which shall be a full legal tender for all debts, public and private, to the face value of said bond, and deliver to said state, territory, county, township, municipality, or incorporated town or village ninety-nine per cent of said notes, and retain one per cent for expense of engraving and printing same.

    “This non-interest, twenty-five-year bond bill grants to all states, counties, townships, municipalities, towns or villages the right to draw their non-interest, twenty-five-year bond, not to exceed one-half the assess valuation of their entire property, and to deposit the same with the Secretary of the treasury at Washington. It will then be mandatory upon him to issue the face value of these bonds in full legal tender treasury notes of the denominations of one, two, five, ten and twenty dollars each, returning ninety-nine per cent of those notes to the states, counties, townships, municipalities, towns or villages depositing these bonds, and the government retaining one per cent for the expense of engraving the treasury notes. The parties so receiving the money agree to repay it back at the rate of four per cent per annum, or in twenty-five annual installments without interest.

    “This will enable, the state, counties, townships, municipalities, towns or villages to make all the public improvements that they will need for all time to come without paying one cent of tribute to any one in the share of usury. They will be enabled to build their statehouses, their insane asylums, courthouses, infirmaries and schoolhouses. All municipalities can build their own market houses, pubic libraries, museums, engine houses, schoolhouses, and public halls where people can come and discuss all questions that interest them; pave their own streets; own and build their own electric light plants, water works, street railroads, and other public improvements that are a convenience and comfort, and promote the advancement of the whole people.

    “After this system of public improvements is inaugurated, it will settle the money question, as it will supply all the money needed for the public convenience, and to develop the resources of the country, and not one dollar can go into circulation without a service being rendered and the value credited to the government direct in the shape of public improvements, which will be beneficial to all.

    “This will supply actual money in place of confidence money. This will substitute a cash system for a credit or script system. The business of this country has been done on confidence money. Now that the confidence has vanished, business has also vanished.

    “One year ago we had in circulation $1,500,000,000 in actual money, $1,000,000,000 of which was in the hands of the people making the small exchanges, $500,000,000 was in the banks and bank reserves, and upon these reserves the banks of this country had created $4,000,000,000 of confidence money, and by the conspiracy of the money lenders of Europe in throwing their securities upon our markets and converting them into gold and withdrawing the gold from the country. Thus through the continues agitation of the daily press claiming that if the government did not stop the further purchase of silver through the Sherman bill, it would drive gold out of this country and would create a panic.

    “They did, through these means scare the small depositors and employers of the country into withdrawing their savings and deposits from the banks, and when employers went to the banks to get accommodations in the shape of discounts, the banker said, ‘Self-preservation being the first law of nature, I must protect my depositors, and cannot therefore, discount your paper.’

    “The manufacturer, expecting that there would be no trouble in using the paper that he had taken in payment for his goods, was nonplused and compelled to close down his works on account of not being able to realize upon this paper. This then became general throughout the country, business men were compelled to suspend, and thousands of millions of credit was affected. The paper confidence money which had been transacting the business of the country just the same as the actual money did, commenced to vanish, and as it vanished business vanished with it; workshops became idle and are now rusting away; men were thrown out of employment, and now devastation and ruin have spread over our land.

    “To cap the climax, when the money famine was at its height, President Cleveland called an extra session of Congress to repeal the Sherman [Silver Purchase] act, which act did increase the volume of money at the rate of four million dollars per month. Had it been left upon the statute books, it would have made money a little easier, and by repealing that act business has become worse. There is little hope for the future in a business sense unless the two measures mentioned are passed. These would give immediate relief to the unemployed, in making public improvements and substitute actual money in place of confidence money that has already vanished, thus taking away all possibility of panics and hard times in the future and make it an impossibility for a man to seek work without finding it.”

    also published at

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