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C H A P T E R T H R E E A Millenarian Spectacle “People are dissatisfied and if something is not done soon to satisfy the unemployed something will drop.”1 Washington Bee B E F O R E T H E Y L E F T M A S S I L L O N Browne declared that the very act of marching to Washington “would awaken the attention of the whole people to a sense of their duty in impressing upon Congress the importance of Coxey’s Good Roads Plan.” Though the idea to stage this first march on Washington was unique, political theatricality found strong traditions in Europe and America. Indeed, the visiting British journalist William Stead, who focused on the plight of the homeless in Chicago, likened the march to the mid-nineteenth-century English protest movement known as Chartism.Stead saw parallels between Coxey’s petition of boots and the English Chartist petition movement to establish the franchise that had occurred some fifty years before. He noted, “We have Coxeyism as a kind of spurious Chartism of the New World to proclaim to the world the need for action other than that of laissez-faire, and of a religion more helpful than that of the worship of the almighty dollar.”2 Coxey’s first march on Washington also followed a rich tradition of political protest in colonial America. Crowd actions such as the Stamp Act riots arose out of a long-established tradition of mob violence begrudgingly accepted as a necessary consequence of British constitutionalism. Here there existed a blurred line between the theatrically spectacular and the brazenly violent.Acts such as the hanging of British authorities in effigy, the tarring and feathering of tax collectors,or the staging of mock stamping acts meted out their own “rough justice.” Perhaps the singular most recognized and spectacular act of defiance in colonial America, the Boston Tea Party, challenged an accepted ritual of authority. In defiance of a genteel tradition, theatrically costumed Indians (a uniform deliberately chosen to symbolize a frontier disregard for custom and civility) mocked this long-cherished­British custom.3 A Millenarian Spectacle 41 Later in the eighteenth century the earliest American versions of labor protest would often spill out of taverns and shops into the streets, gathering sympathetic bystanders who paraded to the seat of local authority. Like the later Coxey phenomenon, these moving protests drew strength from sympathizers who joined them as they passed by,if even for a few brief moments as a way to show support. The spontaneous strike parade would merrily march through the streets in an affirmation of worker identity. These protests became the antecedents for the sort of strike processions that would become more prevalent as a form of dissent throughout the nineteenth century . As craft and trade unions emerged in mid-nineteenth-century America ,“the public meeting, the festive celebration, the mass demonstration and the protest procession all became tools for popularizing various causes.”4 Growing up in the coal regions of Pennsylvania, Coxey undoubtedly heard the tales of the recurrent strikes that marked the region in the late nineteenth century. He would have been fourteen in 1868, when about two hundred coal strikers armed with clubs appeared one afternoon in the streets of nearby Wilkes Barre, about fifty-six miles from Danville where the Coxeys then resided. The miners were part of a larger labor protest moving from the Mahoney to the Schuylkill and then on to the Wyoming River Valley. The men marched between mines and shops, rallying others to stop work. As they approached the large Pittston mine, the protesters now numbered over five hundred. Armed, they successfully forced a Pennsylvania Coal Company train to stop dead on the tracks. Led by Irish immigrant James Lamlert, the angry workers continued toward Scranton, gaining in numbers along the way in their determination to change the horrific working conditions in the coal mines throughout northeast Pennsylvania. Much like Coxey’s march later, Lamlert’s encountered sympathetic and welcoming crowds along the way.5 Surrounded by labor protests like these as he came of age,Coxey may well have conceived the idea to march to the nation’s capital on his own.According to the account of David Heizer, a former Kansas state legislator, Coxey broached the idea nearly two years before the departure from Massillon.We actually first see reference to the march in the first bulletin of the J. S. Coxey Good...


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