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  • Coxey's Army: Popular Protest in the Gilded Age by Benjamin F. Alexander
  • Sam Mitrani
Benjamin F. Alexander, Coxey's Army: Popular Protest in the Gilded Age (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2015)

Benjamin Alexander's short, readable text does an excellent job placing Coxey's Army in the broader context of resistance to the problems created by industrial capitalism in the late-19th century. Then and since, Coxey and his followers have been dismissed, to the point that people used the term "Coxey's Army" to refer to any kind of fool's errand. Alexander does not entirely disagree: he illustrates the theater of the absurd that made up part of the march's appeal. Yet at the same time, Alexander argues that Coxey's Army gained wide support in towns across the country because it also embodied many of the discontents and ideas felt by people left behind by the economic developments of the Gilded Age. And however foolish Coxey's ideas might have seemed to his elite contemporaries, they actually foreshadowed many of the central concepts of progressivism, the New Deal, Keynesian economics, and even the Occupy movement.

Alexander spends considerable space in a short book giving a persuasive account of Gilded Age political economy and the crisis of the 1890s. This includes clear and well-drawn accounts of the various producerist and radical responses to the rise of industrial capitalism, including the Farmers' Alliance, the Populist Party and the Knights of Labor, and the development of the ideas of Edward Bellamy [End Page 279] and Henry Vincent. In short, Alexander argues, the debate came down to a simple question: what was the appropriate role of government in the economy? And for those on the reform side of the coin, what measures might prod the government to take action?

All of these questions were exacerbated by the economic crisis of the 1890s. By 1894 when Coxey and his army set out, various political currents from churches to moderate reformers like Samuel Gompers were all raising the issue of unemployment and calling into question the government's laissez-faire policies in various ways. Coxey's Army marched to Washington as part of this current to demand that the federal government address the problem of unemployment by launching a Good Roads program. Coxey argued that Congress should fund this by issuing paper money to state and county governments in return for non-interest bearing bonds. Coxey thus combined three issues: unemployment, the need to improve the country's infrastructure, and the demand to expand the currency. These were issues central to the labour movement and Populism. They were also issues that would all eventually receive a great deal of attention from the federal government, though not for many decades. Alexander thus argues that Coxey's march was emblematic and representative of the broad stream of Gilded Age opposition to laissez-faire.

At the same time, Coxey's Army itself was an eclectic mix of family members, unemployed men, and simple eccentrics. In addition to demanding Coxey's program be enacted by the federal government, many participants in the march acted out different elements of the Republican and Christian mythology of the country. The second most important organizer of the march, Carl Brown, named the organization that planned the march the "Commonweal of Christ" in reference to a form of Theosophy which held that the souls of living people contained bits of the souls of those who had gone before, and that the march would assemble so many bits of the soul of Jesus in Washington D.C. that it would force Congress to pass the Good Roads bill. Coxey was himself such a believer in these ideas that just before the march commenced he named his newborn son Legal Tender Coxey. He brought another of his sons along, and wanted his 17-year-old daughter to march with him as the "Goddess of Peace," wearing white and riding a white horse, but her mother forbade her. It should come as no surprise that this group of eccentrics sometimes fought, divided among themselves, followed different leaders, accused each other of stealing, and competed for attention, and...


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pp. 279-281
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