- "Coxey's Army": Popular Protest in the Gilded Age by Benjamin F. Alexander
The truly Great Depression of the 1930s overshadowed many precursors in the nineteenth century: panics, downturns, recessions—as well as the subject of this volume—the smaller depression of 1893–94. The granddaddy of economic catastrophes also blotted out the substantial social and political protests that accompanied these earlier events. Coxey's Army, an entry in a quirky and valuable book series, Witness to History, reminds scholars and students alike what a notable and fertile time the Gilded Age curtsy was in our past.
Almost everything about the "Commonweal of Christ," the army's initial moniker, seemed to embrace the unusual and even the bizarre. It seemed more scientology than theology. The founding father, Jacob Coxey (1854–1951), achieved the classic Gilded Age fortune of pluck and luck for the few, as he graduated from mill operative to entrepreneur. He guided the first wave of several hundred demonstrators from his home and headquarters in Massillon, Ohio, to Washington in the spring of 1894.
Incidents of pathos and humor accompanied the various parading tributaries from the compass points of the United States to the nation's capital: greeted as heroes in some places, as hoboes elsewhere. The army itself, with so many deserters and sunshine marchers, never really numbered more than a thousand participants and no contingent arrived simultaneously in D.C. The blistered framework of the times, a marauding zeitgeist, featured a time line of the period's oppositional groups: People's Party, Greenbacks, Single Taxers, Knights of Labor, Socialists, and Farmers Alliance.
The army's journey was colorful and entertaining, but overwhelmed the more serious side of the movement until the passage of time uncovered the valuable characteristics beneath the engaging personalities, humorous antics, and bucolic nicknames of the participants. Alexander carefully and surgically separates the two roads the army followed. As the laughable moments wore out, the populist demand for unemployment relief and government jobs during trying economic times made sense to many workers and farmers while scaring the country's authorities along the way. Sadly, it all seemed to distill into whether or not Coxey would read his manifesto from the steps of the capitol building. He lost that battle too and went to jail for twenty days for carrying banners and fined $5.00 for trampling the presidential lawn. [End Page 122]
However, the highest blades of grass for Coxey and his proletarian warriors (and most of them appeared to be real workers) was a national infrastructure makeover highlighted by the building of "good roads" by jobless laborers—a seemingly twenty-first century, contemporary call to arms. Simply, Coxey wanted federal grants for state coffers to finance the projects. The author manages to tease the tinsel from off the army's dungaree uniforms to discern a greenback, silver-plate impulse to provide for those who toiled to create goods against those goldbugs who nonchalantly clipped their bonds and stocks to pay for things in flush times or bad. Alexander summed up the producer impulse: "It grew out of the years of economic and social change in which many laboring Americans believed that their lives had passed from their own hands to unresponsive, outside forces" (4). Coxey's theories did trigger congressional debates and his manifesto was read into the chamber's Record.
Coxey seemingly stayed involved forever, dying at age ninety-seven in 1951. By the time the Great Depression eclipsed Coxey's dwarf depression, the raw material of his arguments seemed an early curtain call for the New Deal and state and national intervention in the economy. He was accorded a kind of emeritus status and was arguing about the contours of World War II reconstruction more than a half century after his seemingly clownish march into the country's footnotes. Coxey ran for innumerable political positions on a plethora of tickets, winning only a one-term stint as...