- Coxey's Crusade for Jobs: Unemployment in the Gilded Age by Jerry Prout
DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2016
152 pp., $25.00 (paper)
When Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey led his great march of jobless men on Washington, DC, in 1894 to deliver what he described as a petition with boots on, all the powers that be trembled; and when his march ended in fiasco, its leaders jailed for walking on the grass, all the detractors laughed. Approaching the familiar story from the angle of reporters and giving respect and attention to Coxey's ideas, Jerry Prout has produced a narrative worth walking quite a distance for.
Readers will find a deep sympathy for those thrown out of work in a depression that state and national governments did little more than try to wish away, at least where the jobless were concerned. In Coxey and his hangers-on, they will find freakish millenarians, theosophists, and leather-lunged blatherskites like Carl Browne, but also thinkers convinced that a jobs program building a national network of better roads, paid for with deficit spending, could ease hard times for those in need. Widely accepted by economists today, Coxey's panacea qualified as Red anarchism to opinion-shapers then and outlandishly irresponsible even to the milquetoast Good Roads movement already on the ground. No less revolutionary in a Jim Crow age was the march's inclusiveness for African Americans, one of them acting as standard-bearer. A dramatic narrative, backed by delving into newspapers from the time, carries the reader along from the Midwest to the Capitol grounds. Looking backward, Prout sees Coxey as a man not so much in his time as generations ahead of it. To his march and the journalists reporting it—Ray Stannard Baker of the Chicago Record especially—he credits America's awakening to the conditions of the unemployed. The very word unemployment, new to that age, became part of the national vocabulary, with its implication that the idle were so by no choice of their own. No longer could they be dismissed as tramps, ne'er-do-wells, and "Weary Willies." If Progressives tackled the blight of poverty in earnest, Coxey's march deserved much of the credit.
Coxey's Crusade for Jobs makes worthwhile reading, particularly for those unfamiliar with Coxey and unwilling to explore his critics' mind-set as far as his own; but it is not the best book on the march or, rather, marches. As Carlos Schwantes's better and more thoroughly researched Coxey's Army: An American Odyssey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985) makes clear, the Massillon quarry-owner led one of a host of hosts, some of which, coming out of a West where the promise of the frontier had proved hollow, never made it to the nation's capital. For a serious examination of unemployment in the Gilded Age that Prout's subtitle promises, one must look elsewhere. As for the new discovery of poverty and of the miseries of unemployment, Coxey's march certainly did something, but one can find many other influences and forces underway already, and in some cases antedating the first footfall of Coxey's adventure. [End Page 117]
As for the long-range impact of the spectacle, can one know for sure what it was or whether the event had any impact at all? It is a plain fact that in the end, Coxey brought a lot fewer boots to Washington than his petition needed to win Congress's respect. Just 122 men made it all the way from start to finish. The paltry brigade of protestors that reached the Capitol grounds were outnumbered many times over by the thirty thousand onlookers, some there in support and some simply out of curiosity. Reporters treated the marchers as a colorful freak show, but one wonders how many newspaper readers saw it through the lens of the darker reports by scathingly unfriendly editors and the far curter and more emotionally distanced dispatches of the wire services. In the short run, there may even be an argument for the march's...