Coxey’s Army

Coxey’s Army advocated the then-radical notion that the federal government should take direct responsibility for aiding in economic recovery by creating programs for the unemployed. The demonstration was the first national protest by unemployed persons in response to what they perceived as employers’ indifference to their welfare, and their use of the Capitol as a venue for protest foreshadowed later labor and civil rights protests of the twentieth century.

The protest march and demonstration that would become known as Coxey’s Army was begun by three hundred unemployed men organized by Populist businessman Jacob Coxey, JacobCoxey and labor activist Carl Browne in Massillon, Ohio. Their ranks were augmented by similar groups inspired across the United States, chiefly the Western states, bringing the total number of participants to five hundred. The group publicized the plight of the unemployed and urged Congress (unsuccessfully) to create a federal program of public works, chiefly road building. The program, to be instituted by cities, towns, and county governments, would have been financed by non-interest-bearing bonds.Coxey’s Army[Coxeys Army]

During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the United States transitioned away from being a predominantly rural and agrarian society, as the nation’s production and consumption both came to be centered increasingly in urban industrial areas. This transition created the economic conditions that Coxey’s Army was organized to protest. In addition to public works programs, the group demanded the institution of a livable minimum wage. It was not unique in this regard, as many citizens struggled during the decade.

Federal positions regarding the proper response to economic crises at this time ranged from Republican preferences for levying additional taxes on imports to proposals to curb government spending when revenues fell. In general, unemployment was regarded as akin to a natural phenomenon whose causes were beyond humans’ abilities to affect, and politicians were reluctant to intervene. Government intervention in labor problems in the past had often taken the form of instituting probusiness monetary policies and opposing strikes by the working class, sometimes with federal troops.

The disciplined behavior of the marchers in Coxey’s Army gave the lie to the popular belief that being unemployed and poor was the result of individuals being lazy or weak, as many were professional men simply unable to find work of any kind above the menial level. Moreover, numerous incidents of seizure of property by Coxey’s affiliates in the West (such as the commandeering of trains) forced the recognition that the frontier could no longer be relied on as an economic safety valve. Earlier, it had been believed that the endless frontier of the West could absorb all persons seeking a new life and unable to find it in the East. The manifest failure of the West to support all its residents rendered that belief a thing of the past.

Further Reading

  • Barber, Lucy G. Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  • Folsom, Franklin. Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808-1942. Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 1991.
  • Schwantes, Carlos A. Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Consumer Boycotts

Labor history

Labor strikes

New Deal programs

Poor People’s Campaign of 1968