The cover of an 1894 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly shows the dramatic end to Jacob Coxey’s journey to Washington—his arrest amidst a crowd of supporters at the Capitol. So how did this wealthy eccentric and his entourage become national news?
After the Panic of 1893 unemployed workers around the country were enraged at the federal government’s failure to assist those impoverished by the economic crisis. Jacob Coxey, a wealthy sand quarry operator from Ohio, had some ideas on how to fix this problem. He decided to take his plans to Congress personally.
Coxey believed the government should finance projects to create jobs. The idea drew several hundred unemployed followers, with whom he marched from Massillon, Ohio, to Washington in the spring of 1894. “Coxey’s Army,” as the group was called, was one of the first mass protest marches on Washington, and drew a great deal of attention from the press. Stereoviews showing the group en route—with captions in six languages—were published for sale. Articles appeared in newspapers around the country for months in advance of Coxey’s arrival in Washington.
The publicity lavished on Coxey and his ideals didn’t mean either were respected or taken seriously. About 30 days prior to the group’s planned arrival in Washington, Harper’s Weekly declared the mission a quixotic “farce comedy.” In an allusion to the biblical Jericho, the paper mockingly reported that Coxey and his Army would “hurl defiance at the ‘subservient tools of Wall Street’ . . . these worthies have no doubt at all that when they surround the Capitol and blow their blast the walls will straightaway topple . . . and that the proud and arrogant legislators will fall all over themselves in their haste to do the bidding of the common people.”
The ragged appearance of the unemployed “army” of 500 was roundly derided, and the extensive publicity drew more audience than protestors to the Capitol on May Day of 1894 when the group arrived. Coxey’s ambitious journey ended when he was arrested for trespassing on the Capitol lawn. For several weeks thereafter, the press coverage continued, and headlines declared that “Washington looked upon the movement as a joke.” Although in subsequent financial depressions, Congress eventually enacted legislation in the spirit of Coxey’s proposals, his ideas in the spring of 1894 were nearly half a century too early for Congress to entertain.
Sources: Carlos Schwantes, Coxey’s Army: An American Odyssey (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985); Donald McMurray, Coxey’s Army: A Study of the Industrial Movement of 1894 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968).Follow @USHouseHistory