Thursday, July 14, 2016
I first heard of "Coxey's Army" when I was researching and writing about the life of Jack London. In 1894, when he was in his late teens, living in the Bay Area, he joined a ragtag outfit called "Kelly's Army," inspired by Coxey's (more about this in a bit), and headed east toward Washington, DC, to protest the miserable employment situation in the year after the Panic of 1893. At that time, the federal government was not interested in jobs programs (another half-century would pass before the Great Depression and FDR's alphabet soup of federal programs to help so many groups of people).
Anyway, in April 1894, the 18-year-old London headed out (he was a bit late, had to catch up with the group). But by May 25, he'd had enough--horribly sore feet, etc.--he abandoned the group near Hannibal, MO (they'd been on boats, heading down the Mississippi) and headed off on some other adventures that would take him to Chicago and to Niagara Falls, where he would be arrested for vagrancy and spend 30 days in the Erie County Penitentiary. (Later, he got a book out of it!)
Anyway, via a friend of a friend (and the author himself), I acquired not long ago a copy of this new book, Coxey's Crusade for Jobs: Unemployment in the Gilded Age (Northern Illinois Univ. Press) by Jerry Prout, who's teaching political science at Marquette. It's a brief book--fewer than 120 pages of text--but Prout clearly spent a lot of time doing his homework.
He tells the story of Jacob Sechler Coxey, a wealthy man living in Massillon, Ohio, who thought the government could/should help out in the unemployment crisis that followed the Panic. Coxey's consuming idea he called the Good Roads Plan: The government would employ workers to build and improve the nation's fairly dreary system of public roads. (Prout spends some time explaining this program in more detail--including the complications of its proposed financing.)
Coxey hooked up with another man committed to the program--Carl Browne--whom Prout labels "flamboyant" (19), a fitting term (as one of the book's photographs reveals). Anyway, the men spend countless hours planning and hyping their march to Washington, a journey of about 350 miles (says Google Maps).
Both men were very competent in PR, and soon the story began spreading all over the country. Men began arriving in Massillon to join up. By the time Coxey's Army left Massillon, there were a handful of other "armies" heading east, as well; newspapers had embedded reporters; crowds gathered all along to cheer the marchers. As Prout ably shows, the public support was astonishing.
The more traditional press, however, heaped editorial scorn on the endeavor and on the marchers, start to finish, despite their peaceful, even exemplary behavior all along the route. And when they finally arrived in DC after a thirty-five day march, they did not find Open Arms at the capital. There was a brief bit of violence (nothing deadly), and officials denied Coxey the opportunity to speak on the Capitol steps. Instead, they arrested him, hauled him off to the hoosegow.
And so it ended with a whimper rather than a bang. Some editorial gloating ensued.
But Prout shows in his Epilogue that the march had been an important--and very public--first step in our recognition that some of us need help from the rest of us. "Progress came slowly," he notes (113). But it has come. Though, obviously, opposition--strong opposition--to government interventions of this sort remains.
Although there are contemporary parallels throughout the narrative, Prout rarely mentions them (he doesn't really need to), but his concluding sentence begins with this: "The cause seems just as relevant today ..." (117). Indeed.
Published by an academic press and written by a professor, Coxey's Crusade is nonetheless easily accessible for interested and/or serious readers. Yes, there are some passages explaining some fairly complicated economics, but nothing too daunting (even for me!). But Prout is careful to keep us in the march of his prose and not lose us in the dust of diction.
There's a lot to learn here--not just about the march and the marchers, but the planners, the politicians (especially those ever-clueless ones in the US capital), the journalists, the public attitudes of 1894, the philanthropists of the era (Carnegie, etc.). Actually, it makes a reader yearn for an even more thorough treatment--a big, fat popular history. Maybe this kernal will cause something to emerge from the soil where Prout has planted it?
Oh--included is a fine gallery of relevant photographs.
So ... thoroughly researched, carefully written, wisely trimmed, sharply focused. Learned a lot.