Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition

Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition

by Lucy G. Barber

Paperback(First Edition, With a New Preface by the Author)

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When Jacob Coxey's army marched into Washington, D.C., in 1894, observers didn't know what to make of this concerted effort by citizens to use the capital for national public protest. By 1971, however, when thousands marched to protest the war in Vietnam, what had once been outside the political order had become an American political norm. Lucy G. Barber's lively, erudite history explains just how this tactic achieved its transformation from unacceptable to legitimate. Barber shows how such highly visible events contributed to the development of a broader and more inclusive view of citizenship and transformed the capital from the exclusive domain of politicians and officials into a national stage for Americans to participate directly in national politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520242159
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/05/2004
Edition description: First Edition, With a New Preface by the Author
Pages: 353
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Lucy G. Barber is Director for Technology
Initiatives, National Historical Publications and Records Commission, National Archives. She has taught United States history at the University of California, Davis; Rhode Island School of Design; and Brown University.

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Marching on Washington

The Forging of an American Political Tradition
By Lucy G. Barber

University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Lucy G. Barber
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0520242157

Chapter One

Without Precedent Coxey's Army Invades Washington, 1894

In 1944, a ninety-year-old man stood on the eastern steps of the United States Capitol and completed a speech he had begun fifty years earlier. In words that echoed the labor struggles of that earlier time, he spoke of "millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms." He championed those people "whose opportunities for honest, remunerative, productive labor have been taken from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers." He described a massive program of public works he had proposed to end the depression of the 1890s. A small crowd of spectators stopped to hear him with polite curiosity, mostly servicemen home from the war, a few journalists. Capitol police officers looked on with benign indifference for he spoke that day with the formal blessing of the vice president and the Speaker of the House. The speech needed completing because fifty years earlier, he had hardly begun speaking when the District of Columbia police hauled him off to jail.

In 1894, Jacob Coxey had helped organize the first real march on Washington. Coxey and his co-organizer Carl Browne proclaimed that they and half a million distressed American workers would collect at the Capitol on May 1 to petition Congress to enact a sweeping legislative package. They wanted Congress to end permanently the suffering of unemployed workers by building modern roads throughout the United States and funding new community facilities with federally subsidized bonds. Coxey called the marchers the "Commonweal of Christ"; their observers labeled them "Coxey's Army." His expectations were bold; the demands, far-reaching. It was their tactic, however, that caused the most controversy and had the longest legacy. Coxey called it a "petition in boots." Federal politicians and journalists called it an "invasion."

Their group traveled seven hundred miles from Coxey's hometown of Massillon, Ohio, to the border of the District of Columbia. Then, on May 1, 1894, the two organizers and around five hundred Commonwealers paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. There, Coxey confronted police officers intent on enforcing the law that forbade groups from using the Capitol grounds for political action. Coxey and Browne were to spend twenty days in jail. Their confused and demoralized followers spent the rest of the summer in crude camps waiting in vain for Congress to address their claims. Public reaction was harsh. In Oregon, the editor of the Portland Telegram called the protesters a sign of fatal "blood poisoning in the republic." To Republican Senator Joseph Hawley of Connecticut the demonstration in Washington was "extraordinary" and "without precedent."

The unprecedented claim that ordinary Americans had a right to voice their demands in the capital was one that activists and politicians would struggle with for the next century. The organizers' effort would lay the groundwork for a new style of protest and a new form of national public space that would change the relationship between the American people and their government. Coxey claimed the ceremonial spaces of the Capitol Building; it was "the property of people." In 1894, Coxey and Browne were pioneers-and unlikely ones at that. Pulling their demands out of a mishmash of other causes, these two virtually unknown political activists based the national demonstration on established techniques of local protest. Understanding the first national political demonstration in Washington therefore requires suspension of one's modern sense of how demonstrations happen in Washington. And, though the events that took place in the capital on May 1, 1894, were important, the previous months of discussion of the leaders, the groups, and their tactics did as much to shape the perception of marching on Washington in the future.

"A Petition in Boots"

The man who gave the march its name was barely a public figure before 1894. Jacob Coxey combined respectability, ambition, and radicalism in his personal and political life. Born in 1854, Coxey spent his first twenty-four years in the shadow of the iron mills of Danville, Pennsylvania. After attending school, he joined his father in the mills at the age of sixteen. With help from relatives, Coxey left manual labor behind. By 1881, he had moved to Massillon, Ohio, where he purchased a stone quarry. As Coxey moved from ironworker to successful business owner, his politics followed a somewhat surprising path. Beginning as a Democrat, he espoused the Greenback cause in the 1870s and 1880s, and by the 1890s was a confirmed Populist. From the Populists, Coxey learned to doubt the dominant parties and to believe a reformed federal government with the proper policies could cure the nation's problems.

The 1890s were a period of severe economic depression and turbulent politics. As the crisis spread across the country in 1893, most people felt the strain and devastation. Investors and journalists noted with alarm the failures of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in February and then the National Cordage Company in May. Soon, the stock market took a dramatic fall, and the monetary supply contracted sharply. By July, many banks had no cash; by September, nearly four hundred banks had closed. Unemployment spread rapidly. Forty-three percent of Michigan workers were unemployed in the fall, and more than a third of New York State workers had no employment by winter.

Working-class activists saw this suffering as confirming the need for new political methods and more protection of workers, while even national politicians and journalists spoke of the need for some economic assistance. Throughout the nineteenth century, but especially after the Civil War, working people in the United States had been challenging the changes accompanying the rise of industrial capitalism. Working people struggled against their employers through strikes; they formed organizations such as the Knights of Labor, the Farmers' Alliance, and trade unions. Increasingly, they sought a voice in government. In the 1890s, these efforts proved more successful than ever before. Representatives of the Populist Party won elections to local, state, and federal offices. Even the major parties began to speak as though the interests of the working people concerned them. And, more and more members of Congress and federal officials acknowledged the federal government's influence over the national economy and became more likely to listen to a broader spectrum of people.

In this political atmosphere, Coxey first proposed a comprehensive national solution to the monetary and employment problems of the United States. In 1891, he drafted the Good Roads Bill to propose a massive program of road building funded by the federal government. Like most of Coxey's ideas, this scheme was a mishmash of other people's political proposals. Many were already lobbying local and national authorities; the League of American Wheelmen, a group of cyclists, entitled their newspaper "Good Roads." But Coxey melded these demands with the concerns of the Greenbacker and Populist parties for more currency. The bill required the treasury secretary to print "five hundred millions of dollars of treasury notes" without any backing in metal or bank loans. The secretary of war was to spend this money, at least $20 million a month, building roads across the country. The roads would be built by an army of labor, guaranteed an eight-hour day and wages of at least $1.50 per day. Considering that the total government expenditure in 1891 was $332 million, the bill represented an increase in federal spending of nearly 75 percent. Likewise, the road builders would earn at least 80 percent above the going hourly rate. In short, Coxey's proposal sought to transform the entire economic system of the United States by expanding the money supply and changing working conditions.

Coxey's plans resonated with the thinking of many reformers about how to help the unemployed. In the United States, working people had often supported the idea that the government should provide work in times of economic difficulty. By the 1890s, authorities in private charities and municipal welfare offices occasionally set up programs for men to build roads, cut wood, or clear trash. The goal of the Good Roads Bill, however, was to employ more than a few workers deemed deserving by local authorities; it aspired to put thousands of men to work for government money on a federal project. Coxey's program moved an arena almost exclusively controlled on a local level to the national.

If his plan was grand, Coxey's first attempts to enact it were modest. He did persuade a Populist congressman to introduce the bill. As with most bills sponsored by third-party legislators, however, the proposal went nowhere. Still optimistic, Coxey turned to the other avenue for reform in the late nineteenth century: the association. He formed the J. S. Coxey Good Roads Association of the United States in 1892 and named himself president of the group.

Though he did not know it in 1892, Coxey's proposal and his national ambitions would depend on a radical agitator, consummate mythmaker, and self-promoter in California named Carl Browne. Browne claimed he was born on the most American of days, the Fourth of July, in 1849 in a log cabin in Illinois. In the 1870s, he moved to California, where he took up the habit of wearing a long leather jacket and a sombrero. Browne was by training a printer and a journalist; by avocation, he was a painter and a dramatist. Along the way, he supported himself by writing freelance articles, occasionally selling patent medicines, and running labor newspapers illustrated with his own cartoons.

The culture of working-class protest in California shaped Browne's view of political action. As a reporter and supporter, he attended the numerous protests and demonstrations organized by the Chinese Exclusion movement. Working-class leaders had seized hold of the sometimes violent and destructive outbursts by workers against Chinese people and business and channeled them into mostly peaceful public demonstrations. For a while, they led a successful-and virulently racist-political movement that transformed California politics. For Browne, the highlight of these protests came when Dennis Kearney, the most noted leader, and he made a speaking tour in the eastern United States, including a speech from the steps of the Capitol Building. From many experiences with radical causes, Browne learned that dramatic public protests could lead to successful political campaigns and great personal satisfaction.

In the 1890s, Browne embraced a new religious faith that came to infuse his political ideals. His wife fell ill and died on Christmas Day of 1892. As she died, he felt her soul pass into his body. This miracle confirmed his faith in Theosophy and its concept of reincarnation. Because Theosophists believed so fervently in practicing enlightenment through social reform, Browne's religious faith inspired even more enthusiastic endorsement of political causes.

In the summer of 1893, Jacob Coxey, armed with his Good Roads Bill, and Carl Browne, blessed with his religious commitment to political action, met at a Chicago conference on monetary policy. This conference, bringing together party and association activists, like Coxey, and protest organizers and journalists, like Browne, helped transform both activists into figures with even more expansive national visions. The Bimetallic Convention took place during the world's fair known as the Columbian Exposition and attracted more than six hundred delegates. Impressed by Browne's passion during debates, Coxey realized that Browne's skills at self-promotion and political organizing might help the Good Roads Association. Coxey sought out Browne and convinced the westerner to visit him in Massillon.

At first, the two men schemed to expand the reach and efforts of Coxey's Good Roads Association. They printed the first issue of a newspaper describing Coxey's proposal for road building. They sent the paper to acquaintances in the Populist and labor movements across the country. In December, Browne brought the cause of good roads to the annual meeting of the American Federation of Labor in Chicago. He convinced the delegates to endorse the Good Roads Bill and collected their signatures on a petition to Congress urging its passage.

Emboldened by the labor federations support and shocked by the suffering of workers in Chicago and elsewhere, Browne conceived of the idea of a "petition in boots" to Washington. He rejected the notion of mailing in petitions to Congress, as activists in the United States had done for years. Nor did he think that Coxey and he should merely deliver the petitions to Congress. Instead, Browne declared that a group of unemployed men ought to walk to Washington and present their demands.

The more conservative Coxey hesitated at first to adopt Browne's grander vision. Gradually, Coxey changed his mind. Browne converted the previously agnostic Coxey to Theosophy, flattering him with the idea that both Coxey and he were reincarnations of Christ. With them at the helm, a march to Washington would be like the "Second Coming of Christ." In addition to a religious sanction, Coxey reassured himself that Browne's proposal was an extension of the constitutionally protected right of petition. On January 31, 1894, the Good Roads Association's newspaper consisted of a pictorial petition that portrayed the transformative possibilities of the Good Roads Bill and encouraged people to go "On to Washington."

Since they were inventing a new form of political expression, the two men scrambled to make a "petition of boots" appealing and practical. Browne, ever conscious of symbolism, emphasized the group's Christian roots. To signal that their protest was peaceful and godly, he named the group carrying the petition the "Commonweal of Christ." In keeping with this theme, Coxey and Browne decided to leave Massillon on March 25-Easter Sunday. Like pilgrims of old, the Commonweal of Christ intended to travel the more than seven hundred miles on foot and horseback, succored only by the goodwill of the townspeople they met along the way.

Coxey concentrated on the political and practical side. Though he wanted the effort to be funded by contributions as much as possible, he turned to his local contacts for immediate help and supplies in Massillon and contributed some of his own funds to support the Commonwealers' march to the capital. Aware that "good roads" were mainly a concern of rural residents, he added to his proposals measures that would allow states and cities to deposit "Non-Interest Bearing Bonds" in the federal treasury. In exchange, they would receive treasury notes to finance "public improvements" such as libraries, schools, utility plants, and marketplaces.



Excerpted from Marching on Washington by Lucy G. Barber Copyright © 2004 by Lucy G. Barber. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsix
Preface to the Paperback Editionxiii
1."Without Precedent" Coxey's Army Invades Washington, 189411
2.A "National" Demonstration: The Woman Suffrage Procession and Pageant, March 3, 191344
3."A New Type of Lobbying" The Veterans' Bonus March of 193275
4."Pressure, More Pressure, and Still More Pressure" The Negro March on Washington and Its Cancellation, 1941108
5."In the Great Tradition" The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963141
6.The "Spring Offensive" of 1971: Radicals and Marches on Washington179
Bibliographical Essay297

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