Coxey's Army: Popular Protest in the Gilded Age.
BENJAMIN ALEXANDER'S short, readable text does an excellent job placing Coxey's Army in the broader context of resistance to the problems created by industrial capitalism in the late-19th century. Then and since, Coxey and his followers have been dismissed, to the point that people used the term "Coxey's Army" to refer to any kind of fool's errand. Alexander does not entirely disagree: he illustrates the theater of the absurd that made up part of the march's appeal. Yet at the same time, Alexander argues that Coxey's Army gained wide support in towns across the country because it also embodied many of the discontents and ideas felt by people left behind by the economic developments of the Gilded Age. And however foolish Coxey's ideas might have seemed to his elite contemporaries, they actually foreshadowed many of the central concepts of progressivism, the New Deal, Keynesian economics, and even the Occupy movement.
Alexander spends considerable space in a short book giving a persuasive account of Gilded Age political economy and the crisis of the 1890s. This includes clear and well-drawn accounts of the various producerist and radical responses to the rise of industrial capitalism, including the Farmers' Alliance, the Populist Party and the Knights of Labor, and the development of the ideas of Edward Bellamy and Henry Vincent. In short, Alexander argues, the debate came down to a simple question: what was the appropriate role of government in the economy? And for those on the reform side of the coin, what measures might prod the government to take action?
All of these questions were exacerbated by the economic crisis of the 1890s. By 1894 when Coxey and his army set out, various political currents from churches to moderate reformers like Samuel Gompers were all raising the issue of unemployment and calling into question the government's laissez-faire policies in various ways. Coxey's Army marched to Washington as part of this current to demand that the federal government address the problem of unemployment by launching a Good Roads program. Coxey argued that Congress should fund this by issuing paper money to state and county governments in return for non-interest bearing bonds. Coxey thus combined three issues: unemployment, the need to improve the country's infrastructure, and the demand to expand the currency. These were issues central to the labour movement and Populism. They were also issues that would all eventually receive a great deal of attention from the federal government, though not for many decades. Alexander thus argues that Coxey's march was emblematic and representative of the broad stream of Gilded Age opposition to laissez-faire.
At the same time, Coxey's Army itself was an eclectic mix of family members, unemployed men, and simple eccentrics. In addition to demanding Coxey's program be enacted by the federal government, many participants in the march acted out different elements of the Republican and Christian mythology of the country. The second most important organizer of the march, Carl Brown, named the organization that planned the march the "Commonweal of Christ" in reference to a form of Theosophy which held that the souls of living people contained bits of the souls of those who had gone before, and that the march would assemble so many bits of the soul of Jesus in Washington D.C. that it would force Congress to pass the Good Roads bill. Coxey was himself such a believer in these ideas that just before the march commenced he named his newborn son Legal Tender Coxey. He brought another of his sons along, and wanted his 17-yearold daughter to march with him as the "Goddess of Peace," wearing white and riding a white horse, but her mother forbade her. It should come as no surprise that this group of eccentrics sometimes fought, divided among themselves, followed different leaders, accused each other of stealing, and competed for attention, and that Coxey himself was only half-engaged in the enterprise. Yet somehow the marchers made it to Washington, presented their demands despite arrest, and went down in history.
The press, of course, made much of the eccentricity of the marchers and used this to make fun of them, to which Brown responded by labeling the journalists "argus eyed demons," a sobriquet that the "demons" of the press embraced wholeheartedly. Yet the eccentricity of the marchers also attracted a lot of attention, and in some ways the fame of this small group of political activists is proof that sometimes any attention is good attention. The attention helped provoke an impressive response to the marchers wherever they went, sometimes in the form of donations of food and places to stay, and other times with threats of violence if they did not move on. Sometimes, these opposite responses occurred in the same town, revealing the class and political divisions that rent communities across the country.
The attention garnered by Coxey's Army also prompted many imitators, especially in the West. Many of these other "battalions" were less eccentric and more determined, hijacking trains to make it all the way across the country, instead of just from Ohio to the capitol. These other groups did not necessarily endorse the Good Roads program, calling for different demands including a halt to immigration. Yet the existence and determination of other groups of unemployed men marching to Washington to demand that the government do something about unemployment and starvation gave Coxey's demands much more weight.
Alexander's central claim, that Coxey's Army was one branch of the broader Gilded Age opposition to laissez-faire policies and that many of its ideas would be taken up in later years, is incontestable. Yet Alexander's analysis falls short at points. He insists on the importance of Coxey's Army by downplaying the deep and important divisions among reformers and radicals over the policies to demand and the force required to get them. He mentions the Pullman Strike, which was brewing and then exploding at the same time, and nods to the fact that the strikers were fighting the same state apparatus as Coxey. In this light, it is not so clear that Coxey had an answer to the question--where is the force to change society? Is it in a march, a petition to Congress, or in the organized working class? Certainly, Debs and his compatriots who later formed the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World drew very different conclusions than Jane Addams and other Progressive reformers. Similarly, the New Deal, which Alexander persuasively argues embodied many of the ideas promoted by Coxey and his followers, looks much less like a triumphant solution to the problems of industrial capitalism today than it might have 50 years ago.
Nonetheless, this book is well worth reading and assigning to upper level undergraduates. While Coxey's Army may have been the last gasp of nineteenth century republican producerism, it raised issues that are still at the centre of US politics today. And unfortunately, their solution remains just as elusive as it was in Coxey's time.
College of DuPage
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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