One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017
Sunday, February 13, 2011
COXEY'S ARMY; PART SIX
I would say that it is a dangerously romantic concept, this idea that government can be petitioned directly by its citizens. It had not been tried in America since the revolution. Still, working class Americans came out to have a look at Coxey’s Army, which was doing this odd thing, and they were not frightened by what they saw. But the same images did scare congressmen and presidents, infuriated the wealthy and powerful, and worried local police officers and mayors. But it also provided a sense of excitement for those with a rebellious spirit. In the latter category was 14 year old Albert Hicks, of East 83rd street in Manhattan. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, Albert had a fight with his mother and ran away from home, saying he was going to join Coxey’s Army. Albert made it no farther than the Brooklyn Bridge, where a police officer took him into custody, and called his father to come to collect the boy. It was a common story, an angry fourteen year old running away from home, not worth repeating on the front page of a large newspaper, except for the name in the headline “Coxey’s Army”.
"Once, indeed, the Tin Woodman stepped upon a beetle that was crawling along the road, and killed the poor little thing. This made the Tin Woodman very unhappy, for he was always careful not to hurt any living creature; and as he walked along he wept several tears of sorrow and regret. These tears ran slowly down his face and over the hinges of his jaw, and there they rusted. When Dorothy presently asked him a question the Tin Woodman could not open his mouth, for his jaws were tightly rusted together. He became greatly frightened at this and made many motions to Dorothy to relieve him, but she could not understand. The Lion was also puzzled to know what was wrong. But the Scarecrow seized the oil-can from Dorothy's basket and oiled the Woodman's jaws, so that after a few moments he could talk as well as before."
On Sunday, April the 22nd , the Philadelphia recruits which the Army had been waiting for, arrived in Hagerstown. There were just 18 of them. This day, too, the Chief of the D.C. Metropolitan Police publicly announced that if the Army entered the Federal City, he would enforce an 1830 regulation making it illegal for anyone to enter the District who would likely become a “public charge’. It was an absurdly pompous threat on the face of it, since being arrested for violating the 60 year old ordinance would achieve the very object the ordinance was designed to discourage. Prisoners were by definition, in the public charge. There is a reason the practice of criminalizing poverty has been discarded. But, it seems, every generation must relearn it on their own.
But the commission that ran the District of Columbia went even further. Henceforth, they announced, it was illegal to solicit funds without a license, even though no procedures had yet been written to qualify for such licenses. And it would now be illegal for there to be any public assembly on public property without a license. (ditto) And no obstruction of public roads would be permitted, either. If these regulations were meant to discourage Coxey’s Army, they failed. In fact, the confrontational approach probably added to the Army’s numbers, as the unemployed who before had just been desperate, now began to get angry.
Bright and early on April 23rd some 300 plus members of Coxey’s Army marched out of the Hagerstown camp, with flags and banners flying. But they only made about six miles that day, stopping for the night at the little community of Hyattstown, where some of the men were provided with home cooked meals by locals, and the rest were welcomed to camp along Little Bennett Creek. Thousands of people turned out for speeches and general festivities in the Army’s camp that night
One of the reasons the welcome was so strong for Coxey’s Army in Hyattstown was that the area had for generations suffered with what was described as “the deficient link of the Great National Western Road.”. This was the central cause for which Coxey’s Army marched, the desperate need for improvements in the nation’s roads, and work that was desperately needed by the millions of unemployed. The section of the National Road beyond Hyattsville, between Rockville and Gaithersburg, Maryland had been described this way; “Deeply rutted and dusty in dry weather, it became a muddy morass after a heavy rain. Often it was nearly impassable, and its dismal condition was disparaged and deplored by the local press and public.” English General Braddock had almost been defeated by this very stretch of road long before he was killed in Pennsylvania, a generation before the American Revolution. A generation after that war, Thomas Jefferson’s road improvements bill had failed to fix the problem. Now, four generations later, the problem persisted. (In fact, this section would not be fixed until 1925 when it was finally paved)
The mayor of Frederick, Maryland (above), one John E. Fleming, boasted that Coxey's Army would never set foot in his town. Forty additional deputies were sworn in to keep them out. However, on the 24th , Coxey’s Army, now 340 strong, marched into town, escorted by the deputies. And the world did not end. That night the press reported a “drunken brawl”, but the details were never confirmed. And the next day, when the Army marched out, their numbers were now 400 strong.
It was on Saturday, April 28th that Coxey’s Army, reached the doorstep of their goal, Brightwood Riding Park – now the Brightwood Recreation Area - along Rock Creek, just outside of the border of the District of Columbia. Here they established what they called Camp Stevens. They were greeted by a crowd of 10,000 people. Also on hand were 1,500 federal troops (3 for every member of the Army), with more in position in Baltimore, Annapolis, and Philadelphia, ready to rush to the capital to put down any rebellion. There was none.
Instead, over Saturday and Sunday an estimated 6,000 unarmed curious citizens visited the encampment in peace. Coxey was quoted in the papers as explaining the march this way; “Congress takes two years to vote on anything…Twenty-millions of people are hungry and cannot wait two years to eat.”
On Tuesday, May 1st, 1894 perhaps 15,000 people crowded around as the Army of 500 left camp (above) for their final seven mile march on the Capital. The Baltimore Herald said “Such a fantastic aggregation never paraded itself in seriousness before the public.”
First came Mrs. Annie L. Diggs, carrying the American flag. She was followed by Jacob Coxey’s 17 year old daughter, representing the goddess of Peace. Then came Carl Browne, dressed in his buckskin fringe. Then came Coxey in his carriage, ridding with his second wife and their infant child, “Legal Tender Coxey”. They were followed by an actress on horseback, Ms. Virginia Le Valette. She was draped in an American flag. And only behind this final exhibit of female pulchritude, did the public at last get a view of the object of the entire discussion, the army of the unemployed, totting banners and signs. It must have been the most bizarre procession that ever walked down Washington's 16th street, not excepting the parade formed by Dolly Madison as she fled the White House in 1813, with wagons piled high with silverware and paintings, just ahead of the British arsonists.
As they had formed up for the final march, Carl Browne had told the men, “The greatest ordeal of the march is at hand. The eyes of the world are upon you, and you must conduct yourselves accordingly.” And they did.
Ahh, if they only knew the high drama and low comedy that was about to descend upon their heads.
"This will serve me a lesson," said he, "to look where I step. For if I should kill another bug or beetle I should surely cry again, and crying rusts my jaws so that I cannot speak." Thereafter he walked very carefully, with his eyes on the road, and when he saw a tiny ant toiling by he would step over it, so as not to harm it. The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything. "You people with hearts," he said, "have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful."