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Sunday, June 08, 2014

COXEY'S ARMY - PROLOGUE

“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.” - The Tin Woodsman. 
1900. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” L. Frank Baum
I must begin by pointing out that all good jokes have no prologue. “Two men” may indeed walk into a bar, and before they did, they had to be somewhere else, doing something else. But if you knew what they had been doing, it would, in all likelihood, deflate the punch line. Prologues all define drama's, not comedies.The reality is that everything comes from something else, and every beginning is actually the coda for yet another story.
As an example, Jacob Sechler Coxey came from Massillon, Ohio, a village founded by 150 Utopians, inspired by a similar effort at New Harmony, Indiana. But where the Hoosier experiment in perfection stagnated, Massillon was energized because the Erie Canal ran right through town. That infrastructure attracted industry, which brought in more infrastructure, specifically railroads. It was not much of a utopia, but it was a successful town. So much money was being made there, that the optimistic little town became known locally as the Port of Massillon. However the port was closed by the Panic of 1893. And that did not arrive from nowhere, either.
The 1849 California Gold rush proved so rich that by 1873 the U.S. government stopped issuing silver coins. Silver mining was still profitable, but corporate interests convinced Washington that silver needed price supports. So the politicians passed the Sherman Silver Act of 1890, which committed the nation to buy and stockpile silver. Silver shot up from 84 cents an ounce to $1.50. But the attendant inflation caused banks to cut back lending. That hurt troubled railroads. Over the next four years, failing railroads (156 of them) led to failed banks (almost 400 of them), which produced failed small businesses (almost 5,000 of them). And then incoming President Grover Cleveland made things even worse. He repealed the Sherman Act.
In just four days silver lost a quarter of its value. And the attendant deflation destroyed what little credit remained. Unemployment rose from an estimated 3% in 1892, to 11% in 1893, and, after repeal of the Sherman Act, to 18% in 1894. In Pennsylvania the level was 25%. In Michigan it was 44%. In Chicago 100,000 homeless men were sleeping in the streets. Editor John Swinton wrote, “…we have seen the growth of a horde of paupers, beggars and tramps.” Minister George Herron, noted that the richest nation in the world now “finds a vast population face to face with famine”.
The captains of industry, who had created this mess, expected the government to aid them with tax cuts and tariffs to restrict competition. But they were opposed to similar aid to workers, to the very idea of a safety net or by government investing in infrastructure which would benefit the common man. However that solution seemed obvious to those who had worked with their hands, men raised to believe that a better world could and ought to be built; specifically, men like Jacob Coxey.
At thirty-six years of age, this wing-collared revolutionary could have been the physical twin to Japanese Emperor Hirohito, with a round face framed by rimless spectacles and accented by a thin mustache. Jacob Coxey did not smoke. He did not drink to excess. He was the most successful businessman in Massillon, a millionaire. But he was working on his second marriage and rumor had it that his gambling had ended his first. To finance his addiction, Jacob owned a sandstone quarry outside of Massillon, which, by the way, carried two mortgages, the second held by his first wife, Carrie Coxey.
Jacob Coxey was a visionary, and like most, sometimes he was also a bit myopic. For while his “Good Roads Association” sought to mitigate the endless capitalist cycle of boom followed by bust, his belief in reincarnation sought to minimize the trauma of life itself. And then in the summer of 1893, at the Chicago World’s Fair, Jacob found a kindred spirit for both of his visions, in a lunatic named Carl Browne. 
Carrie Coxey called Browne “a deep-dyed villian” and it is easy to see what she saw. He was a natural born huckster, a salesman in the extreme. He stood over six feet tall. His hair hung down his back and clustered about his face like a heavy snowfall. Carl dressed like Buffalo Bill, in a fringed buskin coat, buttoned with Mexican silver dollars and set off with thigh high cowboy boots. He rarely if ever bathed. His voice has been described as a foghorn. He had worked as house painter, a cartoonist and a snake oil salesman, and now he was a labor organizer. And five minutes of talking with Jacob Coxey convinced Carl Browne that while he personally was the partial re-incarnation of Jesus Christ, Coxey was the re-incarnation of Andrew Jackson. And Jackson just happened to be one of Jacob Coxey’s heroes. What a lucky coincidence, their meeting 
It was the meeting of these two personalities, the shy, confident thinker and the bombastic and profane huckster, which gave birth to the idea of a “petition with boots on”, a march on Washington to petition the government for a response to the staggering unemployment. It came to Jacob in a New Year Eve’s dream that the march should begin on Easter Sunday, March 25th, 1894. Jacob wrote a treatise on the subject, and Carl drew impressions of the glorious out come to come. And it was extremely unlikely that anyone would have paid any attention to the march whatever had not the editor of the Massillon Independent posted notice of Jacob Coxey’s grand plan on the national wire services. And just about every editor in America agreed, it would make a really good story . 
“The north and south winds met where the house stood, and made it the exact center of the cyclone. In the middle of a cyclone the air is generally still, but the great pressure of the wind on every side of the house raised it up higher and higher, until it was at the very top of the cyclone; and there it remained and was carried miles and miles away as easily as you could carry a feather.”
1900. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” L. Frank Baum
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