Cultural Studies
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Coxey's Challenge in the Populist Moment

Gerald Prout

Major Professor: Michael Hugh O'Malley, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Zachary Schrag, William Schneider

The Hub (SUB II), #2
April 12, 2012, 10:00 AM to 07:00 AM

Abstract:

In the spring of 1894, a wealthy businessman named Jacob Coxey led a march of unemployed men from Massillon, Ohio to the steps of the U.S. Capitol.  Coxey promoted a plan to put those unemployed from the Panic of 1893 back to work building a national system of roads financed by $500 million in government-backed legal tender. Influenced by his sidekick, Theosophist Carl Browne, the carnivalesque March, displaying both millenarian and utopian imagery, depicted itself as the “Commonweal of Christ.” Though small in number, this racially diverse procession not only attracted welcoming crowds, but sustained front page press coverage over five weeks. In an era of new journalistic techniques, the March became a spectacle that distorted its legacy.

To this point, accounts of the Coxey episode generally skirt the edges of prominent interpretations of the populist moment. Historians generally prefer to see the March as a separate phenomenon, an ill fated spasm of labor unrest coming in between the Homestead (1892) and Pullman (1894) strikes. They seem challenged to join a march of industrial unemployed led by a businessman to a broader populist movement of producers with roots in rural America. 

However, this dissertation argues that Coxey’s March, both in the substance of its ideas and in its spectacular form, can be placed at the center of nineteenth century anti-monopolist, producer unrest. As challenging as the inchoate populist movement is to define, Coxey’s March helps us see it in its many dimensions.  Coxey’s March sought to restore a more community oriented economy focused on the value of the producer whether on the farm or in the factory. This marching troupe of the unemployed petitioning their government to invest in their employment posed a symbolic alternative to an ascendant corporate capitalism. In the wake of the Panic of 1893 the March resonated with both tillers and toilers. Coming after the formation of the People’s Party in 1892, the March captured the essential energy of democratic protest extant in an almost two decade producer movement. As Populist Party operatives increasingly sought tactical advantage by fusing with the established parties, Coxey’s March challenged conventional party politics by reminding how the voice of the people might directly express itself.

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