Tents II

13 Apr

A Nightly Encampment, 2012. Pen-and-ink on Bristol paper, 9 x 12 in. Based on photograph.

“…He seems to be profoundly impressed with the sufferings of mankind and with a belief that there is a deep-laid plan of monopolists to crush the poor to the earth.” — a reporter on Jacob Sechler Coxey, as conveyed in the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph of March 22, 1894

It appears pleasant enough: men sprawled across a grassy area as if at a picnic.  The arduous journey, though, that the many different groups traversed in order to converge on the Washington capitol  in 1894 was anything but a picnic.  Kelly’s Army, the largest of the “unemployed armies,” began their march from San Francisco, organized by Colonel William Baker and led by Charles T. Kelly, a thirty-two-year-old compositor in one of the city’s printing businesses.  Arriving in Council Bluffs, Iowa from Omaha, Nebraska on April 15, the men slept on damp ground.  Upon relocation to Chautauqua grounds three to four miles east of the city, the army slept in the mud and spent the next day standing in cold rain with flurries of snow.  That an otherwise unused amphitheater at Chautauqua Hill housed a militia company instead of Kelly’s men was no mistake: the militia officer in charge kept them out.  Eventually an indignant citizenry demanded the removal of the militia.  Kelly’s army had drawn an estimated 30,000 of the curious to Council Bluffs; the same curiosity followed the various unemployed armies wherever they passed.  Although their demands were lodged with the governor, the people held the railroads responsible for the calling out of the militia and the mistreatment of these men.  Not dissimilar to today’s social discontent over a government run by corporations, this was an intriguing tale of populist agitation to reform government, captured sympathetically in Donald L. McMurry’s 1929 book, Coxey’s Army: A Study of the Industrial Army Movement of 1894 (Little, Brown, and Company; see page 24 for the above quotation and pages 164-6 for the above account; unless otherwise noted, quotations that follow are from same, indicated by page number).

A financial panic in 1893 preceded the movement of these armies, for which the monopolists or “plutocrats” were blamed,  an upheaval in markets resulting in runs on the banks, business closures, and massive unemployment.  This was not the first time the nation’s workers suffered from widespread unemployment.  Franklin Folsom points out, in his book Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808-1942 (University Press of Colorado, 1991), that the first in a recurring cycle of “full-scale, national, modern depression[s]” occurred in 1819 (page 18).  Perhaps two million or more were unemployed in 1894 (see McMurry, page 9, for various estimates).  At the Populist Party’s first national convention in Omaha in July, 1892, a platform was adopted, reading, in part: “We meet…in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.  Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench.  The people are demoralized…The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished; and the land concentrated in the hands of capitalists…The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for the few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty.  From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice are bred the two great classes of tramps and millionaires” (7).

We have come full circle since the cry for reform of 1894.  Today’s Occupiers are dismissed as individuals uninterested in finding jobs and their camps are cited as public health nuisances.  The branding of reform movements as communistic lost its political edge.  Certainly there were anarchists and socialists in 1894.  “Petition in boots” was the phrase applied by Coxey to his endeavor and was perhaps coined by Carl Browne, one of Coxey’s lieutenants, who had long dreamed of a march on Washington.*  The British editor W.T. Stead attributed the origin of the phrase to a Professor Hourwitch at the University of Chicago, who compared the march of Coxey’s army to the “petition in boots” of the Russian peasants, marching “in bodies to present their grievances” (33, ftn. 1).  A Senator Wolcott of Colorado railed against the armies arriving at the Capitol by urging his colleagues to “stand together against socialism and populism and paternalism run riot” (112), the last key word a reflection of a federal government forced to provide for its unemployed.  But the industrial armies’ detractors appeared to focus, for the most part, on labeling the individuals comprising these organized, determined, and highly disciplined bands as tramps, “hoboes,” the “shiftless,” or “vagrants” (apparently even “walking bums” were despised by their own class in regard to those who lacked the “skill and nerve” to hop fast-moving trains).  McMurry carefully describes the estimated forty to sixty thousand “professional hoboes” in the United States during the early 1890s in order to differentiate the “tramp liv[ing] by his wits at the expense of society” from  the unemployed workers comprising the industrial armies converging on Washington (see 12-14).

Coxey was a successful business man based in Massillon, Ohio.  The owner of a sandstone quarry and producer of sand for steel and glass works, Coxey also held extensive farming interests.  He envisioned a federal government that would relieve the unemployment crisis through his Good Roads Bill, which instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to issue 500 million dollars in legal-tender notes for the construction of roads throughout the nation.  The bill would both secure work and circulate money.  Coxey followed this proposal with his Non-interest-bearing Bond Bill, which would authorize any governmental entity to issue such bonds for financing public works projects, the bonds possibly deposited with the Secretary of the Treasury as security for a loan of legal-tender notes.  Coxey, like members of the Greenback Party or Greenbackers, opposed a monetary system based on the deposit of gold bullion because political power then followed the dictates of private banks and corporations, sole determinants of the value of production and labor.

Like the Occupy movement today, the “Coxeyites” or “Commonwealers,” as these various marching groups became known, received popular sympathy.  Their long journey was aided by stays in locales where the armies might receive provisions or shelter for the night.  At Canton, Ohio, a number of Coxey’s men were housed overnight in the jail; at Louisville, Ohio, a number of the men slept in the city hall.  This particular army did carry a circus tent wherein the men slept on straw.  The armies were sometimes greeted by populist sympathizers with brass bands, crowds of onlookers, and supportive speeches in halls.  Train hopping and train stealing were frequently aided by railroad workmen willing to turn an eye or state governors unwilling to call in militia when demanded by railroad corporations.

At times, political sentiment in the Capitol also ran in the industrial armies’ favor.  In an open letter to the press, Senator William S. Stewart, of Nevada, addressed this direct petitioning of Congress, as Coxey progressed through Ohio, by defending the ballot as the only legitimate means of “retain[ing] [the] right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But he did agree with the overall sentiments of the Coxeyites when looking back on the previous two decades, observing that: “…now a ‘soulless despot of alien origin’, whose name was Money, was ‘monarch of the commercial world’, and administrative and legislative bodies were his servants” (72-3).  While Brigadier General Ordway assembled militia in the Capitol to stop Coxey’s arrival, Populist Senator Peffer, of Kansas, who had introduced Coxey’s bills to Congress, prepared for an open reception of the petitioners, referring to the perception of his senatorial colleagues as an “‘American House of Lords’, out of touch with the people” (107).  In the House of Representatives, Haldor E. Boen, of Minnesota, introduced a resolution instructing the Secretary of War to “provide camping grounds and tents for all organized bodies of laborers that came into the district” (109).  All for naught as Coxey, Browne and Christopher Columbus Jones were arrested on the steps of the Capitol building without having had an opportunity to utter a word on their petition.  As a result, fifty or more people from a crowd gathered at these steps were beaten by police clubs for having cheered Coxey.  Coxey’s intended speech included the observation: “…Upon these steps where we stand has been spread a carpet for the royal feet of a foreign princess, the cost of whose entertainment was taken from the public treasury without the approval or consent of the people.  Up these steps the lobbyists of trusts and corporations have passed unchallenged on their way to the committee rooms, access to which we, the representatives of the toiling wealth producers, have been denied.  We stand here today in behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions  have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been unresponded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative, productive labor have been taken away from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers” (119-20).

*Franklin Folsom reprints part of a speech made by Joseph R. Buchanan to a San Francisco labor group in 1886 in which Buchanan outlines a march on Washington for the unemployed (Impatient Armies of the Poor, 147).  Folsom also details Carl Browne’s involvement in Dennis Kearney’s rise to power in San Francisco.  Kearney, an Irish immigrant who formed the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC), saw the advantage he would have advocating against Chinese American labor: in 1877, one month after witnessing participants of a Workingmen’s Party of the United States rally join an organized group of “hoodlums” to demolish more than twenty Chinese laundries on July 23, Kearney changed his former support for Chinese laborers, and their reputation for working hard, to cries of “The Chinese must go!” in his speeches.  Browne became one of three members of the WPC executive committee and a large stockholder in the corporation controlling it.  Browne’s weekly paper, the Open Letter, served the same party.  Eventually Browne became Kearney’s private secretary (ibid, 131-6).

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