The American reformer and eccentric Jacob Sechler Coxey (1854-1951) was a well-to-do businessman who, distressed by the economic depression of the 1890s and impelled by the era's reform ideas, led a march of unemployed workers to Washington, D.C., in 1894.
Born in Selinsgrove, Pa., on April 16, 1854, Jacob Coxey quit school at 15 and went to work in the rolling mills of Danville. Ten years later he was an operator of a stationary engine. He briefly ran a scrap iron business, then moved to Massillon, Ohio, and in 1881 purchased a sandstone quarry supplying steel and glass factories. Business prospered and Coxey expanded his interests into agricultural holdings. By 1894 he was the wealthiest man in Massillon, his reputed fortune $200,000.
Like many men of his time, Coxey was interested in reform, especially in currency questions. He had been a Greenback Democrat and a member of the Greenback party. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Ohio Senate in 1885. By the 1890s he was a Populist. In 1894, when he burst into national prominence, Coxey was 40 years old, of medium height, had a neatly trimmed mustache, and presented the general appearance of a prosperous, conservative citizen of the middle class. He was no outstanding orator but impressed people with his simple earnestness and sincerity.
This was the age of the "tramp problem"—tens of thousands of unemployed men on the road in search of work. Along with a colorful colleague, Carl Browne, Coxey conceived the idea of a march on Washington by a "Commonweal of Christ" to dramatize the plight of the country's unemployed. The object was to pressure Congress to adopt Coxey's two pet schemes, designed to relieve the distress of the unemployed while waging war on the interest-based wealth he despised. His Good Roads Bill called for the issuance of $500,000,000 to be expended on the construction of rural roads for wages of $1.50 for an 8-hour day. His Bond Bill authorized the Federal government to purchase bonds from local governments with fiat money, which the latter would use to employ men in constructing various public works, again paying Coxey's minimum wage.
The marchers left Massillon in late March 1894, traveled on foot about 15 miles a day through bad weather, and arrived in Washington on May 1. Coxey had predicted he would arrive with 100,000 men, but his band never numbered more than 300 on the road and his following in Washington was about 1000. (Other "armies" patterned after Coxey's sometimes numbered 2000.) The expedition ended in fiasco with Coxey and Browne arrested and sentenced to 20 days in jail for walking on the grass.
Coxey stuck to his ideas. He testified in Washington several times (including as late as 1946) and ran for innumerable offices for almost every political party. He was Republican mayor of Massillon (1931-1934). In 1932 he received 7,000 votes as the presidential nominee of his Farmer-Labor party. In 1944 he delivered the speech on the Capitol steps in Washington that he had begun exactly 50 years earlier. He died in Massillon on Jan. 14, 1951.
Coxey was an eccentric, but much of the substance of his 1894 proposals was subsequently adopted in government measures. The ideas which he propagandized were in the air during the 1890s. Coxey's contribution was to synthesize and promote them in a coherent program.
The lack of a recent comprehensive study of Coxey must be attributed to the excellence of the standard work on the subject: Donald L. McMurry, Coxey's Army: A Study of the Industrial Army Movement of 1894 (1929; rev. ed. 1968). The revised edition contains an excellent introduction by John D. Hicks that traces Coxey's career after the publication of McMurry's book. See also John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt (1931).