Jacob Coxey was a businessman in the early 1890s who noticed an opportunity for the government to assist common folk during the Depression of 1893. Coxey organized the first, albeit unsuccessful, march to the Capitol to promote changes in the ways that the federal government dealt with the poor. Coxey was significant because of his ideas rather than his political career. His notions of reform came from his affiliation with the Greenback Party in the late 1880s.
Jacob Sechler Coxey was born on April 16, 1854, in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. He dropped out of school early and found temporary work. At the age of 27, Coxey moved to Massillon, Ohio, where he made a name for himself as a businessman near the end of the Gilded Age. While he was far from a robber baron, Coxey realized that hardworking middle- and lower-class people were not being adequately compensated for their labor. Those who were out of work caught his attention most.
During the early 1880s, Coxey noticed the effects the economic downturn had on those around him. Coxey believed that the government should offer public works projects to offer jobs to the unemployed in an attempt to counteract the negative aspects of the economy. In the effort to reach this goal Coxey modeled his ideas after those of the People's Party. Predating the New Deal, Coxey had formulated a legislative bill that would have provided funds for the improvement of roads across the United States. The bill called for appropriations of $500 million to run the project known as the General County Road Fund System. Workers would have received at least $1.50 per day for an eight-hour work day.
In 1893, the economy again gave way to depression, but this time on a much larger scale. Coxey began laying plans for a movement of the poor to petition for assistance. “Coxey's Army” left for Washington, DC, in March 1894. This group of poor and unemployed workers attracted the attention of the country because of extensive media coverage, which was, unfortunately, mostly negative. Newspapers portrayed Coxey as a radical, and most Americans thus ignored his ideas. Upon arrival in the capital, Coxey received a 20-day jail sentence after being arrested for trespassing on the grounds of the Capitol.
Despite the failure of the march, Coxey continued his political career. He lost multiple elections on different party ballots. He laid out his intentions for a second march in 1914 in his book, The Coxey Plan. Coxey wanted the government to provide guaranteed employment and regulated wages for the poor. This time he addressed a crowd in Washington, DC, but with little result.
Coxey was invited to Washington, DC, in 1944, to deliver the speech he had planned to give at the end of his first march on Washington. At the age of 90 years old, Coxey read the speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Coxey's Army's failed march. While Coxey never had the opportunity to implement change himself, he proved that one person can make a difference, albeit sometimes through the actions of others who were influenced by his ideas. Coxey died in his hometown of Massillon, Ohio, on May 18, 1951. He was 97 years old.
See also: Cleveland, Grover (1837–1908) ; Coxey's Army ; Depression of 1893 ; Gilded Age ; Greenback Party ; New Deal
Brands, H. W. The Reckless Decades: America in the 1890s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Schwantes, Carlos A. Coxey's Army: An American Odyssey. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1994.