American English is full of quaint colloquial expressions. Who among us, for example, hasn’t shown up at a picnic, a potluck or Thanksgiving dinner to hear someone refer to table-crushing bounty as “enough food to feed Coxey’s Army”?
Ever wonder where that came from?
Jacob Sechler Coxey was born in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania in 1854, moving to my hometown of Massillon, Ohio when he was in his mid-twenties. There he ran a scrap-iron operation, later owning a sandstone quarry and a lumber mill. By all accounts, he was an accomplished businessman.
Coxey also fancied himself a populist, a reformer, a savior of the downtrodden working man. During his political life he was an independent, a Democrat, a member of the Greenback Party and the People’s Party and the Union Party and the United States Farmer-Labor Party and the Interracial Independent Political Party.
Repeatedly, obsessively, he ran for public office, including U.S. Senator and President, at least 20 times. He won only once, as a Republican, serving as Massillon’s mayor from 1931 to 1933.
He failed to win re-election.
Among his children was a son, whom he named “Legal Tender Coxey” — an odd nod to the Greenbacks and a living symbol of his opposition to the gold standard.
THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLEfrom a sign carried by Coxey’s “Commonweal for Christ” Army, 1894
IS THE VOICE OF GOD
Jacob Coxey’s lasting legacy, however, was his “citizen army.” After the Panic of 1893 the self-styled “General Coxey,” disturbed that the federal government was providing neither work nor wages for the unemployed, organized what he predicted would be an imposing march from Massillon to Washington, DC — arguably the first protest march on the nation’s capital.
A day before Coxey’s Army was to set out for Washington, according to The New York Times, things didn’t look promising:
“Nearly 100 recruits for Coxey’s Commonweal Army arrived today from different points. Most of them are tramps who camped in the woods surrounding the town overnight. A number of them slept in the lock-up, but were released this morning.”
“It is now estimated that Coxey will start from Massillon with anywhere from 100 to 500 followers. Most of those here now to join the movement are hard-looking people, but up to the present time they have shown no disposition to be unruly.”
A United Press reporter tracked down the elusive Coxey and asked, “But how about the army, General? Isn’t it time that some of your followers were beginning to join you here?“
Coxey’s reply, as reported by the Times, typifies the enigmatic idealist:
“‘Oh, they’ll be coming in to-morrow,’ Gen. Coxey replied, as he has replied every day for a week past. ‘I expect that to-morrow’s sun will rise upon an assemblage of at least 10,000 members of our army. They will be marshaled up on the circus grounds, from which point the start is to be made Sunday at 12:30pm sharp.'”
The “army” did make its way to Washington, its “general” arriving with some 400 grimy protesters in tow. Once there, Coxey promptly was arrested and spent 20 days in jail — for walking on the grass.
Was the movement a failure? Coxey’s trademark pitch — that government issue $500 million in paper currency and spend it on public projects, putting the unemployed back to work — often is credited as the seed of FDR’s New Deal. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to view it as an ideological ancestor of latter-day progressives’ spend-o-ramas.
It’s argued that Coxey, his rag-tag “Commonweal for Christ” Army and their marches laid the political foundation for Social Security, unemployment insurance and Labor Day — not to mention serving as an inspiration for L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
History forever will associate Jacob Coxey with my hometown. I have childhood memories of secret visits to a place the locals called “Coxey’s Quarry,” a place where my father played when he was a dirt-poor farm boy and the owner was mayor.
What Coxey did was, by some measure, significant. He may have been a novelty in his day, but he ended up a founding father of the Entitlement State.
The policies he championed haven’t been good for America.
I’d rather that Massillon be remembered for Lillian Gish or Paul Brown, even David Canary. (Definitely not Lori Lightweight.) Much to my disappointment, I don’t get to vote on history.
Take care of yourselves, Patriots. Stay calm. Stay sharp. Stay free.