Coxey's Army: 1894 March of Unemployed Workers

Coxey's Army

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In the late 19th century, an era of robber barons and labor struggles, workers generally had no safety net when economic conditions caused widespread unemployment. As a way of drawing attention to the need of the federal government to become more involved in economic policy, a large protest march traveled hundreds of miles.

America had never seen anything like Coxey's Army, and its tactics would influence labor unions as well as protest movements for generations.

Coxey's Army

Coxey's Army was an 1894 protest march to Washington, D.C. organized by businessman Jacob S. Coxey as a response to the severe economic hardship caused by the Panic of 1893.

Coxey planned for the march to leave his hometown of Massillon, Ohio on Easter Sunday 1894. His "army" of unemployed workers would march to the U.S. Capitol to confront Congress, demanding legislation that would create jobs.

The march garnered a large amount of press coverage. Newspaper reporters began tagging along on stretches of the march as it passed through Pennsylvania and Maryland. Dispatches sent by telegraph appeared in newspapers across America.

Some of the coverage was negative, with the marchers sometimes described as "vagrants" or a "hobo army."

Yet newspaper mentions of hundreds or even thousands of local residents welcoming marchers as they camped near their towns indicated widespread public support for the protest. And many readers across America took an interest in the spectacle. The amount of publicity generated by Coxey and his hundreds of followers showed that innovative protest movements could influence public opinion.

About 400 men who finished the march reached Washington after walking for five weeks. About 10,000 spectators and supporters watched them march to the Capitol building on May 1, 1894. When the police blocked the march, Coxey and others climbed a fence and were arrested for trespassing on the Capitol lawn.

Coxey's Army did not achieve any of the legislative goals Coxey had advocated. The U.S. Congress in the 1890s was not receptive to Coxey's vision of government intervention in the economy and the creation of a social safety net. Yet the outpouring of support for the unemployed created a lasting impact on public opinion and future protest movements would take inspiration from Coxey's example.

In a sense, Coxey would gain some satisfaction years later. In the early decades of the 20th century some of his economic ideas began to be widely accepted.

Populist Political Leader Jacob S. Coxey

The organizer of Coxey's Army, Jacob S. Coxey, was an unlikely revolutionary. Born in Pennsylvania on April 16 1854, he worked in the iron business in his youth, starting his own company when he was 24.

He moved to Massillon, Ohio in 1881 and started a quarry business which was so successful that he could finance a second career in politics.

Coxey had joined the Greenback Party, an upstart American political party advocating economic reforms. Coxey frequently advocated public works projects that would hire unemployed workers, an eccentric idea in the late 1800s that later became accepted economic policy in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

When the Panic of 1893 devastated the American economy, vast numbers of Americans were put out of work. Coxey's own business was affected in the downturn, and he was forced to lay off 40 of his own workers.

Though affluent himself, Coxey became determined to make a statement about the plight of the unemployed. With his skill for creating publicity, Coxey was able to attract attention from the newspapers. The country, for a time, was fascinated by Coxey's novel idea of a march of the unemployed to Washington.

The Easter Sunday March

Coxey's Army marching
Coxey's Army marching through a town on its way to Washington, D.C. Getty Images

Coxey's organization had religious overtones, and the original group of marchers, calling themselves "The Commonwealth Army of Christ," departed Massillon, Ohio on Easter Sunday, March 25, 1894.

Walking up to 15 miles a day, the marchers proceeded eastward along the route of the old National Road, the original federal highway built from Washington, D.C. to Ohio in the early 19th century.

Newspaper reporters tagged along and the entire country followed the progress of the march through telegraphed updates. Coxey had hoped that thousands of unemployed workers would join the procession and go all the way to Washington, but that didn't happen. However, local marchers would typically join for a day or two to express solidarity.

All along the way the marchers would camp out and local people would flock to visit, often bringing food and cash donations. Some local authorities sounded the alarm that a "hobo army" was descending on their towns, but for the most part the march was peaceful.

A second group of about 1,500 marchers, known as Kelly's Army for its leader, Charles Kelly, had left San Francisco in March 1894 and headed eastward. A small portion of the group reached Washington, D.C. in July 1894.

During the summer of 1894 the press attention given to Coxey and his followers waned and Coxey's Army never became a permanent movement. However, in 1914, 20 years after the original event, another march was held and that time Coxey was allowed to address the crowd on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

In 1944, on the 50th anniversary of Coxey's Army, Coxey, at the age of 90, again addressed a crowd on the grounds of the Capitol. He died in Masillon, Ohio in 1951, at the age of 97.

Coxey's Army may not have produced tangible results in 1894, but it was the precursor for large protest marches of the 20th century.

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McNamara, Robert. "Coxey's Army: 1894 March of Unemployed Workers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Coxey's Army: 1894 March of Unemployed Workers. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Coxey's Army: 1894 March of Unemployed Workers." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).