Justice for Coxey

Justice for Coxey

The “general” whose “army” made a powerful stand for America’s unemployed in the country’s first-ever march on Washington.


The day has come, it seems to us, to perform a simple act of justice to “General” Jacob S. Coxey, of Ohio, for the reason that, if some one does not recall at this time the facts of history, this great advocate of the people’s welfare will be deprived of his proper laurels. It will be remembered that in 1894, while the effects of the panic of the previous year were still acutely felt, Gen. Coxey organized his army of the dissatisfied and unemployed to march on Washington and demand of Congress that this Government of and for the people should be restored to the people. He was hooted at, ridiculed, denounced, and troops were called out to regulate the progress of his forces. But when he reached Washington a respectful hearing was accorded him by a Committee of Congress. His arguments were subsequently reprinted in pamphlet form, and it is upon this that we shall draw to prove that many of our modern reformers have deliberately plagiarized from Gen. Coxey in their efforts to set the people free.

There is the initiative and referendum, for instance. How few people know that Coxey was the first of our great statesmen publicly to demand them, not only for Ohio, but for the nation–or at least to walk for them? Others, college professors and students of Swiss history, may have privately advocated these innovations, but Coxey and his followers were the first to go to Washington and ask to be counted, on the grounds of the Capitol, in favor of those propositions. There are those who would claim the honor of being the pioneer public man to advocate this reform for William S. U’Ren, of Oregon, to whom is also credited the proselyting of Woodrow Wilson. The latter fact may be true, but for Coxey we claim first honors, just as we proclaim him the originator of the idea of walking to a place in order to get what you want. This point we stress particularly lest a fickle public credit the political device to “Gen.” Rosalie Jones and her undaunted suffrage hosts that, having conquered Albany, are now preparing to move on Washington. But if time has thus set its stamp of approval upon Coxey’s on-to-Washington policy, it has equally vindicated his appeal for the initiative and referendum in Ohio. By an overwhelming majority, just eighteen and one-half years after Coxey demanded them in Washington, they were written by his fellow-citizens into the organic law of his State. Who will venture to prophesy, in this swiftly changing time, that a statue of Jacob S. Coxey will not stand side by side with that of “Rise-up” William Allen in the rotunda of the Capitol from whose grounds rude policemen once ejected him? Yet in all the pans of triumph alter the Ohio election, we regret to say that Coxey’s name was not mentioned.

So, too, we were distressed to find that certain phrases originated by him were freely adopted in the last campaign without regard for his copyright. Coxey first said: “In order that the people may be enabled to regain control of their State, county, and municipal affairs- we demand,” etc. Yet no phrase has more frequently been used by candidates, from Bryan down to La Follette and Sulzer and all the Progressives, than this little gem–always without credit to Coxey, the first to see that our Government had slipped out of the hands of the plain people. As for Bryan–but here we reach a difficult subject. Who was the chairman of the Committee of Congress which heard Coxey on that ever-memorable Tuesday, January 8, 1895, but William Jennings Bryan, then Representative from Nebraska? Now, we are not going to join certain friends of Coxey in insisting that Bryan obtained all his radical ideas from Coxey at that day and hour. Mr. Bryan’s heart, we know, was throbbing for the plain people before that time. So we would merely point out that,, just as there are two claimants for the credit of every great invention, Mr. Bryan had arrived at the same conclusions simultaneously with Gen. Coxey. Thus, as chairman, Mr. Bryan must have thrilled to hear Gen. Coxey say: “The great issue, I believe, before the American people to-day is whether the railroads are going to own the Government or the Government is going to own the railroads. I can show you plainly how you can buy up the railroads of every State and Territory, and pay for them,” True, Mr. Bryan did not speak out for Government ownership for some years thereafter, but each great man must take his own time for such public pronouncements. Today, in 1913, do we not read of a Massachusetts legislative proposal to buy the railways? Is not the Federal Government now owning and operating a railway in Panama?

But we could fill pages with similar illustrations of the way in which time and fate have persistently caught up with and justified Gen. Coxey. One of the chief planks in his platform was, “a service pension to all soldiers of $8 per month, and in addition one cent per day per month for each day of actual service.” We submit that the dollar-a-day pension demand was but an echo of this, and that the universal pensioning of every veteran, so recently achieved, must be attributed primarily to Gen. Coxey. Again, on Gen. Coxey’s special campaign car stood the legend: “All railroad section men to receive no less than $1.50 per day of eight hours’ work,” Who has a better right to claim the credit of the high wages and short hours of section hands today? Of course, we must admit that Coxey’s bill providing for non-interest bearing bonds has not yet been adopted by Congress. That need discourage no one, for we have come but a short distance from 1894, and, moreover, it is to be observed that this plan of paying no interest on other people’s money has been, of late, not altogether unheard of in Wall Street. Finally, we confidently expect to see in the next Progressive platform these two Coxeyesque planks. “It is the crime of the nineteenth [twentieth] century that three millions of our fellow-citizens are in involuntary idleness, thus causing an irretrievable loss of millions of dollars daily” (this being coupled with a demand that every town, village, township, Territory, and State issue bonds to employ the unemployed) ; and “President, Vice-President, and United States Senators must be elected by direct vote of the people.”

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