Sunday, May 10, 2015

Jacob Coxey inspired the Wizard of Oz

L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" tells the tale of people with problems following the Yellow Brick Road to go to the city of Emerald City, where the wizard would solve their problems. Instead, he sends them to solve his problem -- destroying a wicked witch. They succeed and he gives them nothing. The Scarecrow gets a brain made of bran, the Tin Man a silk heart filled with sawdust, and the Cowardly Lion a liquid he says is a potion of courage. The wizard doesn't even take Dorothy and Toto back to Kansas, as he proves himself to been an inept balloon pilot.

     While Baum denied when asked if his first book in the Oz series was a political allegory, one does not have to be a Tea Party member to see the parody of going to Washington to get aid, and accomplishing nothing.
     Which is exactly what Jacob Sechler Coxey's march on Washington did in 1894. He was a sincere populist whose solution to the vast unemployment caused by the Panic of 1893 -- a six-year long economic depression -- accomplished.
     Yet Coxey's Army set in motion an American institution: the march on Washington to get assistance, and 40 years later, some of his goals were achieved.
     Coxey was an engineer in Massillon, Ohio, who had made a small fortune with his stone crushing mill. He had two passions in life: thoroughbred racing and populist economics. The first cost him his first wife, the second his reputation.
     The United States government stopped minting silver coins in 1873, as there was plenty of gold in them thar hills. But in 1890, in a compromise to pass the McKinley Tariff Act, Republicans agreed to the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The first increased the tariffs by 50 percent, as Republicans favored protectionism over the free market back then, while the latter required the purchase of 4.5 million ounces of silver per annum, which increased the price of silver. This occurred under Republican President Benjamin Harrison.
     Here is where everything went wrong. The tariff increase reduced trade, which reduced tariff revenues. The requirement to buy so much silver drove up the price of silver. Harrison and the Republicans squandered a budget surplus, which led to the return of Democratic President Grover Cleveland to a second term and Democratic Party control of Congress in 1892. Democrats repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act.Within four days, the price of silver dropped 25%. This triggered deflation. Unemployment shot up from 3% in 1892, to 11% in 1893, and then to 18% in 1894. In Chicago, 100,000 men were living on the streets and as winter approached, men committed petty crimes just to go to jail for a place to eat and sleep. Dropping the tariff in 1894 did nothing to alleviate the situation.
     Thus we had the government create a problem by raising tariffs and artificially raising silver prices, followed by a government solution that made the problem worse.
     Here is where Coxey came in. He thought the answer lie in having a group of unemployed men marching on Washington to demand the government create public works to hire the unemployed.  On March 25, 1894, Coxey led a parade of 100 unemployed workers Massillon, Ohio. They were off to see the wizards in Washington. Other branches from other states joined in the march. Many marchers were laid off railroad workers as the depression literally stopped the nation. Coxey expected 100,000 people to join. Only 500 would be there by the time they reached Washington. They were met by 25 mounted police.
     Witnessing the scene was anti-capitalist muckraker Ray Stannard Baker, who wrote, “Coxey’s carriage (stopped near the B street entrance to the grounds…Rising from his seat, he stooped over and kissed his wife, as if realizing something of the terrible ordeal to follow.”
     According to Baker's report, 400 mounted police showed up to quell a crowd of 500 people. His account of the police activity is in keeping with other accounts: “The mounted policemen lost their heads…and began striking everyone within reach. Women and children were ruthlessly ridden down… All this time Coxey had been struggling through the crowd toward the central steps of the capital…. Before anyone knew it Coxey was bounding up the East front… He was up to the tenth step before he was recognized. Then the officers closed in on him.”
     Coxey wanted to make a speech in protest at the Capitol. The First Amendment protects peaceful protests, but the police said no. Two men were arrested and thee next day, when he went to bail them out, Coxey was arrested as well and charged with walking on the grass. Unbelievably, he spent 20 days in jail and paid a $20 fine for this after being found guilty.
     Meanwhile the marchers, now called Coxey's Army, set up camp at a dump site on M Street. Gradually, marchers realized their protest was going nowhere fast, and left one by one. By August, only 80 people were left and the board of public health made them leave.
     But Coxey had money and ambition. Over the next half century, he would run for public office 18 times and lost 17 times, winning only the mayor's race in Massillon in 1931. He ran as a member of the People's Party, as an independent, as a Republican and as Democrat.
     His most interesting candidacy was for president in 1928 as the candidate of the Interracial Independent Political Party. His running mate was an African-American, the Rev. Stephen W. Drew of Washington, D.C. Drew was a gifted preacher, and he was respected politically, advising Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft and Harding on matters of race.
     However much a gadfly Coxey was, some of his populist ideas were later adopted, but it would take the Great Depression to bring about unemployment insurance and Social Security. As for his march on Washington, he repeated it in 1914, and this time he was allowed to speak from the Capitol Steps. Others would follow his lead in marching on Washington, including women suffragettes and in 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
     The latter two succeeded because both movements took advantage of what the government does best: Protecting our rights. Coxey failed because the government is just extremely poor at running the economy. Even a person with bran for a brain can see that.
     But Coxey also succeeded as a citizen, for as awkward and ineffectual as his protests may have been, he did remind the American people that the First Amendment not only covers freedom of religion, free speech and a free press, but also the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

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