In 1894, Coxey’s Army knew how to get the attention of Congress (without a gyrocopter)

Guest post by Benjamin Alexander

Apparently Doug Hughes, after writing a letter to each of the 535 members of Congress about the need for more campaign finance reform, didn’t think his missives would get adequate notice if he just dropped them in the nearest mailbox. So, the 61-year-old mailman from Florida set out to deliver them to the Capitol himself—in a gyrocopter. Mr. Hughes may well face some prison time for his breach of Capitol security. It’s a safe bet, though, that every lawmaker in Washington knows that Doug Hughes thinks some campaign finance reform needs to happen.

He’s not the first person to use extraordinary means to get Congress members’ attention. Today, in fact, is the 121st anniversary of another such attempt. The method that Jacob Coxey and Carl Browne employed on May 1, 1894, seems mundane and commonplace now, but it was anything but normal by nineteenth-century sensibilities, and in fact it gave Coxey and Browne far more notoriety in 1894 than Doug Hughes appears to be getting for his stunt.

The Coxeyites set out from the Brightwood Riding Park in Washington on May 1, 1894.

The Coxeyites set out from the Brightwood Riding Park in Washington on May 1, 1894.

It was the second year of the depression of the 1890s, and unemployment was high. Two men—soft-spoken Ohio businessman Jacob Coxey and boisterous, Buffalo Bill-attired California showman Carl Browne—decided in early 1894 to petition Congress for a nationwide road-building program to provide jobs to the unemployed and expand the currency by paying the men with paper money. And, when the conventional methods of lobbying showed no sign of working, the two men devised a novel means of getting their point across: an army of unemployed men would march to Washington and present their plan to the lawmakers on the Capitol steps.

The band known alternately as Coxey’s Army and the Commonweal of Christ set out from Massillon on Easter Sunday, March 25. They walked from town to town, being fed by supportive locals, sleeping in makeshift encampments, and enduring at various times the full range of the natural elements. Aided by state-of-the-art telegraph technology, newspaper readers around the country tracked their progress—first in Ohio, then Pennsylvania, then Maryland—learning the names of several colorful eccentrics, and being entertained by a few flare-ups and reconciliations among them. Readers also followed the adventures of numerous western Coxeyite contingents, including some train heists.

On top of it all, readers knew that, on May 1, there was going to be a showdown at the Capitol over the limits of just how the people could petition the government for a redress of grievances. While the Coxeyites were marching, the Metropolitan Police were drilling, and Army and Marine units were on alert for the occasion. Moreover, officials in the capital had made clear that they had full intention of enforcing the 1882 Capitol Grounds Act prohibiting political processions and the display of political flags and banners on Capitol property—exactly what Coxey and Browne intended to do on the first of May. Secret Service agents were among the marchers, watching for signs of anarchist influence, and in the capital there were rumors of bomb plots.

And the showdown came. Led by Coxey’s 17-year-old daughter Mamie on a white stallion as the Goddess of Peace, about 600 men marched down Fourteenth Street, then along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Thousands of spectators, as well as hundreds of uniformed men of the law, watched the procession all the way along the route. When the Commonweal reached the Capitol grounds, a melee ensued. Some spectators who got too close to the police were hit with billy clubs. Browne, after attempting to elude the police, was wrestled to the ground, pummeled, and arrested, along with a leader from Philadelphia, Christopher Columbus Jones. Coxey, though not arrested that day, was blocked from ascending the Capitol steps to read his speech and was sentenced along with Browne and Jones to a month in jail for violating the Capitol Grounds Act.

While Coxey’s Good Roads bill did not receive serious debate on the floor of Congress, the treatment of the petitioners in boots did. Populist lawmakers were most vocal in their objections to the actions of the police. “[T]he rough hand that was laid upon Mr. Coxey,” Senator William V. Allen of Nebraska declared on the Senate floor, “was laid upon the rights of seventy millions of American citizens.” Allen also questioned whether Coxey was any less worthy of access to the Capitol steps than all the suited men who enjoyed easy entrance to lobby for the moneyed corporate interests. Others disagreed. Senator John Sherman of Coxey’s own state opined that the 1882 law and its application here were fully necessary and proper to protect the institutions of government from being overrun by mobs.

Indeed, Coxey and Browne did not prevail that year. Twenty years later, following a much smaller and less remembered 1914 march of a second “Coxey’s Army,” Coxey was permitted to ascend the steps and speak unhindered. And on May 1, 1944, a decade after the New Deal administration of FDR had indeed put the unemployed to work building roads (among many other types of job), Coxey read his original speech on the Capitol steps, again unmolested by police. Not until 1972, in a case involving an anti-Vietnam War protest, did the Supreme Court rule the 1882 Capitol Grounds Act unconstitutional.

There’s yet another link between the Doug Hughes escapade and the Coxey saga. Carl Browne, Coxey’s second-in-command, had quite a varied career of his own, most of the time as a political activist—a full-blown socialist in his last years—but also as an inventor. He was among the enterprising few at the start of the twentieth century who sought to make the dream of aircraft a reality, and in 1913, the year before his death, he actually patented a contraption called the octoplane. So, while it would be too much to say that Hughes landed on the Capitol grounds with technology that Browne pioneered, Browne was certainly one of the first to try.

Hughes probably won’t be able to convince a court that he had a protected right to fly onto Capitol grounds with his gyrocopter, but he’s certainly part of a tried and true tradition of using creative and unconventional means to get a point across to Congress.

alexanderBenjamin F. Alexander teaches American history at the New York City College of Technology and is the author of Coxey’s Army: Popular Protest in the Gilded Age.