The Protest That Made Occupy DC Possible

As the protesters in McPherson Square enter their seventh week inhabiting a “city within the city,” what was the first national effort to Occupy DC – and how did it change the ways Americans saw their nation’s capital city?

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On a windy Easter morning in 1894, an unusual parade moved down the main street of Massillon, Ohio. The idea of an eccentric local businessman named Jacob S. Coxey, the parade featured an African American flag bearer, a hundred unemployed white men, and an infant named Legal Tender.

At the time of the parade, the United States was in the second year of a major economic depression and millions of Americans were unemployed; Coxey believed he had the answer to the nation’s economic woes. He proposed that the federal government issue $500 million in treasury bonds, that it apply those funds to initiate a massive program to build up the nation’s roads, and that it hire an army of workers, all of who would be guaranteed eight-hour days and daily wages of $1.50.

Convinced his plan would be ignored unless he presented it in person, Coxey intended to lead his peaceful parade of unemployed citizens all the way to Washington, D.C., where they would present a “petition in boots” to Congress on May 1 – International Labor Day. By the time they arrived, he promised reporters at a press conference on January 27, “We’ll have 100,000 men. We’ll not take a dollar with us, and instead of muskets every man will carry a white flag with the words, ‘Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men, but Death to Interest-Bearing Bonds.’”

What Coxey did not know was that a law forbade him – without the official permission of the Vice President and the Speaker of the House – from presenting his petition in the way he envisioned. The Act to Regulate the Use of the Capitol Grounds, originally passed in 1882 to “subserve the quiet and dignity of the Capitol of the United States,” prohibited “any harangue or oration” and outlawed the display of “any flag, banner or devices designed or adapted to bring into public notice any party, organization, or movement” on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol.

Prior to Coxey’s arrival, the act had almost never been enforced. Yet it reflected the sentiment of the time, which held that Washington was a place for official business, not active protest.

Jacob Coxey was willing to challenge that sentiment on behalf of millions of unemployed Americans, even though he was not one of them. A successful businessman, he owned a sandstone quarry, bred racehorses, and amassed a personal fortune. Despite his own success, the wealthy Ohioan was disillusioned with the major political parties. Gradually, he became influenced by the growing Populist movement in America, which strove to offer an alternative to the dominant political parties by suggesting, among other issues, that the federal government take a more active role in solving the country’s economic problems and not defer to the states. [Founded in February 1892, the Populists garnered over one million votes in the presidential election that same year, and elected governors in both Kansas and Colorado.]

Three years before the Ohio parade, Coxey first lobbied for a Good Roads Bill to help shock the nation out of its economic stupor. It required the issuance of $500 million in legal tender – a.k.a. U.S. currency and, later, the inspiration for his youngest son’s name – and a massive construction project. Coxey was unconcerned that the proposal would have increased the federal government’s total expenditures by nearly 75 percent. But federal officials thought differently, and Coxey’s proposal was ignored.

Then, in the summer of 1893, Coxey met a man named Carl Browne at a national conference on monetary policy. Browne was even more eccentric than Coxey – born on July 4 in a log cabin, Browne spoke with a deep baritone voice and dressed daily in a sombrero and leather jacket – but he was equally passionate about economic reform. He was also a natural salesman. In fact, when Browne convinced the American Federation of Labor to support Coxey’s Good Roads Bill, the experience emboldened Browne to think bigger.

What emerged was the idea of sponsoring a massive rally of the unemployed, all of who would walk to Washington and present their demands en masse.  Coxey was skeptical at first – an event like that had never occurred in America. Indeed, as a reporter for the Washington Post later wrote, “One must go back to the impoverished peasantry of France marching upon Paris to find a parallel, for there is none in our own history.” But Browne had tremendous powers of persuasion; he even got Coxey to convert to Theosophy, a mystical belief in reincarnation that Browne first adopted when, after his wife died, he felt her soul enter his body.

In time, the two came to believe their march was sanctioned by God, and that each of them was a partial reincarnation of Christ. (Coxey also believed he was a partial reincarnation of former President Andrew Jackson, prompting a Washington Post reporter to quip: “Coxey has only to show that the soul of Andrew Jackson is residing upon his person, and he may be assured of a cordial, if not an enthusiastic welcome” in Washington.)

They also believed that their cause was protected by the First Amendment. As Browne told a reporter from the Chicago Daily Tribune, “Having faith in the rectitude of our intentions and believing that we are acting from inspiration from on high, we believe that the liberty-loving people comprising this indivisible and undividable American Union will respond in such numbers . . . assembling under the aegis of the Constitution upon the steps of the Nation’s Capitol to assert their prerogative, shielded as they would be by right and justice, and guided by him in the interest of good and higher government.”

In reality, the traveling band that Coxey and Browne called the “Commonweal of Christ” – and that the press jokingly labeled “Coxey’s Army” – struggled to attract a large number of marchers. As one Daily Tribune reporter put it, “like windmills waiting for wind, Coxey is waiting for men.” Another remarked that newsmen covering the event outnumbered the marchers. But because “Coxey’s Army” received so much press, and because nothing like this had ever occurred before, D.C. and federal officials spent the weeks before May 1 wondering what legal tools existed to help them respond to the marchers’ arrival.

On March 24, the day before the march was scheduled to begin, Washington police superintendent William G. Moore announced publicly that Coxey would not be able to present his petition on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Referring to the 1882 Act to Regulate the Use of the Capitol Grounds, Moore said: “This act is very stringent. It will serve to prevent the meeting on the steps of the Capitol and its provisions are ample in allowing the police force to deal with loiterers in the Capitol grounds.”

Newspapers across the country editorialized in favor of the 1882 law. “Upon the whole,” wrote the editors of the New York Times, “our institutions do not totter before the ‘armies’ of tramps.” By contrast, Populist politicians rallied on Coxey’s behalf. On April 19, William Peffer, a U.S. senator from Kansas, introduced a resolution calling for the appointment of a committee of senators to personally receive Coxey’s petition. Peffer was joined by Senator William Allen of Nebraska, who urged his colleagues to agree that “citizens of the United States, regardless of their rank and station in life, have an undoubted and unquestionable right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The third part of Peffer’s resolution directly addressed the 1882 act. All citizens, it read, “have a right to enter upon the Capitol grounds and into the Capitol building itself as fully and to as great an extent as other citizens or persons.” Any threats of violence or arrests against such persons “would be a clear violation of their constitutional and inalienable right.”

Peffer and Allen were in the minority, and their resolution failed. Meanwhile, on April 23, district officials – under orders from President Grover Cleveland – issued a proclamation condemning the proposed assembly. “The National Capitol is chiefly devoted to public business and it is the center of federal legislation,” they announced. “The Constitutional right of petition does not justify methods dangerous to peace and good order, which threaten the quiet of the National Capitol, which are contrary to law and opposed to the ordinary means of obtaining legislative relief under our system of government.”

Coxey was undeterred. “I have learned that there is a statute preventing parades of any kinds on Capitol grounds,” he told a United Press reporter, who then asked if he was planning to violate the law. “No,” Coxey responded.  “The Constitution gives us the right to do that, and Congress has no power to pass laws in violation of the Constitution. There is no legal authority on the part of anybody to prevent my making a speech on the steps of the Capitol, and that I propose to do.”

At 10:15am on May 1, Carl Browne summoned the five hundred men gathered just outside Washington to begin the final leg of their journey. It was a far cry from the 100,000 marchers Coxey and Browne had initially predicted, yet their small numbers were more than offset by the thousands of faces that lined the streets of Washington to see them. Some observers guessed that the total number was more than had even been seen at past Presidential inaugurations.

As they had done back in Ohio, the marchers provided an unusual spectacle. Coxey’s teenage daughter Mamie dressed in white to embody the spirit of peace and rode a white horse. Seven footsore musicians played “See, the Conquering Hero Comes!” on their drums, trombones, and cornets.  The men themselves, described by a Times reporter as “spruced up a bit for the great parade [but still] a sorry-looking lot,” marched in twos.

The marchers passed without major incident down Pennsylvania Avenue until the group approached the Capitol. The crowd that had gathered at that point was so densely packed that Coxey got out of his open carriage and Browne got off his horse. Amid the chaos, the two leaders pushed into the crowd and toward the Capitol. After reaching the low stone parapet that frames the grounds, Coxey and Browne slid over the top and made their dash for the Capitol steps. Browne was quickly surrounded and arrested; Coxey, meanwhile, made it all the way to the eastern steps. He pulled out his speech and prepared to deliver his remarks, but policemen stopped him before he could say anything of substance. He and his army had marched more than five hundred miles, only to be stopped just short of their ultimate goal.

On May 5, in a packed courtroom, Jacob Coxey and Carl Browne were charged with violating the Capitol Grounds Act. Arguing on their behalf in court as a witness, Senator Allen declared that the arrest of the defendants was an affront to the First Amendment rights of petition and peaceful assembly. The judge disagreed, sentencing each man to spend twenty days in jail and pay a $5.00 fine.

Coxey and Browne served their sentences and paid their fines. Most of the marchers left for home. (Those who did not were later put out by force.) And newspapers such as the New York Times approved of the decision. “The right to assemble and petition for a redress of grievances is not a right to assemble in any place where lawful business, public or private, will be disturbed by the assembly.” The Chicago Daily Tribune put it another way. “Thus ends,” the paper editorialized, the first national march on Washington and “the greatest march of the nineteenth century.”

Except it had not ended. Coxey returned to the Capitol, first in 1914 and then again in 1933, to renew his requests of the government. And then, on May 1, 1944, a ninety-year-old Jacob S. Coxey ascended the eastern steps of the U.S. Capitol to deliver the final incarnation of a speech he had first tried to deliver fifty years earlier. Addressing the crowd of two hundred or so reporters, servicemen, and curious passersby, Coxey – wearing an old-fashioned stand-up collar, a black string tie, and a faded blue suit – lambasted the federal government’s financial policies one last time.

The afternoon must have felt bittersweet. Coxey’s speech was permitted only because he had received official permission from the Speaker of the House and the Vice President; the Capitol Grounds Act was still law, after all. (Incredibly, it was not overturned until 1972.) But the nonagenarian must have felt secure by 1944 that his “army’s” march across the country had at least helped transformed the nation’s understanding of the Capitol. Indeed, as a Washington Post reporter wrote in 1937, “Coxey’s appearance signalized the birth of thousands of marchers” who, taken together, have “established Washington as the most marched-upon place in the world.”

(NOTE: This story first appeared in First Freedoms: A Documentary History of First Amendment Rights in America.)

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