Creating the Commonweal: Coxey’s Army of 1894, and the Path of Protest from Populism to the New Deal, 1892-1936
thesisposted on 02.01.2019, 19:13 by Wesley R. Bishop
This dissertation examines Coxey’s Army of 1894 and the subsequent impact the organizers and march had on American politics. A handful of monographs have examined this march on Washington D.C. but all of them have focused specifically on the march itself, largely examining the few weeks in 1894 when the march occurred. By extending the period study to include the long life and activism of Jacob Coxey what historians can see is that although the march was an expression of anger and concern over general inequality in American society, Coxey’s Army was also protest for specific demands. These two demands were specifically a program of public works and a desire for fiat currency for the United States. By examining the life Jacob Coxey we see that both of these demands grew out of longer issues in American social politics and reflect Coxey’s background in the greenback labor movement.
The question over currency— whether the economy should rely on a gold, silver, or fiat standard— has largely been untouched by historians, yet reflects one of the most interesting aspects of the march, namely that it was an instance in a broader movement to drastically change the U.S. state and establish a socialistic commonwealth, or commonweal, for American society. Coxey fit into this broader project by arguing specifically that the U.S. should maintain a market-based economy but do so through a kind of socialistic currency backed by the state. By organizing various marches throughout his life, Coxey attempted to achieve this goal by direct organizing of the masses and in so doing contributed to the long history of American social reform movement’s various efforts to reshape and redefine the concept of “the people.”
This dissertation makes four major arguments. First that the concept and phenomena of American Populism is a broad based, elastic movement with no essential political character. Attempts to define Populism as either reactionary or radical miss the broader issue that Populism could take on various political flavors depending on how it positioned itself in opposition to various actors in the state, economy, and civil society. Second, Coxey’s Army shows how the first march on Washington D.C. was part of a longer legacy of direct political action, and that although this march did make a contribution to the overall political debate of the time, it was not as a communicative act that the march was most significant. Instead Coxey’s Army was significant in the way it led to a reconceptualization of “the people” and therefore reimagined what legitimate democratic action entailed. Third, the concept of the commonweal, although largely taken for granted in previous historiographies, was part of a much deeper and intellectually rich fight between various activists and thinkers during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At stake in how a movement or party conceptualized something like the commonweal was what type of social, economic, and political order should be fought for and advanced by organizations of working class people. In this regard the currency question, far from being simply a side issue, was in fact central to how activists envisioned the role of the market and state in a more equitable society. Finally, this dissertation looks at the understudied career of Coxey after the march, specifically his short tenure as mayor of Massillon, Ohio. His failure as mayor raises further questions for historians to think about the promise and limitations of American Populism as both a protest movement and political force.